Reading the Carnegie: The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Reading the Carnegie Shortlist for 2019, it has sometimes seemed – of all the themes you might expect of a children’s literature award – that every book was about death. The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, is about life. Xiomara is a teenager in Harlem, and this is the story of her coming of age. Her first love, her first sense of ownership and delight in her own body, her first glimpse of the real life going on behind her twin brother’s quiet eyes, and most significantly of all, her first confrontation with her Mami, whose hard-line approach to Christianity makes all of the above dangerous territory for Xiomara. Far from a novel about loss, this takes us through a world increasingly crowded with lives – family members, a potential boyfriend, an inspirational teacher, a watchful pastor, and one close (if somewhat disapproving) ally. Then there are audiences and peers to meet in the brave new world that Xiomara is drawn to explore, despite her fears: the intimidating, energising transformative world of slam poetry. This is a novel pulsing on every page with the lifeblood of its narrator’s voice, and it’s a voice that gathers energy with every fresh episode.

What Twin Be Knowing

As I’m getting ready for sleep, I’m surprised

to see the crumpled poetry club flyer

neatly unfolded and on my bed.

It must have fallen out of my bag.

Without looking up from the computer screen,

Twin says in barely a whisper,

“This world’s been waiting

for your genius a long time.”

My brother is no psychic, no prophet,

But it makes me smile,

This secret hope we share,

that we are both good enough

for each other and maybe the world, too.

But when he goes to brush his teeth,

I tear the flyer into pieces before Mami can find it.

Tuesdays, for the foreseeable future,

belong to church. And any genius I might have

belongs only to me.

Yes, if you’re interested in other themes of the shortlist this year, here’s a stylistic one: Acevedo’s is not just the story of a slam poet in search of her voice, it is told (like Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and Kwame Alexander’s Rebound) in free verse. In this choice, it distinguishes itself from (2015 Carnegie shortlistee) Apple and Rain, by (2016 winner) Sarah Crossan, whose young protagonist Apple is also learning to explore her emotional landscape through poetry, but which is predominantly related in prose. As with Crossan’s novel, though, the reader is invited to read over the shoulder of the protagonist, seeing the work they each produce for their English Lit teachers as well as their first (and sometimes second and third) drafts: private, confessional, electrifyingly vital. It’s an instantly immersive, engaging device, not only welcoming us into Apple and Xiomara’s heads but also leading us through the process of articulating (and more to the point, self-censoring) that each girl makes as she negotiates what it means to put her life on the page, for herself and others.

The choice to tell the whole of Xiomara’s story in verse makes a world of difference, though, and the nature of its author (as a young woman finding her way as a writer) produces a different effect again from Reynolds’ Long Way Down. It’s almost impossible for the reader of The Poet X to separate Xiomara’s account of events from the poetic reckoning she makes of them in her private notebook.

When Xiomara’s Mami uncovers the notebook, we know exactly what territory she is trespassing on; she has been reading alongside us. Not only outpourings of religious scepticism, of raw sexuality, of angry rebellion, but poems that capture Mami herself on the page, unfolding her history and articulating it for us: the life of a woman who “barely spoke English / and wasn’t born here, / but … didn’t let that stop her / from defending herself / if she got cut in line at the grocery store / or from fighting to get Twin into a genius school”, whose “hands will be scraped raw from work / but she still folds them to pray”. Mami, we know, grew up in the Dominican Republic planning to dedicate herself to God, was pushed into marriage and emigration by her family and has still not forgiven Papi “for making her cheat on Jesus”; she is suspicious even of Xiomara’s attempts to understand her own body (“Good girls don’t wear tampones”). When we arrive at that stand-off, we see that book of poems afresh, realise how incendiary they are and at the same time, how essential to Xiomara. They are a space of private reckoning and comprehension, not only of joy and pain but the world they grow out of, including her mother’s history. There is an urgency to Xiomara’s private words, mirrored by Acevedo’s own intervention in the predominantly white canon of YA literature.

I first read The Poet X last year because of my role at Waterstones: it was a shortlisted title for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. I expected to find it interesting, but was unprepared for how utterly addictive it grew. I read most of it in one sitting, compelled to see how this brilliantly realised heroine – too tall to blend in, too devoted to her family to break away, and too excited by music and poetry to let herself be broken – would make her way through that labyrinth of relationships. (The book’s one flaw for me is that Twin is made real in a few deft strokes, and his story, which poignantly mirror hers, is resolved too quickly and easily – inevitably being secondary to Xiomara’s tale.) Of course, I thought, she would find the strength to perform her work at the slam, but where, and with what compromises? Could she retain both the intimacy and the fighter’s spirit that characterise the novel? Could she protect herself without turning away from this or that relationship? Could she, in every sense, keep it together? In the end, I was reminded me of the themes and approach of my all=time favourite writer, Jeanette Winterson, who made a similar escape to Xiomara and did it through literature too: “I can change the story,” Winterston writes. “I am story.”

I’m thrilled that The Poet X has a place on the Carnegie shortlist: it demonstrates not only how verse can bring a story to life, but also how words can bring us through life: showing what we can be and celebrating who we are.

Reading the Carnegie: A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

If anyone enjoyed my Puffin post a few weeks ago and is hoping for more about older children’s books, do not fear: I’ve been reading plenty of terrific stuff from past times (books by the likes of Jan Mark, Betsy Byars and Maurice Gee) and I look forward to sharing them with you. On the other hand, I had completely miscalculated my own blog schedule for discussing the Carnegie Award (my watch was fast: I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works) and if I talk about a novel a week until mid-June I will only just cover the shortlist before one of the authors lifts the trophy (or puts on the crown or accepts their medal: I really have no idea). So, for the next few weeks, it’s going to be living authors all the way.

That said, there’s more than a little ghostly overtone to the shortlist this year. It’s not unvisited territory for the Carnegie, either: previous winners have confronted the monstrous emotions of grief and mortality, made friends (and family) of the undead, unearthed bodies from prehistory, taken bereaved children on a crime caper, and way back in 1973, made a comedy of a 17th century apothecary’s arrival in an age of washing machines, radios and chemist shops. So far this year, however, the voices of the dead seem inescapable and manifest in vared forms.

From the 1950s to 80s, ghosts were a major presence in children’s literature. Armada published fifteen eponymous anthologies of spooky tales, and there was still appetite enough for Haunting Tales, The House of the Nightmare and Small Shadows Creep (to name just three) from Puffin, as well as collections from Beaver, Magnet and Lions. There were ghosts in novels by John Gordon, Penelope Lively and Joan Aiken, to say nothing of the Green Knowe series. As well as appealing to young readers’ taste for sensation, ghosts seem to offer a literary bridge into themes of history, family and the soul. Not that all ghost stories are about the spirits of the departed, of course – they can just as often be about the world of rationality being broken into by spectres of sheer unreason. They might just be there to show us how mere words on the page can make the body shudder and shake.

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows makes fairly comprehensive use of the undead. When Makepeace is a child (in a Puritan community in 17th century London, if you’re wondering about the name) she first encounters the dead as nightmarish spirits, desperately trying to invade her and hold onto life. Thankfully, her mother seems to know plenty about the matter: the dead are like drowners, she explains, and are to be pitied but also kept strictly at bay. Sharpen a stick, she tells Makepeace, or you may find yourself taken over. London is a place seething with the unquiet living, however, and when Makepeace is barely a young adult, an encounter with mob violence changes her life with brutal suddenness.

Now Makepeace finds herself a kitchen maid – and to all intents and purposes, a prisoner – of the queer house of Grizeways. The noble Felmotte family have some strange secrets and traditions which directly concern Makepeace’s aptitude for the uncanny. As the novel unravels, with all sorts of deceptions and desperate gambits, Hardinge introduces ever more variety in the world of ghosts: the desperate, the inhuman, the half-destroyed, the hardened and the peculiarly verbose. What will they do to Makepeace, and in some instances, what can she do for them?

With this imaginative complexity, therefore, Hardinge makes full use of children’s literature’s peculiar flexibility: to combine a satisfying exploration through all manner of philosophic themes with a thrilling adventure novel. In order to succeed in her quest – in order, in fact, to survive in a universally violent world – Makepeace is obliged to make a full enquiry of herself, her times and the rules of the world beyond them (whether interior or exterior to them both). In what sense, Hardinge asks, can we speak of a memory as ghostly, or a hope, or a stranger, or a façade, or a mentality? Without claiming this as an especially political novel (especially given Makepeace’s estrangement from either side of England’s civil war), the brilliantly mad secret of the Felmottes even resonates with the language of “a dreadful spectre haunting Europe”.

Sometimes it’s a shame, I think, that Makepeace is so disengaged from the politics of the country, much as it makes sense for someone in her circumstances, always living at one remove from society. Her world is painstakingly evoked and the novel is deliciously (and just as often, repulsively) atmospheric: from the not-quite-town of Poplar to the lonely marshes, into every strata of life in the house of Felmotte and thereafter off out desperately across across the fields to lonely cottages, you are in Makepeace’s shoes, breathing the air about her, feeling the nearness of death and the madness of the age. There are also insights to be gained about women in this mad world: authors of their own destiny, in the case of the “she-intelligencers” to the King, or author of the end of the world, in the role of prophetess. Then there are the accusations of witchcraft for trespassers beyond respectability: lives of the powerless rewritten by others, on a charge of illegitimate power. Interestingly, although this novel of possession and infiltration has an aura of sexual violence, Hardinge chooses to keep that firmly as subtext.

Though they evoke different eras, Hardinge’s adventure most reminded me of Joan Aiken’s Wolves chronicles, particularly having read The Cuckoo Tree only a couple of months ago, which moves from secret plotting to desperate venture (with witches!). Like Aiken, Hardinge is unafraid to spiral outward from incident to incident. The last few chapters are particularly frenetic, and perhaps I missed the scene-setting and mystery of the novel’s opening. Perhaps it was not even the change in tone, but the scale of the book – it ends with a bang, but if you’re going to do that, I believe you might as well go the whole hog and shove a packed St Paul’s Cathedral into the river. That said, I delighted in certain set-pieces: each one perfectly founded on the elegant logic of the novel’s cosmogony, no character safe and no loopholes provided. With its smoky, shadowy, strange, owl-ridden, blood-splashed, flashing-grinned, dark-windowed, lantern-gleaming, eye-glinting, candle-flickering visual repertoire, this would make an amazing movie.

It is a thoroughly pleasing, perturbing and thought-provoking novel, though: a novel about author-ship and ventriloquism. “… I am nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories, given life by somebody else’s mind,” observes a character, at the end of the novel, “But then again, so is a book.” Hardinge reveals that to be a dark art indeed, but also a wonderful, blazing adventure.

Reading the Carnegie: Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Will’s big brother Shaun is dead. He was shot in the street. The news is seismic; with Will’s Dad long since passed before he could know him, Shawn was his mentor, confidant and role model. One thing Will learnt from Shaun was a simple set of rules: you don’t cry, you don’t snitch, and if someone you love gets killed, you avenge them in kind. As Will says, these rules

weren’t meant to be broken.

They were made for the broken

to follow.

This is a novel in verse. My new job involves the odd conversation with creative writing students, and we were talking recently about the renaissance in poetry reading among young people (I was thinking of writers like Rupi Kaur and Yrsa Daley-Ward whose Instagram fame has converted into book sales). I could tell this one young man was surprised when I told him about the verse novel is a major phenomenon in Young Adult writing. Yes, Robin Robertson’s novel-length poem The Long Take was a Booker shortlistee last year, and Max Porter’s indefinable work Lanny will (I hope) garner further awards this year: by contrast, the likes of Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan have long since made it a form to be reckoned with in YA literature. This year’s Carnegie Prize alone features three novels in verse – and I think that’s remarkable.

Chris Priestley’s illustrations understated and powerful

The author makes extraordinary and varied use of the form. One surprising thing is how natural it feels: telling the story in Will’s voice, Jason Reynolds affords himself all the more freedom to capture the human voice; the voice of testimony, loss and adolescent swagger, all the while liable to shift like a riverbed in a stream and show something more beneath the surface.

Elsewhere, it effortlessly depicts the power of grief to disorientate: as we read, words and phrases fracture and the novel opens out into the silence of white space. These are the words of a young man whose world has split down its fault-lines and – as he shoves his brother’s pistol in the waistband at the back of his jeans and boards the elevator on his mission of revenge – a world threatening to fall apart entirely. It’s a world held together by rules, stories and creeds, and Reynolds’ poetry emphasises the strangeness of that linguistic world. His narrator has a thing for anagrams:

same letters,

different words,

somehow still make

sense together,

like brothers.

It’s a device Reynolds uses in his novel Ghost, which I also read this week, in which a boy (younger than William, potentially reflecting their respective readers) accidentally find a talent for running, and returns with fascination repetition to his copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. It nicely frames a child’s view of the world – and like the Ghost’s verve and nuance, it reminded me of Betsy Byars’ writing and her protagonists’ defining traits – and it takes its protagonist subtly into questions of measuring and achieving greatness. It’s an honest depiction of children’s naivety but in a way that stresses their power and potential.

Ghost is a heartwarming, pageturning, wisecracking adventure in one boy’s real life of troubles and joys. A couple of glancing but substantial references to extremely bad fathers raise the ‘maturity bar’ in my opinion (I wouldn’t be so foolish as to put an absolute number on it) but I do hope it continues to grow in reader and bookseller awareness: Reynolds’ narrative fluency and deftness with character make it a dynamic reading experience and give us an authentic, empowered, complex young black hero. And you don’t have to care (as I do not care at all) about sport.

Another Chris Priestley illustration

For what it’s worth, the sensitivity deployed in Long Way Down means I would recommend it to both younger and older teenagers. It will show them some of the things a novel can make us feel. It’s a dark tale, though – you know that within a few pages, but as Will’s elevator makes its first stop and a man gets on, someone Will knows, and that he knows should not be alive to board that elevator, things go darker by a shade. And I do mean shade, in the spooky sense: the first of several to join Will for a conversation.

Here, Reynolds’ use of verse and his capture of Will’s voice take on a new variation, as the story gains the overtones of folk tale, ghost tale, urban legend, cautionary tale. We are unsettled and we are moved, but we are never left with such a definitive viewpoint that Reynolds’ story loses its subtlety. The author-illustrator Chris Priestley reflects Reynolds’ tone, startlingly real and teasingly strange, in his brilliant illustrations. In smoky black white close-ups and cutaways, Priestley draws us deeper into the claustrophobia of Will’s world. We hear him tell his unbelievable tale; we catch glances of his indescribable world; throughout the whole reading experience, it is the reader who has to answer the questions posed by the novel, right up to its final page.

I’m thrilled that Long Way Down is on the Carnegie shortlist. It’s a journey all curious readers should make.