One question I’m always asking about middle-grade fiction is, where’s the science-fiction: the wild and wide-eyed adventures, and the big ideas about science or sentience or society? That might be starting to change, with Kirsty Applebaum’s gripping dystopia The Middler and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s moving and funny Runaway Robot both published this year with great reviews.
Christopher Edge, however, has been flying the flag for children’s sci-fi since 2016’s The Many Worlds of Albie Bright: not just redeploying the tropes, but using them to tell philosophically, emotionally rich tales that are distinctly his. The Many Worlds that Albie explores, parallel to our own, are not just explorations of quantum theory – utilising CERN technology and an old banana, in true Doctor Who/First Men in the Moon style – but also a quest for a lost parent that takes us into big questions about character, history and grief. The Jamie Drake Equation is about the heroism of astronauts, the fallibility of parents, messages from distant stars and the Grand Unified Theory that draws them all into one meaningful pattern. The first Edge novel I read, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, takes readers to the edge of existence beyond. It excites the reader, provokes questions and springs surprises, but it also moves us and, like Edge’s other novels, leaves us on a note of hope.
The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, published this week, is another novel of surprises: nothing is quite what it seems. When Dizzy takes his friend Charlie to the woods, it’s to find who has left secret messages on the path, mysterious signs made out of bent twigs. Is it a spy? Is it a monster? Is there really a wild man hiding out there? Or could it all be a trick laid by Johnny, the toughest kid in school?
Before these questions have been satisfactorily answered, the three realise they are lost. However far they walk, they never seem to reach the edge of the woods. Night falls unexpectedly quickly, and when Charlie climbs an oak tree to look for the North Star, the night sky looks completely wrong. And meanwhile, it seems the children really are being followed.
It’s clear from the opening of the novel that this is a story about time: ‘Can I tell you a secret? Once upon a time doesn’t exist. This story starts once upon a now.’ But what Edge has accomplished here is no straightforwardly sci-fi novel. Though it is clearly illuminated by the science of time – he acknowledges the work of Carlo Rovelli and James Gleick, among several other scientific approaches – what we have here is closer to Maisie Day in exploring the philosophical and phenomenological aspects of his theme. As well as Rovelli, Edge mentions Alan Garner’s collected essays, The Voice that Thunders, and Charlie Noon also reminds me of Garner’s later novels, Red Shift, Thursbitch and even Boneland, except that it’s a great deal more enjoyable and digestible than those. There are echoes of Garner’s contemporary, Penelope Lively, of Astercote and even more of her adult novel Moon Tiger.
Garner and Lively are both archaeologically-minded writers, and an archaeological concept appears to inform Charlie Noon in the way that quantum physics did Edge’s earlier novels: deep time, the sense of the world’s ancientness (and vast futurity), in which human beings can appear insignificantly small and agency. It’s a universal theme that nonetheless speaks particularly to children, who are sometimes made to feel just that, pinpricks in the bigger history of their ecology, their culture and their families: look at the framing of their ecological protests in recent months. ‘Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality seems absurd – crushed to irrelevance,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in Underland, but equally, ‘[at] its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy’. It’s a shift in perspective that offers hope when the present moment appears intolerable, as in Charlie’s claustrophobic home life: what seems immovable as rock was once fluid and shifting: ‘There is a way out of the woods.’
Deep time compels us to work our imaginations on scenes and situations that appear unalterable, and show us the life, violence and movement embodied by rock formations and rivers. It makes a wild tempest of the landscape, in which Charlie and the others must become immersed in order to understand themselves and their place in it. Past and future time are part of the storm, too, in ways that seemed particularly alive and pertinent, given this week’s D-Day commemorations. Narrative convention itself is shaken by thunder and struck by lightning: once upon a time doesn’t exist and the future is yours to write. Reading and decoding run through the novel, and for me it chimed with something Michael Rosen said at a Reading for Pleasure conference last month, about reading as not merely an act of comprehension, but interpretation.
Comedy, high adventure and stories of personal drama each have an important part to play in children’s reading, but we must also celebrate novels that allow room for interpretation, that leave gaps for readers to bridge, that ask questions without easy answers, that are strange and mysterious and even disconcerting. The Longest Night of Charlie Moon is at times a deeply strange novel, and hooray for that.
From one simple idea, page-turningly linear, told with elegant economy and deceptive simplicity, The Longest Night of Charlie Noon branches out into all manner of subjects, stories and concepts. Like Edge’s earlier novels, it concludes – it feels wrong to say that it ends, after all these non-linear shenanigans – with an emotionally resonant resolution, and on an optimistic note. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that stories of hope are desperately required at this point in history, and not just by the children amongst us.