The Boxer, by Nikesh Shukla

This was a purchase from my first visit to Round Table Books in Brixton, South London. Hot off the press in June this year, its fresh, powerful cover design called me to the shelf.  Now, we all know it’s a bold, heroic deed to open an independent bookshop, and a new children’s bookshop is even more worth celebrating. But this place, nestled in Brixton Village’s covered market, among bars, boutiques and cafes, is extra special. An avowedly inclusive enterprise, it specialises in books with black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonists. It would be better to say, it champions them: when I visited, on the hottest day of the year, the bookseller’s wide-ranging knowledge was impressive; her enthusiasm for titles new and established spread to me like wildfire. This place may be new, but it has a true, blazing bookshop spirit.

There’s a wealth of great titles for them to offer, too. Alongside Shukla, there were British and American names, and a South African title published by Pushkin: from the anarchic fun of Little Omar’s adventures (by Zanib Mian) to the new Carnegie winner, YA verse novel The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. These are books of now – while I read about a Far Right march in The Boxer, Tommy Robinson supporters raged and ranted on my Twitter feed – for obvious reasons. It also creates an air of excitement, this showcase of contemporary talent.

Hard for me to believe that Acevedo is the first person of colour to win the Carnegie, but then, I’ve spent my life not noticing the ethnicity of children’s book characters, simply because I always saw myself reflected back. There have always been exceptions – I was sending Malorie Blackman fan letters when I was ten – but perhaps the success of a few names helped me imagine that things were more balanced – certainly more than the meagre 4% of published children’s books that feature BAME characters. Change has begun, but it’s slow, and everyone involved in children’s reading needs to help propel things forward.

Shukla’s first YA novel, Run, Riot, demonstrated what readers have been missing out on all this time. Primarily a real-time, cat-and-mouse thriller in a Bristol tower-block, it’s also a blast of accusation against the politicians, businessmen and law-enforcers managing social housing for their own ends. Shukla didn’t have to remove his characters to a fantasy world or dystopian future: all the elements of compelling drama, from despicable villains to an intricate setting to the call of home and family, relate intrinsically to one another in this place and time. It’s also, appropriately for YA, a novel about the power of young people in a climate of cynical corruption. The scandal of Grenfell Tower shadows the whole novel, but in fiction the material of our lives can be worked into tales of catharsis and hope.

The Boxer alters the focus from a group of friends to just one young man, and the story it tells is one of isolation and learning to ‘take up space’. To a great extent, it’s a quieter novel than its predecessor: no helicopters hovering overhead, no murders in the underpass or political conspiracies. The acute moments of drama in this novel happen on lonely station platforms – where Sunny is targeted, abused and assaulted by racist thugs – and in quiet streets, family dinners, hospice waiting rooms. And the boxing gym, of course – but at times, that’s the safest place for Sunny, where he spars with his trainer, or new friend Keir. Some of the most disturbing scenes are those when we see Sunny internalising the hatred of that initial assault; for all that Sunny has friends who love him, this is a dark, psychological novel.

Brilliant momentum is achieved by weaving his journey to self-empowerment with the ten bouts of a life-changing boxing match. Shukla matches a sober realist style with stylish cinematic switches of narrative, and each of his YA novels is a compulsive read. This weaving in time reflects The Boxer’s interest in its protagonist’s headspace: we can see how the narrative of Sunny’s training repeats itself in microcosm as an exchange of feints, footwork, and sucker-punches in his match with Keir; likewise, the dynamic of that final fight runs through the grain of the whole novel. It makes for an exciting and satisfying whole.

The Boxer is not the first YA novel to show a young male protagonist discovering his identity through competitive sport. I found the subject matter of The Boxer the most interesting of the genre: this is not just a novel about building self-respect, but about understanding confrontation, and belief in transformation. Shukla sensitively but directly engages with the current climate of hate in the UK: here, the novel reaches its most frightening but also, surprisingly, some of its most poignant moments. Like Run, Riot, little needs to be contrived to produce a narrative of brilliant drama, and as a result it is absolutely convincing.

I have one fault with the novel, and it’s one I feel a bit stingy about. After all, it is brilliant of Shukla to make Sunny a young gay man, and one for whom sexuality is just a facet of his life, not another battle to overcome. Sunny’s parents and friends hardly mention it – and this feels like a revelation for YA. Shukla even implies that Sunny’s sexuality is tacitly accepted by his sparring partner, Keir, but this feels disingenuous to me. Even in these more enlightened times, there’s no way the novel’s themes of male friendship, shame and hatred would not be in some way inflected with Sunny’s queerness. It almost feels as if a further subplot has been lifted out of the book to clarify the narrative, but if so it endures as a notable absence: at most, a lost opportunity. Or maybe I missed something; after all, Shukla references Thomas Page McBee’s memoir of boxing and transgender identity, Amateur, in his acknowledgements.

But perhaps Sunny’s story is simply not finished yet. There are subtle links back to characters in Run, Riot; perhaps Shukla is going to return to this community to tell its stories in further novels. I certainly hope Shukla will continue to produce YA: his balance of thrills and quiet human stories, sprawling riots and intense intimacy, contemporary violence and nigh-on mythic redemption are precisely what we all need right now.

The Magic Books of Oz

Sometimes – quite often, in fact – all I really want is magic. Not a subtle overtone, which could be explained away as metaphor or madness. I want a wicked guardian threatening to turn her servant into a marble statue. Then I want that boy to run away with the Powder of Life and a wooden man with a pumpkin-head. I definitely want to see a couple of daring girls set an impossible task by a bad-tempered king who turns people into furniture – and for them to beat him at his own game. I want a quest to a lonely island. Invisible monsters. I want an underground kingdom of belligerent plant people. More plainly, I want Oz books.

And if you want magic in life, you must look out for magic workers.

Something will always give them away. A curious look, a careless word, a ready laugh, the occasional sense that they’re half-remembering that summer they met a wishing beast, or summoned up a Norse god, or walked through a door in the air.

The Oz books are not the only books which instil this sense of enchantment in people, but for me they are ladder, back to my earliest sense of wonder. Down the paper rungs I go, to catching a movie, the Christmas I was three. A house carried away by a storm, and Judy Garland’s eyes saucer-wide; Judy stepping from a monochrome world into one of Technicolor –who can ever beat that for a special effect? Hard not to develop a longing for magic when you’ve been transported so entirely and at such a young age.

The next summer, The Wizard of Oz taught me how to love a book, when I found a yellowing Scholastic paperback edition in a charity shop. I saw what it did differently from a motion picture, sometimes giving more (all that detail, back story, further adventures) sometimes less (you are the casting agent, the director and the author of a sequel). Meanwhile, it does things I loved from the movie but with the deft, close-up magic of a storyteller’s language:

“Did you speak?” asked the girl, in wonder.

“Certainly,” answered the Scarecrow; “how do you do?”

The storyteller’s voice is always there in the Oz books, because they began as tales told by L. Frank Baum to his children, probably while he was a commercial traveller, roving over the country persuading strangers to buy chinaware. He must have had many hours to let the magic potion brew, in lonely hotel stays and long train rides, looking forward to conjuring for his young audience when he made it back home.

As a boy, I was delighted to find a second Oz adventure in my local library. The Marvelous Land of Oz reflects of a turn-of-the-century vogue for revolutions and big ideas: army of women deposes the King of Oz (the Scarecrow, unilaterally installed by the Wizard). A daft parody of women’s suffrage, yes, but the male characters of the book are even less prepossessing: the only heroic one of the bunch, young Tip, is revealed (spoiler alert) to be the rightful ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma, magicked into the wrong gender at infancy. As a girl, she takes the throne and remains one of the most enduring and inspiring aspects of the series, throughout the forty-odd sequels (give or take the odd recasting by future authors).

These books are: sweet; weird; funny; frightening; ridiculous; beautiful; radical; conservative; absurd; mystic; science-fictional; epic; cartoonish; disturbing; distasteful; disarming; disorientating; dizzy; dancing; silver-shoed; emerald-citied; rainbow-daughtered. And queer; Sarah and I argue about what that means for the books, but it’s a word that intrinsically belongs to that world; perhaps it’s the how you really say ‘”Pyrzqxgl”, the magic word Baum feels safe to give us because nobody can pronounce it, the word that can transform you into any shape you wish.

All this is true: I’ve been rereading them in recent years, AND I KNOW. They are over the top and never enough. For their readers, they constitute an imagined space of possibility and strangeness: uncynical, unpredictable and potent. Plenty of people don’t need a space like that, certainly not long-term: so of course, I feel a kinship with those who do. The books I love always reflect back a little of their original audience anyway, and the first readers of the Oz books breathe mutability and pre-war optimism. They were a fandom before fandoms were a thing, writing en masse to Baum to offer thanks and criticism and story ideas. He increasingly replies to him in his opening addresses: “My dears…”

I remember, maybe twenty years ago, finding a copy of John R. Neill’s Lucky Bucky in Oz in a London bookshop. It was the ‘new’ Oz book of its day (‘Founded on and continuing the famous Oz stories of L. Frank Baum’) and its publishers decided to try selling the series in the UK on the back of Judy Garland’s big movie: I tried to picture being a child reader at the end of the Second World War. The inscription on the flyleaf was a boy’s name: I tried to picture how it felt to be a boy who liked Oz books in 1942.

I couldn’t afford that book, and anyway I liked my paperbacks. They reflected back different child readers, of perhaps even less wonder-filled eras. Perhaps I would never have thought of collecting older editions – perhaps I would have left Oz entirely in the past – if I hadn’t become friends with Sarah when I was ten. She knew and had read and experienced more than I could possibly imagine; she also lived impossibly far away in Tennessee. In fifteen years we only met in person for half a day when we were both twelve: otherwise, having put in touch by the great and powerful Oz Club, we sent letters into the unknown, like Baum’s readers writing to him ninety years earlier, like Baum addressing them with his books. Sarah and I wrote to one another, and read one another, and it was a queer friendship to the letter.

That’s what inspired this blog, but there’s too much to say here, because last year, after two decades of letters, emails, phone calls and Skype – we met up! I flew to Nashville airport and we spent three weeks together in the July heat. It should have been magic – and it was! Halfway through our thirties, old enough to know better, we racketed around, visiting museums and cafes and one forty foot replica statue of Athena. We had long overdue conversations and read together in companionable silence, and went to – goodness me – so many bookshops. In the first one we came to, I bought my first, properly old Oz books. One of them was Neill’s Lucky Bucky in Oz: from Baum, to Neill, to that first reader in the 40s, the paper rungs leading up through seventy odd years of owners to Sarah and me and now.

It still gives me a little thrill, that magic charge hanging around in the atmosphere when I turn the pages. Really quite often – no, I’d say almost always – it’s the only thing that will do.

P.S. If you like this kind of thing, take a look at the blog Sarah and I are writing together, reading the Oz series together:

I always turn straight to the ‘This Book Belongs To’ page and look for a name. This one is from ‘Jack Pumpkinhead in Oz’, which Sarah gave me on the last morning of our holiday together.