Spotlight: Malorie Blackman as Children’s Laureate and The Swiss Family Robinson [Johann David Wyss]

Malorie Blackman

Today, Malorie Blackman was announced as Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson’s successor to the position of Children’s Laureate. Blackman famously wrote ‘Noughts and Crosses’ and ‘Pig Heart Boy’, and I feel a little bit guilty to admit that I’ve read nothing that she’s put out. Nearly all of my peers were reading the former when we were at school, and watched the latter when it was adapted for kids’ TV. And I’ve always had this contrary streak in me which often has a hand in my book choices; if everyone else is reading it then I’m sure as hell not going to. It’s a horrible trait, and I keep it in check now that I’m a grown-up (sort of…), but nonetheless I’m now unable to make any kind of valid comment about Blackman’s suitability for her new role further than to say that she seems like a really cool and well-qualified lady and I reckon she’ll do a bang-up job.

So, what did I read when I was a “Young Adult”? – whatever the hell that truly means. (this post by Chuck Wendig has been doing the rounds on Twitter and is full of wisdom on the subject of YA.) When I was about 8 or 9, I remember being devoted to an ancient hardback copy of ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ with a gilt imprinted title and intricate embossing. Its pages were yellow and delicate, and there was a spidery fountain-penned dedication inside the front cover from someone I didn’t know to some other unknown reader. While thrilled with their beauty and sense of history, usually I would only find that such dusty old books were filled with sentences so complex and words so indecipherable they may as well have been in Latin to my preteen self. But this one I could understand. Not only that, but I was excited by the story that I was managing to grasp. A few years down the line and I had re-read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ so often that I knew certain paragraphs by heart. Sadly, it seems that my gorgeous copy hasn’t survived two house-moves – but I don’t need to re-visit it to be able to visualise the family lashing together barrels to help them float from the shipwreck to the shore.

It’s a pretty classic plot-line as far as wrecks and desert islands are concerned. A family become marooned and rely on quick-wits and ingenuity to survive. Nothing ground-breaking, and indeed many people consider it to be the silly little brother of ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Pushing aside my nostalgic, rose-tinted view, I guess they did manage to recover rather a lot of very useful supplies from their wreck, and it was pretty fortuitous that they happened to wash up on an island so abundant in game and useful plants. And the feminist in me does squirm to see the patently clear stamp of patriarchy on their family life, and I can see why people baulk at the constant thanks given to God for every little thing. But please, people, cut this book some slack. It was published in 1812, which accounts for those last two qualms. And as for their “good fortune” where their conditions are concerned… so what? Maybe I didn’t want to read a harrowing account of how some unlucky sod had to gnaw off his own foot to give himself a couple of extra days before starvation finally wrote him off. I was 9 years old, remember! Maybe I wanted to read about how motherf*!%ing cool it would be to have such a huge adventure without having to be so grown-up as to consider every harsh reality that comes along with a realistic representation of  a shipwreck scenario. This book is kind of like a really great dream. If you think about it when you wake up, you know that the animals you encountered wouldn’t have all really co-existed in the same biome. You know that your Dad wouldn’t really have been able to identify and name the uses of every plant he saw in a virgin territory [insert crude joke about “bush” here] which not even a professional explorer had set foot on before. But you still had a bloody good time.

Whizzing forward two centuries, YA fiction has undeniably come a really, really long way. There are books out there which deal with a myriad of difficult issues that teenagers and children actually do face in their real lives, and so many of their authors do a sterling job at making their protagonists and plots relatable. From what I’ve heard from others who were less blindly nonconformist with their book choices, Malorie Blackman is one such author, and I really hope she uses her new position to turn the spotlight on to others like her.





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