Note to self: don’t let three months go by before before reviewing a book!
Further note to self: wait, what? OK, I have excuses for April, but did we even HAVE a March this year!?
When I was a child, in secondary school, the words “Carnegie Medal” did not fill me or my friends with excitement. The venerable prize for children’s fiction was for us more like a warning sign on a book’s front cover – it generally indicated that the novel that bore it in its blurb was going to be respectable, improving, and age-appropriate. Which is to say: it would have content appropriate for children ten years younger than us, written in a dour, worthy style that appealed to the quintagenarian grey-cardigan-waring English teachers who awarded it. It was not the absolute kiss of death for a novel – Terry Pratchett somehow won it one year – but it signified that a book should be approached with caution. Worst of all, it made a novel eligible to be one of the despised set texts that we would be cruelly forced to, in the loosest possible application of the term, “study”.
Nonetheless, the honour role of the Carnegie (first awarded 1936) is bristling with “classics” of children’s fiction, whether tedious or enchanting. Arthur Ransome won the first for Pigeon Post, and subsequent winners have included Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), Gilian Cross’ Wolf (1990), Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995), David Almond’s Skellig (1998), Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001), Jennifer Donelly’s A Gathering Light (2003), Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2010), and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2013)… and 1977’s winner, The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, written by Gene Kemp.
If I’d been reading Tyke Tiler in secondary school – been forced to read it – I’d have hated it, and it would have reinforced my prejudices toward the Carnegie. But that’s OK… because I had already read it, as a younger child. And thoroughly enjoyed it. And now, more than two decades later? I thoroughly enjoyed it again.
This is, frankly, a strange little book. It doesn’t exactly, for example, have a plot. It simply follows the life, and particularly the school-life, of its protagonist, Tyke, as they deal with good teachers and bad teachers, bullies and a kleptomaniac friend, an important school test and some robberies, their father’s electoral campaign, and the investigation of various nearby rivers, weirs, rockfalls, and abandoned factories.
The writing is not spectacular; but then again it doesn’t need to be. It’s written from the perspective of Tyke, a twelve-year-old, and perhaps the novel’s greatest accomplishment is in believably capturing that voice – Tyke is neither freakishly precocious nor patronisingly infantile. Kemp does a much better job of this than, for example, Townsend in the The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – Tyke is a year or two younger than Adrian, but is both convincingly younger in interests and worldview and seemingly somewhat older in intellect and wisdom. It strikes me that adults, protective, fear that children’s interest in the world outstrips their ability to cope with it, and of course at times it does – but this leads to the fallacy of writing children as, essentially, really stupid adults. A child character like Adrian exists in an adult world, but is a simpleton who cannot navigate it. What writers like Kemp instead realise is that, to a large extent, children develop the intellectual faculties to deal with the world before they are fully introduced to it – the experiece of adolescence is in most cases defined not by confusion (of someone thrown into the deep end who can’t yet swim) but by frustration (of someone who can swim, but who hasn’t yet been allowed to swim in the deep end, just in case). To the extent that children fail to understand the adult world, it is usually as much a reflection of a lack of interest as a lack of intellect, or even a lack of knowledge. Here, for example, Tyke largely ignores their father’s career in local politics, not because of a lack of ability to understand (Tyke is smart and observant), or a lack of information (there’s plenty of information available and interested parties around to ask), but simply because Tyke doesn’t yet care about that sort of thing.
[one of the ways in which the novel excels is the pervasive feeling that there’s something that Tyke does care about, that even Tyke hasn’t quite worked out. Tyke wants to act, or react to the world, in some way, taking charge of their own life, I suppose, but lacks a clear way in which to do this, and hence at times acts symbolically but irrationally – as children often do.]
Anyway, Tyke is very well written, both as a character and as a voice. Secondary characters, unfortunately, tend to be rather two-dimesional. In some ways, this is part of why the narrative voice works – twelve-year-old children can be pretty narcissistic creatures, and of course we come in, as it were, in the middle of the story (Tyke knows almost all these people much better than we do, and feels little need to explain their backstories). In a novel so short, and so much a reflection of one character’s experiences at a particular time, this almost works – although it does mean the secondary characters are rather too predictable. Where it really doesn’t work, however, is in the character of Danny, Tyke’s best friend, who is close enough to the centre of the narrative that they really need more agency and authenticity. There are glimpses of Danny’s home life, to be sure, but as an individual they’re written as frankly just slow-witted, and with a comically-exaggerated speech impediment. I don’t think it rises to the point of offensiveness exactly, but it does feel like a wasted opportunity.
I read this not only experiencing it for myself, but also wondering how it would be received by a contemporary child of an appropriate age. In some ways, I think, it’s aged very well: Tyke feels like a believable young protagonist, and even if the school feels a little oversimplified, and the Good Teacher a little overromanticised, it feels fundamentally true, and no more unbelievable than the run of the mill of school settings on children’s TV. [the one big difference is that modern children’s stories seem to all be about children pretending to be adults (even if they don’t admit that’s what they’re doing), whereas Tyke reads like a child, albeit a mature one in some ways]
But the weird thing is… this will be less ‘relevant’ to modern children than Harry Potter (for sake of example). Nothing ages quicker than history (except the future), and Tyke Tyler may as well be set on another planet, in another universe, for all its familiarity to a modern audience. Children can understand dragons and unicorns and space-ships perfectly well; but the 1970s are likely to perplex. Nothing is the same. Specifically, this reads almost as a horror story to the concerned modern adult. There is not an eye blinked at pervasive physical violence – even the headmaster at one point threatens (and it’s treated as a realistic and unexceptional threat, in no way exaggerated) to physically beat Tyke with a stick. This, of course, was once par for the course – an adult man pulling the trousers off a child and whipping their buttocks until he satisfied whatever urge impelled him was considered a perfectly respectable, even necessary, part of education. Likewise, no character expresses any suprise when children walk home from school alone, or are sent out at night to walk their dog in deserted alleyways in a bad part of town, that’s just what children did. It was natural, and good, it seems, if children explored dangerous rockfalls, or hid out in abandoned industrial ruins, or climbed up drainpipes – perhaps the more flamboyant displays of death-defying stupidity might earn a reproach or a raised eyebrow, but nothing serious. There’s no sense that children deserve or need any sort of protection, instruction, or oversight – they’re just creatures underfoot, like vermin. To the modern reader, it’s just bizarre, and disturbing, and fundamentally alien.
But it does create a compelling and coherent atmosphere for Tyke’s novel; and, in the absence of plot, atmosphere is what the book relies on. Tyke is living in a mild dystopia, and is filled with some unexpressed and inexpressable restlessness; and it’s a powerful tone to strike. This may not be the most subtle of novels (what did you expect?) but it packs a lot of heart into its small pagecount and apparent simplicity.
And then there’s the gimmick, the ‘shock’ twist. I’ve tried to dance around it in this review, which makes me respect a little more how easily the author does it, and it’s undoubtedly a long way ahead of its time – it feels like a very modern moment. Ironically, however, it doesn’t read as quite a shocking as I think it would be intended to be today (I don’t think I blinked at it when I read it as a child; I barely even registered that it was meant to be a twist).
[For those who want the spoiler: throughout the novel, Kemp is playing a pronoun game, never identifying Tyke’s gender (it’s pretty innocuous, given the first-person perspective; there’s only once or twice where, in hindsight, a line of dialogue feels a little stilted as a result). She presumably expected readers to assume that Tyke was male, from the fact that she’s the narrator, and a physically active, aggressive, even violent person; in fact, she’s female. This failure to abide by gender roles, in hindsight, helps explain some of the distaste with which a few of the more conservative characters regard her, but isn’t actually a particularly major plot point – which in some ways is nice, but does make it seem a little like a gimmick, given that it’s presented a surprise twist in the finale.]
In the end, I think we’re left with a novel that may or may not intrigue modern child readers – certainly for kids like Tyke, I can see there being an appeal, and it feels as though Kemp takes children seriously. On the other hand, there are no dragons, explosions or assassins, so it all feels a little staid, particularly as it’s closer to picaresque than epic in its structure, and the historical setting is, as I’ve said, likely to at best perplex, at worst alienate modern children.
[on the plus side, other than a comically-exaggerated speech impediment and a little bit of implicitly old-fashioned romance and gender roles among the background adults (the novel’s perhaps a bit more honest about how people sometimes act than we’re usually comfortable being with children these days, but not shockingly so), there’s little ‘problematic’ here for modern parents to worry about].
For the adult reader, meanwhile, it’s too simplistic, and too light. And yet it shouldn’t be discounted on those grounds. Perhaps we’re not the target audience, but we should still be able to appreciate Kemp’s insightful and reliable grasp of voice and tone, it’s elegantly (if organically) structured plot, its delivery (and withholding) of information, and its positive messages. Perhaps this isn’t the sort of novel that would be a children’s bestseller today; but a lot of children’s bestsellers today could probably learn something from it.
Personally, albeit from a place of nostalgia, I found it a thoroughly, if disposably, pleasant little read.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD.
I suppose that, in objective terms, it would be better to call this merely ‘Not Bad’. But that seems a little unfair, because this novel has a more specific purpose, a more specific audience, and it should be judged against that purpose. Perhaps as literature it’s Not Bad, but I think it’s a Good children’s book (albeit not one that will appeal to every child today).