‘Sometimes you have to pull the strings of your heart and go.’ (p 25)
The two before this one
In a totally metaphorical (non-violent) way, Chloe Daykin’s debut novel Fish Boy took children’s fiction by the scruff of the neck, shook it until its teeth rattled and left its brain swimming. (That last bit is almost literal - kind of.)
There are a lot of books around about kids with ‘issues’, and some of them are great, but none of them are anything like this one - and few are quite as special. This upstart author virtually invented a new style of writing children’s fiction (a sort of stream-of-consciousness-with-added-talking-mackerel). Her book is just devastating in language, concept, form and depth. (Is Chloe Daykin the James Joyce of Middle Grade? Well, kind of.) It shows just how surreal reality is. It is, consequently, not the easiest of reading for children (although easier than James Joyce) but it is something close to the most rewarding. It sensitively shows us much about some of the other people who share our world, and consequently allows us to understand ourselves better.*
How can you resist writing like:
‘He looks at me like I’m crazy, Hurt. Like a cat that you’ve just offered a fruit pastel to.’ (p 35)
I have to admit that I was somewhat late discovering Fish Boy, much to my regret. However, if I had read it when it first came out in 2017, it would have been one of my Books of the Year, for sure.
Her second novel, The Boy Who Hit Play, came within a whisker of maintaining the same level of brilliance (always a huge ask) and developed her stunningly idiosyncratic style into something more of a road-trip adventure whilst retaining its focus on individual and family issues. She was still The Author Who Hit the Spot for hyper-imaginative insight into the thoughts, feelings and needs of touchingly human characters.
Even if just slightly in the shadow of her first, it is still a highly recommendable book. Oh, and its very funny too. And has accompanying music - kind of
Covers: Richard Jones, David Dean
Now number three
Interestingly, her most recent book, Fire Girl, Forest Boy, manages to represent both a radical departure and a strong consistency in her writing.
The continuity comes from what I now think of as her trademark writing style, which still defines the new title and makes it unmistakable hers: short, sometimes very short, ‘chapters’; a use of the present tense that in her skilled hands feels totally credible; an ability to take you right inside the heads of her protagonists and share every thought and feeling with sometimes shattering intensity. In this new book, the narrative is shared between the girl and boy of the title, with their (generally) alternating perspectives enriching the telling immeasurably. Although cleverly very different, each is a strong and complex character, and readers will be able to identify strongly with both children - this author allows us to know and understand the two so well.
Then, through everything, Chloe Daykin threads a vibrancy and originality of language that can be quite breathtaking.
‘Iquitos is the city in the jungle. The furry piece of mould in a cracked piece of cheese.’ (p 34)
‘Memories creep out of the shadows and run out at me with their arms up.’ (p 88)
‘The silence feels like a visitor that comes in and sits with us. Hey, I’m silence. We don’t shake its hand. No one smiles at it.’ (p 98)
Both her language and her thought somehow manage to be quirkily original and at the same time tellingly universal. Beneath her oddness lies truth that touches us deeply, even as it makes us laugh, puzzle or squirm.
Same but different
Where this new book represents a fairly radical departure from its predecessors is in the nature of the story itself. Whilst the earlier two novels treated primarily of individuals and their immediate families, Fire Girl, Forest Boy is passionately concerned with a major global issue, the deforestation of the Amazonian cloud forests, with its disastrous impact on both indigenous peoples and planet Earth itself. This story develops into a full-blown rollercoaster adventure, with dastardly villains from corrupt corporations, and the two protagonists swept into a desperate mission to help the local ‘resistance’ prevent humanitarian and environmental disaster. Within this theme are layered the author’s more familiar, sensitive concerns for identity, family and friendship (‘Friendship is a kind of magic. Fragile and lovely.’, p 266) but her narrative canvas is essentially large scale.
Again, it has to be said that using children’s fiction to explore rainforest issues has been done before, and done well, by other authors. Once more, though, it is the way that Chloe Daykin tells her story, and gets her message across, that makes this book so fresh, original and exciting. Her writing is littered with wonderfully evocative word-painting of both the jungle itself and the lives lived within it. But, over and beyond this, what makes her narrative so particularly distinctive is her introduction of a fantasy element. Amidst all the realistic action, against such credibly drawn backdrops, Fire Girl, Maya, develops the ability to conjure ‘creatures’ of light, entities of intense heat that can both devastate enemies, and guide the way towards discoveries.
Fantasy, but not as we usually know it
Although the term can be overused in fiction generally, it is perhaps helpful here to call Fire Girl, Forest Boy ‘Magical Realism’ for children. This is perhaps particularly appropriate since the origins of that genre and the setting of this story are both Latin American. Of course, there are many children’s books set in fantasy worlds and possibly even more where children pass through some form of portal from the real world into a fantasy one. However, I can think of few which introduce magic directly into an otherwise (disturbingly ) real world in quite the way that this book does. And I am certainly aware of none that does it as effectively and powerfully as this one. As in the best magical realism, Maya’s magic fire/light is both reality and symbol. It is spirit manifest; the spirit of the forest; the spirit of those who have sacrificed their lives in ‘the cause’; the spirit of Maya herself; the spirit of righteous anger, justice and truth. Take your pick. Possibly it is all of these. But, as it becomes more powerful in Maya’s life and in the climaxing narrative, it is a spirit that flares and glows with illuminating force.
It is delightful that, in deference to her young readership, Chloe Daykin balances the terrifying power of Maya’s light ‘creatures’ with friendly eyes and even chubby little arms. Nevertheless this will be a challenging read for those who expect their stories to be accessible, straightforward entertainment. But, for those who can take it (and we far too often underestimate the potential of children to respond to more sophisticated texts, consequently feeding them far too prosaic a fictional diet) it will be all the more rewarding. This is a powerful read in very many different ways.
Come December, Fire Girl, Forest Boy will get onto my Books of the Year for sure. Moreover, I ask those responsible for more significant accolades and awards to, please, pile them on. This author has now proved herself to be one of our finest contemporary children’s writers.
An adventure awaits
These three books together provide a most wonderful adventure into the potential of children’s fiction, and demonstrate just how fully it can deserve to be called children’s literature. At its best, it is possible for it to to be both hugely entertaining and highly stimulating. It can be thrillingly original in concept, language and form and add immeasurably to young readers’ understanding of themselves, of others and of their world. It can challenge, stretch and grow young minds at the same time as engaging and delighting them. And Chloe Daykin shows just how.
If our children are able to create a better world in the future, and I am optimistic that they might, then books like these could well have helped them.
‘With time we can change the future.’ (p 271)
Extra accolades too, please, for David Lichfield’s glowingly wonderful cover. What an author/illustrator he is. (Picture book enthusiasts look out for Lights on Cotton Rock this September. And if you don’t know The Bear and the Piano, well . . . )
* After all, e e cummings did write, ‘It’s always ourselves that we find in the sea,’ in his poem ‘Maggie and Millie and Mollie and May’.