14.10.11

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

When I was trying to call up the list of nominees for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) for 2012, I came across this picture:

Which if you think about it is pretty much how you'd like to imagine the creator of Pippi Longstocking.

And here's Pippi as imagined by the wonderful Lauren Child.

There's a great write-up on Lindgren here.

But on to the prize - here's what the website has to say:
The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) is the world's largest prize for children's and young adult literature. The award, which amounts to SEK 5 million, is awarded annually to a single recipient or to several. Authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and those active in reading promotion may be rewarded. The award is designed to promote interest in children's and young adult literature, and in children's rights, globally.  
Lots of exciting names on the nominees list (Canada is well-represented by writers Jean Little, Brian Doyle and Michel Noël), but I was particularly pleased to see Meg Rosoff's name.  I'm a great admirer of Rosoff's work, but my particular favourite amongst her novels is What I Was.  You can read my review online at Monsters & Critics.

Update: that link has gone dead so adding that review here.


What I Was, Meg Rosoff's third novel, is classified as juvenile fiction.  So call me juvenile.  It's a lovely and confusing love story, which seems perfectly apt as love is confusing when you are sixteen (or when you a hundred).   The narrator of this novel is both.
            Our hero – he remains nameless until page 184 – is a boy named Hilary (a song Shel Silverstein might have written if he'd been more anglophile in his tendencies).  The year is 1962 and Hilary's father is dropping him off at his third boarding school, after he has been summarily dismissed from the previous two.   His father tells him "It's time you sorted yourself out …. You're nearly a man."  Which leads our narrator to muse: "But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered.  I was barely managing to get by as a boy."
            As Rosoff makes obvious – painfully, wonderfully obvious – getting by as a boy is no easy thing.   The boarding school, named St,. Oswald's and located on the coast of East Anglia, has its requisite population of bullies, addle-pated masters and bad food.            
           Hilary's reflections, both on his own character and that of his contemporaries, often range beyond what is reasonably precocious for a sixteen-year-old boy.  But then, he is also a hundred-year-old man looking back over the events of his life.  There is a very short prologue to the book that begins, "I am a century old…." but I managed to miss it on the first read.
            The novel takes place in the year in which our boy hero discovers love.  The object of his affections is a strange, wild boy named Finn that he meets while out hiking along the coast.  Finn lives alone in a hut that once belonged to his Gran, the woman who raised him after his own mother ran off when he was a young child.  Finn is wonderfully self-sufficient, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, happily shipwrecked and in no need of rescue.
            Hilary's infatuation with Finn vacillates between wanting to be him and simply wanting him, in a helpless, inchoate way, and he is unsettled by these seemingly homoerotic impulses in himself: "None of what I felt could be explained by what I generally understood about sex."   For anybody beginning to worry at this point, it is worth noting that the attachment between the two youths remains emotional rather than physical. 
            There is a huge plot twist toward the end of the novel, one which I am not going to be mean-spirited enough to give away here. There is also a huge leap into the future, a sort of epilogue in which our narrator, the century-old man, gives a summary of his life after the calamitous events of 1962—events which include a death, an arrest and an estrangement, for those who like their plots at full boil.   But the writing never falters, and that's what makes this a novel that bursts loose of the constraints of juvenile fiction.
            The voice of this novel is both ruminative and assured, but not necessarily the voice of a pubescent boy.  Perhaps as men approach their centennial year they attain the wisdom generally accorded to middle-aged women.   Perhaps pubescent boy readers can be convinced this is how they are meant to think. And, given the charm of passages such as the one that follows, I don't really care.
            Here is Hilary, reflecting on his schoolboy existence:

My experience of the world came from comics and detective stories and Hitchcock films starring American actresses with stiff blond hair.  The rest of the time I spent staring at teachers or out of windows, or at the obscene scribbles on lavatory walls.  Despite my exquisitely honed indifference, my life telescoped down to a few sad little desires: to have second helpings of food, to wear clothes that didn't itch or cause undue humiliation, to be left alone.
           
An observation both particularly universal and universally particular.  What I Was is recommended reading for young, old, or old-at-heart readers.
            Meg Rosoff is the author of two previous prize-winning novels, How I Live Now, and Just In Case.   The first is a dystopian novel in which teenagers are fugitives, the second a novel in which a teenage boy becomes fate's plaything.  You can read excerpts from Rosoff's books and find out more at www.megrosoff.co.uk

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