Sunday, 19 July 2015

Looking at the Stars, by Jo Cotterill

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a gathering of children's writers in Oxfordshire. It's an annual event, held in a mellow golden stone manor house owned by the Society of Friends - the Quakers. It's a lovely setting, and the conference is always a great opportunity to relax and re-charge the writing batteries in the company of other writers.

This year it was all that, but it was also enormous FUN. There were drama workshops (hand on heart, I have to say my Somerset pie-seller had to be heard to be believed, though even that palled into insignificance beside the panel discussion examining the TV potential of poodles juggling avocados), hilarious (no, really) insights into the financial constraints of publishing, and a wonderful variety of readings from works-in-progress, ranging from the chilling-and-absolutely-spell-binding (Katherine Langrish) to the oh-please-stop-our-sides-are-achingly funny from John Dougherty. And outside the set events, there were of course hundreds of conversations about the ups and downs and twists and turns of the writing world.

Charney Manor

Everyone takes a few of their books and leaves them lying around on windowsills and shelves, and on the last morning, bartering takes place, of the you-can-have-my-book-if-I-can-have-one-of-yours variety. (I always find this a bit tricky, because I want everyone else's books, but never think anyone could really, seriously want one of mine.) Anyway, I came home with a lovely little selection, and the first one I read was Jo Cotterill's Looking at the Stars.

Now, I had heard of this book, and I knew that it was up for a number of awards - it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the UKLA Award, the Oxfordhire Book Award and the Nottinghamshire Book Award - and probably for others too. But I didn't know what it was about. I did know that in the past Jo has written contemporary, hard-edged fiction for teenagers, and that more recently she'd written a series called Sweethearts for 'tweenagers'; and looking at the cover, which shows the silhouettes of two children holding hands against a background of stars and a sort of mosaic pattern, I imagined that this was going to be a sort of romance with perhaps a touch of magic or fantasy.

But it's not. The story is set in an imaginary country, but it's not a fantasy country. It's a paradigm of all the countries which are governed by a repressive regime, where girls and women are not allowed to speak unless they are spoken to, where certain groups are purposely turned into scapegoats, where death is dealt out at a whim, and where the uncertain and desperately hard life of a refugee seems to offer the only chance of safety.

The main character is Amina. At the beginning of the story, where she is living with her family, in poverty but just about in safety, her inability to conform and her lively imagination are seen as dangerous disadvantages. But when their live are turned upside down, these very qualities are the ones which will save her and those around her. There is a magical moment when she tells her first story in the refugee camp, to try and reach out to a little boy who has been traumatised by things he has seen. One by one, people from neighbouring lean-tos and tents creep closer, drawn by the power of Amina's story-telling. Like Scheherezade, she tells a story each night: news spreads, and while they listen to the stories, the refugees are reminded that other lives are possible, that there may be something beyond the horror.

As Jo says in the notes at the end of the novel, it's 'about hope and human resilience'. But it's also about the power of stories. In a sense I was right, because there is magic in it - just not of the wand-and-wizard variety.

Have you read any good teenage novels lately? It would be great to have some recommendations!

No comments:

Post a comment