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Liz Hyder on the Great Rebels of Children's Fiction

Posted on 5th September 2019 by Mark Skinner

Bearmouth, written by Liz Hyder and published by Pushkin Press, features a central protagonist who begins to ask searching questions of the system and society that he is a part of. In this exclusive essay, Liz looks at the importance of characters querying the status quo in children’s fiction, and how this and other forms of rebellion have proved fertile ground for authors for many decades.

The word ‘rebellion’ can have almost as many meanings as there are people. For some, rebellion is visceral, messy, dangerous and violent. For others, the simple act of asking a question can be an act of rebellion in itself – and why not? Scattered throughout fairy tales and fiction, questions are often a powerful force. From Oliver Twist asking for more food to the child in the crowd wanting to know why the Emperor is wearing no clothes, questions can help bring about change and, in our era of fake news, have perhaps never been more important.

As any parent or adult working with children can testify, no-one asks more questions than young people do. They are constantly querying the world around them - whether it’s how late they can stay up, why they should eat broccoli or how equations are really going to help them in their adult life. Young people are constantly pushing at boundaries, exploring what is and isn’t acceptable and, crucially, asking why. It’s no coincidence, then, that rebellion and the power of questioning the status quo is so prevalent in the fiction written for them.

In Angie Thomas’s electrifying debut novel, The Hate U Give, the heroine Starr Carter questions the systems and society that enable a police officer to murder her childhood best friend. Starr is utterly real - scared, brave, strong and vulnerable. She becomes a heroine through her own actions, through standing up for what she believes in and pushing for change. The same could also be said of Standish Treadwell, the unlikely hero of Sally Gardner’s Carnegie Medal winning Maggot Moon. An extraordinary book, it’s like nothing else you’ll have ever read. Set in the sinister Motherland with the backdrop of a frenetic race to the moon, it follows Standish, a dyslexic young lad who is made to feel stupid by many of those around him, as he takes matters into his own hands when his best friend goes missing. Just like The Hate U Give, it’s a real page-turner and will have your heart thumping fast right up to the very last page.

Rebellious characters often come from ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Philip Reeve takes that idea very literally in his superb Railhead trilogy centred around the wild and glorious Zen Starling, a petty thief who rides interstellar trains across different worlds. Zen is selfish, funny, kind, loyal and complicated. He and the rest of the glorious characters that inhabit the trilogy - including the sentient trains (I kid ye not) - will stay with you for a long time afterwards, as will SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. Written when Hinton was just a teenager herself in late 1960s America, The Outsiders brims with tension throughout, centring on Ponyboy, a young teen who is lost and confused, reeling from the death of his parents and rebelling against his two brothers as well as the society around him. With themes of anger, violence and redemption, it’s a cracking read and still feels utterly timeless.

Philip Pullman’s magical and haunting His Dark Materials series also centres around a rebel, the wonderful Lyra Silvertongue who rises up against both her parents and the Magisterium, the sinister church at the heart of the fictional world. The original trilogy is so utterly perfect in its storytelling and world building that it seems almost baffling to think that there was a time, not that long ago, when it didn’t exist, that the idea of daemons was something that occurred only in Philip Pullman’s head, that Will, Lyra, Pantalaimon, Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby were all merely figments of his fertile imagination.

Two other enduring series that have rebels at their heart are Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games centred around the charismatic and fierce Katniss Everdeen and Malorie Blackman’s brilliant Noughts and Crosses. Blackman, one of the most prolific and brilliant writers around, with over 70 books to her name, created a genuine phenomenon with Noughts and Crosses. Not only is it a series of clever, thought-provoking books that explore issues of racism, prejudice and class, it’s soon to be a smash-hit TV series too with the eagerly awaited fifth book, Crossfire, out just last month. Noughts and Crosses will enrage and inspire you, break your heart and, like all the best books, make you look at the world just that little bit differently.

It’d be impossible to write about rebellion in fiction without mentioning some older, classic novels too. Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea explored the idea of a school for wizards long before a certain Harry Potter came along. Ged must come to terms both with his powers and who he is but there’s also the idea in the novel that language and words have an inherent power within them, a theme that also occurs in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. Language and knowledge represent power and both the mastery of language and the ability to restrict it, as in 1984’s Newspeak and the actions of the Thought Police, can be utilised as weapons, forces for either good or bad. It’s an idea that I use in my own novel, Bearmouth, in which the main character Newt is not only learning to read and write but also starts asking questions, querying the status quo. As Newt’s confidence grows and circumstances shift and change, threatening the world of the working coal-mine Newt lives and works in, words inevitably start to shift into action. Inspired by a visit down a mine on the Welsh coast, I delved into the history of real-life child miners in this country. Children as young as four working 12-hour days, six days a week. Some of the words and phrases in Bearmouth are taken directly from the mouths of these children, written down in the early 1840s before a minimum age was brought in for young workers. At the time I started writing Bearmouth, I hadn’t even heard of Greta Thunberg but the central premise of the book, that one person can, just maybe, start a revolution feels particularly apt right now.

No piece on any given theme in fiction can cover all the fantastic books out there, it would be foolish to even attempt to do so. There are a hundred and one other books and series that fit with the theme of rebellion and which I could rave about endlessly - from Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness and Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom series to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence. But I always think half the fun with any blog like this is the debate that follows, so what are your favourite books with a rebel at the heart of them? Who are your favourite fictional rebels? There’s nothing that a bookworm likes more than adding to an already overflowing reading list! Tweet me @LondonBessie or tag me in your pics of your favourites on Instagram. May the rebel be with you!

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