Handles by Jan Mark: A Carnegie Medal Winner

October 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

Occasionally someone suggests a subject for a novel to me. They, clearly, do not realise the effort entailed in working up a two-line plot into a 70,000-word novel.

All the same, writers need plots and some writers, like the prolific P G Wodehouse, feared running out of them. But not every plot is for every writer; and for many children’s writers the plot of Handles would have been no good.

The protagonist Erica is not ‘feisty’ as so many modern ‘novel’ children are. She is not an interestingly unpopular orphan (Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden), nor is she a literary-inclined orphan (Emily in Emily of the New Moon) nor an orphan whose fortunes are about to change (Dallas and Florida in the 2002 Carnegie Medal winner Ruby Holler). Erica, in fact, is not an orphan at all: she lives with her parents and brother in a gardenless flat.

But like many other authors, Jan Mark disposes of the parents. Erica leaves them to spend some weeks with relatives who live in the country. Erica has no wish to stay with her aunt and uncle. But as her mother has gone to some trouble to arrange the ‘holiday’, Erica feels obliged to go. She does not even have a suitcase, as far as I can recall, but carries her clothes in plastic bags. There is no suggestion of deprivation in the plastic bags. Erica simply belongs to that era when children had to make-do-and-put-up-with-it.

It is not easy to write a novel for children, but Jan Mark appears to have made her task all the harder by making Erica “ordinary”—not rich, not poor (but poorish), not pretty, not ugly, not popular, not unpopular)—and her adventure of going to stay with uncongenial relatives for a few weeks, “dull”.  Most children, who read this book, will discover that their own lives are more eventful than Erica’s.

Erica is eleven-years-old, she is sensitive to the fact that she has recently (about a year?) begun wearing glasses. She does not like the way her aunt remarks on her glasses. And we, readers, sympathise with her, here and in a number of other places in the story.

Erica’s aunt and uncle are not empathetic people. And neither we, nor Erica, must expect very much from them. They have no notion of providing any entertainment for Erica. And would probably be astonished if anyone suggested they did. Erica helps in her aunt’s market garden while Robert, the son, lazes about or makes a nuisance of himself. Given the indulgence shown Robert, a visitor might have assumed that Robert was the guest.

Where does Erica fit in? Does she belong in Elsie’s garage where she first goes to retrieve her uncle’s jump leads? Elsie (male schoolteacher turned mechanic) runs the garage with Bunny’s help. No one seems to be called by their Christian names. They have ‘handles’ and Erica wants a ‘handle’ an ‘identifier’ too. (Before Erica leaves, she is given an impressive ‘handle’.)

Erica is maturing. Erica thinks that children who need the council to paint hopscotch squares for them (on council estates) do not deserve to live. But Erica is uncertain too: what, for example, is her status at the garage? Is Erica a real help—she wants to be a mechanic—or is she simply a nuisance like the small child nicknamed the ‘Gremlin’?

The garage, initially, is a great retreat for Erica who is much more at home with the banter of Elsie and Bunny than with her relatives’ heavy sense of humour: they need a joke to have a sort of frame around it. A joke must clearly be a joke before they can commit themselves to laughter. But it becomes apparent, for all the jokes, that Elsie and Bunny are not as carefree as Erica supposed. Elsie’s encounter with his wife gives us a glimpse of a marriage that must be far from easy. These matrimonial difficulties diminish Elsie in Erica’s eyes. Elise and Bunny are, after all, just ordinary people with problems of their own.

Erica is fortunate that the lure of the garage declines about the time the marrows, on which she scratched several messages, grow large enough for the words to be readable. “Robert is a fat twit”* are not words to raise a smile among her relatives. Erica is not displeased to return home.

A girl is growing up, the awkwardness of adolescence is impending, and she apprehends that there may be no Edens. Not a plot, I think, most writers would make a grab for.

The story, having few incidents, has little inherent drama. We are concerned with the relation of people to each other, and these relations are portrayed in ‘everyday’ exchanges. If the book were not infused with humour, it might very well be dull. Humour is, I think, a more than adequate substitute for drama. Most of us would find it easier to dream up something dramatic rather than something humorous.

Only a talented writer could pull off a story like Handles. And the Carnegie Medal Panel recognised its excellence. How would the subtle and sophisticated Handles compete with the more sensational children’s literature of today?

Handles is not on the open shelves of Crouch End’s Hornsey Library but resides in the basement where the reserve stock is kept. Almost none of Jan Mark’s longer works are available on the open shelves. It seems such a pity that the excellent Handles has had to give way to inferior books.

The book jacket on the hardback Handles, presumably dating from 1983, is not attractive. Although many modern book covers are not attractive, they have the advantage of looking up-to-date.

Many books, which are reissued with a cover showing a recent televised dramatisation, appear to stand a better chance of being borrowed than a copy of the same book with an old-fashioned cover. We understand that children won’t want to be seen abroad with some dingy-looking book in their possession. So, although the reprinting of books, solely for the sake of new covers, may seem rather wasteful, most people would agree that the loss of a good book for the want of an attractive cover is a greater waste still.

The books of good writers should have a prominent place on library shelves, even if reissued versions are necessary. Economics is hardly a factor: for publishers are prepared to spend money producing and marketing books that should never have found their way into print at all.

Jan Mark  (1943-2006)

Twice Carnegie Medal winner: Thunder and Lightnings (1976) and Handles (1983)

* I am relying on memory for this quote

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