– Wow, you really did make it work!
‘I am the Sputnik.’
Annabel’s friend swiped at her with her plastic lightsaber. Annabel parried. The friend’s lightsaber exploded in a thick black cloud of stinking smoke. Melted plastic dripped down the handle. The friend squealed with delight. Annabel squealed with even more delight.
– Oh! Hang on, this could be really dangerous.
‘Yes, it ccould!’ Sputnik said with a smile, as thought really dangerous was the best thing a birthday party could ever be. ‘They’ll remember this for a long time.’
(Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. P37.)
Prez is spending his summer with the Blythes – a rambunctious family who allow children in Temporary Accommodation to spend summer on their farm. Prez misses his Grandad, who started forgetting things, like whether it might be a good time to show somebody a kitchen knife. Prez is afraid he will remain a ‘temporary’ child. He finds it difficult to use his voice.
One night, Prez opens the door to Sputnik. Prez thinks Sputnik is a boisterous young boy from another planet. Everybody else thinks Sputnik is a dog.
Chaos ensues. Sputnik’s mission is to write a guidebook selling the attractions of earth to beings from outer space. Otherwise Earth might just be destroyed. Nothing personal – there’s just no space for a boring planet. Chaotic adventure follows chaotic adventure. Hadrian’s wall is rebuilt, the remote control starts working on things other than the telly and a toy light-saber becomes deadly in the hands of a small child. Every adventure leads Prez closer to the future, and his unknown fate …
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is the book on the Carnegie list which kids – masses of kids – will love. Cottrell Boyce, like Walliams or Jacquline Wilson, is a brand. Like Walliams and Wilson, Cotttrell Boyce writes well, and writes for his audience. While Sputnik deals with some deep issues, it has a lightness of touch which is absent across the shortlist. Only Reeve comes close.
Prez’s emotions come through before we are told of his circumstances. He refers to members of the Blythe family in a detached way, (‘the mum’ ‘the dad’.) It is clear he is afraid to get too close, afraid they will be gone before he knows them better.
Cottrell Boyce knows his audience. There is plenty of toilet humour, but underpinning this is a solid understanding of the concerns of childhood. Why are the wonders of the world all ruins? What would happen if you rewound a chicken – would you end up with a chicken or an egg? When we talk about ‘the concerns of childhood’, we so often mean the things adults fear children will be anxious about. Sputnik is attuned to the tone of playground chatter.
The theme of dementia is not hammered into the audience. Over the course of the novel, a picture is built of the circumstances which lead to Prez being taken into care. When Prez returns to the flat in which he and Grandad lived, we learn about the routines he built up in an attempt to keep both their heads above water.
Did I enjoy the story? I’m intrigued to see how it fares. The list seems skewed towards books beloved of adult readers of Kid-Lit. (CILIP have given Beck a content warning, with an advisory age of 16+. Is that children’s fiction?) If the prize considers the intended audience, Sputnik is up there with the best.