Odyssey is one of two books published by the Aarhus 39 – 39 emerging Eurpoean children’s writers under the age of 40. The books, Odyssey and Quest, have been published to coincide with the International Children’s Literature Hay Festival, which takes place in October 2017. Both books were editied by Daniel Hahn. Odyssey is the YA title.
The stories are centered around the theme of ‘journeys’. It is wonderful to see the different interpretations. Many metaphorical journeys take place – rites of passage, growth, exploration of gender and sexuality. The book’s introduction talks about political division, and goes on to highlight how the same themes emerged regardless of which country the author came from. I think this is one of the most interesting things about the book. Adolescence is adolescence is adolescence, no matter where it takes place. It is a journey in its own right.
I was interested to see the varying ages of the protagonists – although the majority of protagonists fitted the standard 14 – 18 of YA fiction, there were a healthy number of younger children, and a couple of adults. I was pleased to see a university-aged protagonist. In all other sections of children’s fiction, it is accepted that the reader wants to read up, to see what is coming next. Certainly in the UK, the advice is to write about young people of school age. Where does this leave 17 year-olds who want to know about settings beyond the school gates?
I have written a short synopsis for eight stories which stood out. These are the stories which stayed with me when I closed the book. They stood out for different reasons, some for the theme, others for the form. I want to emphasise that both Odyssey and Quest are high among the best reads of the year. Devour these stories, then return to them for a second sitting. See what else they have to say. Outstanding.
Breakwater – Michaela Holzinger. Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner.
Breakwater uses a repeated journey to show how young people change over time. Lilian’s family have vacationed by the lake every autumn. Every autumn, Lilian spends her days with Kilian, while their fathers play chess under the trees. This year Lilian would rather stay at home. She’s too old to play games. Too old for geeky Kilian, with his silly games and his Lego-Minecraft. Except time has changed Kilian, too. Suddenly, Lilian’s father is not so certain the teenagers should be spending so much time together. Like the chess played out below the trees, Lilian and Kilian have a battle on their hands.
This was one of the few stories which took place in a static location – that is, many authors took travel literally, and wrote about walking trips and boat journeys and trains. Holzinger shows the passage of time as effectively by focusing on one moment in time.
Everyone Knows Petter’s Gay – Endre Lund Eriksen. Illustrated by Jörg Mühle.
Everyone knows that new kid Petter is gay, but our narrator sets out to prove it to his peer group. After all, anything could happen if there was any uncertainty. This story is great for tone – it is clear from the character’s voice that he is resentful. He begrudges Petter his success on the football team, and the friendships he makes when he moves away from the narrator’s company. It is a great story about the peer pressure which makes coming out feel impossible to young people, and the effect that can have on their life.
Like ‘Breakwater’, there is a physical journey, to training camp, and a metaphoric journey. In Everyone Knows Petter’s Gay, the metaphoric journey is coming out.
Journey at Dusk – Sandrine Kao. Illustrated by the author.
Blanche could have spent the summer practicing for her oboe exam and hanging out with her friends. You know, normal French things. Instead, she must spend time in her parents’ country. Blanche works hard to fit in at home. She doesn’t want to learn about the family culture. Greeted by Aunt Mi-I and her small son, Blanche trails through the market, dripping with sweat and contempt. Then she hears the one thing that might win her over to a new culture – a woodwind instrument.
This was the only journey which focused on a young person born in the western world, learning about their parents’ very different culture. With so many people now relating to multiple cultures, it was right up to date, and so beautifully done. Blanche learns to focus on the similarities between cultures, and to explore her heritage with pride.
What We’ve Lost – Sarah Engell. Illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet.
A boat full of people who know each other not by name, but by what they’ve lost. After seven hours at sea, the engine packed in. Our protagonist looks after a small boy, but with no idea which direction they are drifting in, and only so much water between them, odds are not in their favour. We’ve all seen the news articles. ‘Journey in Europe’ brings to mind the refugees, who undertake desperate journeys in search of a peaceful home. Sarah Engell hands it with great sensitivity. This was one of the stories which beautifully matched its pictures. I was in floods by the end, but so I should be. These stories need to be read.
The Blue Well – Ana Pessoa. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.
Our protagonist has found herself sitting back, watching life slip past. She’s lost her sense of adventure. The day her family visit the mountains, she would rather hide beneath her wide-brimmed hat, alone with her thoughts. Thoughts nobody else understands, but that is OK. Our protagonist would rather exist, a part of the landscape. The mountain. Then she reaches the Blue Well. This is a story which merits rereading. It is also in touch with the intensity of young people’s thoughts.
Mine – Sarah Crossan. Illustrated by Anke Kuhl.
The baby is coming. Stacey is waiting to find out whether it is a girl or boy, but frankly she doesn’t care. Curled in the baby’s cot, she waits for live to change beyond recognition. Why does the baby’s room get a fancy name? Why does it get everybody’s time and attention. Then she sees the bunny in the corner of the cot, and she hatches a plan.
Rites of passage are metaphorical journeys. Stacey travels along with her family, wondering whether anybody will care about her when they reach the point of great change.
Out There – Victor Dixon. Illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Thibaut refuses to wait another season before taking up a rifle and becoming a man. He has great dreams of taking over his father’s estate, and protecting the livelihood of the tenants. Determined to prove he is a man, Thibaut shoots a gander, as it leads a flock of geese on migration. Throughout the summer, the geese land on the farm, first in tens, then in thousands. The crop is decimated.
Victor Dixon uses the metaphor of migration to explore the transition between adolescence and manhood, and the relationship between Thibaut and his father. This reminded me of a fairy tale, particularly with its country-estate setting.
Lost in Transformation – Cornelia Travnicek. Illustrated by Dave McKean.
Lou is neither male nor female. That’s about to change, but Lou wants to know why. ‘Because everybody has to make that decision’ doesn’t seem a good enough reason to face the transformation all young people undertake before the start of their secondary education. Following years among the Cybele – a colony of asexual, genderless beings – Lou wants to know if there are options which have not been presented. This was the only Sci-Fi story in the anthology, and it is one of the stories which got under my skin. It put its questions across in a way which lasted beyond the last page. This was intensified by Dave McKean’s haunting illustrations.
Lou is about to be escorted back to face transformation into something gendered. Will Lou follow, or will Lou break away?