At Lantana Publishing, we are always interested in children’s books that can have some claim to be categorised as ‘diverse’ or ‘multicultural’. In recent years, a significant proportion of the annual Carnegie shortlist could be classed as diverse fiction and this year’s inclusive list, featuring one main protagonist who is gay and another who struggles with Tourette’s syndrome, is no exception. Three of this year’s novels, The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean, Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman and The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird are set in countries outside Britain and feature characters of diverse cultural backgrounds.
The Middle of Nowhere does not fit neatly into any of the categories of diverse titles that we have outlined in previous blog articles (and in reality, what books do fall neatly into boxes, even when we create these boxes ourselves?) but probably shares the most similarities with those novels that are inspired by real events. Although McCaughrean is quick to point out that you won’t actually find her setting, Kinkindele, on the map, her novel is clearly based on extensive research into the real world men and women who exchanged a ‘civilized’ life in Australia’s emergent towns and cities for a remote existence manning the telegraph stations that spanned the length of the country.
According to her ‘Author’s Note’, McCaughrean’s story was partly inspired by what she sees as a lack of “comity” between nations in the twenty-first century (‘comity’ being a word akin to harmony or agreement). In fact, to reinforce this, the main protagonist herself is called Comity and represents McCaughrean’s hopeful belief that children, not shackled by an acceptance of tradition and the ‘way things are’, are able to move fluidly between cultures, accepting difference at face value. Therefore, although the plot of The Middle of Nowhere shows many instances of violence and conflict, the story does, as Agnès Guyon (chair of this year’s judging panel) puts it, “illuminate the darkness with the bright light of optimism.”
Buffalo Soldier, inspired by the more specific real-life story of Cathy Williams, a former slave who joined the US Army just after the American Civil War by pretending to be a young man, has a perhaps more complex message than McCaughrean’s. Landman explores a dark period in American history when newly liberated slaves were instrumental in depriving the similarly oppressed Native Americans of their own liberty. Through the vibrant narrative voice of Charley O’Hara (a character based on Williams), Landman explores the grim complexities of the Buffalo Soldiers’ behaviour. Eventually, Charley’s emotional and physical journey demonstrates that inherited prejudice forced upon a person by necessity and hardship can be overridden by personal empathy and understanding.
Laird’s The Fastest Boy in the World is aimed at a slightly younger audience and is therefore a far less harrowing read than the previous novels. This deceptively simple story introduces us to eleven-year-old Solomon, who aspires to join the roll call of talented Ethiopian athletes who have competed successfully at an international level. Laird’s novel is at heart a contemporary story set in a culture we hear little about in mainstream publishing. However although Solomon’s story feels authentic, and is no doubt based on Laird’s own experiences teaching in Addis Ababa and her work collecting stories from Ethiopia, his journey is both specific and universal. Many novels for children focus on their characters coming of age and, for Solomon, the events recounted in The Fastest Boy in the World are fundamental to shaping his route to adulthood.
In actual fact, all three of these novels on the Carnegie shortlist involve us in the intricacies of the culture in which they are set, as well as ensure that these unique cultural features speak to all readers, whatever their background. Comity’s innocent acceptance of people from other backgrounds in The Middle of Nowhere ultimately inspires the adults in the novel; Buffalo Soldier’s Charley learns that empathy rather than necessity is what shapes lasting relationships; and Solomon’s determination in The Fastest Boy is rewarded with a life-changing offer from somebody he meets on his visit to Ethiopia’s capital. Although we would like to see more stories from the pens of those who are themselves from culturally diverse backgrounds, all three of these novels should be celebrated for carefully treading that delicate balance between the local and the global, appealing to readers whatever their cultural heritage.