Revisiting old posts: The merit of an epic

POSTED ORIGINALLY IN MARCH 2019

I am an avid reader and have been since a young age thanks to my dad who encouraged me to read regularly. Every year I try to shadow as many book awards as I possibly can. I like doing this because I am introduced to a range of fiction I might not have necessarily picked up. At the moment, I am shadowing the Carnegie award – something I feel is important if we teach young people and want to promote reading for pleasure. However, this year’s award has raised some interesting questions for me. The main question being is style, brevity or substance more important when we approach teen fiction?

One of the first books I remember reading was Matilda by Roald Dahl. It has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. What was it I particularly enjoyed about this book? Well, the protagonist was a girl, and she was a girl who liked to read. Her family were so detestable that you desperately wanted her to escape from them so that she, herself, could flourish.   Then there was the brilliant characterisation of Miss Trunchbull. Watching tiny Matilda take on Trunchbull is the stuff of dreams for young children who secretly desire to rebel against their teachers but never have the courage to do so. Yet Trunchbull’s nemesis was in fact the young, nurturing teacher Miss Honey – a genuinely kind and compassionate woman – one who probably inspired a lot of young girls like myself into teaching. At the end of the story, you were left satisfied that Matilda had found her escape in the arms of this lovely teacher and that Miss Trunchbull had finally got her comeuppance.

Matilda is a great story and that, for me, is where the merit of a great book lies. When I am reading, I want to feel a connection with the protagonist as I actively seek to become emotionally invested in their journey. I need to care about the character and the journey that they are on. And, at the end, I need to feel a sense of satisfaction with the character’s conclusion whether it be positive or unexpected.

And that’s where, upon reflection, I sometimes struggle to connect with particular books. I remember a particular struggle with the Man Booker prize award. I sat down to read the winning book only to realise at the end that I didn’t quite get it. It was more style than substance.   And yet while I can appreciate a metaphor or a  simile…these literary features are not the making of a book for me.

Which brings me on to the current Carnegie short list. Much has been made of the fact that four verse novels made the long list and three are on the short list. A partiular style of writing.  While I enjoy this genre, Sarah Crossan, in fact, being one of my favourite writers, I sometimes struggle to find a deep emotional connection when reading them. I can appreciate the crafting of the narrative but the brevity of the verse novel means sometimes the quality of the journey, the engagement with the characters and the emotional depth is lacking for me. The power of the story is diminished.

And yet, maybe, this brevity is something that many might find appealing.

Because brevity in literature is a thing. It is the time of the year when teachers seek recommendations for texts, and I have seen many tweets over the past few weeks asking about suitable texts for KS3. Sometimes people are looking for recommendations tagged to a particular theme. But more recently, I have seen on a number of occasions people discard books because of their length.

And whilst I understand the need to read a book, develop core skills and assess students within the period of a term, I also feel we are losing out if we discard literature because of its length.

My favourite adult book of 2018 was The Heart’s Invisible Furies. A beautifully crafted piece following the life of Cyril. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a story made even more impactful through John Boyne’s afterword at the end. The length of the book was 800 pages – a length needed to truly encapsulate the struggles of Cyril and reflect the different facets of his experience and the experience of the many he was meant to represent. It was a masterpiece in terms of ‘storytelling’.

Similarly, my most recent favourite youth fiction read has been ‘Children of Blood and Bone.’ I was absolutely shocked when it did not make the Carnegie long list. A fantasy book – something that I wouldn’t normally have gravitated towards – set in Orisha and following Zelie as she attempts to bring back magic and strike against the corrupted monarchy. It is a story told over 500 pages – an epic for teens – but it is a fantastic read. A real investment and yet when I had finished it, I was ready for part 2 – fully engaged and fully committed to the world I had thrown myself into.

The beauty of both of these novels, and novels like these, lay in the ability of the writer to craft an incredible story of depth, strength and an emotional intensity that might only be possible if delivered over time.

So where does that leave us?

The truth is that there should be a place for all types of stories – the short novel, the verse novel, the novel and the ‘epic’ yet the reality is that the ‘epic’ is being pushed to one side or ignored all together for the sake of brevity and as a result many children are missing out on some of the best storytelling out there.  We need to find time to champion the merit of the epic and to show our pupils that it is worth investing in longer texts – texts that have greater substance because they’ll never forget the stories these books tell.

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