We firstly discussed the historical “what-if” that Gardner sets up for the reader with an alternate world history view – “What if Nazi Germany had defeated Britain in World War II?” We noted that Gardner skilfully uses symbols that modern readers commonly associate with Nazism – use of the term “Motherland”, torture (we were all particularly horrified with the removal of tongues), internment camps, individuals being taken away in the middle of the night, yet we are told by the narrator that this is England in 1956. Some of us thought the setting was ‘ghetto- like’; evoking images of the Warsaw ghetto, yet the schooling system was clearly British.
Gardner uses these known cultural references but distorts them in subtle ways, such as naming the secret police the Greenflies and referring to their ineptitude, “They are getting greener by the day.” Some of us also thought the Moon landing reminded them of the Soviet Union and the space race and we were reminded of the many conspiracy theories of the moon landing of the 1960s. The remixing of these cultural “knowns” with Standish’s own imaginings meant that we were unsettled and displaced at the beginning of the novel. The skill of Gardner’s world-building is that she has created an entirely new dystopic world yet one that was believable as she taps into and distorts our historical knowledge.
We agreed that Standish had a unique voice, almost a staccato rhythm, but also questioned at times his reliability as a narrator when some of what occurs is in Standish’s imagination. Sifting through imagination and reality was difficult at times yet also revealed the depth of the boy’s intelligence. Standish’s inabilities to read and write, and the discrimination he experienced because of this (we discussed the blue eye, brown eye experiment) made him an observer of people and life that offers a different perspective that Gardner exploits as her commentary on human nature. We discussed in depth the beautiful use of metaphors with examples such as, “his muscles were made out of old army tanks with well-oiled army-tank arms”, “that flicking, undone, hangman’s rope of a tie” and “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water”. It was discussed that even if the text was unsuitable for certain age groups certainly the metaphors and selected passages would be a very useful teaching tool for students in English and some of you having been doing this already.
We discussed the relationship between Standish and Gramps and debated the scene where Gramps allows Standish to make his choice to expose the Moon mission rather than to escape to safety. Some thought it was a little out of character that Gramps, who had spent the entire time keeping Standish safe, would allow him to choose certain death yet others saw it as an act of self-sacrifice and love. Gramps, realising there was no certainty of safety in their escape, provides Standish with the agency to fulfil his own destiny. Either way, none of us were particularly hopeful for the safety of the family. We also discussed the idea that “Gramps” was still a reasonably young man and we were pleasantly surprised by the love interest with Miss Phillips.
We had some very thoughtful discussion about the age appropriateness of this text and agreed that it is a very valuable text but one that would need to be monitored. Although marketed as 12+ some of you thought you would carefully recommend this only to mature readers whom you know would have a broad knowledge of history and who could cope with the mature themes. Similarly, it was mentioned that it was a book that would involve some follow-up conversations with younger readers. We discussed at great length the horror and brutality of the beating of the school boy and the subsequent execution of the teacher; acknowledging that the reader experiences some sense of vindication with the teacher’s punishment, as horrible as that sounds! The cover of the novel and determining the intended audience also provoked some good discussion. It was mentioned that the interactive novel on the website is clearly marketed at the younger age group. We also conversed about the wonderful illustrations of flies, rats and maggots that really provide a whole sub-text and yet another textual layer to deconstruct with students.
We thought that this would be a wonderful text to study with Year 12s and some suggested it could be studied in place of, or parallel with, 1984. Certainly the primary school teachers in our group believed that this was not an appropriate text for their library. Other reservations that were expressed, aside from concerns about the strong language and violence, was the issue of the kiss between Hector and Standish. We were all moved by the beauty of that moment of human connection but it was mentioned that a good teacher would have to handle that moment with great care, especially given the homophobic nature of some teenage boys. It would be a shame that all that is good in the book would be overlooked because of that one sentence and action. We also discussed then some of the difficulties experienced with buying books and dealing with parental concerns and also the sad reality that many parents are more likely to object to swearing and issues of sexuality in texts rather than violence.
We went on to discuss the comments from Marcus Sedgwick who was one of the Costa Children’s Book Award who stated,
It’s an unusual book which stood out from the crowd of others treading well-worn paths. It has a clear voice and characters you truly care for; it’s dark and powerful and uplifting.
We noted some of the aspects that we believed set this book apart from other dystopic texts were the realistic world-building, characterisation, thoughtful use of language (not an excess word) and the deliberate use of narrative structure with the changing of tense from past to present to increase the pacing. It was noted how different the language used in this book was from some language written in novels that evolve from fan fiction. It was also observed that the judges who select the winners in some of these awards are choosing books that deal with issues that face teens: questioning of sexuality, violence, self-harm, suicide and self-awareness, yet many of these books will not make it into school libraries because of the limitations set by parents.
- Sally Gardner wins the 2013 Carnegie Medal (telegraph.co.uk)
- Book Review Saturday – ‘Maggot Moon’ (sjohart.wordpress.com)
- Children’s fiction prize book club: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (guardian.co.uk)