Sunday, February 21, 2016

Kit's Wilderness

Kit's Wilderness
by David Almond
Recommended Ages: 12+

With this book, British author David Almond won the second-ever Michael L. Printz Award in 2001 from the Young Adult Library Services Association in the U.S., a year after being a runner-up for the same award with Skellig. Both books have been on my shelf of "award-winning fiction for young readers" for several years, like airplanes circling over O'Hare Airport, waiting for clearance to land. Their chance finally came during a weekend of sickness when I had nothing to do but lie on my back and wait for the next dose of medicine. I was happy to discover that this book wasn't about a lone boy's struggle to survive in a desolate wilderness, a type of story that I can only bear to read so often.

And in spite of being a title on the winners' list of an award whose other winners hold no interest for me, I realized quickly that I had fallen into the grip of a great story - the kind that is usually robbed of glory when the boring book awards are announced. For example, while this is my first time reading a Printz award winner, several of my favorite books are among its honorable mentions, including The Ropemaker by the late and lamented Peter Dickinson, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, I Am the Messenger and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, and The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey. I hate to hand it to the YALSA, but their silver "honor" medal is probably more of a selling point than their gold "award" one. This book may help sweeten my expectations of those top award winners.

So, Kit's Wilderness is very good for an award-winning book, and it's also not about a kid eating berries in the woods. Actually there is a subplot about a kid scratching a meager living out of the ground, sort of a story-within-a-story, but by the time that starts up, you're already hooked on a teen-friendly example of the up-and-coming genre known as magical realism. In adult fiction terms, that's the school of literature pioneered by Gabriel "Love in the Time of Cholera" García Márquez. In kid terms, it's a story set in a convincingly real English town, full of convincingly real characters (kids as well as grown-ups) with convincingly real problems; yet without taking away any of that, it's all shot through with paranormal weirdness and, well, magic.

Kit Watson, aged 13, is the new boy in Stoneygate, but his family goes way back in the town's history. Another Kit Watson, aged 13, died in a coal mine disaster about a hundred years ago, and present-day Kit's newly widowed grandpa still tells stories about working in those mines. Another present-day kid whose namesake, also aged 13, is listed on the mine disaster memorial is John Askew, a burly, surly type who has some pretty dark ideas. Imagine a loner who goes everywhere with a vicious dog at his heels, who gathers a clique of misfits around him to play a disturbing game called Death. Kit gets pulled into it, partly by a fascination with the repellant yet magnetic Askew, partly to chase a cute girl named Allie. But things get out of control for young Askew and he ends up first expelled from school, then running away.

Kit, meanwhile, is increasingly distracted by visions of ghostly children, spirits of those buried deep in the coal tunnels. Besides this, he has to deal with his grandpa's decline into dementia, and a story he is writing for school that becomes so real to him, its characters spill out into reality. The weirdness builds with an urgency of purpose, until it seems the only way to save John, Grandpa, and an ice-age hero named Lek is to save them all at once. And for Kit, that means descending into a terrifying, ancient darkness.

This is a very strange book. It is a strangely wonderful book. It is a wonderfully dark book. It is a darkly beautiful book. It is in that rare and treasured category of books that made me laugh and sob, repeatedly. It is a book whose layered complexity could have come across as tortured and artificial, but that instead manages to convey a powerful natural unity through images, phrases, and ideas that cycle round and round, building up to cyclone force. It is such a strong book that I actually took a break from reading it to ransack my book collection until I made sure I also had Skellig - which I then read the same evening. And I now want to read more by David Almond, whose titles include The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon and The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas.

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