Small town blues in 50s America
David Small’s tale of a sad, isolated teenager is timely in the age of Trump, writes Rachel Cooke
Q: Which books can help my 10-year-old daughter navigate her feelings of low self-esteem and not fitting in at school?
Joanne Phillips, 48, writer, indexer and single mum
Fiona Noble, children’s book reviewer for the writes: On the cusp of secondary school and puberty, 10 can be a challenging time, and books offer children a safe place to explore these emotions. In the award-winning Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (pictured), 12-year-old Astrid faces the toughest summer of her life when she and her best friend begin to
Home After Dark David Small
Liveright, £19.99, pp396
When his mother runs off with local football star Ollie “Action” Jackson, Russell Pruitt, 13, finds himself alone with his father, Mike, a hard-drinking veteran of the Korean war who regards feelings as the exclusive preserve of sissies. Poleaxed by his divorce, though he would rather die than admit it, Mike packs up the family house in Youngstown, Ohio, and he and his son head for California where he hopes to establish a new life close to his sister, Russell’s Aunt June.
Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan. As June points out, even with the help of the GI Bill, property in swanky southern California drift apart. Signing up for roller derby camp is a gamechanger.
This sparky, inspirational graphic novel is full of wisdom and heart, capturing the complexities of growing up, self-discovery and coping with change. The setting may be American, but themes of empowerment and perseverance will have universal resonance.
Cath Howe’s background as a primary schoolteacher brings insight and authentic characters to her well-observed debut, Ella on the Outside. Ella has moved to a new town and is thrilled when school queen bee Lydia befriends her. But Lydia, it seems, has an is far beyond Mike’s means; he and Russell have no choice but to drive north, winding up at a town called Marshfield, where they rent a room from a Chinese couple, the Mahs. Marshfield isn’t only unprepossessing, it’s sinister, too – a serial killer of animals is on the loose, the kind of brutal fiend who hangs puppies from chain-link fences. At school, Russell struggles to fit in. The other boys are bullies, boastful and homophobic. At home, he’s abandoned, his father having taken a job teaching English in San Quentin prison. Only the Mahs are kind to him.
The illustrator David Small is best known as the author of the acclaimed Stitches, a 2009 memoir of a childhood during which he contracted cancer (and for which ulterior motive and Ella becomes tangled in a web of secrets, lies and peer pressure. Howe poignantly chronicles Ella’s struggle with anxiety and self-esteem and is he was shortlisted for a National Book award in the US). His new book, Home After Dark, is a work of fiction, but like Stitches, its primary subject is voicelessness: neither Russell, nor his father, nor any of the men or boys they meet is able fully to vocalise their emotions, a state of affairs that will have grave consequences for them all. The setting is 1950s small-town America: this is Peyton Place as seen through the eyes of a confused teenager. However, after almost a decade in the making, it comes to us with added resonance. In the age of Trump, anger is all about; the other gets the blame for almost everything.
But Small isn’t really a words guy. All of the power of Home After Dark lies with his meticulous pen and waterproof ink drawings (after three years’ work and 12 revisions, he redrew all 400 pages by hand, unhappy with the way his washes looked on the original card he’d used). Among his influences, besides the work of Egon Schiele, which he loved as a younger man, are directors such as Hitchcock, Polanski, Bergman and Antonioni, and his exquisite holding shots, stunning closeups and extended silent sequences do bring the movies immediately to mind; at times, you fancy you might almost hear the whirr of the projector.
From them, too, he has borrowed, or learned, a certain emotional honesty. While another artist might not have been able to resist giving his story a happy ending, Small doesn’t quite go there. He is never sentimental. In Marshfield, Russell learns some hard lessons. But at the book’s end, he’s still just a mixed-up kid. Even as some small measure of happiness may now be about to come his way, saintliness is clearly going to elude him a while yet. excellent on friendship dynamics and making the right choices.
Finally, children’s nonfiction is full of books designed to inspire and empower, from Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls to Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World. You Are Awesome by Matthew Syed, meanwhile, examines people, from Mozart to Serena Williams, who achieved their potential through hard work and resilience. A practical, motivational approach to building confidence.
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The power of Home After Dark lies with David Small’s meticulous pen and waterproof ink drawings. WW Norton