Sunday, March 01, 2009

Children’s Book: The Nest by Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings is best known as the author of quirky, over-the-top and often laugh-out-loud funny books, both short stories and very short novels for reluctant readers. As such, he never even got near the annual children’s book awards, though he kept winning prizes voted on by the children themselves. His books sold in the millions, and were adored by children but they just didn’t win prizes from adult judges. In 2006 he finally wrote a full-length semi-autobiographical novel, How Hedley Hopkins Did A Dare, and that got on the annual short list of the Children's Book Council of Australia.

In recent years, the collections of funny stories children love so much have dried up. I have had to keep telling my young library users that no, that thick book of short stories by Paul Jennings wasn’t new, it was just a collection of stories they had already read. There was one book for adults on how to get your kids reading, but that was all.

Now we find that he has, after all, been writing something, this time for young adults. And so sorry, fans of Jennings’ humor, but this book isn’t funny: not even a tiny bit. The Nest (Penguin Australia) is for those who have left the realm of over-the-top humour and want teen angst.

In some ways, even Jennings’ funny books were about angst. That’s what made them funny. They were about the awful things that you go through when you’re growing up, exaggerated and made over-the-top funny. The Nest is just about angst.

In some ways, though, it does still go over-the-top. The average teenager having troubles with family and friends doesn’t suffer vivid mental images of murdering his father and wonder if he’s going insane.

Teenager Robin lives with his father in Victoria’s snow fields. Kids ski as a part of daily life, not as a sport. When Robin was a baby, his mother left, leaving only a couple of relics, which Robin has kept hidden. There is a mystery here. He doesn’t know why she left, though his father keeps telling him it was because of Robin, and he has never found out where she went.

Robin doesn’t seem to have many friends, if any. He is attracted to the beautiful and moral Charlie, who is an environmentalist and raises money to bring refugee children to the snow for a holiday. His feelings are all over the place -- anger with his father, whom he believes has driven his mother away, horror at his own mental images, love for Charlie, confusion and hurt that his mother has never made contact. He expresses his feelings in his short stories, which alternate with chapters of the novel.

It’s a good young adult novel, in an interesting setting, with very good rite-of-passage issues. I would have liked to have seen some resolution of the problems between Robin’s father and himself. Robin does the right thing, even saves his father’s life, but...

The novel does finish with one of Robin’s stories, in which he recognizes that the “snake” he fears is a part of himself and needs to be dealt with. We can only hope that this will end with his reconciliation with his father, some time after the novel ends.

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