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Posted by Kate, August 9, 2013

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

Yesterday evening the Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group met for the third time, and the book for discussion was Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. Winner of the Brandford Boase Award, shortlisted for The Carnegie Medal and described by Philip Ardagh, reviewing for The Guardian, as “very special”, the book isn’t short of accolades.

As with previous books we’ve discussed, the book was set up for discussion on a special Nosy Crow Guardian page on The Guardian website, and Michelle from The Guardian used the comments section to run a commentary on one of the two discussions (we divide into two groups to try to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak). Though there was some overlap in discussion between the two groups, it’s worth reading Michelle’s live commentary. And if you’ve anything to add to the discussion – and we really hope you have – it would be great if it could join the comments on that page. There was discussion about the book in the run-up to, and during, the reading group meeting, on Twitter, using, as we have for previous books, the hashtag #NCGKids.

Here, I’ve tried to pull together the thoughts of the other group, but I’ll also try to include other comments from the end of the discussion, when both groups got together again.

We began the discussion by going round the table, asking each person for his or her overall feeling about the book, and at once it was clear that this was a book that was going to divide the group more than the previous titles we’d discussed, Wonder and A Monster Calls. One of us described it as “a masterpiece” that would still be being read in 50 years, one of us said, “It has a richness that feeds you, and, rightly approached with a child, would enrich them too”, some of us couldn’t make up our minds how we felt about it, some of us felt pretty indifferent to it, and a couple of us found it “frustrating” and “annoying” and a bit boring. Many of us, even at this stage in the discussion, wondered how appealing it would be to a wide audience of children.

To prompt a discussion – in the unlikely event that we run out of stuff to say, which hasn’t happened yet – we propose a few questions in a blog post before the event, which to some extent influences the shape of the discussion.

Oh, I’d say that this blog post contained plot spoilers, but the concept of a plot spoiler doesn’t apply awfully well to this particular book. But the bottom line is that if you want your reading untainted by our thinking, read the book before the blog post.

ALLEGORY?

On the basis of our responses to it, the book is open to a wide range of (adult) interpretations. Some of us thought that it was about life, about being a living human being: you are beset with ennui and problems and you’re pretty directionless, but despite all that you just keep bashing on. Some of us thought that it was about growing up from childhood to adulthood. Some of us thought that it was about being a child and being a parent, with the boy as the growing child and the bear the father, who assumes authority (“This is a captain’s hat. I am the captain of this vessel and a captain, let me tell you, does not get lost.”) though even from the start, he has a sort of innocent ignorance (the bear is astonished that it might be possible to navigate by the stars, and by the idea that the constellations might have names, and finds the simplest game of I Spy compelling), but later the boy becomes the captain, initially temporarily donning the captain’s hat while the bear turns “his dead eyes away… staring into space”, and ultimately the boy is rowing the bear, in a metaphor for parent/child role-reversal that many of us recognise as our parents age. Some thought, in the context of this interpretation, that Harriet, the boat, represented an absent, possibly dead, mother. Some of us thought that it was, somehow, about an afterlife, and even that it bore a religious interpretation, as it championed faith in adversity. We thought it unlikely that children would be drawn to this kind of “what’s it really about?” sort of speculation, however: to them, it’s about a boy and a bear in a boat.

DIDACTIC?

Many of us (arguably in the absence of much of a plot in the first third of the book – see below) looked for “lessons” in the book. Some of us suggested, variously, that the book taught the appreciation of small things, the importance of patience, the value of living in the moment, the benefits of slowing down, or a sort of E M Forster-esque Only Connect message. Some of us doubted that the lessons that had been extracted by us as adults would be as clear to a child: if it is a didactic book, then it isn’t terribly explicit in its didacticism.

WHAT OTHER FICTION DID IT MAKE US THINK OF?

This is a book that made people think of other books (and films and TV). I – and I wonder how far it was just that I was trying to get a purchase on the book by bringing other cultural references to it – found myself thinking about Waiting for Godot, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Life of Pi, the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, and Herge’s Adventures of Tintin. I even found myself thinking of the last sentence of The Great Gatsby as I was reading the last sentence of the book. Others mentioned The Prisoner, The Hermit and The Bear, The Old Man and the Sea, and Alice in Wonderland,

FUNNY?

Many people who tweeted using the #NCGKids hashtag found the book hilarious, in a lol-y kind of way, and some said their children had too. Though we found parts of the book amusing, it didn’t exactly make us laugh.

STRUCTURE

The structure of the book is interesting. For the first third of the book, a boy and a bear row for days and nights across a featureless stretch of water. I will admit that, at page 97, I caved, and skimmed forward to the end, as I couldn’t quite believe that the author would try to sustain a book that is almost 300 pages long with no incident. In fact, in an interview (but I can’t track it down – please help!), Dave Shelton seems to suggest that he struggled with the middle of the book (which I’d suggest is page 106 to page 288, but that’s my opinion). In an interview with School Zone, Shelton talks about “succumbing to the inevitable” and adding more incident as the book went on: “I started out by trying to make the two of them being bored and there was much more of that in my initial draft. Eventually, though, I succumbed to the inevitable of having to bring more in to the story; just having two characters together getting bored wasn’t enough. I even fell asleep when I was trying to edit it!”. Some of us thought that this left the book a rather odd shape – one third (and the very end) very slow and quiet, and the rest of it full of either classic or cliched (depending on your point of view) sea adventures: a minor storm, ravenous hunger and imminent starvation, an encounter with a sea monster, an encounter with a ghost ship, a stranding on an island, and a shipwreck in a bigger storm. One of us, though, suggested that this fitted with an interpretation of the book as a sort of new-window)seven ages of man allegory of life, with childhood seeming incident-free (in which context, the comic could be seen as the experience of reading for a pre-literate child) followed by adulthood, packed with incident and problems, before a calmer old age.

THE ENDING

In several interviews (including the one I can’t find), Dave Shelton’s said he knew what the ending would be before he worked out other parts of the book. In an interview with The Reading Zone, he talks about having written the ending early on: “From quite early on I knew where their relationship was going,” says Shelton. “I had the ending written out very early and I am very proud of it, and it certainly helped having a literary destination for the characters.”

Some of us found the ending “bleak”, “depressing” and “flat”, feeling that the boy and the bear had more and more materially stripped from them as the book progressed (though arguably what they lost in material possessions, they gained, in a compensating sort of a way, in the depth of their relationship and the richness of their experiences). Others felt that the book ended the only way that it possibly could, and one of us pointed out that if you had to lose one of the three “b“s of the title, it was better that it be the boat than than the bear or the boy,

Few of us could help speculating what might happen next, and, again, there was a divide between those who thought that, as they had each other, and were moving on, that the boy and the bear would be OK. Others of us felt that they had little hope of reaching any destination, and that, given their materially diminished state, the next adversity would be the last.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

We all agreed that the illustrations hugely enhanced the book, some of us doubting that we’d have got through without them.

THE WRITING

Unlike the illustration, we were split on the question of the quality of the writing. This is Dave Shelton’s first conventional novel – he’s written in comic/graphic novel form before. Some of us felt that the writing was very “visible”, to the point of being mannered and overwrought: the author was “elaborately trying to be good at writing”. Some felt that it would have been better as a comic book. But others felt that, whatever we felt about the content, this was really good writing.

WHO’S IT FOR?

Like the other two books we’ve read, we recognised that the book had an adult appeal. I think that it’s fair to say that fewer of us, this time around, were as confident that the book had child appeal. A previous reading group attendee said via Twitter that she thought that it would be “too slow” to read to her class. A retired children’s librarian in the group acknowledged it as, and applauded it for being, an “old-fashioned book”, saying that it didn’t necessarily conform to “how young people like to read now”. She said it was “caviar to the general”, that might appeal – but might appeal strongly – to a particular kind of child reader. And, in fact, on Twitter, speaking about the group’s responses to the book as they were relayed by Michelle, Dave Shelton himself said, “I always hoped it would be very special to a few of its readers rather than quite good for a wide readership”. Several people felt that it was a book that would work better shared as a read aloud book, read by an adult to a child, than given to a child who’d be left to get on with it.

I asked directly, “Who’s it for?”, and here are a few of the responses from people in the group:

“It’s written for adults.”

“It’s written for children.”

“It’s written for children, but adults can find a deeper meaning.”

“It’s written for adults who like to read children’s books.”

“Its for Kafka readers of any age.”

“It’s for the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”

“It’s written for the author.”

SO…

This book was, many of us felt, a bit of a blank slate – in which context the cover of the hardback with the blue chart and the coffee ring was more indicative of its nature than the more traditionally illustrated paperback cover. We ended up interpreting it and responding to it very differently. It was, in this way, a sort of perfect exemplar or proof of the validity of reader-response criticism. Either that, or the experience of reading it for a reading group discussion made us look for depths far beyond the author’s intent! Some of us loved it. Many of us liked it, or quite liked it. A few of us didn’t like it much at all..Some of us felt it was a brave book. Some of us felt it was self-indulgent. We couldn’t agree who its audience was, and many of us expressed doubts that it would appeal to many children. We all acknowledged its originality, though it made many of us think of other works of fiction in different media.

What do you think?

Please tell us here.

PS.Here is a short review of the book by an individual reading group member:

PPS Thanks to Sarah Snaith for the photograph at the top of the blog post.