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Posted by Tom, September 13, 2013

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on Fruitloops and Dipsticks by Ulf Stark

Last night the fourth summit of the Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group convened to discuss Fruitloops and Dipsticks by Ulf Stark. This book represented, as we’ve noted here on the blog before, a number of firsts for the group: our first book in translation, our first book with a female protagonist, our first book with a first-person narration, and (although we didn’t realise this when we chose the book) our first book not to have been published recently (although the English translation was published in 2010, the original Swedish text was first published in 1984).

It was also, it transpired over the course of the evening, the most polarising book we’ve read for the group, and the one that would provoke the most debate of all of our choices so far. Whereas A Monster Calls and Wonder were both more or less unanimously loved (or, at least, liked) and A Boy and a Bear in a Boat was largely met with, at the very least, admiration for some of its technique (if not its pacing), Fruitloops and Dipsticks inspired a wildly opposing range of reactions: some people felt that it was brilliant, and others hated it so much that they didn’t want it in their house.

So, before I carry on, I should say that the following summary of the evening’s discussion will contain spoilers. And I should also say that Kate (who wrote the summaries for our previous events) is a much better note-taker than I am, and so this post may not be as admirably comprehensive as her entries have been. And without further ado, onto the book.

Who’s the book for?

One question on which a number of us did agree was that pinpointing the audience for this book was a difficult thing to do. One of our two groups broadly agreed that this was “a book for girls” (but also questioned the wisdom of a middle-aged men writing about pre-teen girls’ sexuality). The second group was willing to concede that the intended audience for the book was certainly children, but no-one could easily picture a child who would necessarily enjoy it.

There were a lot of questions about the “appropriate-ness” of the content of the book, particularly in the context of the age of the characters: there’s smoking, swearing, and nudity, which one of our members (a primary school teacher) noted would mean that she wouldn’t give it to any of her pupils. Some people felt that the treatment of these topics was particularly Scandinavian, and others that it was a product of its time (the ’80s) – either way, I think we all acknowledged that it would contain a certain “foreign-ness” for a contemporary British reader, and especially a child reader.

Translation, style, and other thoughts on language

A big focus throughout the evening was that this work had been translated from Swedish: what impact that had on the story and the characters, on the prose, and on our relationship with the text. Whilst everyone essentially agreed that reading books in translation was a great thing for children to do – as a means of broadening their horizons, exposing them to other worlds (“so that you’re not trapped inside your own culture”), and showing them things from different perspectives (which, as I write it, I sort of release is what I think all books should do, actually) – there wasn’t quite such unanimous assent that this book in particular was one that could boast all of these benefits.

Whilst everyone agreed that Fruitloops and Dipsticks seemed very noticeably like a work in translation, there was some dispute about whether this was a positive or negative aspect. A number of people enjoyed the “quirkiness” of the language, which they felt to be particularly Swedish (a word that was often used as a synonym for slightly cold or clinical), and one person observed that although they could tell that the book has been translated, this “didn’t feel jarring”… whereas someone else questioned whether the translator even spoke English as a first language (noting that the passive voice felt quite odd).

Several group members argued that the detached, somewhat impersonal tone added a nuance and subtlety to the narrative that would have been lacking had the book been originally written in English – and one person (who particularly enjoyed the book) thought that, had it been written now, and by a British writer, it would have been far less satisfying and more “sign-posted” in terms of its narrative arc and emotional journey. Several others, however, felt that the eccentricities and quirkiness of the characters meant that building relationships with them as a reader – and particularly with the narrator, Simone – took some time.

Characters and themes

Very few of us – in my group, at least – were able to succinctly convey what they felt Fruitloops and Dipsticks was “about”, other than in the most general terms: growing up, finding one’s identity, coping with change, adolescence – and a lot of us felt that the book handled these ideas rather skilfully: they are themes to which nuance and subtlety certainly acquit themselves well. There was, however, some frustration over the handling of the main “event” in the narrative, the decision (or lack thereof) of Simone to “become” Simon and act as a boy. Even those who particularly enjoyed the book felt that it could have done with a few sentences more to explain this circumstance, and I certainly thought that Stark owed his readers a bit more narrative justification here: it is something that Simone simply goes along with, and not – to my mind – in a way that is desperately convincing. Someone else thought that this aspect worked quite well, though – that it was a clever metaphor for gender being thrust upon you (it is certainly, I suppose, a powerful example of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity), and that the lesson that Simone learns is that she can still be a girl whilst also doing the fun, “boy-ish” stuff that she enjoys.

Simone’s passivity was widely seen as complicating what is – ostensibly at least – a first person narrative, and I’m not sure that anyone felt that the book was terribly convincing in this respect (or, more generously, that it simply takes a lot of poetic license in its narration). Simone seems to have access not only to a wider set of experiences than seems plausible, but is also – for someone who has only just turned twelve – extraordinarily articulate, so perhaps this a first person narrative in name only.

Is it funny? And other final thoughts.

Perhaps the area over which there was the most heated debate was whether we found this book funny. This is one of the places where I think the experiences of a child and adult reader would dramatically diverge: the parts that we found funny would not, I think, be at all the same for a child. Several of us enjoyed the understated, dry humour of the book, as well as parts of Simone’s internal monologue, and the irrationality of some of her actions and behaviour, but when asked to identity what we thought a child might laugh at, the scene that most of us named was the case of mistaken identity that takes place when Simone’s teacher visits her mother (which I found to be a somewhat odd departure from the rest of the book, tonally).

I think that the best description of our overall group reaction to this book came to us during the the last part of the evening: someone pointed out that the fruitloops amongst us liked it, and the dipsticks didn’t, which gets to the core of this text with admirable brevity.

Have you read the book? What did you make of it? We’d love to hear your comments, either on Twitter or below.

And although we haven’t announced next month’s choice of book yet, the group will meet on Thursday October 17 (one week later than usual) – and if you’d like to come, please email [email protected]