“Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are” Roberta Trites (2002)
Discuss the themes of growth and self-development in any two books in this module
Both Beverley Naidoo’s the Other Side of Truth and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram engage with the themes of growth and self-development. Both texts engage with nostalgia and sentimentality differently. In this essay, I will be arguing that Clem and Sade, as child protagonists grow and develop, as the result of the conflicts surrounding them. Sade’s and Clem’s personal developments are influenced by their parents and their social structures. Both protagonists are placed into situations, where they feel powerless, but rather than submitting, they take control and subsequently develop.
The Other Side of Truth begins In Medias Res, as Sade’s mother is killed in a drive-by shooting meant for her father:
Sade is slipping her English book into her schoolbag when Mama screams. Two sharp cracks splinter the air. She hears her father’s fierce cry, rising, falling. […] Papa is kneeling in the driveway, Mama partly curled up against him. One bare leg stretches out in front of her. His strong hands grip her, trying to halt the growing the scarlet monster. But it has already spread down her bright white nurse’s uniform.
The opening passage is told in present tense adding an immediacy to the situation. Sade’s life has been overturned in “a few seconds, that is all.” (Other, p.1) She is rendered powerless, as her father despite “his strong hands” (Other, p. 1) was unable “to halt the growing scarlet monster.” (Other, p.1) Despite her father’s best efforts, the gunshot wound had “already spread down her [mother’s] bright white nurse’s uniform.” (Other, p.1) With the colour of white being associated with purity, Sade’s mother is portrayed as innocent. Her spreading wound is like an infection, which is further decaying her innocence, similarly to how deceit and deception can lead the truth to rot away. In this one traumatic scene, Sade’s innocence is stripped away. England is connoted with sophistication, culture and tolerance. In how Sade’s “English book” (Other, p.1) is described as ‘English,’ the book adopts the same connotations. Yet when Sade and Femi arrive in England, as Jana Giles highlights:
the children’s experience of the UK contradicts the messages they have absorbed from the BBC World Service about British ideas of justice and fairness. When the children ask for help after Mrs Bankole abandons them at Victoria station, they are treated like beggars.
Other than Femi, Sade’s constant companion during their struggles is her mother’s proverbs, which bring her comfort in difficult times. Sade views her mother’s proverbs sentimentally. They remind her of better times and help to frame her self-development. One of the earliest proverbs occurs when Sade, steeling the courage to ask the Video-Man for help, takes comfort in her mother’s teachings: “even the best cooking pot will not produce food by itself.” (Other, p. 59) When Sade is afraid of entering her new classroom, she is reassured by her mother’s proverb: “don’t show people when you are frightened. Don’t let them see it.” (Other, p. 107) In the novel’s denouement, Sade remembers her mother’s words “don’t judge the village by the thief, Sade. If the dog steals, will you punish the goat?” (Other, p.207) Every proverb accompanies a pivotal moment in Sade’s growth, so not only do they frame her development, but they also accompany and assist it. The proverbs assist her self-development by empowering her to seize control. They are a source of power she can turn to when she is feeling powerless. The proverbs are unique to her, as are her experiences. Sade’s growth as a person is influenced by her mother’s teachings, which give her the courage to face unfamiliar or hostile situations.
As Sade’s self-development is influenced by her parent’s teachings, so is Clem’s personal growth framed by his social context. His life is bookended by the Second World War and 9/11. Furthermore, his development is accompanied by references to other cultural events, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whilst Clem and Frankie were initially ignorant to all “that was going on. And if we had known, we probably wouldn’t have cared. We had other things on our minds,” they quickly grasp the seriousness of the situation. After Clem and Goz receive a demonstration about how to protect themselves from nuclear fallout, they later ridicule it:
Goz […] said, “one: nuclear missiles do not explode when they hit the ground. They explode above it. So lying in a ditch with a bloody newspaper over your head is … is about as stupid as you can get. Two: fallout is effing radioactive. What did that moron mean, brush it off? Like it was dandruff, or somethun? […] There are two Yank Air Force bases within fifty miles of here. They’ve got nuclear bombs there, as well. And what that, means, comrade, is that we are slap in the middle of a Russian target. If Kennedy presses the button, Khrushchev’ll press his bloody button and we get wiped out five minutes later. (Life, pp. 301-302)
He ridicules his school-teachers by highlighting how they are trivialising the dangers of nuclear fallout. By comparing it to dandruff the threat of fallout has been reduced to a mere irritant that can be easily controlled and blocked with something as simple as a newspaper. Goz continues his attack:
I know for a fact that the be-all and end-all of existence for you is getting your end away with the lovely doe-eyed Miss Mortimer. Fair enough. But […] I’ve got ideas about what I want to do with my life. And it dunt include getting fried alive become some pillock wants missiles on Cuba and some other pillock don’t. (Life, p. 302)
In this passage, there are two different examples of reacting to conflict. Clem wants nothing more than to have sex with Frankie, “he absolutely refuse[s] to die a virgin.” (Life, p.337) However, Goz has real plans for his life. Their personal development is catalysed by the events surrounding them. It is these events that teach the boys the importance of simultaneously living in the moment, but also preparing for the future. It empowers them by teaching them of the fleeting nature of life. As Sade is guided and influenced by her mother’s proverbs, so is Clem catalysed to take action by the events surrounding his life. He does not want to wait to have sex with Frankie, because “the Bomb could drop at any minute.” (Life, p. 339) As Lyne Vallone identifies, “children’s literature has never been free of images of the body.” Frankie wants Clem to draw her, which he agrees to. Afterwards, she “removed her brassiere and [laid] on the sleeping-bag in what she imagined to be an artistic pose. On her side, her head supported on her right hand, her legs drawn slightly up, the left hand resting on her thigh.” (Life. p. 232) Frankie’s nudity is described sensually and simply. There is no smut involved. Rather, her figure is celebrated. Lynne Vallone continues: “in modern children’s books, however, sex acts, sexual feelings […] and sexual identity are no longer entirely taboo subjects.” Whilst this is true for this isolated scene, it is not the case for the rest of the novel. Clem “belonged to a family that lived in dread of the very mention of sex or anything remotely remotely associated with it.” (Life, p. 211) Similarly, Frankie “didn’t do much poetry at St. Ethel’s. The sisters thought it was sinful.” (Life, p. 332) As well as being influenced by their social settings, Clem and Frankie are also affected by their family and school settings. Through how these structures condemn the concept of sex, they make it attractive by mysticising it. In how sex is portrayed as a taboo subject, it aids the personal development of Clem and Frankie. They want to have sex not only because the world could end at any moment, but also as an act of rebellion against the social structures that condemn it.
Sade encounters many obstacles that assist her self-development. She becomes a stronger person as a result of the conflicts she faces. None of these conflicts are more challenging than the racist school bullies, Donna and Marica:
“Sha-day-day what?” Marcia drawled. “What kind of name is that then?”
“Nigerian.” Sade tightened her first on her rucksack strap.
“How come you speak English then?” Donna asked, pertly. Sade knew they weren’t interested. They wanted to play with her until they grew tired.
“We have lots of languages. One of them is English.”
She couldn’t stop the edge of curtness in her voice.
“Well, just don’t come and show off to us, Miss Sha-day-aday,” Marcia scowled. “Didn’t your mum teach you manners in Africa?”
Sade said nothing. How dare they talk about Mama! (Other, p. 112-113)
In this deeply personal attack, Sade’s struggles mirror her father’s. As Folarin is unfairly victimised for trying to distribute the truth, Sade is similarly victimised despite being an innocent. Her experiences become a microcosm of her father’s struggles to convey the truth. In how Sade is racially bullied, she is attacked for being different. Jana Giles argues that:
Naidoo’s representation of the school experience is not flattering to British children, but the kinds of students who torment Sade and Femi might be some of the audience for whom she is writing. Sade and Femi encounter bullies who are white children, but not essentially different from the military police in Nigeria in their attitudes towards those who are different.
Although, to a lesser extent, Donna and Marcia are not unlike the Nigerian military police. They bully Sade as she is is different, which they are afraid of. However, as Giles rightly points out, Naidoo may have been writing for children like Donna and Marcia. Rather than condemning their ignorance, she is trying to enlighten them. Naidoo is arguing that it is possible for children to develop out of their racist, bullying natures. Just because they were racist as children does not necessarily mean they will grow up to be racist adults. Despite Kevin Graham’s earlier hostility to Sade and Femi, he makes amends. He approaches Sade asking her to “tell your brother-” he stumbled, then raised his eyes “if he wants to play football on Saturdays, he can come with me if he likes. To my club I mean.” (Other, p. 214) Kevin’s transformation serves as an example of how children are capable of changing. A child’s mistake-filled past should not dictate what their future will be.
Just as Sade’s self-development is catalysed by her social surroundings so is Clem’s. As soon as Clem and Frankie have finally had sex at Hazeborough Beach, children inadvertently detonate a mine they are playing with. It is ironic that what overturns Clem and Frankie’s lives are not nuclear weapons as they had feared, but rather the older, more conventional mine. This demonstrates the destructive power of the past. Sometimes it is important to keep hold of it, but at other times it is more important to let it go. After the explosion, Clem is separated from Frankie who “had gone to America for treatment at some special clinic.” (Life, p. 384) He is left in agony wondering what happened to Frankie:
I started to feel again, […] Often I wished that I hadn’t. At the core of the wreck of who or what I was, there was […], an absence whose name was Frankie. My rediscovered feelings had nothing to attach themselves to, no purpose. (Life, p. 385)
Clem is deeply resentful at the memories of the accident. He remembers his feelings for Frankie, but wishes he had not, as they have “nothing to attach themselves to.” (Life, p.385) He is bitter as he is unable to gain closure. Instead, he is left feeling alienated and disconnected. However, rather than letting the past consume him, Clem relinquishes it and moves on. He leaves “Norfolk for London without a backward glance.” (Life, p. 385) In London, he is further able to put his past behind him, by marrying and becoming a free-lance illustrator. This is in stark contrast to his mother, Ruth. Ruth, unable to live with the shame of Clem’s accident and Win’s involvement in an apocalyptic cult, becomes a recluse spending “the last twelve years of her life alone, never venturing further from the house than the end of the garden.” (Life, p. 391) Where Clem is able to progress by putting his past behind him, his mother is unable to do the same, ultimately leading to her personal destruction. Meanwhile Clem “lived down all those years with the absence that was Frankie. I grew a coating over it. Several coatings. It grew bearable. No longer a mortal wound but a familiar and manageable affliction.” (Life, p. 395) Clem’s self-development is aided by how he recognises that to grow, he has to let go of the past. He disconnects himself from his memories by developing layers of insulation. He renders his most painful experience to a mere scar that will fade from memory. This is why he is furious when Frankie calls him up out of the blue asking him to returning home. He:
couldn’t cope with it. I didn’t want to hear this. For almost forty years, Frankie had dwelt like a pearl in my chest, oystered in my heart, something to be dug out. […] I was alive and had stuff in the present tense to deal with.” (Life, p. 399)
Like the landmine that separated them, Frankie explodes back into Clem’s life, threatening to turn it upside down. Clem no longer has any romantic attachment to his home, which for him “is a word with stifling, subterranean connotations.” (Life, p. 410) Clem’s bitterness and resentment is summarised in the line “sane people do not refuse to grow up.” (Life, p.410) Clem acknowledges that the only logical way to develop as a person is to let go of the past. To return home would be to undo his progress. Mal Peet not only charts Clem’s physical development, but also his mental maturation. He warns of the dangers of becoming stuck in the past. A refusal to move on, to develop and grow as a person, can lead to you becoming consumed by the very memories you hold dear.
The themes of growth and self-development are engaged with differently in Life: An Exploded Diagram and the Other Side of Truth. Where Sade’s sentimental attachment to her mother’s proverbs imbues her with the strength to develop, it is Clem’s attack of sentimentality that compels him to mature out of his past. However, Mal Peet also highlights the importance of staying true to yourself, whilst also detaching yourself from the past. Clem does not hang up on Frankie, when she calls him. Instead, he stays and listens to her. If he had rejected her call and continued with his business he could have become one of the thousands of people who had died in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Word Count: 2616
‘I confirm that this piece of work contains no plagiarised material and that I have read and understood the section on Plagiarism in the School Style Guide.’
Giles, Jana, ‘What is the Other Side of Truth,’ in Children’s Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends in Montgomery, ed. by Heather Montgomery and Nicola J.Watson (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 342-351 (p. 348)
Naidoo, Beverley, The Other Side of Truth, (London: Penguin Books, 2000)
Peet, Mal, Life: An Exploded Diagram (London: Walker Books Ltd, 2011)
Vallone, Lynne, ‘Ideas of difference in children’s literature’ in The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, ed. M.O. Grenby and Andrea Immel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
 Jana, Giles, ‘What is the Other Side of Truth,’ in Children’s Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends in Montgomery, ed. by Heather Montgomery and Nicola J.Watson (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 342-351 (p. 348)
 Lynne, Vallone, ‘Ideas of difference in children’s literature’ in The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, ed. M.O. Grenby and Andrea Immel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 174-189 (p.186).
This is the second essay for my Children’s Literature Module. In this essay, I discussed Beverly Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. Both of which were brilliant books and I would recommend them.