Friday, 5 August 2011

THE SKULL OF TRUTH BY BRUCE COVILLE

Good children's books deserve to be read by adults as well. If it's really good, the story will appeal to readers of any age. If it's downright excellent, it can re-awaken the child within for the space it takes to read the book. Maybe it's because I went to a pre-school run on the system of Maria Montessori, whose watchword was 'follow the child', but I can't help but see that as a beneficial exercise.

Bruce Coville is a prolific American writer of fiction for children whom I first discovered in my 20s, with the 'My Teacher Is An Alien' books. I was impressed by how real and believable his characters are, children, grown-ups and aliens and how well his imagination conjures up situations and settings that invoke a sense of wonder. I also noted how he handles larger messages and themes in a way that's not preachy or intrusive and is alive to the many sides of any given issue. Most of all, I was taken by Coville's obvious joy in the art of storytelling.

In this book, Coville tackles one of the big issues any fictioneer has to grapple with at some point: truth. When Charles Egglestone stumbles into a mysterious shop and winds up shoplifting a talking skull, he finds that the skull's magical powers have made it impossible for him to lie anymore. At first, disaster follows, because the truth is not always the convenient or even the right thing to blurt out. Gradually, he gains a deeper, richer sense of what truth is all about, how it can be found both in fact and fiction and how it can be used for good, although it is in itself morally neutral. I was particularly glad that Coville keeps that last point very clearly in sight. Truthfulness isn't a magic key to virtue - it's still up to us to keep our eyes open and work out the ethics of everything we do. I can think of vast tomes written for a putatively grown-up audience that miss this point.

That exposition of the book's themes probably sounds dry. But this book isn't. It's hilarious, poignant and inventive, and manages to invoke a character from Big Bill Shakespeare's plays - see if you can guess which one - and give him a back- and front-story, if I can put it that way, which is as resonant and memorable as anything from the Bard's plays. I get a real kick out of a piece of fiction that can engage with one of the classics and emerge enriched rather than simply bested by the experience, and the former is certainly the case here. (Neil Gaiman has done this sort of thing well at points in his career -  Sandman for instance - and not so well at other points - the Beowulf film). If I had a child between the ages of 7 and 11 at my disposal, I would entreat him or her to read this book. But since I don't, I'm just as happy to have had the chance to read it myself. 

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