Friday 1 May 2015

Location, Location, Location

There's an old saying in real estate that the three most important things in determining the value of a property are location, location and location. 

It just so happens that location (or setting) is one of the three cornerstones of literary real estate, alongside character and plot.

Last October, we had a #ukmgchat on the topic of diversity in MG literature, and a recent Guardian piece prompted me to revisit the subject here.

After our very own Jim Dean covered diversity in mystery writing a while back, allow me to take a different angle and celebrate some of the more exotic locations accessible via MG fiction. The London Eye Mystery and the Bansi O'Hara books feature diverse characters but they also have modern European settings, as do many books set in the "real world".

But what about those books which are set in less familiar modern locations? How many MG titles can you name that are set in Africa, Asia or the Far East? 

It strikes me as a little odd that in these days of globalisation our children can be more clued up on the cultural mores of Narnia and Hogwarts than they are on the real countries and places around them.

With that in mind, here are three MG books which will literally broaden your horizons and expand your world.

Outlaw by Stephen Davies

Location: Burkina Faso

Premise: Jake Knight heads out to west Africa to join his diplomat parents, only to walk into a nightmare of kidnapping, terrorism, political intrigue and a fearsome outlaw.

My Take: Firstly, this is the only MG book I know set in what was once called Upper Volta. Davies spent some ten years there and really knows his stuff. Vivid descriptions of the countryside, customs and language bring post-colonial Africa to life and you can feel the dust and smell the goats in this thrilling tale.

The capital city of Ouagadougou
What I also love about this book is that a reader will learn useful tips such as how to pass for a Tuareg tribesman, a way to recharge a mobile phone using only a flashlight and a bowl of milk, and what it's like to race a stallion over the desert.

Fast-moving, action-packed and full of twists, Outlaw is a riveting read which will really give you a flavour of life in this part of the world.

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Location: India

Premise: London-born teenager Ash goes to India to visit family but stumbles upon demons, gods and a powerful magical object which transforms him into a living weapon.

My Take: What sets this book apart is the bold decision to not only have an exotic setting but also an Asian lead character. Chadda's love of Tolkienesque fantasy comes through along with his interests in comics and games. We have monsters, magic items, super powers and the fate of the world.

The setting for key parts of the story is the holy city of Varanasi which lies on the banks of the River Ganges and you get a strong sense of the claustrophobic nature of life in the city.
Varanasi, India's holiest city
Another fast-paced adventure with elements of Hindu mythology but a little heavy on the gore, which pushes this almost into YA territory. Not for the faint-hearted!

The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

Location: Japan

Premise: Kenny Blackwood flies to Japan for the summer only to discover he's Public Enemy Number One for the mythical beasties that infest the isles. Now he has to stay alive long enough to figure out why.

My Take: This is the only MG book I know that is set entirely in modern Japan, a country of striking contrasts where the old, traditional values jostle with the demands of a modern, high-tech industrial nation. 

The author lived in Tokyo for five years and uses that inside knowledge to highlight the language, culture, food, spiritualism, fashion and technology that embody this fascinating land.

Tokyo, where the old meets the new
With monsters, car chases, explosions and humour, this reads like a manga comic at times, and even has a handy glossary in the back for the Japanese words.

Those are three MG novels that I've read but I know there are many more, such as Beverley Naidoo's Journey to Jo'burg, Lauren St John's The White Giraffe and The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, all of which portray the lives of children in less well-known parts of the world.

How about you? Do you have any favourite MG novels set in far-off places? Any books you discovered on your holidays? Please add your own recommendations in the Comments section below or, better yet, post a quick review. 

1 comment:

  1. And what if you HAVEN'T spent ten years in Burkina Faso or wherever? Sorry, but my stories will continue to be set in areas with which I am familiar. ;-)

    That said, I can add to this list the Dragonkeeper series of Australian writer Carole Wilkinson, fantasy adventures set in ancient China. And while she hasn't lived in ancient China she knows her stuff. The first novel is set in the China of the Emperor who built the Great Wall and the most recent - which received - deservedly - an Aurealis Award for fantasy and SF, children's section - is set several hundred years later, because dragons live long lives and the son of the first dragon is a teenager, with his own Dragonkeeper.