Writing about Alan Gibbons

This is an MA on my work by Lisa Roberts, Head of English at Crownhills High School in Leicester.

 

THE APPEAL OF ALAN GIBBONS’ NOVELS TO SECONDARY SCHOOL BOYS AND HOW HE HAS INSPIRED THEM TO INCREASE THEIR READING OF A VARIETY OF TEXTS.

 

 

THE EFFECT AND INFLUENCE OF ALAN GIBBONS

 

                        ‘In one sense I think about my reader as I’m writing. 

I have in the back of my mind a rather bored twelve-or

thirteen-year old boy that I have to entertain…’

Cross, Gillian (pp135-6) In Carter, J. (1999) Talking Books. London: Routledge

 

I would have assumed that Alan Gibbons subscribed to the same theory as outlined by Gillian Cross above had I not known his motivation for writing two of his most popular recent novels.  ‘The Edge’ is, he says, an irritated response to an article by Tony Parsons in The Daily Mirror expressing the view that when he was growing up in the 1960s a man would not raise his hand against a woman; and ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ is a response to his ‘shame that racist extremists could be elected in [his] beloved North West.’ Gibbons, A.  2004 Email interview.  His current works of fiction have transformed the non-reading boys in my secondary school teaching groups into avid readers of contemporary novels, not only by Gibbons, but other authors too.

 

When I began teaching at Crown Hills Community College five years ago it was relatively easy to encourage girls to read for pleasure whilst boys would quickly become bored and distracted during their weekly library lesson.  I had heard many teachers dismissing this as inevitable because they believed boys do not like reading as they would rather be more active or play on their computers.  I could not accept this and strongly believed, like Paul Jennings, that ‘there is no such thing as a reluctant reader.  There are only readers for whom the right book has not yet been found’ and that there must be a way of motivating boys to become readers and actually enjoy the experience.  My involvement with ‘Leicester’s Book Of The Year’ in 2002-3 (an Excellence in Cities initiative for the Gifted and Talented) gave me the ammunition I needed in the form of Alan Gibbons’ ‘The Edge’, the winner of Leicester’s Book Of The Year 2003.  This book had an unprecedented impact on many of my top set year 10 boys who had long ago decided that reading was a boring waste of time.

 

The episodic nature of the narrative and the issue of prejudice had an instant appeal to my female students but to my initial surprise and then pleasure, the boys to whom I recommended ‘The Edge’ returned a positive, highly complimentary verdict on the novel.  Ben, a boy of Afro-Caribbean descent, who freely admitted to not having read a novel by choice for many years was drawn to ‘The Edge’ by its central character, Danny, also a boy of dual heritage with a passion and natural ability for running.  (Ben is a skilful and successful footballer playing for several under-16 league teams.)  So impressed by it was he, that he read it in two days and asked if I could recommend any other books he would enjoy, but particularly any by the same author.  Interestingly, when I gave him ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ (short-listed for this year’s Leicester’s Book Of The Year’), he was not so impressed.  This is possibly owing to his inability to identify with the characters Tahir or Mike and the racial tensions depicted between Muslims and whites in a northern community during the aftermath of September 11th.

 

Basheer, a self-confessed anti-fiction reader in my top set year 11 class has, since reading ‘Caught In The Crossfire’, read six of Gibbons’ most recent novels and twenty-or-so other ‘issues’ books by various authors.  His appetite for contemporary fiction is seemingly insatiable as my lessons with him invariably begin with the question: ‘What book have you got for me today, Miss?’  When I reply that he has read all of my recent recommendations he responds by saying: ‘Your bookshelves at home must be full of books, just bring me something in’.  This seems to me nothing short of miraculous and, I would suggest, in no small part, owing to Alan Gibbons.  As I prefer to read the novels prior to recommending them to my students, I often felt I was holding up Basheer’s reading when he would kindly say, ‘When you’re ready, Miss, don’t rush on my account.  How about tomorrow?  I’ll come and collect it at the end of the day.’  I also feel responsible for the fact that some of his coursework in other subject areas was not completed on time, or to the best of his ability, because he was too busy reading.  Still, as Anne Frank said: ‘This week I’ve been reading a lot and doing little work.  That’s the way things ought to be.  That’s surely the road to success.’  Frank, A. (p61) The Diary Of A Young Girl (1995) Penguin: London.  When I did have a novel for Basheer, I quickly learnt not to give it to him until the end of the lesson because he would begin reading immediately, no matter what we were engaged with in the lesson.  Whilst I believe this is a cause for celebration, I do feel, that as a professional, I have to rein in his enthusiasm for more appropriate times and places!  Just recently, I leant him a book on a Friday and when I saw him the following Monday he complained that it was too short, ‘I finished it on Friday night and had nothing to do on Saturday or Sunday.’  He has also informed me that I need to ‘stock him up’ with reading for the holidays, (‘choose me some good books, Miss’).   On returning from the holiday, he told me that the seven books I had given to him had only lasted a week and so he had visited his local library from where he borrowed several books, two of which he has leant to me – ‘You must read these, Miss, but have your Kleenex ready!’

 

This increased desire to read is now evident amongst the boys in my year 9 class following my reading ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ with them in the autumn term.  Indeed, Hussein admitted, ‘before I never used to like reading but when we started to read as a group, I started to like it.’  They knew how I felt about the novel: a heartbreaking depiction of the horrors and dangers of blind prejudice, and maybe my emotional response, which I inevitably transmitted to them, affected their reading of it.  In any case, every student in the group awarded it a three star maximum rating for The Leicester book Of The Year Award and most of them have declared it to be the best book they have ever read.  I do wonder if working in a predominantly Muslim school explains its powerful impact as many of my year 7 students have passed the book onto their family members to read – all of whom were Muslims – although my year 9 class, a mix of cultures and religions, all appreciated and acknowledged the messages presented by the narrative and many of them could identify with, or at least understand, the thoughts and feelings of the central characters.

 

Once they discovered ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ had been short-listed, the boys were desperately keen to read the other four books short-listed.  It fascinates me that several of the most easily distracted boys in this group have now read three of the five short-listed book and at least three other books by Gibbons and some of my weakest readers are asking me to recommend books for them, especially Gibbons’.  At a recent Year 9 parents’ consultation evening, I was thanked by several parents for having ‘dragged’ their son away from the computer and for giving them a more peaceful evening – yet again, I say it is thanks to Alan Gibbons’ powerful narratives.  

 

During an interview with my Year 9 readers, I asked Adnan why he felt 9S (his form group) had become such avid readers and had responded so positively to Gibbons’ novels.  He believes that it is primarily owing to the fact that ‘Gibbons always writes about teenagers going through maturity and the form [9S] understands what’s going on and how the characters are feeling and that gets them more into the book nowadays.’  Basher endorsed this view when he stated, ‘his books are mostly to do with youngsters and stuff that’s going on around us at the moment.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATIVE VOICES

 

Whilst many children’s novels seem to follow a traditional narrative pattern of one view point, either first or third person with authorial intrusion emerging through the focalised character, Gibbons’ novels boast multiple narrative voices.  This is a deliberate ploy on Gibbons’ part to ‘challenge conventional narrative structures’ and to ensure readers see the ‘varied points of view’ as he believes ‘good and evil is too simplistic a value system to explain reality [and wants] readers to at least see through the eyes of damaged, violent individuals to get some idea of how they think and what their motives are.’  Gibbons, A (2004) Email Interview.   He certainly achieves this aim with Chris in ‘The Edge’ and Liam in ‘Caught In The Crossfire’.

 

Several of my interviewees were impressed by the different narrative voices as they thought it was important to ‘show how both sides feel’ (Asif) and that it was ‘more breathtaking to read both points of view.’  (Adnan)  Basheer agreed that it enabled the reader to ‘get a view of what all the characters think…which is important.’  Hussein claimed it made him ‘think of different views’ and will therefore challenge readers’ views as they are reading.

 

These different viewpoints are clearly evident with ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ wherein we see Tahir Khan, desperately torn by his Muslims sensibilities and his white mother.  Other than Tahir, the Khans are the voices of reason and acceptance whilst in Mike Kelly’s family we learn of the intense racial prejudice expounded, to varying degrees, by all but Mike himself who falls deeply in love with Rabia Khan – a relationship arguably as doomed to failure as that of Romeo and Juliet and Tony and Maria of ‘West Side Story’ – a musical that is referred to frequently in this novel.  Two feuding families or races or belief systems is a dominant theme within these texts and one that is portrayed vividly by the alternating narrative voices in ‘Caught In The Crossfire’.  Whilst Mike and Rabia express pacifism and equality – ‘live and let live’ (Mike, p74), Liam and Tahir, the two equally hot-headed brothers of the afore-mentioned, are determined to see one race rule supreme:  ‘It isn’t our country any more.’ (Liam, p74)  ‘If we don’t act, they’ll start thinking they can get away with anything.’  (Tahir, p76)  However, the reader is encouraged to see Liam as misguided through the narrative voices of John Creed (a Patriotic League activist and strong role model for Liam who he flatters into taking action – ‘You’re young and headstrong, Liam.  You were acting according to your patriotic instincts and I understand that…’ p97) and Sean Kelly (a drunk, violent, ineffectual father who is himself ejected from his local pub and football ground owing to his racist behaviour.)  Without learning of the pressures brought to bear on Liam, prejudice from his father, peer pressure and his determination to be as different from his brother, Mike, as he could possibly be, we would view him as totally reprehensible until we read of his dawning realisation that Mike is right after all.  Unfortunately, it is a realisation that comes far too late – as Tahir also comes to understand at the tragic denouement – when he attempts to console his sister and acknowledge his over-zealous, but arguably understandable, actions.  ‘Twice that morning he has tried to comfort Rabia.  Twice she has rebuffed him.’  (p286)

 

In ‘The Edge’ each chapter is headed by a character name (a technique also used by Malorie Blackman in her recent and remarkably successful ‘Noughts And Crosses’) which allows students to ‘think of different views’ as observed by Hussein.   Each character heading utilises a different font in order to heighten the reader’s awareness of the opinions being expressed belonging to that particular character.  Through these chapters we observe the prejudice of Danny’s maternal grandfather slowly becoming acceptance and we learn why he is so antagonistic towards Danny. 

 

‘Harry Mangam thinks you should stick with your own kind.  He doesn’t

hold with all this mixing…He’s never hidden his views either.  That’s

how he was brought up, a true Brit and proud of it, and he doesn’t see any             reason to change.’ 

Gibbons, A. (p52) The Edge (2002) Orion

 

The area in which he lives and the attitudes expressed when he was growing up still exist in his northern society but he slowly realises that people are not colours but individuals.  Once he acknowledges this, he begins to discover and develop a respect and love for his grandson.  ‘The word almost sticks in his throat, but there’s he’s said it.  He’s owned up to his grandson, acknowledged him…’ (p52)  This growing awareness is transmitted via the narrative voices of Danny, his mother, grandmother and grandfather.  Joan, Danny’s grandmother, is determined that Harry will see sense as she expresses early on in the novel, ‘Cathy and Danny have brought love back into her life, and no sad, stupid old man is going to drive it out again.’ (p53)

 

Italics are used in ‘The Dark Beneath’ to reveal the inner thoughts of other characters in the novel.  Whilst the students initially found this confusing, once realisation dawned, they considered it to be a powerful method of conveying the thoughts and opinions of the less important characters, especially since their significance is gradually exposed in a chilling manner.  Kumail expressed his pleasure in being able to read the character’s thoughts and admitted to his confusion with the opening lines of the book: ‘Today I shot the girl I love.’  Gibbons, A. (p3) The Dark Beneath (2003) Orion.  Kumail said that he felt fear until he discovered that the character actually meant he photographed her.  He said it was a compelling opening but he was most ‘relieved’ when the true meaning emerged.  The first person narrator, revealed through the italics, not only has a one sided, rhetorical conversation with the female protagonist, Imogen, he also directly addresses the reader:

 

            ‘I enjoyed shooting her.  Does that shock you?  Or maybe you’ve

            rumbled me.  Sussed my little joke have you?  Aren’t you the sharp

            one!  That’s right, I shot her through a photo lens.’

            Gibbons, A. (p11) The Dark Beneath (2003) Orion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITING STYLE

 

Alongside the alternating narrative voice are the small bite-sized chapters designed partly to aid accessibility for less able readers but also to enable the reader to enter ‘the world of the book’ (Gibbons) and not simply be led by an omniscient narrator – be it first or third person.  Admittedly, most narrators are biased and it is true that all of Gibbons’ voices are ultimately his own, however, he does encourage the reader to think of different points of view.  The quickly shifting focus acts in much the same way as scene changes in a film or soap opera – they do not allow for boredom.  This aversion to lengthy chapters is shared by Berlie Doherty who claims: ‘I write in what I call ‘scenes’ – which aren’t chapters so much as episodes…it’s part of a bigger whole.’  Doherty, Berlie (pp149-152) In Carter, J. (1999) Talking Books.  London: Routledge.  Gibbons too believes the swift changes increase the intensity of the novel as the ‘kaleidoscope effect’ creates an ‘epic feel allowing the reader to grasp the entire reality of the town and its communities [in ‘Caught In The Crossfire’] and the web of relationships’ in ‘The Edge’.

 

As a teacher of many less-able readers, I feel strongly that the short ‘scenes’ have encouraged them to continue reading where lengthy chapters may have caused them to discard the book, irrespective of how interesting it was.  I am sure we have all been guilty at some time of counting the pages until the next chapter and then putting down the book because we ‘can’t be bothered’.  Bearing in mind that the vast majority of my students have English as an additional language, I am sure that Gibbons’ success with my boys is in no small part owing to the bite size ‘chunks’ of text in each ‘episode’.  Zubair, a Year 9 student who had read very little until recently, confirmed this belief when he informed me during an interview that he lost continuity and became confused when ‘reading some massive thing’ as he read half of it and forgot the beginning.  He added, ‘you keep on carrying on with short sections.’

 

Many of my readers expressed approval with Gibbons’ use of dialogue rather than descriptive detail, especially since they felt their language was used and they could therefore relate to it.  This again is a conscious decision by Gibbons in order to create a ‘cinematic feel’ and allow the characters to speak for themselves so they are ‘judged by what they say or do, not what [Gibbons] tell[s] the reader is going on inside their head.’  This aspect of ownership of the language is important for my readers, especially as they are accustomed to books being chosen for them, either by teachers or parents.  A book that seems to have been written for them with their dialogue included is seen as a rare treat and one that provides them with more pleasure than a book filled with dialogue from a bygone era that seems too far removed from their experience.

 

            ‘“What did Kingy say to you?” asks Nikki.

            “Nothing worth listening to…All he could see was a black kid with a

            chip on his shoulder.  He talked to me as if it was my fault.”…

“I’m not backing off,” says Danny…”Not on account of that muppet.”…’

Gibbons, A. (p142) The Edge (2002) Orion

 

Having said that dialogue is preferred to description, the passages of description are often brief but are perfectly attuned to the atmosphere created by the characters’ actions and dialogue.  In ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ in particular, the descriptions can be quite chilling and certainly thought provoking as several of the boys I interviewed remarked; claiming it made them feel that they ‘were there’ although they did not particularly want to be. 

 

‘Fear did not leave when those boys ran.  It’s still there, crouching

 in the shadows of the town, and it’s growing.’  Gibbons, A. (p26)

Caught In The Crossfire (2003) Orion

 

‘The night wind is soughing in the eaves as Mike Kelly wonders

where he and his younger brother are going with their lives.  The

wind whips down the hill past the community centre with its reinforced windows, past Colin Stone’s house where its occupant is watching Leni Riefenstahl’s film of Hitler’s Nuremburg rally, past Ravensmooor Road library and along Clive Road with its curry houses and halal butchers. 

By the time it rattles the window panes at the Khans’ small terrace it has travelled a little over a mile, but it has crossed a vast chasm of loathing and mistrust.’  Gibbons, A. (p117) Caught In The Crossfire (2003) Orion

 

‘Where there is fear there is danger.  The usual ways of doing things fracture.  The social fabric tears, soon people will start to lash out, desperate to protect themselves, shaken so far loose from their usual habits that they could turn on anyone who is different, anyone they can label, or maybe just anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  No-man’s-land is a risky place to be.  Gibbons, A. (p221) Caught In The Crossfire (2003) Orion

 

It is interesting that when I asked the boys whether they preferred the style of writing or the plot of Gibbons’ novels, they were equally divided with four nominating he plot, four the style and one claiming they had equal weighting.

 

Asif felt that Gibbons’ strength was his ability to ‘keep you [the reader] there and make you feel like it’s real and you’re there.’  He also said that when reading late at night, he would ‘stay up a bit longer’ because he could not put the book down.  I certainly witnessed this when I leant him ‘Playing With Fire’ and he returned with it read the following morning.  Hussein concurred with Asif in that Gibbons’ novels are compelling, as did Basheer who added that ‘the way he writes…just catches you from the beginning as [his storylines] touch you and you know the people in the books.’

Although Zubair preferred the plots, he admired Gibbons’ style as he felt he writes ‘challenging books…with a fast start.’  Jawad felt Gibbons’ writing style was ‘easy to understand’ as the paragraphs are ‘short and easier to digest.’  Whilst Kumail agreed with this view, he also believed that the titles were highly significant and should not be glossed over.  Having read several books in the ‘Total Pressure’ range, he claimed to prefer ‘Under Pressure’ stating that realisation dawns as the book progresses that all of the characters depicted are under some kind of pressure.  With ‘The Edge’ we come to understand that many of the characters are on the edge: either of sanity (Chris) or self-discovery (Danny’s grandfather) and that the northern community is on the brink of a racial nightmare – arson attacks and physical violence.  ‘Caught In The Crossfire’, suggestive of being trapped in the middle, is exactly what happens to the innocent Mike Kelly who, in an attempt to rescue his foolish, recently racist brother, is trampled to death by a police horse.  As Liam, his brother, had earlier warned him: “You know what happens to people like you, Mike? [someone who ‘respects the way other people live’] They get caught in the crossfire.” Gibbons, A. (p99) Caught In The Crossfire (2003) Orion.  ‘The Dark Beneath’ reveals the shadows lurking behind seemingly ‘normal’ exteriors and the fact that the evil will emerge, as we witness, at the novel’s conclusion with the asylum seekers forcibly deported, one having been ferociously beaten by the man, described as ‘such a quiet man’ (p174) whom we did not suspect of having a ‘dark beneath’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLOT

 

Those who felt the plots were preferable focused in the main on ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ and ‘The Edge’:  although; these texts were equally valued by those who preferred writing style to plot.  For Adnan, ‘The Edge’ was a ‘modern day kind of story [detailing] what’s going on around you.’  He felt he could understand more about it because he was ‘living at that time right now [and] issues like this [racism, prejudice, abuse] are going on around you so it just opens you out to what’s going on.’  Two boys mentioned the predictable nature of ‘The Edge’ but had differing opinions in response to it.  For Jawad, Danny winning the race and his grandfather eventually accepting and loving him were positively predictable because he did not want to read ‘sad endings’.  On the other hand, despite ‘hearing and reading different people’s points of view’, Umar wanted more ‘twists and turns’ in order not to lose interest.

 

‘Caught In The Crossfire’ for Adnan, yielded a plot that described what life could be like for him, a young Muslim boy, if he lived in a less ‘tolerant’ community.  He stated, ‘here we’re living quite peacefully but in other areas reading this actually shows you how other Muslims are feeling in other areas where there is racial tension and fighting.’  He was fortunately aware of Gibbons’ attempt to portray the fact that not everyone is the same and that there are ‘others trying to like resolve the problem [as is evident] in some parts of this community.’  Basheer too felt that some of Gibbons’ books ‘are to do with stuff that’s happening around our community and also other stuff that’s happening in other places like Bradford, like the riots in ‘Caught In The Crossfire’.’  He claims ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ is his favourite novel as it ‘left [him] quite emotional at the end when Mike dies.’  For Umar, who was left slightly disappointed by the predictability of ‘The Edge’, the death of Mike was a complete shock as he had expected the familiar happy ending but it was not to be as Gibbons broke with the ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ tradition to bring us a deeply disturbing piece of twenty-first century realism.

 

This novel left Zubair with a strong sense of the importance of equality.  He said it was a novel about two people and two different religions but felt it endorsed the fact that ‘people should like any people of any race.’  One can only hope that this idealistic view will become his reality.  Hassan felt this novel belonged to the ‘action’ genre, his favourite genre, and the ‘fighting made you want to read on.’  For Hussein, this novel belonged to the genres of romance and action but its effectiveness lay in its ability to ‘give you an idea of what to do if you get in a position like that.’

 

For Jawad, (who incidentally preferred Gibbons’ writing style) the appeal of ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ was that it ‘actually showed how problems can occur and maybe how innocent people can get sucked into problems that aren’t their fault.’  As Mike says, ‘I don’t want any trouble.  I’m trying to find my brother, that’s all.’ (p258) When I queried whether its strongest point of fascination was owing to him being a Muslim himself, he surprised me by saying that he was more interested in the descriptions of ‘the build up of their [Patriotic League’s] campaigns.’  He added that the political nature of the novel was intriguing as he had ‘never read a book like that before’ and the protests and the activists’ line of defence enabling the ‘whites to get away with it’ was quite revealing.  The extract below illustrates his point perfectly:

 

‘Furious at the arrest, the crowd have started to throw stones.  Some are directed at the police, others at the Patriotic League.  When a few of the League’s supporters go to pick up missiles to return them, Creed quickly intervenes.

‘No, this is working in our favour.  Don’t throw them back.  That’s it, put them down.’

He whispers something into Stone’s ear.  Stone nods and starts leading the chants of: ‘Peace now!  Build the wall!  Peace now!  Build the wall!’

The TV cameras are running.  To Creed’s delight the news bulletins will show young Asians throwing stones while the Oakfield branch of the Patriotic League chants about peace.’

Gibbons, A. (p110) Caught In The Crossfire (2003) Orion

 

Jawad considered this novel to be a ‘page turner’ with the potential to ‘help problems cease.’

 

It was the political angle that appealed to Umar who felt that ‘the guy in the Patriotic League learnt an important lesson.’  The lesson being that he does not realise ‘how much damage is going to be caused.  He didn’t know he would end up killing someone because of his actions.’  This response is most intriguing I think, because it reveals what Umar wanted Creed to have learnt because in the final pages of the novel we read of Creed:

 

            ‘leaving a meeting at the Black Horse pub, just along the Ravensmoor

Road from the Lion.  The meeting has been booked under the name of

the Skittles Club.  Since the riot, local landlords aren’t very enthusiastic

about meetings of the Patriotic League.  Creed is shaking hands with the League’s new branch secretary and prospective candidate for the Moorside

ward…

            Gibbons, A. (p292)’Caught In The Crossfire’ (2003) Orion

 

Umar also liked the way Gibbons slowly built up the tension from ‘normal things happening’ (school, romance, work) to the tragedy at the novel’s denouement – the riot and the death of an innocent.

 

Whilst Kumail initially struggled with this novel, he knew it was an important novel and so despite his initial confusion, decided to read it again (especially once it was short-listed for The Leicester Book Of The Year, for which he was a preliminary judge.)  He feels it tells people ‘about racism and how bad violence is.’  He also claimed it made him want to read more novels by Gibbons as it conveyed important issues relevant to today’s society and so was intrigued by what other books might depict.  He was particularly impressed with ‘The Dark Beneath’ and considers this to be his favourite of the eight Gibbons’ novels he has read, as it relates to his family’s experiences.  This novel depicts the negative attitude towards asylum seekers, so prevalent in our society (one only has to glance at the tabloid headlines) and yet the irony of this novel lies in the fact that instead of having to fear asylum seekers, they are revealed to be more loving, tender and humane than the native white man who brutally attacks the female protagonists, leaving her for dead, prior to attacking the asylum seeker, with whom the protagonist is in love.  Although Kumail’s father was not an asylum seeker, Kumail revealed to me, during the interview, that his father did have to ‘ask Britain if he could stay’.  Fortunately he was allowed unlike the three characters in the novel, who despite going into hiding, were eventually found and deported.  Alongside the personal issues of immigration, Kumail also declared a liking for being able to ‘read the thoughts of the characters’ who were not the central voices being heard.

 

For Asif, the portrayal of the supportive, affectionate brotherly bond between John and Gary in ‘The Lost Boys’ Appreciation Society’ (Gibbons’ latest novel) was moving and led him to declare it to be his favourite of the seven Gibbons’ novels he has read.  The way in which John, the elder brother, protected his younger sibling clearly struck a chord with Asif.  He was impressed with ‘the way the boy felt about his…brother, caring, always wanting to help him out.’  ‘Gary’s absence is just one more sign that we’re going to Hell in a hand cart.  What did you have to leave us for, Mum?  We don’t seem to be able to get by without you.’  (Gibbons, A. (p105) ‘The Lost Boys’ Appreciation Society’ 2004   His response proves also, that boys, despite what media coverage might suggest, do like to read of emotional bonds and sensitive issues raised in day to day society.  The loss of a parent, whilst not something Asif has experienced, is something with which he could sympathise if not empathise and his response revealed a thoughtful, compassionate aspect of his character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

It would seem, therefore, that Gibbons’ appeal lies in both the content of his novels and the writing style he consciously adopts.  Interestingly, despite this assignment focusing on Gibbons’ appeal to boys, I am aware that he does have equal appeal for girls.  Indeed, one of my Year 9 girls has been listening to my conversations with the boys and then visiting her local library to borrow the titles discussed.  She has borrowed as many of the Gibbons’ titles as they have had available and if I have not read them she gives them to me first.  Most of my interviewees felt that Gibbons’ books appealed to both sexes although those novels with a male protagonist were more likely to connect with a boy than a girl, especially, as Adnan believed, if the novel was written from the boy’s point of view.  The boys were divided on whether ‘The Edge’ had equal appeal because Danny (a boy) was the central character, however, with ‘Caught In The Crossfire’, Rabia and Mike had equal weighting and were involved in a romance so would have a strong attraction for girls.  They are arguably conforming to stereotypes here, although the boys did enjoy the love expressed by these two characters at such a dark, depressing time.

 

When I asked Gibbons the same question, he revealed that most of his books now have a ’50-50 readership, equally popular with boys and girls…[although] ‘The Edge’ seem[s] to have a mainly female readership…[and] most of the fan mail is from girls.’  However, he did admit that when he began writing, he was consciously writing books to appeal to boys.  This was a response to his desire to ‘write fiction which was anti-sexist and sensitive to male and female attitudes, but which honestly represented boys.’  He finds it interesting that ‘as [his] writing developed, more and more strong female characters appeared.’

 

Possibly the strongest attraction for the boys was that as well as the books having many male protagonists, more importantly, they tackled ‘real issues’ and issues within their range of experience.  When I asked Gibbons about being an ‘issue’ writer’ he said that ‘all books, however much writers protest, are driven by ideas.  What matters is the integrity with which you investigate the ideas.  Most of all you are judged on the quality of the story.’  If this is indeed the case, Gibbons must be declared an unqualified success. 

 

Gibbons’ motivation when writing is for his readers to ‘see themselves in [his] books in some way even if they have not shared the protagonists’ experiences and for their world to be reflected in some way.’  Based on the reactions from my Year 9 boys, Gibbons has indubitably succeeded.   I now have boys who are regular readers wanting to read more and more.  The power of these narratives was driven home to me when Zubair told me, ‘I couldn’t write stories properly but now that I’m reading I can put more things into it.’  As Adnan said, ‘I’d raise a toast to him, if I was [allowed]!’

 

Gibbons has increased the reading level of my secondary school boys immeasurably and it is amusing to me that many of the Gibbons’ books being read at the moment are out on my library ticket because the students could not wait until they finally remembered to bring in theirs.  What perhaps impresses me the most is that these boys are now tackling books they would never have attempted before.  Adnan informed me that having read ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ he wanted to read ‘Noughts And Crosses’ because that was ‘written from two different view points, the boy’s and girl’s.’  He said that reading ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ helped him to ‘understand what’s going on in ‘Noughts And Crosses’ a bit more [as] it’s a thick book so you can get confused half way through it but ‘Caught In The Crossfire’ helped [him] tackle it.’

 

The boys are now viewing reading as a positive activity that can be shared (I’ll have that one when you’ve finished it’, ‘Hurry up with that one, ‘cos I’m next’) and publicly discussed.  Reading in 9S is now considered to be a ‘cool’ activity whereas Hassan ‘used to think it was boring.’

 

Basheer is possibly my greatest success story because he has gone from hardly reading at all to reading several books per week.  He no longer relies solely on me for books, as he is a regular visitor to his local library.  I lend him the books I buy for my university seminars and we recommend books to one another in order to enable our daily discussions of our current reading material.  Having read the second part of ‘Noughts And Crosses’, ‘Knife Edge’, after waiting months for it to be published, he is now anxiously awaiting the third and final part, which he knows will not be available until long after he has completed his GCSEs and left Crown Hills.

 

With the help of Alan Gibbons, not only have I been able to present ‘the study of literature [as being] central to the education of both the hearts and minds of children [and educated them to] the power of books to change lives…’ Millard, E. (p101) differently Literate: Boys, Girls And The Schooling Of Literacy (1997) Falmer Press but I have also managed to effect what the National Curriculum was allegedly created to do:

 

‘foster in pupils a love of literature, to encourage their awareness of its

unique relationship to human experience and to promote in them a sense of excitement in the power and potential of language…’