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Different Drums: Horrible and Beautiful

The Horn Book Magazine asked Deborah Stevenson, “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”

This ended up being a challenging assignment, because much literature for youth is pretty weird when coldly explained (kids travel through space and time to duel a giant brain!), and we don’t think twice about it. Saying that I adore Polly Horvath’s wonderful combination of bizarre, perhaps magical, realism and petulant domesticity, which I absolutely do, is just going to elicit yawns: yeah, me and the award committees.

I’m therefore going with a book by an author whose reputation has never really taken off in the U.S. despite her significance in her home country of Australia. Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs (1995) is still one of the most horrible, beautiful, shocking books I’ve ever read, pushing not just the envelope but the entire mailbox of young adult literature. The Willows, a hardscrabble, dysfunctional family that runs a trailer park, are so isolated by their abusive patriarch’s cultish control that they have only the vaguest, most unconvincing inklings, from their poorly transmitting TV and from books, that their life isn’t the same as everybody else’s. Commencing with a clearly incestuous dawn cuddle between a brother and sister and moving swiftly into a lovingly detailed scene of sheep slaughter, the book marks its bitter territory right up front. Yet this is no Neanderthal enclave, and there are heartbreaking flares of possibility beyond the family’s strictured life: one son creates delicate nature drawings; another longs to go to college; and the family prizes its monthly reading assignment (currently, portentously enough, Crime and Punishment). Into this mix comes a brash young artist intrigued by the family’s strangeness (and gratified by how superior it makes him feel). The ways in which this does not, to put it mildly, go well would have made Flannery O’Connor blanch and William Faulkner sober up, and it is a savage, traumatic exploration of the way tragedy can lie like kindling in people, just waiting for something to set it alight.

From the March/April 2013 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Deborah Stevenson About Deborah Stevenson

Deborah Stevenson is the editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s 
Books and the director of the Center for Children’s Books at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

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