Book: Maggot Moon
Author: Sally Gardner
Publisher: Harper Collins
Standish Treadwell is your not-so-average hero. He can’t read, can’t write and isn’t bright. He has one blue and one brown eye. Standish, besides possessing a name that is easily susceptible to being made fun of, is dyslexic. Or as the kindly teacher Miss Connolly puts it, he is an original.
Standish, 15, lives in an alternative universe set in ’50s, in a tyrannical place called Motherland. Sally Gardner paints a world that is bleak, terrifying and without hope. You either support Motherland or you are treated as an Obstructor. Obstructors’ tongues are cut off, their hair is shaved, they’re beaten up and often, they just disappear. Newspapers are better known as propaganda rags; there is only one radio station and owning a television is considered an offence.
Living in this world, Standish faces the same dilemmas as any teenager — establishing his identity, standing up to bullies, forging friendships and dealing with a life without parents. Gardner is dyslexic, like Standish, and she has used her own experiences to provide a realistic look into the workings of a dyslexic mind. Standish’s only escape is his imagination, filled with dreams of ice-cream coloured Cadillacs and Croca Colas, and his one ally is his best friend Hector. Together the two plan to build a rocket that will take them to the fictional Planet Juniper, which has three moons, two suns and peaceful people. Then one day Hector vanishes, leaving Standish alone, miserable and determined to discover the truth behind his disappearance.
Standish’s neighbourhood, Zone Seven, could be anywhere, any time in history. There are striking similarities with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Stretch the imagination a bit and Motherland could even be in India, where speaking only in Mothertongue and not saying anything against Motherland are common practice.
The faceless identity that rules Motherland is brutal. Only loyalists and spies are rewarded here. Residents inform on their neighbours for food. In such a scenario, Standish makes for an unlikely hero. Everything about him is endearing, from his frequent exclamations “frick-fracking hell”, his belief in his dreams, his hero worship of his grandfather and his desire to avenge the wrong done to a friend. He stands up to bullies and teachers with equal parts indignation and righteousness. He knows when to toe the line and when to say what needs to be heard. Together with his grandfather and a small band of rebels, Standish hatches a plan to expose the truth about the Motherland and the moon landing.
Maggot Moon reveals Sally Gardner’s mastery over a story that is simple but layered. Short sentences and quirky illustrations that use rats to symbolise the humans (and their conditions) make the largely depressing world seem amusing.
This week, Standish’s “skewed and often comic view of an unfair world” impressed judges enough to make Maggot Moon the winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award. It isn’t just a children’s book, though. Some of the scenes, vivid in their brutality (especially towards children) will have readers of all ages squirming in their seats. Despite the cruelty, Maggot Moon is an engrossing read. If for nothing else then to dream with Standish about a better world.