“Sweets from a Stranger”

Sweets from a Stranger coverSo how about those discussion questions? I’m going to take the suggested starting points first, then come back to the main question.

Write a short summary of the story

Girl meets alien; alien tricks girl; girl fails to trick aliens.

Note down what you think the sci-fi elements in the story are

In order: an alien; space travel (imagined technology); another planet; aliens. A nice bag of tropes. Is it a story that could not have happened without its speculative content? I think so; the intended real-world reference is explicit, but without the sf I don’t see how you’d get the reversal of Tina’s position to be so effective.

Draw character profiles of Tina and Talis

Tina: relatively unusually for Fisk, a girl-protagonist. That’s her all solarized on the cover, I think. Less unusually, she’s sharp — knows what story she’s in, at the start; isn’t fazed by the change in scenery; comes up with a proactive plan — but overconfident. “Tina, knowing she was behaving foolishly, went closer to the car.”

Talis: deceptive in appearance and in manner, but not about his true purpose. Everything we seem to learn about him in the first half of the story — his haplessness, his friendliness (his loneliness) — must be a lie for the second half to stick.

Compare the story to other science fiction stories, novels or movies you know

I think that if I worked out what it reminds me of, I would be closer to getting under the skin of the story than I am. It feels old. It feels very different to contemporary YA sf (strictly speaking, it is written for a younger audience). There’s something of Wyndham in the tone; that city of soaring glass towers is how I remember the end of The Chrysalids. There’s something of early-nineties BBC children’s drama (Dark Season, or the adaptation of Archer’s Goon) in the intrusion of core sf tropes into utterly normal British (English) (middle-class) suburbia. I recognise this world.

Therefore (and finally): Do you consider “Sweets from a Stranger” a science fiction story to be taken seriously?

Odd question, isn’t it? A very teacher-ish question. We must be serious. The story certainly wants to be taken seriously; any story so straightforwardly moralistic must want to be taken seriously. I think what allows me to take it seriously is its playfulness: Tina’s knowingness; the matter-of-factness of the journey, or of Tina’s initial escape attempt; the teasing suggestion that it might not give you the moral you’re expecting all along. The last line is perfectly judged, I think.

19 thoughts on ““Sweets from a Stranger”

  1. It feels very different to contemporary YA sf…”

    In part this is because (and I think it’s a great story, by the way) it is quite specifically dated. Before the 1970s, I think, UK parents were fantastically lackadaisical about where their kids did and where they went. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, and when this story was written, there was a sudden surge of concern, a very pervasive campaign to dissuade kids from taking sweets from, and more importantly getting into cars with, strangers. This still bespeaks a world in which kids of all ages are more or less left to wander around by themselves, to and from school by themselves (for instance). Nowadays, we’ve swung our parenting pendulum right the other way; there’s no need to warn kids not to get into cars with strangers because we’re no longer supposed to leave our kids unattended long enough for a stranger to get a look in. Kids no longer drift around by themselves (young kids, certainly not); there’s always an adult chaperone there. I drop my daughter at a before-school breakfast club, in the school. I used to drop her at the door of the school, wait until she was buzzed in and then go on my way. But parents were informed that we had to come into the school with the kids and escort them to the breakfast club signing-in book, in case (I don’t know) something terrible were to happen to Lily in the school entrance atrium between door and signing-in book. So that’s now what I do.

    The relevance of this to the story is that it seems to me to generate a lot of its frisson from taking for granted a world where children have considerably more freedom and latitude than kids today have. Tina knows it’s foolish to get into a car with a stranger but does so anyway; that’s almost daring, for its day.

  2. I’m not sure Chabon’s argument adds up to much. YA literature still does away with the adult characters quite happily. I remember being struck at some point last year by how many recent YA novels I’d read started with the protagonists fleeing the village they grew up in for some reason Either the village itself became a threat — Knife of Never Letting Go — or it’s destroyed — Gullstruck Island, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. It’s exactly the same model as the evacuation at the start of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, really, so it’s not like it used to be the case that YA protagonists had adventures even though the adults were around. So far as I can see the dominant strategy has always been to actively remove the adults in one way or another.

    This is not to say that Adam isn’t right — I’m an ’80s child, and I remember being bombarded by “Stranger Danger!” So maybe if anything something like a positive feedback applies, as one factor feeding into the current YA boom — if children aren’t having their own adventures, they have a greater need to find them in the stories they’re reading…?

  3. Yes, I don’t think there is much to Chabon either. It isn’t striking that children’s fiction gets rid of the adults, it is obvious; children’s stories are fantasies of agency, the presence of adults takes away that agency. And that final sentence: “If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” The whole point of adventure is that it can’t be permitted or taught.

    As for Adam’s comment, that might be part of it but I was thinking more of the tone. It is surprisingly ironic and detached. The protagonist is also younger than I would expect in contemporary YA of this type. Perhaps this is another instance of the social mores of the story dating not just what children can do but when.

  4. Tone is definitely also a part of it. So much contemporary YA is very immediate — first person or very close third — that it’s really odd to read something that is, as you say, more detached.

  5. I didn’t take Chabon to be saying that adults are more present in current YA literature; I took him to be saying that adults are more present in current children’s lives, which is what Adam was saying. Chabon raises the question of whether the lack of unsupervised time might affect the type of fiction that the children of today grow up to write. It’s probably too soon to tell, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question to ask.

  6. Right, but Adam put that change as taking place (or at least starting in) the Seventies, and I agree with him. It may have become more extreme in the last twenty years, but arguably anyone my age or younger has already grown up in much mroe restrictive/controlled environment than the sort Chabon recalls. And in terms of how their protagonists are given the freedom to experience a story, at least in my reading there doesn’t seem to be a great difference between current, younger YA writers and the classic stuff. Though I am now wondering whether the contemporary preference for first-person might be tied to this — emphasizing interior freedoms, rather than external freedoms?

  7. I’m of similar age to Adam (born the year before him) and I’ll vouch for what he says. I walked the mile each way to and from my junior school, either alone or with my (younger) brother and no-one thought anything of it. Yet there were definitely warnings about not speaking to or getting into cars with strangers, and child safety has been one of the major fears of the decades since. I took the bus to my secondary school, but that was only because it wasn’t within walking distance.

    Reading these posts about Nicholas Fisk has been interesting as he completely passed me by when I was his target reader age, and he was publishing back then. As for the difference between these novels and contemporary YA, would that be because Fisk’s novels are, from the sound of them, what is now published as “8 to 12” (UK bookshops) or “middle grade” (US)? YA as a discrete category generally postdates the 1970s.

  8. I’m the same age as Niall and grew up in the Eighties but my experience was the same: walking to school on my own, playing out in the woods all day, etc. No significant curtailment of my freedom had occured. Adam gives the data point of his daughter but I do wonder if the change in relative freedom is being slightly exaggerated.

    As for Fisk, he was certainly shelved in the children’s section of the library. They did have a small YA section but this was exclusively issues books, novels warning you about booze or explaining that some people are gay or so on. This probably explains the reason I hate YA as a term.

    I tend to use YA (and I think Niall does) as a synonym for children’s fiction. I think the age banding of contemporary fiction needs to be taken with a pince of salt, they are generally appropriate for much younger readers than they are targeted at. (Another example of giving children less freedom and respect?) However, if you compared Fisk’s fiction to contemporary middle grade I think the comparison would be even more stark.

  9. Is there a town/country difference in children’s freedom? I was certainly aware of not talking to strangers in the mid 70s, but my friends and I roved miles walking the dog, climbing trees, crawling through caves, etc and all with parental permission in principle. Of course we tested the boundaries but what I recall as the strictest rules were about crossing the roads, and about the tides and the quicksand on the shore.
    I’m pretty sure that teenagers still did that round here for a long time after we moved on.

  10. [i]I tend to use YA (and I think Niall does) as a synonym for children’s fiction. I think the age banding of contemporary fiction needs to be taken with a pince of salt, they are generally appropriate for much younger readers than they are targeted at.[/i]

    But some certainly aren’t. YA in the UK is less developed as a category than it is in the USA, where publishers distinguish, and sometimes age-band, between 12+ and 14+ (and, rarely, 16+) . In terms of content, there’s very little difference between a 14+ YA and an adult novel – it’s more about protagonist age and theme than presence of sex, strong language, drug usage etc. Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely and its follow-ups), for example, has said that for her the emphasis is on the word “adult” rather than “Young”, in what she writes.

    Having said that, there are British-based authors writing older YA – Melvin Burgess, Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness, Kate Thompson, Kevin Brooks and (going back to the early 80s) Aidan Chambers amongst others – and more often than not they have “Not Suitable for Younger Readers” labels on their books.

  11. I’ve just looked at my Burgess, Rosoff and Ness and they say nothing of the sort.

    Your point about the lack of difference between 14+ and adult novels is important because emphasises another problem with the idea of YA. If we are to take young adult to actually be a meaningful term in relation to someone’s life then it has to means the age between puberty and majority. But, of course, by that age you should already be reading adult literature. So a 14+ novel is still appropriate for a younger age group (12+, at least), it just means adult books are too.

  12. That list of names is a random selection of those I’ve read something by recently. Sometimes it says “explicit content” and at least two of Burgess’s novels have that warning on the cover. I’ve seen quite a few others with either that or the “Not Suitable” warning in UK bookshops. With age-banding, and the publishers who practise it, there would be a box with “13+” or “Teen” instead. Even if they didn’t, one look at Rosoff’s and Ness’s novels would tell anyone they’re not for readers much under 13 or 14. Age-banding is like film certification: there will always be children able to cope with material “older” than they are, and others more in need of parental guidance – whether the young reader ignores that or not!

    I’m 45 – so what novels “should” I be reading? Adult fiction can centre on children or teenagers, and it can centre on seventy-year-olds, and anything in between. As it happens, I do read a lot of YA – partly for market research (I’m writing it myself) and partly for enjoyment. One reason is that I find a lot of adult novels overlong, due to publisher’s mandating 90-120,000 words and not shorter. I like it that a YA novel can be a tight 40,000 or 60,000 if that’s what the story needs. (Would we still be reading novels like Fahrenheit 451 or The Stars My Destination if Bradbury and Bester had been contractually bound to turn in novels twice the length?)

    Also, the best children’s/YA writers have always had adult readers – Alan Garner to name but one. I first read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (as it was then) in the early 80s, when it was repackaged as an omnibus paperback shelved in the adult section of the bookshop.

    YA tends to be a marketing label rather than a genre, as it can include any adult genre except erotica. As I see it it indicates that a novel is of particular interest to that age group, In practice it tends to mean a teenaged protagonist and a coming-of-age theme somewhere. It’s often a marketing decision as to whether a novel will be sold as YA or 8-12 or adult or as a crossover. I recently heard Gollancz editor Gillian Redfearn talk, and I asked her about two of their recent publications. Gollancz published The Forest of Hands and Teeth as a YA – presumably because it’s horror (zombies) and in the UK horror for YAs has until recently been much bigger than horror for adults (about a half dozen big names and some Stephen Jones anthologies apart). On the other hand, Graceling was a YA book in the USA but was published as adult here – another sign of older YA being less developed as a market in the UK than in the US. Also, the market for adult fantasy is pretty well established here, and Graceling is more in line with what is published as such. (Caveat: I’ve read Forest…, haven’t read Graceling.)

  13. To bring this back to Fisk: yes, as Martin correctly surmises, I tend to use YA for the whole range of children’s fiction, since I also think age banding is a bit silly, really. Readers are quite capable of finding their own level. Indeed, as you say, Gary, the rise of YA as a category post-dates the 70s, and I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to tie an increasing belief that age-banding is useful together with the sort of protectiveness towards children Adam mentions. And we can come up with examples all day long of how arbitrary decisions about what gets published in which category are.

    Having said that, yes, much of Fisk’s work tends towards the “middle-grade” level. This seems to be more of a feature of the earlier books like Trillions, a couple of which are even banded as for 11+; later books like Robot Revolt, in which a couple of kids plot to murder their abusive father, may have been published for that younger audience, but would seem to sit happily in today’s older YA bracket. This probably reinforces Martin’s argument.

  14. I am the same age as Niall and Martin, and my memory of my childhood is similar regarding curtailments of freedom, if not exactly the same. In particular, I used to be able to get on my bike and ride all around the village with the only restriction that I be home in time for tea. On the other hand, while I normally got the bus home from school I decided to walk on day, and my mother was most unhappy about that when I got home. And one time a friend and I wanted to ride over to the next village (it had a BMX track) but our parents vetoed that. So there were limits, but it seems we had to push hard to reach them (either by breaking an expected timetable, or trying to go too far afield).

    It seems to be, then, that those born in the ’80s perhaps straddle the period between the lassaiz-faire childhood of the ’70s and earlier, and the controlled childhood of the ’90s and later. While the news may have played a part in making parents clamp down on childhood freedoms by making them more aware of the dangers to protect their children against, I wonder if also playing a part is the increasing prevalence of things like computers and video games and so on, so that not only are children less likely to be given freedom by their parents, they’re less likely to be wanting it when they have so much freedom in their bedrooms anyway.

    As for the categorisation of Fisk, I can’t recall getting his books out of the county library, but the school library certainly had them, so that means they would’ve been considered children’s books, rather than 11+ or Teen or YA or any other restricted category. I really don’t recall age banding being so prevalent back then, rather books were either children’s books or adult books without any graduations between them.

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