To those who'll own tomorrow

Published: 22 December, 2013 09:03 IST | Kareena N Gianani |

Author Sally Gardner's book, Maggot Moon, is dedicated to those who win no prizes at school. It is set in a dystopian 1950s England and introduces one of the most singular characters in young adult (YA) fiction today. Kareena N Gianani finds that Gardner, who, like the protagonist, is dyslexic, pulls no punches when it comes to her book and life

‘Standish Treadwell.
Can’t read, can’t write,
Standish Treadwell isn’t bright.’

With these lines, Sally Gardner’s book, Maggot Moon sets the tone of what you’d imagine to be a tale of teenage angst. You cannot be more mistaken. The reader will find rebellion, fear and bravery between the very first lines, but for reasons more sinister.

Maggot Moon is the story of Treadwell who is often humiliated at school because he is dyslexic, his love for words and forceful imagination notwithstanding (“I collect words — they are sweets in the mouth of sound.”). It is 1956 and he lives with his stoic grandfather in a dystopian England, which is ruled by the tyrannical Motherland. Treadwell’s world is a slightly better place because of his friend, Hector Lush, and his family, though they hold a terrible secret. While the Motherland prepares to be the first country to land on the moon, Treadwell and Lush have grand plans to someday move to a new planet, Juniper, the land of Croca-Cola and ice cream-coloured Cadillacs. That is, until Hector mysteriously disappears.

Maggot Moon pulls no punches, that’s just not Gardner’s style. What she does, though, is weave terrible details into daily lives. What you see is what Treadwell sees — a teacher beating a child dead in his school playground “as a matter of discipline, that’s all.” This, too, she does with rather ominous but minimalist prose, as if challenging the reader to imagine the worst without the guidance of words, much like Treadwell has done all his life.

That, however, does not stop Maggot Moon from being a powerful tale of courage, friendship and a million ‘whys’. It has a singular voice and turn of phrase, which do not let the reader rest until s/he picks up that pencil and underlines lines just for the joy of reading them again that night. You are not leaving this land of ice cream-coloured Cadillacs anytime soon, Croca Cola in hand.

Excerpts from an interview with Sally Gardner:

What was childhood like, growing up with dyslexia and struggling with words amid children who did not?
I didn’t learn much at school at all. By the time I was seven years old, it became clear that I was having trouble with words and it wasn’t cute anymore. Four years later, my parents took me to this doctor who diagnosed me with ‘word blindness’ and claimed she could ‘cure’ me in six weeks. I was terrified of her and could not wrap my head around ‘the coat is in the moat’ sort of word exercises. Needless to add, I wasn’t cured at the end of it all. And there were so many others like her who were unbelievably ignorant and thought they could wipe dyslexia out, or that vitamins would do the trick.

By then, my parents were panicking and I was seen as someone who would never be ‘normal’. They began to believe that I would remain dependent on them all my life. I was shifted to a school for maladjusted children. The place was extreme — that’s the only way I can describe it. Those schools don’t even exist today. If someone lost their temper, we’d be smacked, all of us.

That sounds grim. What kept you going, then?
Well, I knew I wasn’t stupid. I now understand that dyslexia can be a source of strength, but I definitely didn’t feel that way in school. It paralysed me. I think what kept me going was my imagination. We were not allowed to watch television back then, so I made up my own stories. I was hungry for them. I could go on and on when I began making one up in my head. I remember the first story I made up was about a tree I saw outside the window.

How did you discover words and writing?
Oh, I was desperate to read! My father was a church-goer and I loved the Bible, though not so much for the language as for the music. I was terribly clever, had a huge vocabulary and a fantastic memory. I could never do English grammar but I did memorise it along with spellings. I still have the trappings of bad spelling but it never got in the way of what I really wanted to do with words.

Today, I am passionately involved with advocacy of dyslexia-related issues and education, and the one thing I tell parents and children is this — dyslexia is not a disease. It is just a different way of looking at things around you.

I hate the word itself — dyslexia, because it has such a negative meaning of being a disability. What we need, instead, are different teaching models, which parents and tutors could use.

In Maggot Moon, Standish is dyslexic. He is a lot like you, too — he collects words and has a powerful imagination. Was that intentional, and autobiographical?
After I decided to write Maggot Moon, I knew I wanted it to be about a boy who sees the world the way I did. I wanted to show what it is to think visually and to think in images, not words.

However, the book isn’t autobiographical at all. I haven’t had the extreme experiences Standish has in the book. I have tried to touch upon the much-underrated qualities of bravery and courage, which don’t seem to be talked about as much. We are stuck in this me-me-me culture, and I wanted to write something which illustrated that real bravery is about extending your strength
to others.

What made you write Maggot Moon in the first place? Did the story happen because you wanted to write about Standish?
No, it did not begin with Standish. For my previous book, The Double Shadow, I deeply researched into the Second World War and became rather obsessed with what-ifs — what if John F Kennedy or Mahatma Gandhi hadn’t been shot? What if Winston Churchill had been killed by that taxi on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931? What if America hadn’t been to the moon? Maggot Moon comes from the possibility that any of these possibilities would have made the world a different place.

Tell us about the ebook edition of Maggot Moon, which has been designed for people with dyslexia.
No one in the ‘normal’ world has really asked what it is like to be dyslexic. I wanted readers to experience what it is like when you have words jumping in and out of a cage. There is no one to correct it, no teacher is going to be able to make it go away, and it will be with you till the day you die. I wanted to show this in a positive way.

Maggot Moon is unapologetically stark and shows Standish’s dystopian world for what it is — violent and unjust. How did you tackle this no-holds-barred approach?
Violence is big in little people’s life today. Amid this, what Maggot Moon does, is ask a few questions. It tells you not to believe everything you’re told, but to question it. I hope it introduces a reader to the idea that there are no finite answers, and the ‘why’ is the most important question to ask.

Yet, when I wrote it, I never thought it would find a publisher. Who would publish a book in which a child is killed by his own teacher in the school playground? The violence in the book is the way Standish sees his world, there’s no way of knowing it through any other description. It took me a very long time to write that. Violence, like love, must be written like poetry to make it work. You have to be honest as a storyteller,
not sycophantic.

Maggot Moon
Sally Gardner
Rs 399
Published by Penguin Books

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