Winner of the YA Book Prize 2016
Winner of the Carnegie Medal 2016
First I should say that I read this because I felt I ought to. Winning the YA Book Prize is one thing, but the field from which it was picked is relatively narrow. Winning the Carnegie Medal – the best book of all the books published for children in a year – is something else altogether. I had already read all the other books on the YA Book Prize list, and several of the Carnegie books, but I had avoided this one. Why? Because it’s written in poetry and I find poetry frustrating to read. Mostly that frustration is about the way the words get in the way of the story, as Katy Haye explained beautifully in her review of One (here). But also – well, writing a novel in verse? That’s just way too self-consciously literary for my reading taste.
So, clearly, I’m coming at this with a biased attitude. On the one hand, the book has won prizes and reviewers have raved over it. On the other hand, I think it’s probably pretentious and can’t possibly be all that these other people say it is.
I was wrong.
One is the story of conjoined twins, Tippi and Grace, told from Grace’s point of view. Each of the poems that makes it up is a tiny complete scene, the very essence of a story. Tippi and Grace are to go to school, because their parents can no longer afford to educate them at home. They can’t afford much, as the twins have a lot of expensive healthcare needs (and at this point I should mention that they are in America, and say ‘Yay, NHS!’ – it would be a different story if it were set in Britain.). So we see the twins as they deal with school, as they make friends for the first time, as they encounter love. We learn how it is to be two people in one body, and then, when their health declines, we are with them as they decide whether to be separated and risk one or both their lives, or stay together, which will certainly kill both of them.
I loved the way the book was constructed in tiny scenes, complete moments that build one on another to give you the very heart of the story. It seemed to me that any more – any scene-setting or ‘he said/she said’ – would be superfluous.
It was less clear to me what the point of setting these scenes as lines of verse was (though I think this is probably a blindness of mine rather than a problem with the boo). Sometimes the text layout made perfect sense; for example, in most of the book, the lines of verse are aligned left, in the way text usually is, but when the twins have been separated, Grace’s lines are centred, making them stand out, alone on the page, emphasising her new aloneness. Sometimes it seems that the lines reflect the breathless way Grace speaks, since she often has trouble breathing. Mostly though, it’s less obvious, though if I read it aloud, the line ends help to make sense of the words, and to stress those that needed stressing. As I said, I’m not good with verse.
And the story? I loved the story. It’s about love – family love, sister love, romantic love – and the ups and downs and ins and outs of relationships. In these tiny scenes we see not just the joys and difficulties of Tippi and Grace’s relationships, but also, through the cast of characters, so lightly sketched and yet so whole, the dynamic of their family and their association with the outside world.
So is One deserving of its plaudits? Yes, I think so. I am absolutely won over.