S.F. Said grasps the nettle with TYGER. He does not shy away from difficult topics which may weigh heavily on a young reader’s mind. At the same time Said has created a novel which is burning bright with hope and empowerment. It tells the story of Adam, who encounters an impossible creature and then has to decide who to trust with this knowledge in order to save her. We also encounter Zadie, who saves Adam’s skin and is obviously willing to take risks to help. Throughout, the power of the tyger’s presence is tangible and brought to life by the incredible illustrations of Dave McKean:
‘But then the air filled with the sweet, high scent of honeysuckle growing wild. Two points of light appeared, and the tyger emerged from the darkness, her eyes shining like liquid golden fire.’
The setting of the novel is an alternate, extreme version of twenty-first-century London. It is a world in which all foreigners and later commoners are marginalised and treated cruelly. The hostile question ‘Where are you really from?’ is asked frequently of the dark-skinned Adam. There are many references to the slave trade which is still flourishing in this alternate London but the reader is also shown its destructive effects. Zadie’s father reveals he was educated in Timbuktu but then enslaved; ‘My enslavers could take my freedom from me, but they could not take my language, history, or faith. I have tried to keep a little of it alive for my daughter.’ And later Adam’s own father who has always advised him to ‘keep your head down’ admits ‘The Empire doesn’t just conquer; it destroys, pollutes and enslaves.’
TYGER took nine years to write and it is a story which always had a boy, a girl and a tyger at its centre. As I read it for the first time, I was transported into a sometimes familiar yet strange world full of possible dangers. However, the steadfast faith the tyger has in our two main characters, Adam and Zadie, lights the way in the ever-encroaching darkness. Obstacles are thrown in their path by their adversary Sir Mortimer Maldehyde and they have to look inside themselves to find the strength and power to overcome him:
‘There is power in you,’ she said. ‘It is in every single one of you. Enough to change the fate of the world, and more.’
Said draws on many literary influences in TYGER including the Arabian Nights and Blake’s poems enrich the language throughout. The author is, however, also in dialogue with the long tradition of alternative worlds in children’s literature from Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin to more recent series such as Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. Like all these literary writers, Said never patronises his reader. He creates a world in which children can question and confront injustices because as the tyger admits ‘this stunted little world breaks my heart’. Yet she also offers hope and helps Adam and Zadie pursue their love of drawing and writing, respectively. And it is the power of the pen that proves decisive.
For me, this novel deserves to become a children’s classic. It belongs in every school library and will inspire many, many children, teachers and librarians.
Listen to SF Said when he joined Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner to talk about Tyger:
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