By author Christian Darkin
When my children got to the age when they were starting to read books on their own, I looked around at what was on offer for them, and I was frankly shocked.
As an author, I wanted to explore big themes and ideas, and talking to my own children, and their friends, I was sure that was what they were interested in too. Primary school children are desperate to understand the world and there’s nothing from Brexit to quantum physics that they can’t absorb if you give them the chance to.
And yet, looking through the bookshops, every single title seemed to be either a book for boys about football, and adventure, or a book for girls about unicorns and fairies. It was striking. Every book for children of my kids’ age was so strongly gendered that you couldn’t fail to get the message about what boys and girls are supposed to be like.
And it didn’t used to be that way. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory isn’t a boy’s book just because the main character is a boy. The Famous Five - OK they had the gender roles of their time - but they all did things. None of the characters were redundant - they all brought something to the story. And most importantly nobody thought, “this is a girls book - this is a boys book.”
Things are getting a lot better in older children’s fiction, and picture books are beginning to grow as well, but middle grade is still stuck in an era that never existed, and filled with books that never deal with the big issues - despite the fact that kids are hungry for something that will stretch their minds.
And that’s where Act Normal comes in. The previous seven books in the series have been chapter books - the kind of small, easy to digest stories that children just starting to read alone can enjoy. They cover everything from DNA (in a story involving Jenny’s accidental creation of some dinosaurs) to elections (in a book where Jenny kidnaps the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition in an attempt to lock them in a room together until they “sort everything out”).
But when I started visiting a lot of schools, it became clear that older children also enjoyed the Act Normal concept, but wanted something they could really get their teeth stuck into, so the latest book, Act Normal And Don’t Tell Anyone About The Present Machine, is just that.
It’s a much longer, and slightly more grown-up book for 7-11 year olds in which heavily gendered toys and books are turning children into zombies-who crave pink magic fairy toys for girls, or Tank Monsters for boys.
It’s a proper fun adventure, with computer coding, a train chase, a magnetic liquid monster, - and a chemist granny who nearly starts World War Three during Woodstock. There’s also a recipe for making diamonds in your kitchen, so it’s not short of fun and action, but at the same time, it doesn’t conform to the rather dull, pedestrian stereotypes of chapter books and middle grade fiction. And what I’m finding now is that children absolutely get it - they may love stories about unicorns or stories about battling monsters - but none of them want that to be the only thing they read. And I for one want to make sure it’s not the only thing they get offered.