We remember the important books we read in our childhood many years later as adults. It is as adults that we understand those books in a subtly different way, their influence shapes us and our understanding of our world. Tyger is a wonderful example of why children’s books matter and will, I think, be a book that today’s generation of young readers will remember and refer back to as adults.
It is 2021 in London but in an alternate world, where the British Empire has never ended and where slavery has not been abolished. It is a world of ghettos and oppression. A young boy called Adam lives in the Soho ghetto and on an errand for his parents discovers something incredible in a rubbish dump in London. A mysterious, mythical, magical animal…a TYGER. The tyger is in danger, hunted by the evil Sir Mortimer Maldehyde and his four huntsman on horseback. Adam and his new friend Zadie join together to try to save the tyger’s life and ultimately their own world from destruction.
The nine years taken to create this remarkable story have paid off in some style. Within pages this dystopian world feels both real and frighteningly familiar in some ways. The manner in which Adam is treated as a ‘foreigner‘ because of the colour of his skin, asked “Where are you really from?’ despite having lived in London all his life resonates with news items we may have watched or read. In the second chapter Adam meets the tyger and such is the impact of this meeting that one waits with baited breath for their next encounter as one reads. The creature’s presence is tangible in the story even when the tyger is absent from the pages.
There are obvious influences from the work of writer William Blake. His poems Tyger and Jerusalem are part of our literary heritage with phrases from them used in our language frequently. The Isles of Wonder segment from the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony referenced his work and the images created in response to his words lingered long in my memory. They resurfaced as I read sections of Tyger. The description of the city of London from the countryside to the north where Adam meets the shepherds guarding their flock and in the distance sees the towering chimney stacks and power stations, belching clouds of smoke echoes the poem and song so many of us learned in childhood. The descriptions of the Tyger, “her eyes burned like liquid golden fire.” (Pg11) although subtly different encourage a sense of the familiar, that comforting feeling of recognition when we read something that reminds us of words lodged in our minds from years past.
However a reader does not have to be familiar with Blake or the other literary references interspersed within the text to enjoy this incredible adventure. The rich language, the vivid descriptions combine in a story told in relatively short and gripping chapters. This is not a daunting read for a young reader but one with depth of meaning and emotion. There are big ideas included yet this is at heart a story of friendship, loyalty and bravery all of which children find appealing in the books they read. They will be encouraged, just like Adam and Zadie, to learn and to understand, to use their powers of perception, empathy and imagination and to follow their dreams to create a life and a world that they believe in. This does sound overly optimistic perhaps but there is so much hope in SF Said’s words that even a slightly cynical adult reader can believe in a world of infinite possibilities. We all need a little hope at the moment.
My proof copy has beautiful black and white illustrations by Dave McKean for the first few pages and the finished copy will have them throughout the hardback version. I should like to thank the publishers David Fickling Books and Phil Earle very much for my review copy. I simply loved this story and will be re-reading it often. Tyger was published on 6th October.