There are some children’s books I feel slightly uncomfortable reading. Not because I’m embarrassed to be reading a children’s book per se, but because I’m so far from the intended readership I feel a little voyeuristic. Susie Day’s Bluebell Jones might be a good example of this, dealing as it does with a girl on the cusp (horrible word) of puberty (even more horrible word). You’re getting the discomfort angle right?
But this is a book all about not quite fitting in, about feeling on the outside of things and wanting something that may never happen. It also contains a rather brilliant device that drew me to the book in the first place, and then kept me there, guessing to the very end.
Bluebell Jones has just turned 13, and is desperate to be a full blown teenager with all the pretensions that go with it. But she’s still very much a polite, slightly awkward child, a long way off becoming a hip lesbian like her sister or one of the cool kids in top hats who hang out at the dicey local fairground. In despair she wishes ‘someone would rescue me‘ and up pops Red, a cool version of herself one year on, time slipping her way back to help Blue have the best summer of her life. Easier said than done when you’re spending your summer with your family in a caravan in an awful seaside resort called Penkerry.
‘Penkerry is loud and smells of poo. The cliff path leads us straight on to the promenade, the shop-lined road that runs the length of the beach. Babies wail. In the penny arcades, a million fruit machines go blipblipblipblipblip, not quite at the same time. People are eating chips at ten in the morning, and none of them seem to mind the cat-sized seagulls of death swooping at their faces making argh argh noises and trying to eat their children.’
My own upbringing was far too middle class to ever spend a whole summer in a place like Penkerry – we were too busy discovering the ‘real Spain’. But my nan lived in Bridgend and we took day trips to Barry and Porthcawl, so I at least got enough of a glimpse of this tacky world to develop a weird fascination that has since turned into a love of Britain’s very crappest seaside towns.
The images here are by Martin Parr, a man who learned his trade as a snapper at Butlins and has made a career out of documenting places just like Penkerry. Like Bluebell, who is given a camera as her thirteenth birthday present, he’s witnessing the seaside once removed, observing life through the safety of the lens.
With the arrival of Red, Bluebell gets the keys to the neon lit kingdom. But what are Red’s intentions? Susie Day never shows her full hand, and keeps us guessing until the very end about this girl who is ‘made of smoke, and might have been things I didn’t do and never will.’ As a result I never quite banished my feeling of discomfort as I read the book. But by the time I reached the very fine ending I realised this was for a different reason than the one I had initially feared.