Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp

OK some serious SPOILERS coming up, but it's hard to write about this book without mentioning the big reveal in this 1977 classic school story by Gene Kemp.

Following on from last week's piece that touched on gender labelling in children’s literature, here is a book that challenges readers’ expectations of girls and boys roles and one that has enormous fun doing it.

Tyke Tiler is an eleven year old tearaway in the Tucker Jenkins mould (though the book pre-dates Grange Hill by a year). Forever in trouble with Sir and Miss (and Chief Sir) but with a heart of gold, Tyke is in the top year of Cricklepit Combined School. Over the course of the story Tyke gets into constant scrapes – usually as result of trying to protect best mate Danny from himself. There are hamsters down the backs of shirts, sorties into condemned buildings and scraps with snydey creeps.

‘I did a half nelson on the Stoatway, while I recited slowly, “Tell-tale-tit, Your Tongue Shall be Slit, And all the little dicky birds, shall have a little bit.” When she said sorry ten times I let go.’

It's great boys stuff. But as we discover at the end rough and tumble Tyke is actually Theodora. A girl.

Gene Kemp performs a genius piece of rug pulling, and one that makes you reassess everything you've read – giving the reader a good excuse to start again, spotting the little clues that are dotted around. But it doesn't matter a jot whether Tyke is a girl or a boy, she is our hero, and this is the book’s triumph. Kemp demonstrates that despite what publishers believe, the best stories don't rely on signifiers of gender to appeal to their audience, they just need great characters.

It's not just Tyke that stands out here, the entire supporting cast is thoroughly real, and will be familiar to anyone who, like me, had a state education in England in the 70s and 80s. Particularly true are the teachers and again Kemp defies standard school fiction procedure; instead of giving us the usual group of child hating, merciless monsters she casts a group of long suffering but phenomenally patient adults who through all Tyke's provocations try their best to do the fair thing.

‘Something had knocked down part of the fence, so we climbed over the twisted, rusty iron on to the wild patch of bushes and brambles outside the old paper mill. Long ago, they used to make paper there, using power from the weir, Sir told us. Now it’s dirty and derelict. Grey dust lies all over it, on the broken, boarded up windows.’

This is a rich evocation of late 70s Britain – Tyke and Danny roam a landscape that still hasn't recovered from the second world war and bears the scars of its vanishing industrial heritage. In the eyes of children it makes for a perfect playground where you can find dead sheep in shallow puddles and happily trespass in condemned buildings until it’s time for tea.

It made me deeply nostalgic for the urban explorations of my childhood, before every last inch of the city was built on and there were what felt like miles of wasteland to explore. When people talk about children today missing out on freedom to play outdoors, I think they’re imagining an Arthur Ransom style idyll. This book captures the reality of growing up in the late 70s – not that I’m particularly keen for my own children to go out and play in the local dump mind.

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler is the first in a series of books about Cricklepit Combined School, but sadly it’s the last one featuring Tyke who is moving on to secondary school. There’s a bittersweet quality to the ending in which Tyke makes her ultimate statement, ringing the school bell for the first time in years and wreaking havoc and destruction in the process. Ultimately this is a book about acceptance, not difference – and Tyke’s final actions are those of a child being torn away from an environment where she is unequivocally accepted for who she is, on her way into an uncertain future.

‘Now I was twelve. Eight years had gone somewhere. And I didn’t want to go to a new school. And I didn’t want to grow up. Growing up seemed a grotty sort of thing to have to do. I felt empty strange, restless.’


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