In 2007 a team of Russian scientists and explorers planted a rust-proof copy of their country’s flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The message was clear: this land, with all its oil and gas, belongs to Russia. After completing his mission, the group’s leader, Artur Chilingarov, said, “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag.”
Eddize Izzard has a great sketch about how Britain created a global empire through “the cunning use of flags.” Here, though, one struggles to see the funny side of the social, political and environmental implications of Russia’s voyage, to say nothing of the hope that it will last for a thousand years.
Perhaps it was this story of half-baked flag planting that inspired Sally Gardner to pen her engrossing children’s novel, Maggot Moon. Nominated for the National Book Token’s Children’s Book of the Year, Gardner’s story and the Russian flag-planting stunt contain many of the same ingredients: “the Motherland” inhabited by our heroic narrator, Standish Treadwell, bears a strong resemblance to the Soviet Union; there is an unwinable struggle for global dominance that leads the superpowers into new frontiers; and as in Soviet Russia and modern Russia, dissenters in “the Motherland” are swiftly and brutally dealt with.
Left with just his cunning grandfather, Stanley Treadwell leads a fragile and enigmatic life. He is illiterate yet savvy; malnourished yet tireless; surrounded by gloom yet filled with dreams. He longs for the world of “Croca-Colas” and “ice-cream-coloured Cadillacs,” a distant planet he has glimpsed on the family’s precious television. Into their drab and frightened lives one day fall Hector and his parents. Hector and Standish quickly form an unbreakable bond based on truth, justice and football. Unbeknownst to Standish, however, Hector is part of something big. His father is a scientist working on the Motherland’s mission to put a man on the moon. It is a project shrouded in just a bit too much secrecy, and the state’s roaming goons will do anything to keep the truth buried.
With its drab police state, the omnipresent fear of being denounced, penury and privation, tale of forbidden love and enforced worship of a Big Brother-style leader, Maggot Moon is an adolescent retelling of 1984. Some might say that George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece is simple enough for even the most distractible teenager, but Gardner’s editors at Hot Key Books would likely deem it too dense. To satisfy the addled brains of modern adolescents, the 285 pages of Maggot Moon have been divided into 100 chapters. Some chapters consist of a solitary paragraph, and some paragraphs are made up of a single sentence. Nevertheless, this is a smart and entertaining story; a power pamphlet for those who refuse to be another brick in the wall.
As well as winning the CILIP Carnegie Medal in 2013 with Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner made it onto the 2015 shortlists (for both the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals) with Tinder and is on the current 2016 longlist with The Door That Led To Where.