Recently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.
In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.
What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.
Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.
In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.
But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.
The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.
For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.
MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.