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‘Hooray!’ I cheered. Quickly followed by, ‘Are you sure?’
That was my reaction to the phone call from Scottish Book Trust letting me know that The Last Soldier had been shortlisted for the brand new Scottish Teenage Book Prize. And it wasn’t false modesty: I worked hard on the book and feel ridiculously proud of it. I like that it’s unusual, entertaining, thought-provoking. But I was surprised because it’s only about 13,000 words long, give or take. Major book awards don’t often notice short novels because they’re hidden in the shadows of (literally) weightier tomes.
But the first thing the brilliant people at Scottish Book Trust wanted to talk about was press and promotion. Seeing as there is a spooky element to The Last Soldier could I come up with a list of my favourite scary authors for teenagers? No problem and I went searching my bookshelves to jog my memory, but something I found surprised me. Sandwiched between Stephen King’s bad-cold apocalypse The Stand (1325 pages) and Clive Barker’s world-hopping horror Imajica (1136 pages) was a book only 54 pages long: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Guess which one I took out and re-read that afternoon? Guess which one I’ll probably re-read again and again?
Inspired, I went hunting for short books that meant a lot to me as a teenage reader. I was amazed at how short some of my favourite books are. My edition of the The Hound of the Baskervilles clocks in at just 116 pages. The Wind Eye by Robert Westall, 112. Grinny by Nicholas Fisk, 105. HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, 98. And my copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaughterhouse-five, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ and The Machine Gunners, all come in well under 200 pages each. No wonder I read so much as a kid.
So can books be too long? It depends who’s reading.
Critics famously disparaged the latter Harry Potter books for being soooo loooong … But not the fans. The books could still be devoured in merely a matter of days, meaning they were nowhere near long enough for true fanatics who loved the Potterverse so much they would be happy living within those stories for months. It’s why so many of us enjoy sequels, threequels, prequels and series. We discover a character in a world we enjoy and we want to feel immersed for as long as possible.
But these massive books demand so much of the reader – in commitment, ability and of course time. I’m often asked if, as a writer for teenagers, I feel that I’m in competition with Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or whatever. Honestly, no. I’m in competition with YouTube and Instagram and football club and homework. Time is a luxury commodity these days. And so, wouldn’t we be crazy to overlook the short, sharp books sandwiched between the doorstoppers on our shelves? Those books that can deliver story and character and emotion and satisfaction, but in a lower word count. Surely Stevenson proved that you don’t need a million words to make history and create a legacy.
Obviously The Last Soldier is no …Jekyll and Hyde. What is? But my main aim in writing it was to tell as big a story as I could in as few pages as possible. So I’m flattered and chuffed-to-bits to have the book recognised by the Scottish Teenage Book Prize for doing just that. I hope it will open the awards up to readers who might not have previously believed book prizes ever included anything accessible enough for them.
And, writing this, has brought to mind one of my all-time favourite jokes:
Incredulous Alice and Over-Exuberant Eddie are flying a plane for the first time. They’re enjoying themselves and are coming in to land when Incredulous Alice says: ‘Wow, Eddie! This must be the shortest runway in the world.’ And her co-pilot replies: ‘Yes, Alice. But look at the width of it!’
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