Set on the South Crongton Estate, this follows McKay’s struggles at home in the aftermath of his mother’s death, with his father under pressure to repay debts and his brother risking trouble with local gangs. Together with his two friends, Licle Bit and Jonah, McKay agrees to go on a misguided mission to reclaim their friend Venetia’s phone. Straying well off their turf, they inevitably run into trouble.
Wheatle gives a hard hitting and bleak view of the realities of living on an estate dominated by gangs, but tempers it with humour and the strong bonds between the characters. Everyday violence and the challenges of making ends meet are countered by strong friendships and family ties and a determination by the friends to make something better of their lives.
Wheatle side steps the risky business of trying to use up to date teenage slang by inventing his own, neatly ensuring that his books won’t become rapidly dated and giving a real freshness to his writing. Although set in a very specific context of a South London estate, the issues around family, friendships, loyalty and making difficult choices have a much wider relevance. The subject matter could prompt some really challenging discussions, particularly when read by children experiencing similar issues. But Wheatle deals with the issues in such a considered and engaging way that the book offers an excellent basis on which to have those conversations and for those for whom the subject matter is not a lived experience, the book encourages empathy and insight.
Born in Brixton, Wheatle grew up in care in Surrey children’s home (subsequently the subject of child abuse inquiry). He returned to Brixton in the late 1970s, participated in the Brixton riots in 1981 and spent a short spell in prison as a result. It was in prison that he was introduced to books and started on the path to becoming a writer. He was awarded an MBE for his services to literature in 2008. Southampton University’s Writers in Conversation series has a very good interview with him, including readings from his third book about the Crongton Estate, Straight Outta Crongton, and an insight into how he came to write the series.
Crongton Knights won the 2016 Guardian Children’s Book Prize and is the second book that Wheatle has written about the Crongton Estate. The others are: Licle Bit (2015), Straight Outta Crongton (2017), Kerb Stain Boys (a novella, 2018) and Home Girl (due to be published April 2019). You can listen to a review of Home Girl here.