(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Westall 1929–

British young adult novelist and art and architecture critic.

In the space of five years, Westall has established himself as a distinctive voice in contemporary young adult literature. Each of his four novels has been praised for its originality, successful presentation of theme and prose style.

Westall's body of work is notable for its variety: his first novel, The Machine-Gunners, is a realistic, unsentimental account of life during the Second World War, while his other books are time-travel adventures which contain elements of history, mystery, and the supernatural. The Machine-Gunners, which won the 1976 Carnegie Medal, has been compared to William Golding's Lord of the Flies for its accurate depiction of adolescents operating without adult supervision.

The Machine-Gunners introduces several features now standard in Westall's novels: authentically described settings of Tyneside England; fascination with the capacity for violence, both physical and psychological, which exists in every person; shrewd observations of human behavior; a sardonic sense of humor; and above all the excitement and fluidity that mark a good story. Westall's novels raise questions about guilt, cruelty, chance, courage, the validity of war, the importance of myth, and the appreciation of the past. He has been criticized for creating plots that are often too complex and sometimes incomplete, and for his excessive use of swearing, violence, and sexual references.

Westall is often commended for his accurate depiction of the adolescent character, due perhaps to his years as a high school art teacher and guidance counselor. "There is an innocence and vitality in adolescents that endlessly recharges me," he has said. "I want to show them that life is basically a holy comedy—though sometimes a black one." By presenting his adolescent readers with mature themes, situations, and language, Westall shows respect for both their sophistication and their depth, while he continues to expand the boundaries of the young adult novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)