Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the truly great books authors are currently writing for our children and of the important, life-affirming experiences these offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts these writers give.

I was, recently, graciously awarded an MBE. It pleased me, not so much for myself, but as an affirmation of my career-long efforts to promote children's reading and the high quality literature which supports it.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

'All the house was strange. Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness. . . It was as if the house wanted her to flit silently through its secrets.'  (p 133)

An older magic

The fact that award-winning author Catherine Fisher was appointed as the inaugural Young Person's Laureate for Wales in 2014 is testament to her stature as a children's writer - if indeed any were needed beyond her considerable body of wonderful writing. 

I have been a huge fan of hers since she started writing, at the beginning of the 1990s. In those days she produced a number of outstanding fantasies for older children, much in the tradition of Alan Garner; terse, enigmatic works that drew potently on Celtic myth, particularly that of her native Wales. Three of theses first novels, The Conjuror's Game, Fintan's Tower and The Candle Man were subsequently republished together as The Glass Tower. She followed with another outstanding trilogy The Snow-Walker. All are still most definitely worth seeking out, both by adults interested in children's literature and by young readers themselves. 

Later, her powerful, imaginative writing developed more for a young adult audience. Of her many wonderful titles and sequences Incarceron stands out as one of the masterworks of the genre, although my own favourites remain those most strongly drawing on Celtic myth, to which she returns time and again, notably Darkhenge and Corbenic

Now she has produced what I think is her first major novel for younger children (7 upwards, I would say). And most welcome it is too, particularly as works of this fine quality are comparatively rare for the age-group. Beautifully crafted and sensitively written it is intriguing and exciting. It chills with its tale of snowy winter, both in landscape and atmosphere, whilst simultaneously warming with deep charm and inventive humour. 

Supreme storytelling 

Catherine Fisher's language is superficially accessible, as befits her audience, yet she proves herself brilliant at evoking place, character and atmosphere. Her word-painting shows all the honed skill of art that conceals art. It is a testament to this skill that it was only a few pages into the book before this reader felt completely drawn into the world of her protagonist. And a very cold world it is too. This is a book to read wrapped  a warm sweater, hugging a mug of  hot chocolate. 

Initially this 'Victorian' tale has something of the feel of The Secret Garden, as orphan Seren ('Star' in Welsh) arrives in a large house left desolate by the mysterious disappearance of the son of the household. Peopled with a small cast of strongly drawn characters, gripping intrigue drives the narrative relentlessly, if chillingly, forward, until it gradually morphs into something more ephemeral. Fantasy seeps in and, in the later stages, the story becomes deeply magical as it draws further into its Celtic roots. Here it is enigmatic, mysterious, almost poetic, in a way that gently echoes Catherine Fisher's earlier books, and it immerses its young audience in a  world of fantasy very different from, say, Harry Potter, but, perhaps, far more potent too. Its key is a drop of blood and a single tear. 

A crow, couplets and Christmas 

One of the imaginative triumphs of the novel is the creation of the titular clockwork crow. Superficially gruff and irascible, and indeed possibly mendacious , this tatty assembly of a creature nevertheless adds humour and warmth to the tale, and his relationship with protagonist Seren is ultimately central to a cleverly paced and structured plot.

Another of the the delightful features of the book is the inclusion, at each chapter head, of an intriguing rhyming couplet:

'Walls of ice, stars of silver,
Winter ways you'll walk forever.' (p 143)

These enhance the text magically, and add up to a lyrical synopsis of the essential story; a summation well worth the assembling. 

This is 'Fairy Tale' if you like. But it is not the Fairy Tale of Grimm or Perrault. Nor yet are these fairies from the bottom of  a Victorian garden. These folk are snow cold and terrifying.  There are perhaps echoes of Greek myth, emphasising the universality of this material. There is even more of The Snow Queen. But this is deeper rooted. This is a Fairy Tale of the Celtic people, a Fairy Tale of the western realms, a tale of the Tylwyth Teg. It was here before Anderson. It was here before we were. Long before. But it will outstay us too. And Catherine Fisher's magical book will last with it. 

For teachers, I think this would make an outstanding pre-Christmas read-aloud; one that will stretch children's language and imagination, whilst showing them that story can be completely captivating through other means than roller-coaster action or knockabout silliness. In Catherine Fisher's skilful hands, together you could start to reach gently, yet engagingly, towards the numinous. And towards Christmas too. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Glass of Lead and Gold by Cornelia Funke

'It is hard to lose a friend, especially when you have only one.'

A writer for all ages

Cornelia Funke is a world superstar writer of fantasy for children. We, and her young readers, should all be enormously grateful for her prolific output. One of her many and varied talents is an ability to write effectively for a wide range of age groups. Of course, her Inkheart sequence, for older children, is an established classic of the genre and fully deserves to be so. For rather younger children, she has recently added a charming sequel, The Griffin's Feather to her enchanting book, The Dragon Rider. Betwixt and between come many other gems, The Thief Lord and Ghost Knight being amongst my personal favourites.

Her Reckless sequence (sometimes known as Mirrorworld) is every bit as fine a work as Inkheart, perhaps finer in its own way, but it is a dark 'fairy tale', with strong, young adult themes, and is really for a 14+ audience. This particular work has had a rather chequered publishing history but now seems to have found a home in the UK with the wonderful 'Pushkin Press', and I am delight to see it Their paperback issues of the books formerly independently published in hardback thankfully adopt the full text, including the author's stunning illustrations, and will hopefully now help bring them to the wide YA audience here that they so richly deserve. 

However, what links all of Cornelia Funke's work is a an idiosyncrasy of imagination and wonderfully powerful storytelling. It stems, perhaps, from her German background and its particular heritage of children's writing, rooting back to the Brothers Grimm and beyond into Teutonic forests. She is certainly a writer with a unique voice - and a totally captivating one. 

Something old, something new 

Now, I am thrilled to say,  she had stuck with Pushkin (or they her) for the publication of this quite delightful little volume, The Glass of Lead and Gold. This is physically a small volume and it contents essentially a long short story, or perhaps a short novella. In this sense its closest publishing parallels are perhaps the Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North volumes that so valuably supplement Philip Pullman's superb œvre. 

The story is set in Londra, a 'mirror' version of London, that in many ways reflects the reality of the real Victorian city, but is also inhabited by a myriad 'faery' folk, sprites, hobs , witches, trolls and many others. In this respect it does bear some relation to the Reckless books, but otherwise, despite its teenage protagonist, it is perfectly accessible to and suitable for a younger audience too. It is  essentially a Fairy Tale, but a totally new-conceived and wondrous one. It has many of the characteristics of this genre, but adds far richer and more rounded characters as well as a much more detailed and captivating setting. 

A big little book

For such a small book, this one has an awful lot going for it. Cornelia Funke usually writes in her native German, later translated into English. Here, however, she writes straight into English and clearly demonstrates that her skill in this additional language is wonderfully strong; her prose has the vivid clarity of the very best tales and often touches in its simple effectiveness. The volume itself is beautifully produced, enhanced by the author's own pencil drawings; the sprits are a particular delight. Impoverished mudlark, Tabetha, is  subtly drawn but strong protagonist. The way she is eventually able to move, by way of many emotional ups and downs, from her allegiance to the cold, dark river 'Themse'  to a commitment to 'a human river of faces and voices', is truly heartwarming. There are also clear messages about inclusion, built around the secondary character of a girl with only one hand. In all, it is a big story between small covers.  Oh . . . And it's set at Christmas too. It would make a splendid stocking filler for many a young reader. 

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

'The real magic is imagination.'

Really twice magic?

Cressida Cowell was already a phenomenon, who enticed countless children into reading, and kept them reading, with her enormously entertaining How to Train Your Dragon series*. Then, last year she struck pure children's literature gold with The Wizards of Once. If ever a book were deservedly destined to joint the ranks of great children's classics, and delight generations now and to come, this is such a one. (See my review from September 2017.)

The question was could she perform the same magic twice? 

Of course, being the writer and artist she is, the answer is a resounding yes. Inevitably, revisiting the same characters and world, this sequel cannot have the original total freshness of the first in the series. However, this is a world and characters well worth revisiting, and they come back alive here just as captivatingly as they did before. Once again the adventure rollicks along, with a clever mixture of thrills and laughs at every turn. The pervasive humour can be witty or farcical and is, as ever, hugely enhanced by the author's copious, anarchic illustrations. Her sketchy drawings, inky doodles and scrawled annotations, so attractive and entertaining to her young audience, hide great artistic skill and sensitivity behind their apparent casualness. 

Deeper magic yet

Yet her characters have some real depth too, and engender emotional empathy as well as providing vicarious experience of magical power and derring do. What child does not want literally to fly off on the door of their former 'punishment cupboard'? Although providing villains aplenty, the  plot too has more to it than simple good v evil, and its  themes will make its young readers think, even amidst their guffaws, yelps and cheers. 

In fact, one of Cressida Cowell's great gifts to all of us who wish to promote children reading is that through enticing humour and excitement she leads young readers subtly towards the world of literature and fine writing. With its 'unknown narrator', changing perspectives, and relatively involved, extended plot, Twice Magic is actually a fairly sophisticated novel, introducing literary conventions with which children can begin to become accustomed whilst hardly realising it. It is fine writing in jesters clothing, a treasure hoard that will buy yet more riches into the future. 

More than anything though, Cressida Cowell's greatest gift of all is that of imagination; imagination in spades; imagination that engenders imagination. 

'The real magic is imagination', she herself writes, and this magical imagination is Cressida Cowell's. 

It is book that will truly help children to 'keep hoping, keep guessing, keep dreaming'.

The closing poem on page 386 says all. Every parent and teacher should stick it to their fridge door - and perhaps take its message to heart. 

'I am young, I am poor, I can offer you nothing,
All that I have is this bright pair of wings 
This air that I eat, these winds that I sleep on,
This star path I dance in, where the moon sings . . . '

Once. Twice. Magic. 

*And continues to do so. 

The Book of Dust: 1 La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Paperback Edition)

If there are any children's literature enthusiasts left who haven't read La Belle Sauvage then the opportunity of its recent issue in paperback should not be missed. This sequel/prequel to His Dark Materials wonderfully extends and expands what is undoubtedly one of the  masterworks of contemporary fantasy. (See my full review from October 2017.)

However, even for those who already own a hardback copy, this new edition is worth buying for its inclusion of new original artwork by Chris Wormell. His many striking wood engravings now augment the scale, richness and intensity of the story most effectively. Like all the very best illustrations,  they help create both the detail and the drama of  the narrative without demeaning either the author's vivid text or the reader's own imagination. They are in themselves a stunning achievement and their images will long haunt this particular reader, along I suspect with many others, so that I can now hardly countenance the book without them. 

For those who have already ridden in the 'Sauvage' they provide a compelling incentive to read it all again. In fact, if you will excuse me . . . 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

'My mother says you just have to live it and lump it,' said Hilda. 
'I won't lump it,' I said. 
'You have to,' said Hilda. 'That's all there is. Nothing's the same since the war. Nothing's the same any more.'
Except the sky, I thought. It was the same sky. (p 157)

A wonderful discovery

Whilst I always strongly advocate the use of real bookshops whenever possible (and preferably independent ones), I have to admit that the internet does provide some benefits for book buying. One such is that children's books published in North America, but not in the UK, are now much easier to get hold of than they used to be. Since these include many by quite wonderful authors, that has to be a great thing. Sadly, however, this accessibility does not currently apply to the same extent to Australian publications. Yet the Antipodes too have some truly outstanding children's writers. Thankfully there are exceptions to the sourcing difficulty,* but it does still mean that we miss out on some very fine children's books. For example, I think it is fair to say that Ursula Dubosarsky is very little known or read here. Yet I would place her in the very top rank of children's authors writing today. She is producing children's literature that is both groundbreaking and breathtaking - and often heartbreaking too. 

Happily, her latest novel for young readers**, The Blue Cat, has just become available to those here who are prepared to seek it out - an action that I would most strongly urge you to take. 

A sophisticated book for sophisticated readers

We need to be clear, though. Many of Ursula Dubrovsky's novels are great works of children's literature. This makes them something close to the children's equivalent of high quality literary fiction for adults. They are not 'airport reads'. They are not necessarily books for the many children who (understandably enough) look to reading for comforting escape, for amusing entertainment or for exciting  adventure. They are probably not books to entice reluctant readers. Although their actual language is relatively simple, and many incidents superficially quotidian,  they are actually deeply challenging in style and content.  This author throws in startling images, that would be easy to gloss past, but need instead to be savoured. Unlike Ellery!

'Ellery was sitting, reading a book. When he turned the pages, he did so quickly as though he could hardly wait for the words coming next, like gulps of food.' (p 43)

Readers need to stick with her books,  even when nothing much seems ,superficially, to be happening. They need to be able to read between lines to find the fascination, the mystery, the beauty, the tragedy and the human truth that are all indubitably there. 

Hers are, however, books for young readers who want to be transported to other places and other times; who want to be taken right inside lives very different from their own; who possess a deep sense of empathy and who want to understand more about the world in which they are growing up, even when that understanding comes at a price. It is for children who no longer believe that all dragons can be slain by bold warriors, (or even humble Hobbits) and that 'happily ever after' is far too simplistic an ending. The Blue Cat is no exception. 

The impact of war

It is set in Sydney in 1942, as the affects of  WWII impinge more an more on the lives of Australian children: many parents and older siblings go off to combat,  American forces become a familiar sight, refugees arrive from Europe, and the threat of Japanese invasion increases almost daily.  All of this is recorded principally through the eyes of of a young girl, Columba. In the hands of this author, her first person narrative catches the voice, and mind, of the child quite brilliantly. There are many things happening that Columba does not fully understand, and has to try to make sense of in her own terms, but she is also sensitive and intuitive . She feels more than she knows, and her feelings are often chillingly perceptive. 

'Everyone knew the Germans were winning and soon the Japanese would arrive and we would soon be killed, but most of the time we all pretend it wasn't happening. There were only those very quiet moments - when someone, or something, laid a frozen hand on my neck.' (P 61)

Images verbal and visual

In a particular act of inspiration, Ursula Dubosarsky integrates into her text sourced images, a period picture here, an ARP notice there, 'the sort of thing Columba might have seen and read as she roamed the streets of Neutral Bay in 1942'. Remarkably, what could have been mere illustrations are absorbed into her narrative,  adding further complexity to her verbal conjurings in a way that intriguingly suspends her tale on an enigmatic cusp between history and fiction; one that speaks of truth if not of actuality. 

UK readers need not fear though, that this Australian context will make it is a story our children will find distant or hard too relate to. Whilst the small differences in life and culture are fascinating, the parallels with life in wartime Britain are huge, and the book's themes universal at almost every level. 

And an enigmatic cat

In many senses The Blue Cat is a novel that reveals itself backwards,  even as its story moves forwards. That is to say, its ending throws much of the book into perspective, bringing many enigmatic images into sharper focus and diving down through layers of former simplicity. Only having finished its journey do you see where it was taking you all along - although you may well wish you had not. It is a truly remarkable book, and its  climactic scene in the amusement park one of the most skilfully written pieces of utter devastation I have ever read. It captures all the soul-rending horror of the Auschwitz gas chambers whilst describing something utterly different. Few if any other writers could pull it off. In closing the author quotes a poem of Friedrich Rückert, famously used as a text for one of Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children). The irony of its superficial comfort is just about as distressing in this context as it is when accompanied by the music. Read it without screaming inside if you can. Is there comfort to be had? Only in the same reality as its searing tears.  We live under the same sky. 

No book relating to the Second World War and its horrors has moved me more since I read the life-changing 0nce sequence, by another wonderful Australian writer, Maurice Gleitzman. Although here the horrors are only conjured obliquely, through metaphor, they are no les affecting. Neither writer is 'better', they are just very differently great. You need to read both.  

The Blue Cat is not a particularly long book, but it is one that needs to be read slowly, to relish its captivating detail, to pick up its delicate nuances, and to spot the rare glimpses of the elusive blue cat amidst the seemingly commonplace experiences of a war-haunted childhood. 

'I always imagined swimming like an eel or a platypus, down in the deep water where it was black as night. If I went even deeper I would be able to see nothing at all and it would be so cold I wouldn't feel anything either. I would forget I had a body. It would be as though I had turned into water, free and invisible.' (p 10)

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Is it, then, a book for children? Yes. But it is not perhaps a book for all children. It is a book for those who have the sensitivity to let startling images speak to their hearts rather than to their superficial understanding; for those who ponder, wonder, dread, hope, empathise and care. It is a book for those most aware that we do indeed all live under the same sky. 

Also available 

Two other novels by this author were published here only a few years back (from Walker Books, labelled 'World Voices') so should still be obtainable. The Red Shoe has to be another of the very finest works of young people's fiction, but again it is challenging in both style and content. Although written before The Blue Cat, this book has a setting that is just a little later, shortly after the end of WWII. It is the story of three sisters in a family whose life is seriously affected by a father traumatised by his recent wartime experience. It is again a superlative example of capturing the voice of a young child, her thinking, her emotions, and her completely individual way of seeing the world. Matilda, the youngest of the three sisters often sees more than she understands, yet she can be sensitive and naively honest too. She is a superlative fictional creation, and it is by reading between the lines of her observations that we begin to piece together the tragedy that underlies her quiet but intense family drama. The skilful  author remarkably shows how all this can be achieved through a third person, past tense narration. Although Matilda's remains the dominant voice, Ursula Dubosarsky sometimes subtly shifts perspective between the sisters. The whole is like a master class in writing, without being in the least dry or didactic. 

Once again there is an oh-so-clever, indeed a truly mind-expanding, blending of her imagined narrative with snippets of 'found' actual material, this time extracts from the Sydney newspapers of the period. They add yet more depths to a fiction that already comprises more layers than an onion. Once again the denouement of the fiction is devastatingly shocking, but this time it is followed by a more comforting resolution - thank goodness. The whole is a true masterpiece and emphatically not to be missed. 

And more awaits

In the same series from Walker Books is also The Golden Day. I haven't read that one yet, but hope to do so very soon, along with as many of her other books as I can get my hands on. 

*International blockbuster authors like Garth Nix and John Flanagan are, of course easily found, and thankfully a some very fine writers like Karen Foxlee have secured UK (and US) publication. 
**Perhaps age 11-14ish, broadly speaking. She has also written many picture books and stories for younger children, as well as non-fiction about language itself. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Book of Three (Chronicles of Prydain Book 1) by Lloyd Alexander

Welcome back, welcome anew

In a high street bookshop yesterday, I was delighted to see that The Book of Three, the opener for Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, has just been republished in a new paperback edition, under the Usborne Modern Classics imprint. 

Of course, originally written in the early 1960s, it is not actually 'magic fiction since Potter'. But what it is is one of the most important precursors of almost all subsequent 'high fantasy' for children. It is strongly rooted in Welsh landscape and mythology (especially the Mabinogion), an interest which its US author apparently developed whilst training there during WWII. However, it is far from a simple reworking but a piece of immensely powerful and hugely entertaining imaginative storytelling. It full deserves to be ranked as one of the all-time greats of children's fantasy literature, and arguably of all children's fiction. 

Today, it is perhaps not as widely renowned here as it has always been in the USA, but it fully deserves to be. I strongly recommended any UK (and other) Primary teachers, who do not already know it, to take this opportunity to add it to their repertoire. It is a real 'classic', but not in any off-putting sense.  As a read for children (9-13 ish?) it shows hardly a day of its 54 years, and remains as enthralling and exciting an extended high fantasy as you could possibly find. I truly hope the new version in the shops will bring many more young readers to discover its magic and that Usborne will extend the republication into the rest of this seminal series. 

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold

David Almond

I don't generally use this site to write about picture books. It's not that I don't like them. I love them. But I have so many wonderful novels to write up and I feel I have to try to focus my dilettante enthusiasms, at least to a degree. There has to be room for exceptions though. There just has to be room for The Dam. 

To start with, David Almond is one of our foremost contemporary writers for young people. I have admired and enjoyed his books for many years now. There is far more to him than Skellig -  a truly wonderful book, although just possibly over-used as a KS3 'class reader'. Over recent years, his wide range of other fiction, much with a North Eastern grounding, and all with a masterly economy of evocative language, has built into one of the finest canons in the genre.  My own favourite is Secret Heart, but there is not a book of his that should be missed*. 

Words that sing

Here he takes what is essentially a contemplation of the early '80s damming of the Kielder Valley in northern Northumberland. Working from a story told to him by two local folk musicians, he creates a terse lyrical text about a young girl and her father. She fiddles  a lament for what has been lost and, in doing so, conjures the 'ghosts' of past inhabitants to celebrate both the land and its music, its heritage and its beauty. 

I was going to write that David Almond's words are 'almost poetry', but that would not do them full justice. They are poetry, even if they are not verse; they dance and sing from the page as surely as the tunes from the girl's fiddle. They lament the loss of the past, but also celebrate the wild glory of the present. They do not preach and so they do not lead us to judge, only to reflect, to take joy in both past and present. His song, like the keen of her playing, weaves through the pages. 

Levi Pinfold - images that sing

Yet I am sure David Almond will not mind me saying that his text is only half, perhaps less than half, of this thoughtful and deeply affecting book. To call Levi Pinfold the 'illustrator' of this work is again to do less than justice. He is very much its co-creator and his ravishingly evocative images contribute every bit as much as the words. They not only complement but extend their touching meditation. In fact, some important aspects, such as the tender communion between father and daughter, are to be gleaned more from the pictures than from the text. If there has been a more captivating visual/verbal collaboration since the publication last year of Lost Words** then I have not yet discovered it. Levi Pinfold's images sing to the heart of the story and to the heart of the reader. He and David Almond together make Kielder a part of us all 

A lesson-plan (of sorts)

It is not often, these days, that a book gets me thinking as the classroom teacher I used to be, but The Dam was an exception in this too. So, for any teachers interested, here are some very generalised suggestions. Creative work is something that should emphatically be planned for, but not itself meticulously planned. Start with a wonderful stimulus, as this is, and just allow possibilities. (The teaching of knowledge and skills can be fed in at other times and in other  ways.)

Share and absorb The Dam. Luxuriate in it, the words, the images. Think about it. Talk about it. (What was lost? What was gained? What links them?) Above all, enjoy it. 

Then (any or all of): 
Read the final information page and find out more. 
Listen to some of the songs of Kathryn Tickell. 
Research other 'lost' villages (e.g. the 1930s drowning of Mardale Green in Cumbria to create the Haweswater reservoir). 
Find out about 'dark sky' and its importance. Read the poems Night Walker and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross (see my post from July '18). 
Think about losing a home and stories about losing a home. 
Think about wild places and stories about wild places. 
Think about (folk) music and stories about the importance of music. 

In response, let the children (any or all of): write, draw, paint, role-play, dance, play/create music, think, dream. 

Books can sing

It is a joy to welcome another fine example of just how much some picture books have to offer older children   Key Stage 2 (MG) teachers, parents, and of course children, who are neglecting this genre are missing out on a most wonderfully rich source of reading challenge, imaginative stimulation and sensuous enjoyment. 

David Almond and Levi Pinfold turn paper pages into potent dream. They float a lament for loss and a skirl of wild wonder on the air of Kielder. Books, like music, can sing to the soul. 

*Most of his novels are perhaps principally for early teens readers. 
**By Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. See my post from October '17