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, 11 November 2018

The Train to Impossible Places by P. G. Bell



'This whole stupid situation - trolls and bears and trains and just all of it - was starting to upset her. Because, while she never would have admitted it, she had always been secretly proud of her ability to understand the nuts and bolts of reality. Now, though, it felt as though that reality was tilting underneath her, threatening to throw her off. She just wanted to make sense of it again.' (p 30-31)

Infinite impossibility drive

Some fantasies create a world that, whilst clearly very different from our own, retains enough of the same cohesion and logic to feel completely credible. The very best of such fantasy worlds often provide metaphors for aspect of  our own lives too.*

There is, however, a very different quality of fantasy that is also an important feature of the canon of children's literature, one that builds a world of rampant imagination, paying little if any heed to reason as we know it.  Such are the worlds Alice finds down the rabbit hole and Milo enters through The Phantom Tollbooth. Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster and other such writers play with logic by making it illogical. In their imagined worlds illogicality becomes the dominant schema.

P. G. Bell's is just such a world: one where gravity can be redirected at the turn of a dial, so that a train can run vertically; one where, a yellow bear can be the 'firewoman' of an steam engine fuelled by fusion bananas; one where a little girl's house can be a shortcut to reroute a troll postal express. This is, after all, The Train to Impossible Places. It dos not need to embody the possible. Quite the reverse. This train travels 'from Trollville to the five corners of reality.' (p 32). It is interdimensional. Like Dr Who's Tardis, it does not conform to the laws of our physics. 

Protagonist Suzy, a girl with a logical, scientific outlook on life, is catapulted Alice-like into this impossible  world.  Through this sudden fracture of credibility, the author is able to develop a wonderful contrast between her physics, 'which always makes sense', and 'fuzzics', a totally different order for her new world', which doesn't make sense at all - and doesn't have to. It is impossible. 

And yet Suzy wants desperately to understand what is happening to her and around her.  It is this  need, in fact, that leads her to take the wild leap and board the train in the first place. Shortly afterwards, when she first comes face to face with Ursula, the on-board bear, her reaction is typical, fear superseded by curiosity. 

'It's going to eat me, she thought. Eaten by a bear in my own house. But the thought that made her saddest was this: Now I'll never get to understand what's happening.' (p 31)

Clever clever

Like Carroll and Juster before him, Peter Bell plays with words and ideas in a way that is both clever and utterly delightful. 

'In panic she saw the waves rise past the portholes. . . 
"We're sinking!" she exclaimed. 
"Actually, we're diving," said Wilmot. "It's like sinking, but on purpose. "' (p 105)

'"As a nation we're positively pecorous."
Every head turned to Neville in bewilderment. 
"Pecorous," he said. "It means 'full of cows'. No?" He looked around for a sympathetic face, but found none. "It's a terribly useful word, in the right circumstances," he muttered.' (p 130)

Rattling Tale

One problem with such illogical worlds is that it can be difficult to build a compulsive narrative within them. When absolutely anything can happen, without rhyme or reason, it is hard to engender anticipation and build tension. But Peter Bell rises magnificently above this potential constraint. His story rattles along, just like the crazy, fantastic, impossible train that it is. But then, how could it not, when it is fuelled by the atomic bananas of this author's wild imaginings?



Animated 

In many ways, this narrative has both the feel and the appeal of the very best children's animated feature films: it is zany and funny; it positively zings with cliff-hanger suspense; it is brightly coloured and  filled with eccentric but loveable characters. Wilmot, the young postmaster, dressed in a uniform many sizes too big, and trying to carry a responsibility to match, must be a strong contender for the most endearing troll in children's literature. Frederick, the less-than-honest prince enspelled into a snowglobe, is as entertaining as he is intriguing - although perhaps he isn't a prince at all. And then there is the grumpy engine driver and his 'sidekick'  'firewoman', who just happens to be a huge yellow bear. This hugely entertaining cast is vividly imagined, and, dramatically balanced by the villainous and power-hungry Crepucula, who appears to be every bit the match for Cruella, Grimhilde or Maleficent.

And through it all rides Suzy, enormously likeable, so easy to identify with in her bewilderment, her trepidation and (yes) her occasional anger, but also so admirable in her resourcefulness, her loyalty and her courage. She is the ideal protagonist, simultaneously who we are and who we want to be. 

The solutions to the plot's many dilemmas and crises jump out with predictable unpredictability. Improbable they may be, impossible certainly, but the story has more than enough twists and turns to keep any driver of this wonderful reading train steaming full pelt along its rails. And, when the destination is reached, suffice it to say that the climactic final chapters are not only thrilling but completely unexpected. What else?

In the end, as with a myriad other children's fantasies,  yet another whole universe is, of course, saved by the bravery of an ordinary child who turns out to be rather special. However, P. G. Bell's debunking of the situation is enough to turn even this cliché into a delight. 

'"How dare you put me through all that!" (Suzy) said. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in a snow globe!"
"And it was very noble of you," said Crepuscula. "Perhaps you'd like a sticker or a lollipop or something?"' (p 347)

Transatlantic treat

This is truly wonderful children's reading entertainment, some of the very best I have come across for a good while. It does not try to be profound or 'relevant', and yet its wild, imaginative invention, its clever play with ideas and its sheer liveliness of storytelling lift it into the category of fine children's fiction. 

Fortunately for transatlantic readers, there is also a US edition, with the 's' removed from 'maths' and everything. It has a great cover to boot, even though it lacks the gorgeous illustration that hides beneath the dust jacket of he UK hardback. Swings and roundabouts. But it's a rollicking, track-rattling ride on either version of the train. The impossible will make sense, for a while at least.  





Note:
*As, for example, in Dragon Daughter, which I reviewed very recently. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford



'He liked to do it this way: walking easily and leisurely from then to now just as you'd walk from here to there, so that the passage of time took on the feel of a hike along a gusty road, the years passing on all sides like buffeting leaves in a hard wind.'

A very special author

Regular readers of this blog will know that I rate US author Kate Milford as one of the most important, exciting and original contemporary writers of children's fiction. Taken as a whole, her body of work is up with the finest creations in the genre.*  So the first hardback edition of her novel Bluecrowne has to be one of my highlights of the publishing year. 

Each novel in her growing opus is essentially complete in itself. Only Ghosts of Greenglass House  can really be called a sequel (to Greenglass House, obviously). Some of her books are indeed quite different in character and atmosphere. Yet all are interrelated in intriguing ways; they are all ultimately part of the same world. Sometimes the books are linked by place, sometimes by the reappearance of particular objects. They sometimes tell stories about different generations of the same family, and many feature the same enigmatic figures, 'Jumpers' who are able to travel across  time as well as place. 

A very special world

The books cover slightly different periods from a span of history that is almost, but not quite, real history. They are not chronological in their writing order, but can be arranged into a chronology. They are set in places that are almost, but not quite, real places. They can be arranged on a map, which is almost, but not quite, a real map. They contain elements of fantasy and rich folklore and are almost, but not quite, fantasies. They are not quite like anything other than themselves; but they are very special and very wonderful. Each one is a completely enthralling read in its own right; intriguing and exciting; sometimes a little scary, but warm and life-enhancing too. Yet it is as a whole that this group of novels is at its most glorious, in building up its unspeakably rich and rewarding tapestry of hugely imaginative fiction. Many an emotional or intellectual tingle arises from gleefully recognising elements as you move from one story to another, discovering ever more of what you know, and  what you don't know, about this world and its people. It is pure reading joy, I promise you.  

A very special book

Of the various components of her world, two complete, shorter novels, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne have, until now, only been available in e-book format. Yet both are significant and hugely enjoyable works. Bluecrowne is not only an engrossing read in its own right, but also a key link between her other books. It fills in an early history for Greenglass House itself, but also links directly to The Left-handed Fate and, through the character of firework genius, Liao, to The Broken Lands. Involvement from the enigmatic 'Jumpers' also ties it back to The Boneshaker and to The Kairos Mechanism. It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to at last have Bluecrowne in book form. Even more pleasure is to be found in the fact that this is now a most handsome hardback, with a striking jacket from Jaime Zollars and enchanting internal images by Nicole Wong. These latter also subtly but effectively enhance the book's delightful representation of an ethnically diverse range of characters, with both girl and boy characters playing strong lead roles. 

Those who have already read Bluecrowne on screen need to be aware that this is not a different novel, only a new, lightly re-edited version. Nevertheless, to be able to shelve this exciting book alongside the author's others is a treat. Hopefully it will attract many new readers too, both as a follow up to the very popular Greenglass House books, and as a  lead on to Kate Milford's other novels. Because they dot about between people, places and times, they do not need to be read in any particular order.  However, though each book is outstandingly rewarding in itself,  it is her interlocking world as a whole that is her towering achievement and one of the greatest reading experiences of contemporary children's literature. Do not miss any of them. 

A very special wish

The books' American background should present no barrier to accessibility for those from other countries and cultures, and I most heartily recommend all to seek them out.  I very much hope that a matching volume of The Kairos Mechanism will be published very soon. This is in addition, of course, to my longing for Kate Milford to add further new dimensions to her wondrous world. 




See my earlier posts from September, November and December '16 and November '17. 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Legend of Sally Jones by Jakob Wegelius




Those many who, like me, are already captivated by Jakob Wegelius's uber-charming gorilla, Sally Jones, will not be able to resist this ravishing supplement to her life. Any who have not yet read The Murderer's Ape* could well be tempted by this beguiling introduction to discover the novel itself. I do hope so, because it is one of the most enjoyable, and original, highlights of recent children's fiction. 

This prequel to the novel itself has a somewhat different format, somewhere, perhaps, between a graphic novel and an older children's picture book. As such it does not provide the wondrously engrossing extended read of its 'big sister'. However it does fill in the back story of Sally Jones' life fascinatingly, including an explanation of how she got her somewhat surprising and incongruous name. Hers is, in fact, an early existence strewn with misfortune, as she is misled, betrayed, exploited and abused time after tragic time. Yet her story is ultimately a heart-warming, rather than as a heart-rending, one . Sally Jones is emotionally vulnerable in ways that will resonate with many of her readers, but she is also intelligent and resourceful; above all she is a survivor, and we ultimately rejoice in the real and lasting friendship which supports her through everything. 

What The Legend of Sally Jones lacks in the narrative detail of The Murderer's Ape, it fully makes up for in one glorious respect, its copious illustration. Whilst the longer novel beguiled us with scattered examples of Jakob Wegelius' arresting and idiosyncratic art work, this book glows with it on every single page, in ravishing pastel colour. His pictures can be amusing, intriguing, touching or beautiful. They are often all of these at the same time, altogether a delight. The different page layouts are most attractive too. If the other book is a testament to the glories of the author's enthralling storytelling , as it indeed is, then this one is a peon to the wonders of his imaginative image-making.  

Neither are to be missed at any price. Sally Jones is an ape well worth getting to know, verbally and visually. She will enrich the lives of countless children (and I suspect adults too) for many years to come.  




*See my review from Sept '17. 

Friday, 26 October 2018

Dragon Daughter by Liz Flanagan



'Milla saw a smooth, glistening expanse nestling in a deep velvet surround. There was a rounded dome inside, a light turquoise blue, dotted with dark gold speckles like the first drops of rain on stone. Gently, she wiggled her fingers down the sides and lifted it out.' (p 52)

Inside the outside

Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. But you only sleep when they're finished.

The cover of Dragon Daughter has attracted much admiration on social media, and deservedly so. Angelo Rinaldi's illustration is indeed stunning. However, it would be a tragedy if interest stopped there, because the novel it envelopes is one of the most engrossing children's fantasy reads of recent years. This is a case where we really do get 'what it says on the tin'. From the jacket, the penetratingly magical eyes of a superbly imagined blue dragon shower us with fiery sparks. On its back rides the small but defiant figure of a girl,  a vision of hope glowing from from her young face. The rose light of a new dawn catches the fringes of  her lifting hair. And everything this striking image promises, Liz Flanagan's story delivers - everything and more. 

Even though it was a long time ago, I have clear memories of trailing home from school through grey streets, in a depressing downpour, my belted gabardine raincoat and schoolboy cap soaking in more water than they repelled. I huddled swiftly along, not so much because of the weather but because of what was waiting for me,  a world of comfort to which I ached to return, the world of a book. In those day it was probably an Arthur Ransome or a Malcolm Saville, although a  very first reading of The Lord of the Rings was not far ahead. These were books I lived in, books that I simultaneously longed to finish and wanted never to end. I was desperate to get to the final pages, not simply to find out what happened, but to reach that place when everything turned out all right. At the same time I wanted the book to go on and on; I didn't want to leave its world and, perhaps most of all, I didn't want to leave the company of its characters, who felt like my very special friends. I wanted to be with them, to be like them, to be them. And, whilst I was reading, I was. 

Only very rarely since then have I found books that immersed me in quite that way. Dragon Daughter is one of them 

The dragon's egg

At the heart of this new book protagonist, Milla, is present at the hatching of a dragon and the two pair for life. 

Of course, stories about dragons abound in fantasy literature. A good number of these are dragons that, on hatching, form a unique bond with a particular human, who subsequently becomes their rider. Perhaps the most deservedly famous of authors to exploit this idea is adult sci-fi/fantasy writer Anne McCaffery. Her Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong; Dragonsinger; Dragondrums), is the element within her vast Dragonriders of Pern sequence most clearly aimed towards a Young Adult audience. It particularly stands out as amongst my all time most enjoyable reads. There are many children's books too that feature dragons, hatching eggs and riders. Amongst others writers, Cornelia Funke, Angie Sage and Cressida Cowell have all, in different ways, woven wonderful magic from these particular story elements  

So, if is is not originality of concept, then what is it that makes Dragon Daughter such an outstanding  book?



New world, new friends

For starters,  Liz Flanagan builds a convincing 'high' fantasy world of compelling intrigue that almost immediately draws us in. In has a rich balance of familiarity and freshness that we enter willingly together with that mixture  of comfort and excited stimulation that constitutes a really good read. Added to this Milla and her small group of friends are not just interesting but completely credible as characters - and hugely likeable too. It is easy to identify with them.  What happens to them as the story develops swiftly engenders that very state of mind where we desperately want things to work out well, but fear that they won't - for a good while at least.

When we are reading this book, it does not matter one jot that stories about dragon riders have been written before because we are living through every engrossing moment of this one. Only this particular story is important. This place matters because it is the one we are in.  This situation matters because it is the one we are experiencing. These characters are the ones we care about, not in some abstract way, but right here, right now. This author's imagining of the events comes alive. Everything that happens matters to Milla, so it matters to us. 

I don't know exactly what it is in the writing that creates this effect, but it is the mark of a very talented children's author.

Compelling

'In the days that followed, Milla would be glad of those wakeful hours she'd spent with her dragon. She held the memory of their closeness like a blanket around her against what happened next.' (p 294) By the later stages of the story we readers know exactly how she felt. We need all the warmth and feel good of the earlier chapters to survive the shocking trauma and heartache of the climactic later ones.

Dragon Daughter is an outstanding example of the power of story. Although the development of the narrative involves descent into revolution and bloody warfare, it remains very much the tale of Milla and her friends - and, of course, their dragons. Perhaps, indeed, this is where its true power lies. It has a human scale, whilst still dealing with huge events and themes. 

Deep wrongs

And there lies the essence of of it. The greatest thing of all about Liz Flanagan's writing, is that this book is not just a story. Into its plot she subtly but surely weaves some of today's most real and concerning themes. Embedded within her narrative is an exploration of racism, with examples of its most fundamental and heinous expression. Although seen through the veils of fantasy, its presence immediately resonates with our own world. A ' superior' society  that  treats with blatant unfairness and careless cruelty those it considers inferior feels all too familiar. Impoverished and neglected 'camps' of unwelcome immigrants only add to the picture. And, when individuals are forced, by draconian law, to wear symbols sewn on their clothing to externally badge their racial status, the horrendous parallels are obvious. 

Strident beneath all this is the despotism of  the ruling Duke. It is abundantly clear that his tyranny, and its pervasive abhorrent attitudes, stem directly from a male dominance and and unconcerned determination to maintain perceived masculine power and superiority at any cost.  Fortunately Milla, and a good few other strong female characters, are there to oppose him. It is highly pertinent, too, that they seek to replace those attitudes, not with an alternative tyranny, but with a new, inclusive and tolerant way of living in their world. It is quietly, but powerfully, a very feminist book. And three cheers for that. 

However, unlike some of the most strident feminist writers, Liz Flanagan does not demonise all males. Once imprinted by his dragon, the Duke's son, Vigo, becomes very much a 'new man', fighting alongside Milla for freedoms that should belong to all people equally. There also are other boys and men in the story, willing to stand up for what is right, and pay the cost, alongside the girls and women. And three cheers for that too.

Politics and fantasy

After writing Tehanu, the much later sequel to her renowned Earthsea trilogy, Ursula Le Guin was accused of  'politicising her delightful fantasy world'. In response she reminded us that, 'The world apart of a fantasy inevitably refers back to this world. All the moral weight of it is real weight. The politics of fairyland are ours.' * I can think of few better examples of this than Dragon Daughter. The fact that Liz Flanagan achieves it whilst still keeping everything fully accessible to a young audience, and entertainin them hugely to boot, is much to her credit. She does not lecture, but embodies her messages in her characters and their actions - and that is what great fiction does. 

'Milla's new knowledge of her own heritage still felt dangerous, incendiary as firepowder. She circled it warily. But one distant day, if they won this fight, she resolved to sit in the palace library and read every book, every sentence, every word that had ever been written (about that heritage).' (p 322). 

Thankfully there are now many books that can help girls, and indeed boys too, to envision the world as it can and should be. And this is one of them. 

Flying with a dragon

There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire, the need, in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon  as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered. 

But there is more to Dragon Daughter even than this. Its messages, both overt and subliminal, are profoundly important. 

'The dragon's must belong to everyone. The new eggs must hatch before everyone. We have to do things differently.' (p 322)

It is about revisioning the world. 

'Milla and the dragon stared at each other and the world was remade.' (p 122) So it is for readers of this wondrous book, for its duration at least - and, perhaps, through their power to imagine things being different, for ever. Now that's magic. 


Note:
* In a lecture of 1992, later published under the title Earthsea Revisioned. 


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.