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. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson

It is not the blood that flows through our veins but the love in our hearts which brings us together.’ (chap 28)

A review in two lists 

This is not the sort of book I normally read and review. Why?

List A

1. I don’t much like comedy children’s books, particularly ones that feature farcical humour, cartoonistic characters and gross caricatures. 

(I know they are popular, and get lots of children reading, which is an excellent thing. All power to them. They are just not what I choose to spend my time reading.)

2. The front cover makes this a book that I would be unlikely to pick up. 

(It looks like it might be the sort I don’t like - see item 1.)

3. It was a Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week and Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month. 

(It’s great when the media promote children’s  books, which is not nearly often enough. Even when they do, though, it is generally  limited to a very select number from the range currently available - and  sometimes not even the best ones. I often like to leave these heavily promoted books alone  and go for those deserving more attention than they get.) 

However, without much optimism, I did try the first few pages of The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates as a Kindle free sample. As a result I immediately bought the actual book from a real bookshop and couldn’t wait to carry on reading it. (I have no compunction in exploiting Amazon in this way and then giving my custom to a much more deserving independent bookshop.) 

Why did I have to eat my own words and then devour Jenny Pearson’s too?

List B (the longer and by far the more important one)

1. This book is really very funny indeed.

2. Although the plot does contain some ridiculously farcical episodes, much of the humour is also quite subtle and clever. 

(Even some of the fart jokes are quite entertaining. Viz, quote from Chapter 8: ‘A lady (was) wearing a T-shirt which said What do you make with onions and beans? on the front. I considered this for a while but when she turned around the answer was on the back. It was Tear gas.’)

3. When protagonist Fred, discovers, near the start of the story, that his beloved Grandma has died, it is very sensitively and quite movingly handled. 

(There are touches of humour even here. Viz: Fred cannot understand why his Gran has been given a certificate just for dying, when he had to do all sorts of stuff to get his gold one for swimming. These only contribute to the emotional pull of his loss. It was this early section that actually caught me as a reader and made me want to read the rest. It means you care about Fred from the start and want to know what happens to him.)

4. Much of the humour comes from the endearing charm of a young boy who is sensitive and thinking but who doesn’t yet totally ‘get’ the adult world. 

(As per the death certificate.)

5. Fred’s journey is about finding his biological father, who he has never known. Now you care about Fred, this is a very important and involving goal, and gives the trip a deep humanity, which it keeps regardless of the silliness of many of his adventures on the way.

6. Fred’s genuine and very heartfelt motivation makes for a totally absorbing and compelling story.

7. Fred’s two young companions on his journey, Ben and Charlie, are also escaping problems in their home life, and arouse similar empathy.

8. In her three young protagonists, Jenny Pearson captures the authentic thoughts, feelings and behaviours of young boys  quite wonderfully. 

(Even  when their situation becomes ludicrous, they feel totally credible and leap off the page as characters.)

9. Ditto the dialogue, which is often quite  brilliant.

10. Ditto her ability to understand and capture exactly the sort of friendship relationship often found between between  adolescent boys. 

(The way it switches between good-natured joshing, and apparently serious falling out without ever really losing its ongoing closeness, commitment and loyalty.)

11. Ditto her handling of the rich and complex relationship between Fred and his step-father.

12. There is a pleasing sense of  the book representing , and ultimately celebrating diverse but inclusive aspects of our society. 

(Charlie is ‘sturdy’, Ben is black, all three are from homes that, although ultimately loving and supportive,  are not straightforwardly comprised. Diversity amongst the young protagonists  is reinforced in Rob Biddulph’s illustrations. )

13. The lead character is a boy. 

(Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the balance bring redressed in favour of strong female leads, after decades of negative stereotyping in books, as in life. But just at the moment children’s novels with girl leads are so ubiquitous, that it is actually a welcome change to find a boy protagonist. I repeatedly push the message that books about girls are not only for girls. Even  so, boys do sometimes still need to see themselves as main characters in the books they read.)

14. For a very funny book, it can get remarkably philosophical at times.

“Did you know it is a genuine fact that it is physically impossible for a pig to look up at the sky.” 
I turned to him and said, “What?”
“I read it on a yoghurt once.” He looked over at the window. “Imagine never seeing the stars and then being slapped between some bread, lettuce and tomato.” 
It came out of nowhere, so I said, “What?” again. 
“No matter how bad things get at least we’re not pigs. At least we can look up and see the stars.”’ (chap 20)

15. The whole episodic narrative is cleverly tied together not only by Fred’s search for his biological father but by an almost metaphysical exploration of what is and is not a miracle. 

(Jenny Pearson’s book turns out to be a super miraculous journey too.)

16 And it’s really very funny indeed. 

(Did I say that already? Perhaps what I mean is . . . )

16. Despite all this it is a very funny book indeed.

(Actually, its because of a lot of it.)

In all Jenny Pearson has given a remarkable gift to children’s reading, creating a hugely entertaining book that has kid appeal in spades and still manages to say a great deal about genuinely important things in young lives and say them in a very supportive, nurturing way.

Were I still teaching in Key Stage 2 it would be high on my list of books to enthuse children about  reading and to show them how much it has to offer.  

Sorry, Jenny Pearson , about List A, but thank you too. I shall try to be more open-minded in future. I could have missed so much.

It’s a bit like pigs not knowing about the stars. I needed to change my viewpoint to see what had been there all along.’ (chap 28)

There’s a US edition too

Monday, 20 July 2020

The Promise Witch (The Wild Magic Trilogy Book 3) by Celine Kiernan

Cover and interior illustrations: Jessica Courtney-Tickle

No comparison 

This children’s (MG) trilogy takes me right back to my original theme of magic fantasy.

It is a work with many exceptional qualities. In fact, it is as exciting an example of ‘magic fiction since Potter’ as I have come across in quite a while. A cover quote calls Celine Kieran ‘Ireland’s answer to J.K. Rowling’, but this is not a comparison I find particularly helpful. The two seem to me to have relatively little in common, beyond authoring fantasy for children. Although The Wild Magic Trilogy is unlikely ever to achieve the global cult status of Harry Potter, in terms of the quality of its writing, the richness  of its imagination and the resonance of its themes I rate it by far the better work.

Celine Kieran established herself as a notable writer with a string of very successful YA novels. In now producing a work for a rather younger readership she has done something very special for this age group too. She started off with Begone the Raggedy Witches and followed it by The Little Grey Girl.  Just recently she has completed the trilogy in fine style with a truly magical finale, The Promise Witch.

Breathtaking language 

For openers, few writers for young people match the beautiful, flowing cadence of Celine Kiernan’s prose. Without being in any way pretentious or flowery, she constructs language that flows mellifluously over the reading ear. Even her simple sentences have lovely balance, both in themselves and in relation to those around them. Here again we have an example of the remarkable way with words that seems to epitomise Irish writers. I am sure these books would read aloud wonderfully. 

Whilst she  eschews the current fad for writing in the first person present tense, her narrative is vivid and compelling. She takes us intimately and intensely inside the thoughts and feeling of young protagonists Mup, as she flies around her castle home, as she is dragged from her body to ‘spirit walk’ in the company of a ghost girl, as she is entrapped inside the crystal of a witch’s pendant  and as she excercises her particular talent of envisioning the path between worlds. 

Old magic, new magic 

These stories manage to capture the essence of  ‘classic’ magical fantasy, but expressed with an originality of imagination that stops them from being in any way clich├ęd or blatantly derivative. They embrace numerous exciting and entertaining elements, many traditionally associated with witches; flying, shape shifting, curses and enchantments, even necromancy. Yet they are reimagined in the context of a fresh-feeling and totally captivating story. Here too are a rhyming crow-boy, a younger brother who prefers the form of a scamp of a puppy dog, ghosts (mainly friendly), an awesomely powerful witch mother, a ‘clan’ of Romany-like people living in vardos, and of course the terrifying raggedy witches of the first title. The most horrendous of them all of them actually Mup’s grandmother. And then there is young Mup herself, as vulnerable as she is strong, and wearing her pyjamas through the whole nightmare journey of this concluding part.

Celine Kiernan’s is ‘old magic’, rooted in folklore, making her closer in tradition to Alan Garner and Susan Cooper that to the invented shenanigans of ‘Wingardium Leviosa’. These archetypal elements are reimagined as a battle between malevolent power, dominance and exploitation, and a life of enlightened benevolence, education and individual worth. 

Celine Kiernan’s  story is rich and compelling. Her young characters are completely engaging, and her evil ones truly terrifying. The skilfully subtle chapter head vignettes from illustrator Jessica Courtney-Tickle enhance the magic without denying the right of the reader picture for themselves. 

This third book revolves around the restoration of a cursed and parched land, through the hunting down and final defeat of the former witch queen, Mups grandmother. There is humour here as well as thrilling scariness and tension aplenty. But the story itself has an almost poetic feel to it too. It is ethereal, almost airy. It is a tale of sacrifice, of atonement, of forgiveness, in a world that, although completely credible, is never fully real.  It is truly other; a magical other realm. It is the Glittering Land. This too is the heritage of the Irish. 

Close up magic

But despite its otherworldliness the Witches Borough still reflects back to us  the big issues of our lives, death, loss, selfless  bravery, hope - and love. The book’s ultimate message is powerful - and profoundly beautiful. It shows us the utter loneliness of those who know nothing but hatred and cruelty. Against this,  it reflects back to us the combined magics of caring and healing, that can turn the parched world velvet with new grass.

‘Inside, the castle was alive with many different kinds of people . . . working together with innumerable magics. . . The green was spreading out from the castle. Soon it would hop from village to village, from town to town as even more people joined their magics to the brew.’ (p 170)

Even though the  raggedy witches destroy each other through their own selfishness and greed, their influence seems vast. But it is not so huge that it cannot be defeated.

‘And everything was right again. . . The gentlest summer rain began to fall. Everyone turned their faces to its caressing touch, and smiled as it washed them clean.’ (p 209)

Here then is a final huge distinction between Celine Kiernan and J K Rowling. Harry Potter is a hero. Although many others are involved, at the end of the day it is down to him alone to defeat Voldemort, just as it is down to Frodo alone to take the One Ring to the Crack of Doom. But Mup is not that sort of hero, she is not a weapon, she is the pathfinder, a channel, spreading the magic of others out into the world. The message of this book is far more relevant today. It is not a message about the power superheroes, it is a message about the magic of us all. 

‘There’s nothing broken in the world that cannot be fixed, if people have the will to fix it. We need to work together in all our differences. We need to walk together on all our many, varied paths. We need to listen in every language. We need to,speak every truth.’ (p 211)

And, whilst messages in this books are vital to children, its final ones of all are perhaps especially for parents and teachers, for it ends with a passionate endorsement of education and its real meaning.

‘All (Doctor Emberly’s) pupils really wanted was for their beloved teacher to set them free.’ (p 212). 

It may be the last day of term at the school in theWitches Borough Castle, but that is not the only freedom implied. 

Although Celine Kiernan seems to have received accolades and awards aplenty in Ireland, I do not think The Wild Magic is yet getting the huge attention in deserves here. Ireland has produced, and is still producing, some of the world’s finest writers. This includes writers for young people and Celine Kiernan is a star amongst them. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

York (Book 3) : The Map of Stars by Laura Ruby

Jacket art: Sasha Vinogradova

‘“That’s not a machine, that’s magic,” said Jaime
“Same thing,” Tess said.’  (p 476))

A new York

I have been an admirer of Laura Ruby’s writing for some time and was very excited by the first book in her York trilogy, The Shadow Cipher, when it came out back in 2017. Now, following on from last year’s The Clockwork Ghost,  her full story of three very special kids in a fantastically reimagined New York has been completed with Part 3, The Map of Stars. It has turned out to be just as devastatingly wondrous as I anticipated, just as entertaining, but far more meaningful too. It is not only funny, intriguing and compelling, but intelligent, complex and challenging.

In a context where I have to admit that I put down many new children’s books with a sigh of ‘same-old-same-old’, I value originality of invention very highly indeed. But of course it is not in itself enough to result in a great book. It needs to be matched by excellent writing and skilful storytelling. The York trilogy in its entirety displays all of these qualities in spades, as indeed does this last volume in its own right.

The Map of Stars has, in fact, many different strengths, almost any of which could have made for a fine book on its own, but which together add up to something very special indeed.

Mechanical magic

The phrase that comes most readily to mind in respect of Laura Ruby’s version of New York, and her tale of the shadow cipher, is ‘weird and wonderful’. Theo, in the story, quotes the well known phrase from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’. The sentiment is very apt. 

Laura Ruby’s is not New York quite as we, or anyone, knows it. One of the delights of this trilogy is the amount of creative invention that has gone into building its world, or more specifically its city. Whilst this New York has reference points to the real location, it is embellished with many imaginative creations that are part steampunk, part Sci-fi, part fantasy. These are the supposed legacy from Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr, genius inventor twins and developers of the city from the 19th Century. These same twins are the supposed instigators of the ‘Old York Cypher’. Their amazing contribution to the city include the 'Underway', a weird part-subterranean railway, that ,when it emerges overground,  loops and spirals spectacularly around the city's skyscrapers. Some of the buildings themselves have elevators that move horizontally and well as vertically and take irregular, erratic routes between floors. And then the streets are kept clean by 'rollers', mechanical creatures that emerge from traps in the roadway, gather the trash and roll it away, much in the manner of scarab beetles. The city is full of  the magic of machines; it is imagination made (almost) concrete.

This fantastic world continues as a major presence in the last volume, although its future is increasingly and devastatingly under threat. 

Smart kids

Together with a friend, Jaime, the twins Tess and Theo, who are the story’s young protagonists, are themselves amongst the unbounded delights of this trilogy. Beautifully realised as characters they leap off the page. Their banter is a frequent joy and sometimes laugh-aloud hilarious. They are also very distinct and 'real' as personalities. Theo is a boy who, in our world, could very well end up diagnosed as 'on the autistic spectrum'. 

‘For the gazillionth time, Theo wondered what had happened to that blonde woman, where she had disappeared to . . . And then he wondered why he was thinking in nonsense words like gazillionth. Which was totally not a number.’ (p 38)

His twin, Tess, becomes so obsessed with totally speculative risks that she could almost be called 'paranoid'. 

(She was) a whirlwind, a worrier, a jitterer, a heaver, a kicker. Her knees danced, her thoughts spun and knitted themselves into nightmares even when she was awake.’ (p 17)

Their friend, Jamie, living with his Grandmother, has to cope without  parents, his mother dead and his father long-term absent. 

Yet it is made easy for us as readers to identify with them, to care about what happens to them.

Other more minor characters are an equal joy. One of my absolute favourites is the eccentrically dressed young Cricket. In this third book, she is devastated by the loss of her pet raccoon, Karl. And not all of the best, or most significant characters are human. Jaime’s tiny robot, Ono, may only ever say two things, ‘Oh no!’ and  ‘To the Land of the Kings’, but neither the story nor its outcome would be the same without him. And on top of all this, Tess and Theo have an odd, giant lynx-cat pet, who also plays a prominent role throughout.

At the start of this third volume, all the young characters are at a low ebb. ‘Nobody and nothing is fine any more.’ But then that is apt for the final part of a trilogy. There is a long way to go before things can be completely all right again, if they ever are, and an awfully big adventure awaits. It is also a completely gripping one. Although this is a third thick brick of a  book in  a row, like its predecessors it feels far too short a read.

Beyond puzzling

Within this very special setting,  the first book started out as what felt like an example of a classic genre in American children’s literature, a puzzle solving adventure. Tess, Theo and Jaime seek to save the city they know by following the clues of the  hitherto unsolved Old York Cypher. However, as the books unfold, an apparently simple trail of  challenges segues into something quite other, something far more complex. Mystery is layered upon mystery, enigma on enigma and it is through the puzzle itself that the real conundrums of the book come to light. By this third instalment, more and more disturbs the children, and the reader, as the twins start to see connections between themselves and the Morningstarrs, as present and past become confusingly interlinked in ever darker and more complex ways. The children become increasingly uncertain  about their role in events, even as the threat from shifting villainy becomes stronger and more deadly.

Clues and solutions seem to fall into place too neatly, almost of their own accord. Are the children in control or simply being controlled, and by who? What is happening to them becomes more the mystery than the mystery itself. It is all deliciously, thrillingly intriguing.


Contributing strongly  to all this, Laura Ruby’s writing is a masterclass in complex storytelling. She shares the chapters of  her narrative between the slightly different perspectives of her three protagonists. Sometimes she even shifts viewpoints further to those of other characters, good and bad. Occasionally she slips us backwards or forwards in time too. Some chapters contribute to sudden revisions of our understanding, or re-evaluation of characters and motives. Others only mystify us further. She even, at one point, allows us to share directly the experience of Cricket’s missing Racoon, Karl. But through it all she builds intricately towards a climax that shakes our foundations as readers as dramatically as it does those of the city.

Whose world is it anyway?

And yet there is still more to admire in this book. Laura Ruby, clearly enjoys working contemporary relevance into her reimagined reality, sometimes with wicked humour, sometimes with a kindly smile, and at other times with passionate commitment. More power to her pen for that. Some of her references are ‘in jokes’, some cultural allusions, and some political comment or important moral standpoints. Rampant capitalism certainly receives its deserved comeuppance, as does self-serving political ambition. Perhaps even more importantly, there are interwoven polemics on global warming, on abuse of the planet, on animal experimentation, on distorted history and on the insidious legacy of slavery. Some of its themes could not be more relevant to a world where black lives really must matter. Equally, the  obviously heartfelt promotion of feminism is threaded through the fabric of the story, as are strongly positive  models of  multiculturalism, inclusion and tolerance. I did, wonder, ar one stage, whether the author is trying to cover too many of  global society’s issues in one go. But then our children are growing up in a society that needs to adress all of these problems, so why should this not be reflected in a book? In any case, all of these issues are cleverly, often subtly, interwoven into the narrative and never disrupt the helter-skelter of the ever evolving  and continually involving story. Hopefully its many messages will register and resonate with young readers and help them grow a better world that the one they inherit. Tess thinks she and they should try, as do we all. 

On the lighter side, but important too, I trust they will recognise, and perhaps explore for themselves, some of the truly fine novels Cricket finds on her mom’s bookshelves. And the many fans of Anne Ursu (as I am, big time) will, I am sure, quickly recognise the title and plot borrowed for the movie that the twins watch with their father in Chapter 13. The original book is another well worth exploring, if readers have not already done so.

Weird and wonderful 

But even all of this is not the whole shattering glory of York. As this third volume develops, the fantasy that has been lurking, on the edges of the story, starts seeping through its seams. Finally much of the seemingly impossible floods into the narrative, increasingly the only possible explanation,

One retort from the irrepressible young Cricket in deeply indicative:

‘“I don’t think the word ‘wackadoo’ is in the dictionary, dear,” said (her) mother.
 “I’m not bound to the dictionary any longer, Mother. I’m not bound to anything. I am BOUNDLESS.”’ (p 118)

In a similar way, Laura Ruby is not bound by reality. She is UNREAL. Yet her characters, especially her young protagonists, are very grounded in human truth and her bizarre version of New York contains much that is more horrifically real than we might imagine. The wonderful Ursula K Le Guin wrote of science fiction/fantasy, ‘It is a strange realism, but it is a strange reality.’* Laura Ruby’s trilogy illustrates this with shattering potency. It is as brilliant as it is terrifying.

And if, in the end, this enigmatic story asks more questions that it answers, then what else could it do without being trite or sentimental? We all need to learn that all time is eternally present. But it is not easy. I am sure young readers will understand better than we do. 

‘Maybe they were all the Cipher, were all the treasure. . . . Maybe they were all the treasure they ever needed. Maybe the world wasn’t perfect, and it wouldn’t be, no matter how many times they tried. 
But that didn’t mean they shouldn’t try.’ (p 494)

Although a very different work, grounded in a very different culture, this trilogy is the closest I have come across to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in terms of its scale and scope, its quality of imagination and writing, the depth of its multi-layered challenge and the commitment of its socio-moral-ethical intent.
It is quintessentially about New York. But it is only about New York in so far as we are all New Yorkers.


*In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (now published TerraIgnota, 2019)

 In York: The Map of Stars, Laura Ruby cleverly adapts the famous ‘Turk’, a hoax chess playing automaton, originally from the 18th Century, into an element of her shadow cipher. Out of interest, there is a fascinating and most entertaining children’s novel based more centrally on ‘The Turk’: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Cover: George Ermos


I don’t have a particular policy to review American children’s books. In fact I don’t have a policy at all, other than to write about books I have really enjoyed and can enthusiastically recommend to children, parents and teachers. I do sometimes try to avoid the trending titles that many others are blogging about, unless they are so good I can’t resist. However, it just happens that a string of US authored titles have been amongst my recent favourite reads. And perhaps it isn’t a bad thing for me to try to draw attention to them. Although we undoubtedly have some children’s writers of the very highest calibre in the UK, it would be a serious mistake for young readers here to neglect US authors. Amongst many admittedly mediocre offerings from over the Atlantic (as there are here too, of course) are to be found some of the world’s greatest contemporary children’s books and writers.

And a shining example is Lauren Wolk.  


Cover: Gelrev Ongbico

‘If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?’ (p 228)

Only a relatively few novelists produce a masterpiece with their first book. Richard Adams’ Watership Down and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now come to mind as examples, and, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lauren Wolk did it too with her debut young readers’ book, Wolf Hollow in 2016 *. Ever since its publication she has been awarded accolades and  lauded as a worthy successor to Harper Lee’. Although I have a general skepticism towards inflated book jacket claims, I can fully see the justification for this particular comparison.

Lauren Wolk seems to specialise in books about small, remote communities and relatively recent history. Wolf Hollow sets this precedent, recounting a short period in the life of a young girl in a rural American township, towards the end of World War II. Through the exquisitely caught voice of its narrator, Annabelle, it vividly evokes the narrow, isolated life of a small township that has changed relatively little in its ways to meet the twentieth century, and even less so in its mores and attitudes. A story of school bullying, and the unreasonable violent antagonism that feeds it, evolves in a context of fear of the USSR and threats of imminent nuclear attack, perhaps exaggerated into paranoia by the politics of the times. This expands into a book about prejudice and intolerance more personally focused and directed against a strange, lone man who is actually suffering the traumatic after-effects of fighting in the First World War. 

Annabelle’s deeply compassionate, but ultimately inadequate, attempts to put this world to rights are at the heart of this profoundly human story. It is occasionally funny, but more often harrowing and deeply disturbing, made more so by the author’s skilful ability to have us live through every minute alongside her young protagonists. 

Lauren Wolk often uses a clever technique of hinting at things to come, often at the close of a chapter, without in any way explaining them. This adds an intriguing compulsiveness to read on; psychological cliff-hangers. As with other great novelists, she shows us our world in microcosm, and what we see is not always pretty. But seeing may ultimately help us to change things.It is a truly fine book, even as it is a difficult one to read. 

Is it a children’s book? It is certainly about a child, although one in the process of growing up, on many levels. Perhaps it is readers on the cusp of childhood/adulthood, whenever that many come, who will identify most readily. But it is a book for those children who are ready for it, and for all the rest of us who may not be, but should be.

Sparkling sea

Cover: Tang Yau Hong

Some of the authors who produce an early masterpiece, never seem to achieve quite the same level of inspiration again. Not so Lauren Wolk. This follow-up book is also very special indeed. It is simultaneously like and unlike her previous title. This time the small (even smaller) community is an island one, and her story set slightly earlier in history, although still not in the distant past. It is 1925 and, ever since she washed ashore in a small boat as an abandoned baby, a girl who has come to be known as Crow has been brought up by, ‘Osh’, a recluse living on a tiny island in the Elizabeths, off the coast of Massachusetts,. In this surrogate parenting he is significantly aided by Miss Maggie, a spinster from another island just across a tidal reach. 

At one level, it is another story about prejudice. Crow is aware that she is different, having  a skin colour not shared by the other islanders. Further, suspecting that she originated from a nearby leper colony, all but Osh and Miss Maggie shun her physically. However Beyond the Bright Sea is a far more lyrical book than Wolf Hollow. It is a hymn to simple, remote island life, the sea and shore and wind, as well as a condemnation of intolerance and small-mindednes . Its developing storyline does involve a pirate treasure and a malevolent villain who will will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. This gives the tale more of a feeling of a children’s adventure than her last. Yet this is not the heart of the story. The essence of the tale lies in Crow’s search to discover not only who she is, but who she wants to be. But what could, in other hands, be a cliched theme, here glows with the truth of simple humanity, expressed through the most potent writing.

Whilst Lauren Wolk does not go in for unrealistic ‘happily ever afters’, this is a more positive book than her first, heartwarming rather than harrowing, but a no less a fine a piece of writing for that. 


US edition

‘I was an echo-girl. When I clubbed a fish to death, my own head ached and shuddered. When I snared a rabbit, I knew what it meant to be trapped. And when I pulled a carrot from the sheath of its earth, I, too, missed the darkness.’ (p 16)

However superb her first two books, neither of them rival the sheer lyrical potency and beauty of  language that is Echo Mountain. Ever skilful, Lauren Wolk, seems to continue to grow in skill as a writer. If Wolf Hollow is one of the most powerful books I know for young readers (and it is), then Echo Mountain is one of the most exquisitely written. Here still are the gripping narrative cliff-hangers and the devastating heart-pulls, but they are wrapped in a peon to nature; to the wild, simple, rustic life; to the place that is Echo Mountain, and all it represents; to much that is lost, and even more that could be. The intense, raw nature of the mountain and the emotional sensitivities of protagonist, Ellie, echo each other.

Her kind of courage (my mother’s) had very little wild in it. Very little of the mountain. Which was all I had - wildness- though plenty of it. And of several sorts: not one vast thing, but as varied as trees. As flowers.’ (p 101)

It is 1934 and, as a consequence of the Great Depression, Ellie’s family have been forced to move from city life  into a remote part of New England and there begin to follow a much poorer, but also a much simpler life, including the building of their own cabin. For most of them it is a difficult and demanding wrench, but Ellie is immediately at home there, and in many ways becomes the strength of the family, the potential for  life and growth amidst the ruins of what has been,

‘When I climbed down to sit in the bowl of that ruined house, cupped in that granite hand, sheltered by the trees growing up in it, I felt strong and able, too. A mountain girl. Smart. Quick. On my way to wise.’ (p 38)

Healing the heart

The book is essentially about healing, and Ellie is the healer, or at least the agent of healing. And hers is the healing of nature, of the mountain. 

Not long after the move, Ellie’s father is badly injured whilst felling a tree, and ends up in a deep and enduring coma. Nor is he the only one sick. Her mother seems hardened not only by the loss of her former life, but now prevented from  grieving her beloved husband only by the slenderest and most tormenting of hopes. Ellie’s older sister does not adapt much better, and the grim coping strategies of both mother and daughter barely hide much inner pain. Only Ellie’s younger brother retains the wayward vigour of his years, although he too misses his father badly. 

When Ellie discovers an old ‘hag’ living higher in the mountain, a woman who is decidedly not a witch many think her but a nature healer herself, she too turns out to be seriously hurt. And even the young boy from the ‘other side of the mountain’, himself an important and rich character in the evolving story, suffers a bad eye injury that needs Ellie’s ministrations.

The narrative develops slowly, full of fascinating, vivid detail of Ellie’s life and her gradual understanding of who she is and what she can achieve. This gifts the reader time and space to get to know her and those who make up the tiny community in which she spends her days. But it is the mountain itself that becomes a dominant element in her story. The book’s healing, Ellie’s healing, is the healing of nature. Although, in the end, conventional medicine is not denigrated, it is her ability to echo the wild, to see everything as connected, as part of the same whole, that makes her, and her apparently simple story, so powerful, so universally truthful and so relevant to us all. 

Time and again Lauren Wolf’s writing takes the breath away, with its mastery of language, its ability to catch thoughts perfectly, to express the seemingly inexpressible, to capture a moment, a feeling or an experience with a few simple but skilfully manipulated words.

‘The morning began as any morning might - a matter of yawns, squinting at the weather, wobbling on the tightrope between yesterday and tomorrow.’ (p 71)

And perhaps, in this third book, Lauren Wolk, has found a healing for her own authorial spirit too, for here, for the first time, is a truly happy ending. It is not trite or sentimental, her characters are too rich and complex for that, her language too vital, her humanity too real. But it is warm, and comforting and as wild and sweet and natural as her mountain.; an echo of love that bounces back from its crags, its forested slopes.

A present of the past

Lauren Wolk unfolds Ellie’s narrative in the past tense and, like the very best of writers, knows how to bring a recount to life through vivid evocation, leaving space for readers to draw it into their own present through the immediacy of their envisioning. 

I know of only a few current writers for young readers who can match her. Her understanding, Her affirmation of life.

She can, of course, say it much better than I. 

     ‘The closer we got to the cabin, the more I was able to see what the bear saw in the eye of the purple aster, what the crow saw from her topmost nest, what any untamed creature knew from the moment it first opened its eyes: that life is a matter of moments, strung together like rain. To try to touch just one drop at a time, to try to count them or order them or reckon their worth - each by each - was impossible.
      To stand in the rain was the thing. To be in it.
      Which I would do.’    (p 297)

Echo Mountain is recently out in a very handsome hardback, with a paperback presumably to follow fairly soon. All  Lauren Wolk’s books are available in UK editions, so there should be no problem finding them - preferably from an independent bookseller, if you wish to buy them.

*She had written a novel for adults quite a few years earlier.

Monday, 6 July 2020

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Very American - in a good way

There is a certain approach to children’s literature at which certain American writers seem to excell. These are books that chronicle a particular period of daily life, but in doing so take readers right inside the thoughts and feelings of  a narrating child. They do not generally concern themselves with the ‘conditions’ which affect some children (autism, ADHD, dyslexia and the like) as do some excellent UK titles, but rather with relationships, issues of family and school life; matters that may seem relatively small in the great scheme of things, but loom very large to the children concerned. For the most part they do not recount dramatic events and exciting adventures, but by detailing the minutiae of daily experience thereby elucidate the universal. They take young readers right inside the heads of their lead characters and help them to understand more richly and deeply the lives of others, and their own.

I know of few, if any, authors who better exemplify this remarkable type of writing than Rebecca Stead. 

What is the truth?

Her book Liar and Spy gained many nominations and awards, on both sides of the Atlantic, when it was published just a few years back. Justly so; it is fully deserving of contemporary classic status, and remains a strong recommendation. It should be amongst library stock for all schools and in as many homes as possible. The voice of young Georges (named after Georges Seurat, hence the ‘s’) is beautifully caught, poignant and funny, and we really get inside his minute-by-minute perceptions of life in a most endearing way. Although the action is largely confined to a few days within a Brooklyn apartment block, into which Georges and his father have just moved, its gentle pace gradually unfolds an intriguing mystery, although it ultimately turns out to be not quite the one expected. It is an entertaining and often amusing read, but, underneath, has a great deal of importance to say about truth and lies, reality and illusion (or perhaps delusion). This author truly understands the importance of family and friends from a child’s perspective, and elucidates issues around coping with change, exposing the need to accept and value differences in others. Liar and Spy is most cleverly written and its superficial simplicity, of both language and storytelling, subtly conveys complex and rich humanity. 

Things that shouldn’t change and things that should

Rebecca Stead’s most recent book is another rather unobtrusive triumph. The List of Things That Will Not Change, is, as the title suggests, also about a child coping with change. Once again it is a quite breathtakingly skilful and poignant in capturing a child’s voice, this time that of Bea, as she copes with a parental split and the prospect of her father’s remarriage. This will bring her not only a new parent but a step-sister as well. Like Georges, Bea is often amusing, as well as touchingly honest in sharing her thoughts, hope and fears, as the wedding approaches and her domestic situation shifts and reshapes. Her situation is complicated by the fact that her father’s impending marriage will be a gay one. Although this presents no problem to Bea herself, it does to others, and the book sensitively deals with issues of prejudice and intolerance. However, its outcomes are reassuring and ultimately heartwarming. It is an understanding book that will help children understand and accept. It is vitally important that as many of our children as possible grow up with intuitive awareness of the inestimable value of all people, irrespective of gender, race or religion; that they simply accept as normal of a range of different loving relationships, partnerships and family grouping. This is exactly the sort of book that will help enormously in reaching towards such aspiration. 

US edition

Still very American - and still in a good way

I perhaps need to say again that these are books that to UK readers will feel very American. They demonstrate yet again that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. There were certainly occasions when I had to look up their meaning of particular words. Even more than unfamiliar  vocabulary, the social systems in which the young protagonists of these books live, their schools, food, treats, homes and families, can seem very strange to us. But I cannot see this as anything but a good thing. Such books offer young readers important insights into a national culture with considerable global influence. Through them they can come to appreciate not only what is different about America and Americans, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how very much basic humanity we all share. They offer vital lessons in understanding and in empathy, without any hint of didacticism.

These are probably not books for novice readers, but thoughtful, sensitive children will find them life-enriching, engaging and endearing, as well as highly entertaining.

I included an earlier title from Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me, in my recent recommendations of books about time travel.I have also previously reviewed Bob, which she co-authored with  Wendy Mass and is further distinguished by copious illustrations from one of my favourite book artists, Nicholas Gannon. Both of these are well worth seeking out too.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill

It’s great to see a new UK paperback edition of a hugely enjoyable earlier novel from the brilliant US children’s author, Kelly Barnhill. Don’t miss this chance to catch up with it. (See my review from  January ‘15.)

Twilight Hauntings by Angie Sage

Cover: Justin Hernandez

Septimus Heap . . . and then

Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series (Magyc, Flyte, Physik, Queste, Syren, Darke, Fyre) is one of children’s literature’s finest long fantasy sequences. It may not be the same massive cult phenomenon that is Harry Potter, but then what is? It is every bit as engaging, building a rich and highly imaginative magical fantasy world over seven wonderful stories, each as captivating as the last and building into an overall epic tale, that, whilst huge, never looses its accessibility or appeal for young readers. It is filled with engaging characters and wonderfully grotesque villains and bursts alive with both highly entertaining humour and thrilling storylines. It manages to be spine-tinglingly scary with out ever being disturbingly macabre; dark fatasy with a light touch, if you will. Septimus himself is one of the most endearing, if humanly fallible, of fantasy protagonists, and the whole saga is spot on for a readership of around 8-12. It is a children’s fantasy writing triumph.. 

Todhunter Moon . . . but too little of her

When Angie Sage rounded off  Septimus Heap it in 2011, with a seventh and seemingly final title, Fyre, it left a huge whole in many children’s reading lives, as well as the hanging question: how do you follow that? However, she soon succeeded. By continuing the world of Septimus into a new new generation, with former characters as adults and a brilliant new cast of young characters, this time led by a girl, Todhunter Moon, she kept her wonderful creation alive, whilst invigorating with a totally fresh feel. It was the perfect solution, delighting her many fans that they could come back to her books, whilst completely banishing any feeling of staleness. This new series (Pathfinder, Sandrider, Starchaser) retains all the many qualities of the first, whilst adding layers of vibrant imagination, to her hugely entertaining magical enchantments.

(By the way, the American editions, enriched with sumptuous illustrations by Mark Zug, are ravishing books to boot.)

So what is very strange, almost incredible, is that the Todhunter Moon series, seems to have come to a halt, after just three books, when it gave every impression of having the potential for a sequence equalling the first in both length and quality. It is one of the biggest disappointments in recent children’s publishing.

Instead of more of these, the author went on to publish (in America) an interesting and enjoyable, but rather untypical, stand alone novel Maximilian Fly.

And now . . . Enchanter’s Child

However, now there is some very good news. It is doubly exciting that not only does Angie Sage have a new children’s fantasy novel out, Twilight Hauntings, but it is designated as Book 1 of  ‘Enchanter’s Child’, so there is definitely more to come. 

Here the author  has created a totally new high fantasy world. Although it perhaps does not have quite as much of the wicked humour and delightful caricature of the Septimus Heap books (though it does have its moments),it is otherwise classic Angie Sage, replete with all her engaging plotting and richness of imagination. In a land where enchantment (and especially enchanters) are not only outlawed but actively hunted by an array of malevolent creatures, a former king’s enchanter is now in hiding and forced to flee from the very ‘hauntings’ he was responsible for creating. Finding an unlikely sidekick in a reluctant young magic-hunter, he sets out to seek the daughter he was forced to give away at the time of his persecution. Meanwhile, said daughter, unaware of her true father, or her own magical heritage, has to grapple with the consequences of a rather less than ideal foster family, Betrayed by a malicious step-sister, she escapes with the help of a young lemon-seller and his entertaining donkey. This new cast of principal characters and the world in which they live are vividly evoked, along with the wonderfully chilling variety of creatures sent to haunt and hunt them. Angie Sage remains a consummate storyteller and understands just how to hook young readers in and keep them enthralled and entertained. Hers is exactly that sort of page-turning story where every time you think things are getting better, they only get worse - until, of course, they don’t. Together with her earlier books (for any who don’t already know them) Enchanter’s Child is most warmly recommended. Those who like their reading to provide thrills aplenty, but in a somewhat lighter vein, for example any who have recently enjoyed Michelle Harrison’s delightful fantasies, should respond to it enthusiastically.

Available here

Although Twilight Hauntings has an American publisher, they are distributing it over here too, so it should be easily available. Be sure to seek it out (preferably from an independent bookshop). And we now have Book 2 to look forward to as well. However, we could still do with more of Todhunter Moon and the world of Septimus Heap. Young readers are missing out hugely, and children’s fantasy literature is most definitely the poorer for its lack.