Stacked on the bookshop display, Dragon's Green was prominently stickered: THIS BOOK GLOWS IN THE DARK. For goodness sake. Decent quality fiction, even that intended for children, does not need phosphoresce to recommend it. Had I not recognised the author as one whose adult novels I have much admired (The End of Mr Y, et al), I might well have passed it by. But I did, so I didn't. I was intrigued as to whether such a writer could leave aside her literary fiction sensibilities and pen a children's book. It turned out that she couldn't leave them aside. Not entirely anyway. But it didn't matter. This is a remarkable and hugely enjoyable children's novel notwithstanding. In fact it is the better book for it. I am even reconciled to its gratuitous green glow. But I will come to that.
Many years ago, in my Boy Scout days, a regular feature of our anual camp was a competition to see how many things we could collect and fit into a matchbox. Dragon's Green reminded me of that challenge. This novel feels as if its author has collected as many features as possible of popular children's (fantasy) fiction and tried to fit them all into one small book. There are elements here of Roal Dahl, perhaps David Walliams, J.K.Rowling, of course, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, C.S.Lewis, thankfully, without the religion, Cornelia Funke, Shannon Hale and Joanne Harris, to pick out but a few. There are even vague echoes of Enid Blyton ('Five go on a Magical Adventure'?), though without the darned dog. Plenty of other bits and pieces get into her matchbox too. For example video role play gets a look in, its character energy status bars 'borrowed' and seen here through magic spectacles. Nor are more traditional stories neglected. The author gaily appropriates bits from George and the Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, Bluebeard. And is it Goblin Market in there too?
Such an eclectic, not to say hackneyed, mix sounds like a potential train crash of a book; that or a hack-written crowd-pleaser. And in other hands it could well have been. But Scarlett Thomas is a wonderfully skilled and imaginative author. So it isn't. Far from it. The originality of Dragon's Green is to be found in its unoriginality. Rather it is to be found in the way its author reinterprets these familiar elements, playfully, sometimes wickedly reimagining them in new light. Sometimes she undermines former conventions, sometimes she exploits them for delightful humour, sometimes she respectfully reinvigorates them. But always she melds them skilfully into the most fresh and captivating of stories creating a fascinating new take on children with magical abilities. She is, here, Uncle Abanazar of fantasy, but with a trickery all of her own.
Dragon's Green is actually a book which can be approached, and appreciated, on different levels.
Whether intentionally, or simply because she cannot leave her lively intellect at home when she writes, Scarlett Thomas has crafted a book which provides much entertainment for an adult reader. It is, in no small part, a metafiction, a book about books and reading, a children's book about children's books, a fantasy about fantasy. As well as toying with the genre, its tropes and its conventions, it is jammed full of literary allusions. Many are blatant, others more esoteric*. It is self-consciously literary in a very literal sense. Other disciplines such as science and philosophy are not ignored either, and even Schrödinger's cat gets a look in. There are what I suspect to be academic in jokes too. ('Epiphanised'. Really.) It is altogether enormously entertaining.
However, even though these titbits will pass many children by (Viz: 'My name is Yorick, as in "Alas poor . . . ".' ) Dragon's Green will still provide them with a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It has hugely likeable characters and an exciting, engrossing plot. After all, it really does take so many of the features children love in their reading, with the possible exception of animals, and combine them quite wonderfully into a credible and compelling whole.
Yet it is to the highly literate, well-read child (and I am delighted to say there are no small few of them about) that I think Scarlett Thomas's book will bring the greatest delight. As well as revelling in the story, they will pick up many, even if not all, of the clever references and be amused by the playfulness with genre. I am sure they will equally enjoy being led to think about what fiction is and what it means to be a reader. It is good that such readers are offered not only a great story but to begin to see glimpses of the enormous treasure house that the finest fiction has to offer. And perhaps it will direct some towards other rewarding books they may not have found for themselves, at some future point if not immediately. For this is a thinker's book too. It explores moral as well as esthetic and logical conundrums. Despite its mega villains, its true heros, healers, et al, it avoids simplistic notions of good and evil and explores the dilemmas and ambivalences which often lie between them. It is a book for all readers but the best sort of book for the best sort of reader too. Page 211 of the current UK hardback edition provides a very pertinent insight into what it is to be a creative reader. It is a wonderful passage that I think many educators will find most valuable and many readers elucidating. (Anyone interested might also wish to delve into the archives of this blog and read my own thoughts on why reading is so important, posted back in June '14.)
Most remarkably of all , perhaps, on whatever level this book is being read, by whatever age of reader, by part way through its sheer narrative power takes over , as I suspect it may have taken over its author too. It hurtles to the end in truely compulsive, page-turning style. However, in the final pages, many possibilities are left open and, as this is labelled Worldquake Book One, it will leave all those readers eager for more
I am delighted that Scarlett Thomas has 'epiphanised' in terms of children's magic fiction. True, there is a great deal of pulp around,where cliche is piled on cliche in both content and language. But this is is not what writing for children is about. It does not need to be like this, and often is not. It is no more fair to judge the genre on the basis of such books than to condemn all adult fiction on the basis of the worst airport paperbacks. Children are no more discriminating than adults - but no less either. The very best of children's fantasy is fine literature on as many levels as adult fiction, and Philip Pullman is far from its only exponent. I sincerely hope that Scarlett Thomas will continue to read the best of children's fantasy, and write it too.
And now that I have read Dragon's Green, I am reconciled to this edition's dust jacket. I even like it. Enjoy it. The book contains so many elements of child appeal, why should it not glow in the dark too? If you look very carefully you might even detect a tinge of post-irony in its luminescence. The best place to see it is under the bedclothes, once you have turned off the torch.
*I admit to much enjoying the smug satisfaction of identifying the Bulgakov, before being told