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, 26 June 2017

Shadowsmith by Ross MacKenzie



Ross MacKenzie is rapidly establishing himself as a rising superstar of children's fantasy fiction. I loved his imaginative and engaging previous book, The Nowhere Emporium, when I read it in May '15. (See my post of that date.) It subsequently won  a Scottish Children's Book Award and the Blue Peter Best Story Award for 2016. I was delighted but not at all surprised. A winner is exactly what it is. 

A big however 

His recent book, Shadowsmith, is very special too. In basic concept it is perhaps not quite so startlingly original as its predecessor. It is essentially about a boy whose mother is in a deep coma, following a freak accident, and may or may not pull through. The fantasy element of the story is, in no small part, a metaphor, an externalisation of his own working through of the anger and fear he understandably feels. It has to be said that variations on this sort of idea have already been explored in a good many children's books, some of them deserved classics. 

However - and it is a very big however - what Ross MacKenzie lacks here in originality he more than makes up for in the quality of his writing, his vivid imagining, his sensitive truthfulness and his compelling storytelling. The feelings of protagonist Kirby are beautifully handled and developed, as are his 'real world' relationships, most particularly his rather awkward one with his father. These elements of the story ring painfully true and are often very moving. This is thanks not only to the writer's ability to imagine himself very truthfully inside the boy's skin, but also to his writing which is both masterfully controlled and very appropriately pitched for his young readership. He is never patronisingly blatant in his exposition, allowing circumstances and emotions to be deduced from the unfolding narration. Yet neither is he so subtle or obscure as to fail o communicate effectively. Empathetic children have much to gain, and those whose interest is perhaps initially  more in the book's spooky fantasy,  much to learn.

A dark tale

As flagged by both title and cover, the fantasy element in Shadowsmith is of a sinister and somewhat ghoulish kind that may not be to all tastes. Even though it is essentially more dark Disney than Denis Wheatley, it does involve some powerfully evoked encounters that are quite chilling and could well be experienced as genuinely frightening. Yet, for those who can cope, this is an important part of the book's power and potency. Kirby's experiences and emotions are deeply troubled too. And many young readers will revel in  these elements of the story, not despite, but because of, their evocation of nightmare. Those who enjoy the darkness of the later Potter books will feel perfectly at home here. 

The girl in the yellow raincoat 

It is in these fantasy elements of this tale that Ross MacKenzie's quirky and vivid imagination comes most into evidence. His storytelling is masterful. It is never less than compelling as he builds through numerous twist and turns, chilling encounters and breathtaking climaxes, to a conclusion that holds back even more surprises until the very end. His villains and ghastly adversaries are strongly imagined and vividly conjured, not least the spiders. This is no story for arachnophobes. However at the very heart of his fantasy story-weaving is his most brilliant and engaging creation, Amelia Pigeon, the girl in the yellow raincoat. Her intermittent involvement throughout, and the gradual unfolding of exactly who she is, was and wants to be, makes Shadowsmith truly magical fiction of the highest order. Her relationship with Kirby is richly meaningful and deeply affecting. 

More please

This is a dark book with a very warm heart. It is not to be missed by any fans of  spooky fantasy - because it is that, and far more. 

I an still looking confidently to Ross MacKenzie to pick up fully on the amazing originality he showed in The Nowhere Emporium. Meanwhile this book gives further strong reason why his titles should not be left on the shelves for very long. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Uncommoners: The Smoking Hourglass by Jennifer Bell


Uncommon quality

These books are already more than popular enough, and lauded enough, not to need my recommendation. However, I promised to write about Jenifer Bell's delightful new series, The Uncommoners, as soon as I had caught up with this, its second incarnation. So . . .

The Crooked Sixpence 

What is, apparently, intended as an eventual trilogy has already got off to an exciting start with one of the most enchanting and original new fantasy books for children recently published. 

The core idea of the book, a situation where any number of everyday objects - spectacles, belts, lemon squeezers, even toilet brushes -  have 'uncommon', magical properties, might seem initially a little unpromising. But Jennifer Bell develops the idea with such wildly imaginative flair, and builds around it such a rich and vivid world that it becomes not only credible, but totally captivating. Ivy Sparrow, together with her brother Seb, are drawn into this world when they find themselves in, Lundinor, a vast subterranean market, situated beneath the actual London, where uncommon objects are traded. The author conjures up different areas of this sprawling location quite beautifully and at the same time throws her protagonists into a helter-shelter of an adventure trying to locate magical objects, uncover secrets and effect rescues. 

Jennifer Bell also peoples her underground world with a cast of fantastic and fascinating characters, and Ivy's developing relationship with her emigmatic outlaw 'friend' Valian is a real highlight. The Dirge, a shadowy cabal of dastardly villains, with the code names of deadly poisonous plants, adds electrifying darkness and tension to the narrative, without it ever  becoming seriously disturbing. The particular focus of this this malevolence, Selena Grines, provides as entertainingly hateful a 'boo! hiss!' figure as any White Witch or Cruella De Vil. Ivy's quest through the many challenges, frights and escapes of this fantastic world drives the narrative engrossingly. And. as this first story unfolds, her gradual recognition of her own uncommon powers sets up much promise for  future development. Subsequent startling discovery of a disturbing relationship between her own family and the Dirge add further layers of intrigue and foreboding. 

Overall, then, the book combines a veritable riot of imaginative invention with a fantasy adventure of the most compelling kind. 

The Smoking Hourglass 

Despite a very dramatic opening, this second novel does initially have something of the feel of  a 'Return To Lundinor'. Our protagonists, this time accompanied by their somewhat mysterious Granma, are pitched back into the world of Book 1 on what feels like a somewhat contrived pretext, whilst their parents are conveniently 'away'. A little too Narnia, perhaps? But, once they have arrived, this clever author quickly enough launches an exciting narrative  to get away with it. This story is possibly slightly darker and more driven than the first. And it is utterly compelling.  Jennifer Bell also develops the world of Lundinor itself by giving it a new 'Spring' look, which freshens it considerably. It also makes way for many more of the vivid descriptions, which hugely enrich  her storytelling without ever seeming to slow it. Whilst Ivy and Seb, and their intriguing friend Valian, battle to save this special world, and perhaps their own, the author continues with her almost manic invention of 'uncommon' objects, characters and locations, strewing delights, laughs, surprises and shocks like confetti at a wedding. I can think of few writers to beat her in this respect. Playing 'spot the allusion' in respectof a variety of rhymes, tales and traditions, mostly London based, remains great fun too 

Uncommon pleasure

The Uncommoners books are not profound literature. They are not even particularly deep as children's fiction goes.  They do not provide great insight into people or situations, nor do they resonate powerfully with archetypal myth and legend. But it does not matter.  They do not aim to be or to do any of these things. And if they sometimes have more imagination than logic then that does not matter either They are the kind of book which many children enjoy enormously, and understandably so. The prominance of both boy and girl characters and their grounding in contemporary life, in, for example, their ready use of mobile phones, means that there are plenty of inroads to identification for today's young readers. These reads have many of the qualities which made the seminal Enid Blyton so popular for earlier  generations - particularly in titles like The Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair - although they are infinitely better written. They have much of the same charm of such true classics as The Borrowers or Sylvia Waugh's The Mennyms, although combined here with the far greater energy of the fantasy quest. They take the enchantment of 'Diagon Alley' and turn it into a whole new world of its own. They are exciting, absorbing adventures, perfect entertainment reads. Children need and deserve books in which they can joyfully lose themselves. If they provide a little visceral thrill of behind-the-sofa fear as well all the better. Jenifer Bell's emerging trilogy delivers all of this in spades, feeding young minds with richness in both invention and language. Like the best children's books, they also celebrate simple, but vital, qualities like goodness, family and friendship in a completely magical way. For many children they will be at the heart of what reading for pleasure truly means and, I am sure, they will remain hugely popular for years to come. 

Roll on Part 3. 


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

Opening hand a winner

Fierce originality, gripping intrigue and rich characterisation all distinguish this opening book of what promises to be an outstanding new fantsy sequence for older children and YA.

The basic premise of the story is an imaginative coup de force. It is a real delight to stumble across an author who has found such a novel and fascinating take on the 'classic' children's fantasy scenario. Here the situation of protagonist, Kellen, is essentially the polar opposite of that of Harry Potter. Harry grows up in a 'Muggle' world without magic, only to discover that he has very special powers, has been singled out for greatness and is to develop a prominent role in a wizarding world. How many fictional youths have since followed in these footsteps? Kellen, in stark contrast, has grown up in a world dominated by magic, hoping his destiny is to become a great mage, only to discover that his potential for magic is poor and his destiny is to be that of a despised underling. Nor is this some authorial ploy with a heartwarming twist awaiting when our hero finds his power after all. Kellen's story is not about becoming a wizard. It is about not becoming a wizard. It is quite a shock to the fantasy reader's sytem, but is is both a refreshing and a deeply engrossing one.

A fascinating pack

The Spellslinger story is then enriched by a quite wonderful cast of characters, many hugely rich in concept and description. Surrounding Kellen are his immediate world of spell-casters, young and old, mages and trainees. Some are good, others amost purely malevolent, but many are ambivalent in their morality and allegiences. Not least amogst these are Kellen's own family and some of his 'friends'. Added to these are a couple of characters breathtaking in their originality, invention and fascination. Not least is Ferrius Parfax, an emigmatic traveller with more than a passing resemblance to a maverick card sharp from the American Wild West. She is strong, cynical and utterly fascinating to both Kellen and the reader. She has no spell magic and as such stands opposed to the Mages of his world, yet she achieves much through her confidence and worldly-wise guile. She is a butt-kicker par excellence. A description as a 'card sharp' is, indeed, very apt for her too; she sometimes uses steel egded playing cards as very effective throwing weapons. However, she also used cards in other ways, but her decks are not those of conventional games. They are something more arcane, loosely related, perhaps, to The Tarot. She represents a rich and fascinatng exploration of ambiguity in both gender and magic. She is the antithesis of the stereotype for both the female and the wizard in fantasy. Enthralling.

Equally engaging is the embittered and vicious creature, Reichis, who becomes Kellen's 'familiar', even though the little monster deplores the term and insists that he is merely a 'business partner'. Reichis is an 'overgrown avaricious part-feline rodent,' with attitude (double plus), and is undoubtedly one of the most delicious, entertaining and original sidekicks in children's fantasy. A clear rival for Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus.

Masterful gameplay

Yet what is so completely compelling about this fantasy narrative is that it achieves its power and hold without extensive swashbuckling, or massive pitched battles. Rather it is Kellen's ongoing struggle with himself, his family and his world which is so compulsively page-turning. It is a journey through character and relationships, through self-discovery. True there are revelations about the politics and history of the complex, but not confusing, world in which Kellen lives. But it is his place within that world, his future within, or perhaps even outside it, which is always most at stake. And even when the book races towards its truly exciting climactic events, Kellen's destiny is always the outcome we most desparately want to know.

Take any card

All in all, Spellslinger is one of the finest example I have come across recently of a book about a young person's journey to discover who they are, to begin to carve out their own, proper place in the world. This is not only because of the ingenious premis of its story but owes equal thanks to the writerly and narrative skill with which the author develops it. His contraposing of the spell magic of the mages with the card (con?) magic of Ferrius  is fascinating and revelatory, not least because its conflict rages within Kellen as much as it does in the world around him. Further, this book's enigmatic and often provocative imagery leaves plenty of scope for each reader to see themselves in it, and to understand it, or feel it, in their own particular way. This is the essence of fine fiction.

A great deal to come

Kellern is approaching his fifteenth birthday in this first book, somewhat older than Harry Potter is in his, and this story is probably for slightly older readers. Kellern's conflicts and ordeals can be traumatic and somewhat disturbing at times. But nor does this book necessarily belong only on the YA/adult cusp, in the way of many fantasies. Its violence is never too gruesomely graphic and is occasional dalliance with romance is of a distinctly innocent, early adolescent nature. It is a story accessible to a wide young readership and will I am sure bring huge enjoyment to many.

Thanks are due to publishers Hot Key Books for bringing us the work of this fine Canadian fantasist. It is also published in the US by Zaffre Books, which should greatly enhance and speed its reputation.  The second volume, Shadowblack, due out this Autumn, is awaited eagerly. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Buried Fire by Jonathan Stroud

Looking back

Inspired by my love of the Bartimaeus books, and whilst waiting for the final title in the hugely enjoyable Lockwood & Co series, I decided to explore Jonathan Stroud's earlier books. I have started with this, his very first. It was published in 1999, so comes so close to my remit of children's fantasy from the 21st century that I am happy to include it. A most fascinating discovery it is too


I don't remember reading any work of contemporary children's fiction that has reminded me so strongly and positively of Alan Garner, particularly The Owl Service. It is not that Buried Fire is derivative in any way. Far from it. It is partly that both are rooted very deeply in a particular place, its landscape and its legend. I think Jonathan Stroud's location probably has more fictional embelishment than Alan Garner's, but even so. Equally each uses that legend as a powerful metaphor for their protagonists' state of mind and inner development. And more than anything both have a remarkable intensity of both structure and language.

Buried treasure

However Jonathan Stroud's story of a sinister and malevolent presence lurking beneath the earth is also an early example of his trademark interest in the supernatural, which permeates all his books and comes to the fore again in Lockwood & Co. His story of teenage anger, expressed through almost demonic posession, is not for younger children. Its corrupting evil is, at its height, deeply disturbing. But its narrative builds grippingly and its characters fascinate even as they disquiet. It packs a very considerable emotional punch.

Buried Fire is in many ways a classic first novel from a young writer. It is literary and intensly lyrical. More recently Jonathan Stroud's writing has matured into a much more direct, accessible style, one where apparent simplicity conceals a multitude of writing skill. But that does not mean that Buried Fire is of mere academic interest. It is a fine work in its own right. Anyone looking for a teen read that is challenging intellectually and emotionally, whilst still carrying the chilling frission of supernatural horror, could do far worse than to seek it out.

Don't judge a book . . .

Unfortunately the cover of the original hardback (above) must be a contender for the most tasteless book jacket ever. There is now a paperback (below), only slightly better*. But don't be put off by either. It is a fascinating book.

Now, in between working through my huge waiting-to-read pile, I shall delve into Jonathan Stroud's other early works.

* The US edition is better still.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

I am allowing myself one of my occasional deviations from my 'magic fiction' theme as this book is too good and too I mportant to miss.

Children in a world at war

There is a wonderful tradition of children's stories set in WWII that spreads across the English-speaking world. Amongst the many classics are Lois Lowry's  Number the Stars, Judith Kerr's When Hiltler Stole Pink Rabbit, Anne Holm's I Am David,  Morris Gleitzman's Once, Bette Greene's Summer of my German Soldier and, more recently, Shirley Hughes' Hero on a Bicycle and Whistling in the Dark. Amongst these are some deeply moving stories as well as some profoundly disturbing ones. Most do not shy from the terrible realities of that war, simply to accommodate their young audience - and nor should they. They are some of the finest and most important children's novels ever, and some of them have equally important sequels.  They desperately need to be read by today's children, although some may well need adult support and mediation to cope with their terrors. 

Evacuees and such

There is an equally important subset of such works which treat of children on the UK home front, many of them evacuees. These include Noel Stretfield's When the Siren Wailed, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Michelle Magorigan's incomparable Goodnight Mister Tom, and several books by the rather sadly neglected Robert Westall, Blitzcat, The Machine Gunners and the unspeakably touching The Kingdom by the Sea. They are challenging books because of their content, and some reflect the style of the time in which they were written as well as the period they portray. But all remain eminently readable.  They are truly great books. 

Equally good

And now a new novel joins this eminent company, and more than lives up to its predecessors. Emma Carroll has recently established herself as a significant writer for children. Her several children's/YA books are set in a variety of historical periods, each with quite different themes. characters and even styles. but they are consistent in their remarkable quality of imagination and writing skill. Letters from the Lighthouse, her first WWII novel, is written in a superficially simple style, although it is one where art definitely conceals art. Her book is therefore very accessible. Emma Carroll quite wonderfully captures the voice of the young girl of who is her protagonist. Olive knows much of what is going on around her, but there is also much that she doesn't fully understand. However, she is a sensitive, thoughtful girl and her growing awareness as the story progresses gives it considerable power and potency.

An air raid, evacuation and a mystery

The book opens with a vivid depiction of a London air raid and Olive's honest, but understandably bewildered, responses make it all the more compelling - and disturbing. Subsequently she is evacuated with her younger brother to a small town on the Devon coast. Whilst this is on one level an evacuee story, it is further enriched and enliven by an associated mystery, concerning the disappearance of her older sister, a coded note, and the titular letters to the lighthouse. There is more going on in the both her family and the seaside town than Olive initially understands. Moreover the two are connected and she is determined to discover exactly what those connections are. There is a rich cast of characters in Emma Carroll's tale and many evocative descriptions. It is a story that lives on the page and consequently in the reader's mind, and memory. The lighthouse itself, for example, is a quite magical place in which it is hard to imagine any child not wanting to live, or at least stay. Much happens in Budmouth Point that is brave, even heroic. However, the author is not afraid of portraying the less attractive side of human nature too and there are also ignorance and prejudice to be dealt with in Olive's new life. 

Brave treatment of difficult themes 

As the book develops, many more of the terrible events of the times come to light, not least the treatment of Jews in Germany and their subsequent need to escape. It celebrates the brave deeds of some in this country who risked much to help them, but equally documents the very shameful treatment that some such refugees suffered at the hands of the British authorities. Through Olive, Emma Carroll bravely explores much that is difficult and terrible about war, she also balances it with much kindness, understanding and humanity. 

This is an honest and sensitive introduction for young people to The UK home front and what happened to the Jewish race under the Nazis.  It is moving, but also shocking. It could not be anything else. Hopefully it will inspire some children to explore this dark history further further, by reading some of the books mentioned earlier. There are even more deeply moving explorations to be found in books like Once, or When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. 

Despite its underlying darkness, though, this very special book is, at heart, about the enormous benefits of  communities, races and religions coming together, working cooperatively, and  accepting each other as fellow human beings. In this, of course, it is as much of a story about today as it is about the 1940s. Or perhaps we wish it were.  

We will remember

Although I was born just after the end of WWII, I was always aware that both my parents and my grandparents lived through it, and knew of many others who didn't. Earlier in life I was privileged to meet some who had been refugees or Holocaust survivors, combatants, POWs and evacuees. I have therefore always felt very close to the war and joined easily in the mantra 'We will remember them.' Today's children are further removed from those people and events, but it is just as important, perhaps even more important, that they remember too. Books like this will help them begin to know not simply what happened, which is only part of rememberance, but how lives were affected, how people were made to feel. They need to understand that, not all that long ago, children in many ways very like themselves were forced to live very different lives. We hope our children never have to experience the like in reality. However, they can experience it vicariously, through empathy with the characters in stories, especially ones so well written and engaging as this.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Adventures of John Blake by Philip Pullman (Illus. Fred Fordham)


The pull of Pullman

It is a good many years since I read many graphic novels and I do not think I have recommended one on this blog befoe, but the author's name was more than enough to draw me to this one. Although only just published in book form, The Adventures of John Blake was originally written as a weekly serial in The Phoenix comic. However, any thoughts that Philip Pullman was demeaning himself to write such a thing are quickly dispelled. Just as firmly he quashes any idea that the graphic novel is necessarily some form of inconsequential frippery. 
A tasty snack

In authoring John Blake Philip Pullman has is no way condescended to his young audience. What he has created is a complex, multi-strand narrative, beautifully structured to develop in the most engaging and exciting of ways. He builds tension quite masterfully as the reader gradually pieces together the story, thrilling at incidentsand revelations   along the way. Nor is the premise of the tale simple either. On some levels, this is a story much more in the style of Young James Bond (or perhaps more pertinently a young Sexton Blake?) with many of the classic elements of the genre, including a mega villain. But its conceptualisation is far from being either simplistic or unoriginal. For example,  the 'ghost ship', a central element of the story, has travelled through time and picked up a crew whose members are each from a radically different period of history, providing the most surprising cast of characters and intriguing dialogue.  Philip Pullman has also brought the genre very much into the twenty-first century. Alongside the traditional male heros and villains, are equally strong and prominent female characters. Another feature sure to engage his contemporary children's attention is the fact that several lead characters make extensive use of an 'apparator', a high-tech gadget not totally unrelated to the mobile phone. 

And then the artist

Of course, being a graphic text, the remarkable effectiveness of John Blake is as much, if not more,  due to the talents of the illustrator.  Fred Fordham's drawing style is strong and clear, ideally suited to visual narration, his colouring is highly atmospheric and communicative - and many of his pictures are stunningly beautiful too. These include, amongst many other striking images, some breathtaking illustrations of London bridges. More than this, however, Fred Fordham does equally brilliantly what that great master Hergé does in his Tintin books. He uses page layout and picture size to control both the rhythm and impact of the story. A particularly telling example is the jump to full page to show the tiny figure of the  girl in a vast ocean after she has fallen  overboard. Another is the sudden, stunning contrast of the partial depiction of John against an otherwise blank double spread, used to depict the moment of the explosion. Like the very best illustrators, Fred Fordham illuminates the story without ever smothering the reader's own imagination. His artwork is masterly.  

This is real reading

Reading a graphic text requires many of the same skills as reading prose, but also some very importantly different ones. John Blake will provide a challenging read for many children. However, I am confident that the medium, in the hands of such skilled creators, will provide all the motivation they need to succeed. Here a fine author and talented illustrator have clearly demonstrated that this form of literature is exactly that, worthwhile literature in its own right. Of course, nothing so comparatively slight can seriously compare with the literary marvel that is His Dark Materials. But whilst we are waiting for the feast to come in Philip Pullman's sequel trilogy, The Book of DustJohn Blake is a very tasty snack indeed to keep us going. 

Graphic versions of modern classics

Amongst adults,  the graphic novel is rather a niche genre, which means that many are missing out on some real gems. Teachers can look down on children reading graphic novels, and their younger siblings, comics, as some lower form of entertainment that is not  'real reading'. I think this is something of a mistake too. It only takes a degree of serious study of a real master of the genre, like Hergé,  to start to discover just what treasures the medium has to offer. In John Blake we have another fine example of this. Prompted by Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham's little masterpiece, I am reminded that there are credible graphic novel versions of  a good number of popular contemporary children's novels, too. Good examples are those of Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand, and some of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books. If, after engagements with these, children are inspired to go on to read the prose versions or their sequels, then that is an excellent thing. But even if not, they will have absorbed a great deal about the the effective communication of both character and narrative. They will, of course, have also derived a lot of pleasure from the act of reading. And isn't reading for pleasure what we keep saying we want our children to do?

Another top of my pops


Here are more gems to consider. Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is one of the true greats of contemporary children's fiction; a must read for any who can appreciate its dry humour and revel in its quirkiness. Not far behind, in its own way, comes his comic strip fiction: Good Dog, Bad Dog and its sequel, Double Identity. These clever send-ups of the movie detective genre are crammed full of delightful drollery, both verbal and visual. The two detectives are as funny a double act as many of their cinematic counterparts and the stories hugely entertaining as a result. There are many children about who are fully capable of appreciating their many levels of brilliance. 

. . .and not just for rainy playtimes

Like The Adventures of John Blake, Double Identity is a spin off from The Phoenix weekly comic, evidence aplenty that this publication itself has much to offer young readers. Were I still teaching, it would certainly be on my list of reading materials to be recommended and encouraged, together with other graphic fiction.  



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Ghostfaces (Brotherband #6) by John Flanagan


Let children read for THEIR pleasure

A sort while back, the headteacher of a prominent UK school wrote an article in The Guardian explaining that he was seeking to 'improve' his students' reading habits by removing from the school library children's fiction which he considered  unworthy of their attentions. It is an attitude found amongst a good number of teachers, and indeed parents, although, of course, not all. I am not referring now to the fine and difficult distinctions between child protection and censorship, which is another whole can of worms. Rather the case here is of trying to discourage or even prevent children from reading books which are considered 'too young', 'too easy', or of insufficient 'literary merit'. 

I do, one one level, understand where these adults are coming from. It is a vital part of a teacher's role to seek to develop and extend children's range of reading, their ability to access, appreciate and enjoy fine writing. There are however many ways of doing this, through example, through sharing enthusiasms, and, not least, through reading aloud to students. However, none of this needs to involve preventing them from continue to read what they currently enjoy. We say we want children to read for pleasure. It is therefore vitally important that we allow them to do exactly that - to read for their pleasure. There are many reasons for reading and they are not mutually exclusive. Escapist and 'comfort' reading have a valuable function for any of us, and children not the least. Life can be a stressful business, including theirs. There is also a very true truism that any reading is better than none. We do need to be careful that our actions do not backfire. Nurture and encouragement are all, but forcing a child to read Jane Eyre when what they want, and perhaps need,  is to read is Percy Jackson can do more harm than good. 

Series books

The Ghostfaces is the sixth and newest book in John Flannagan's Brotherband series. However this is itself a follow-on from his Ranger's Apprentice sequence, which comprises twelve original books together with  another two more recent prequels. That brings us up to twenty linked book, and counting. That's some series. Inevitably there is some variability in quality across so many titles. However to dismiss them too lightly would be a mistake. They are highly readable and enjoyable books. With a loose 'Dark Age' historical background, but without any pretentions to authenticity  (the Brotherband books have a Viking-ish feel), they are page-turning adventures, full of battles and losses, crises and triumphs. For their genre, they are extremely well written. Deservedly they have huge international popularity. Despite strong boy leads, they also have a fair representation of adventurous and heroic girls scattered through their pages , so their appeal is wide. More than anything, though, they do what the best of such extended series do, they provide their readers with escapism at the same time as making them feel secure and safe. They are 'comfort reads'. And these are indeed amongst the very best. 

It may seem strange for books which contain so much fighting to provide comfort reading, but they do. This is partly because, underneath their battles they are really quite soft centered. They are just as much about friendship and loyalty as are, say, Enid Blyton's books - and with actually far more sympathetic and human characters. But more than anything they are essentially about familiarity. Once 'into' them (and this is quickly achieved as they do not provide particularly difficult reading in the first place) their world, their characters, even their writing style become old friends. They feel like a particularly comfortable pair of well-worn shoes, they fit you perfectly.And therein  lies their strength. They do not greatly challenge, rather they reassure. They provide the adventures that many of their readers wish they had and allow them to temporarily be the people they wish they were They allow them to  escape the stresses of their own lives, they entertain and distract, but most of all they soothe. They are the reading  equivalent of Linus's thumb and blanket in the Peanuts cartoons. And that is where John Flanagan's great skill lies as the author of this type of series book. It is one that he shares with writers like Rick Riordan and Derek Landy, although he is undoubtedly one of the greats of his kind. He can continually move his series, his stories and his characters on, maintain momentum, interest and excitement. whilst still keeping everything feeling familiar, as expected, just as it should be. 

Writing by the likes of John Flanagan should not be dismissed too lightly. He has a great deal of authorial skill, not least as a compelling storyteller. If children, or even teens, seem 'stuck' in series fiction we should not necessarily worry. It could well be what they need at that time. Of course, we need gently to try to move them on, as and when appropriate, but that does not need to mean moving them off. Certainly to dismiss children's current reading as 'rubbish' or a 'waste of time' is potentially very harmful, and may well not even be accurate. It could well be that one of the reasons students' reading for pleasure falls off at secondary school, is that they are no longer encouraged to read for their own pleasure at all, but required to read what is 'good for them' instead. 

Reading can be many things

For many of us, including children, many different 'levels' of reading can comfortably coexist. Just like food, our reading diet is probably best when varied and balanced. Appreciating fine dining does not stop us from enjoying baked beans once in a while. And, of course, many children would choose the baked beans any day. I distinctly remember reading The Dandy and The Beano (usually on the loo), The Secret Seven (whilst sick in bed) and the Lone Pine books (as an escape from 11+ revision) during the same period as I enjoyed Alan Garner, Rosemary Sutcliff and, indeed, Isaac Asimov. I will even admit to dipping back into these childhood reads during adolescence, at the same time as deeply appreciating Shakespeare, Kafka and Racine (in the original  French). Reading development is not always linear or hierarchical. Taste can be eclectic  - and often is. Comfort reading performs an important function; it is comforting. Please don't deny that comfort to our children. Reading for pleasure should mean just that. 

Oh . . . and is that a complete set of Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine series I spy still lurking on my shelves? Such trash. 


Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone


Imagination and originality

Sometimes truly original and imaginative fantasies seems easier to find for teenagers (and even 'tweenagers') than for children. Fantasy writing for 7-11s too often falls into somewhat tired cliché* and, even though young readers often enjoy this well enough, they still deserve writing that is fresh and vibrant. Fortunately, then, there seems to have been a quite a spate of new and exciting children's fantasy recently. For example, Jennifer Bell in The Uncommoners, has created a hugely imaginative sub-London of magical objects and their 'traders' which is as exciting as it is entertaining. A writer who can conjure a world where a toilet brush convincingly presents a menacing threat, is clearly very clever, and very original. Peter Bunzl's Cogheart is also innovative and engaging. He brings a version of steam-punk fantasy to a younger readership and his 'clockwork' Victorian adventure ticks along thrillingly. Its sequel is newly out,  and The Uncimmoners has one due very soon,  so I am eager to write about both in more detail as soon as I have caught up with their latest incarnations. 

A fine trilogy completed 

Meanwhile we now have the final book of Abi Elphinstone's trilogy (started in The Dream Snatcher) - and very welcome it is too. I rated the first two books very highly (see my post from March '16. ) and this conclusion fully supports my view that the series is an outstanding 'entry level' to magic fiction for younger readers.  The Night Spinner expands even further  the world of the previous instalments, and, indeed, the wonderful sense of adventure at which this author excels. It also has the advantage of one of the strongest girl protagonists around, supported by loyal friends both male and animal, a delightful combination that makes the books appealing and accessible to a wide readership. Its evil threat is spine-tinglingly sinister, without ever quite descending into the disturbingly macabre, and its climaxes are truly exciting. 

The importance of adventure 

Adventure and imagination are two companions which can make an enormous potential contribution to child development. In fact I would call them essential components of truly healthy growth. Sadly many contemporary children seem to have too little adventure in their lives. Overprotectivenes and so-called 'health and safety' have tended to suffocate it, as has the stranglehold of the mobile phone. Children don't need literally to canoe the Amazon to experience adventure. Our own children benefitted considerably from roaming the fields, woods and farm behind our Lancashire home. They thrived, despite all too often arriving back at teatime stinking of cow muck. So did we grow through our day-long bike expeditions to the 'Yellow Hills' outside industrial Blackburn; our parents through their childhood marauding down back alleys and scavenging on the bomb sires. Enormously valuable though the learning of a musical instrument may prove, being chauffeured from one after-school class or club to the next is no substitute for adventure. And actual adventure is the best. But the vicarious adventure to be found in books is an excellent supplement, and, for those children denied real adventure by our contemporary society, far, far better than nothing. Abi Elphinstone is an adventurer herself and shares the spirit and experience of adventure better than almost any other contemporary children's writer. All power to her and her adventurous Moll. 

'Run with wild horses. Stand tall on the highest mountains. Swim beneath thundering waterfalls.'

Our children can - and perhaps one day they will. 


* I must say I have become very jaded (and indeed put off) by the many book titles which blatantly mimick the Harry Potter formula. You know 'Somebody Somebody and the Something of Something.'; 'Tommy Cup and the Saucer of Gloom' and the like. They may sell books, but I can think of few such copycat titles that belong to outstanding works in their own right.