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.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Poet's Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

Here is a true little gem of a book, from a much-admired US author. Thanks are again due to Pushkin Children's for bringing it to the UK. 

Poignant and accessible

There is already much excellent children's fiction around, dealing, as this does, with bereavement. However, this beautiful but short, simple novel is particularly accessible to younger children, those who have, perhaps passed the initial picture book stage, but are not ready for full-length fiction. It will have much appeal for many older readers too, though; it says a very great deal in comparatively few pages, and says it with poignancy and gentle honesty.  

Apart from its length, one of the things that makes this title so accessible for young readers is the fact that the loss is experienced principally by a dog. It is a talking dog too (for those who can hear him) having been educated into language by his beloved poet owner. Because of the skill of Patricia MacLachlan's writing this is nowhere near as twee a concept as it might have been. In fact, the dog-centred narrative is handled quite beautifully, with past and present cleverly but clearly interspersed. Within its own terms, it is fully believable and its emotions authentic, apt and affecting. 

Warm and consoling 

Its other strong, and fully age-appropriate, feature is that it introduces themes of saving others, and of finding new companionship and love, right from the first pages. This continually balances the pain of loss, avoids too much potential harshness, and ensures that there is positive resolution, not just as a distant prospect, but as a present reality. This story both consoles and heals.  

The language used is straightforward but highly communicative and there is much kindly humour, which adds to the book's charm and warm-heartedness. That it manages all this without excessive sentimementality is greatly to the author's credit. UK readers will probably find some of the  culture very American, but nothing that will intrude on reading pleasure, or diminish this tale's important messages. 

Celebrating language

I have a further major reason, though, for thinking so highly of this little book. Throughout, it quietly but effectively explores an additional theme, that of the importance of  language as found in wonderful poetry and prose. A key message is that we can gift a love of words by frequently reading aloud to children poems and stories that demonstrate the wonder and beauty of language. This enables them, like the dog in the story, to think, understand and communicate in quite magical ways. It is such an important gift, so easily given,  and therefore such an important message for parents, carers and teachers. 

Reading to share 

We have recently been given a superlative new vehicle with which to share the language of wonder and the wonder of language: Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris's gem of a new book, The Lost Words (see my post from October '17.)  There are, or course, libraries more of such riches, both poetry and prose. However The Poet's Dog itself also promotes some fine potential read-aloud titles, including some 'classic' American ones, which are probably little known over here, but are well worth seeking out. 

Indeed, I would like to see far more UK children (and adults) discover another little treasure,  Morning Girl by Michael Dorris, one of the titles mentioned. It would give them real insight into a lost way of  life based on simple connection to nature, beautifully caught through the imagined experiences of two indigenous American children from over 500 years ago. Simple lessons are learned, as deep as oceans. A little more of what they understood then would benefit all of us as human beings today. 

The short chapter where Morning Girl's brother, Star Boy, hides amongst the rocks is one of the most breathtakingly wonderful pieces of writing for children I know; and the one where he weathers the storm is not far behind. The ending is enough to make you weep with shame, and beautifully handled. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Book of Dust: Volume 1 La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

"The gyptian owner of the boat he was travelling on told him that in gyptian lore, extreme weather had its own state of mind . . .
'How can weather have a state of mind?' said Papadimitriou.
The gyptian said, 'You think the weather is only out there? It's in here too,' and tapped his head.
'So do you mean that the weather's state of mind is just our state of mind?'
'Nothing is just anything,' the gyptian replied."

La Belle Sauvage, page 522

Another review

Yes. I know. It feels like half the world is reading and writing about the new Philip Pullman. A goodly proportion of them actually are. I am a slow reader too, so I will not be amongst the first few to blog about it, or even the first few hundred. But this is too significant a publication to let pass. So here goes anyway.  Just another review. 

The years around the turn of the century saw two momentous additions to the canon of children's fantasy; two of the most seminal works of  'children's'  fiction of their era, and very possibly of all time: J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter sequence and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Each, in their own way, is a masterpiece of imaginative fiction, but, although Harry Potter remains the greater popular phenomenon, His Dark Materials is by far the greater work. 

It is one of the finest examples we have of truly original fantasy, involving, as it does, the powerful reimagining of its tropes and conventions;  it is a work that treats of profoundly important ideas about the human condition with more reflection-provoking depth than almost any other children's fiction; it conjures images which resonate on   numerous levels; and it deals with the universal experience of growing up, of  'coming of age' with a sensitivity and understanding that sets it completely apart and above.  It is also a powerfully enthralling and compelling read. 

It is not surprising that  popular and media excitement about the publication of its sequel has reached something approaching Harry  Potter levels, with midnight launches and sold-out editions already being offered at exorbitant prices. All of which, however, begs the question of whether La Belle Sauvage, first part of the proposed Book of Dust, can come anywhere close to the quality and stature of its marvellous predecessor. Philip Pullman has written some fine books before and since, but nothing , so far, to anywhere near equal His Dark Materials, so it is an important question. 

Back to Lyra's Oxford

La Belle Sauvage transports us very quickly and easily back into the universe of His Dark Materials or at least into that subset of it that has come to be identified as 'Lyra's Oxford'. This is the world so closely resembling our own, but with the major addition of personal 'dæmons', in the form of animals, as well as some variant Oxford institutions, such as Jordan College. There are familiar characters too, not least Lyra herself, although her presence as a young baby quickly establishes that we are in a time a little before the beginning of Northern Lights. This is a prequel of sorts, although to some extent it seems to lie alongside as much as before. Other known characters are clearly somewhere on the scene too, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter amongst them.  

We are, however, immediately introduced to new characters too. Primarily, there is eleven year old Malcolm, whose destiny will be to use his beloved canoe, the vessel of the title, to rescue baby Lyra from both a devastating inundation and malevolent human adversaries. He is a most easily likeable boy, an excellent protagonist for this new adventure. Alice, the character who is to emerge as the female 'lead', and accompany the long and difficult journey, is initially presented as less immediately likeable. But we should not judge too quickly, our response will change, or she will, or both. Whether Philip Pullman fans or newcomers to his world, readers will quickly be drawn in, a response assisted in no small part by his unostentateous but truly masterly use of language. 

Gripping story

It doesn't take long for a completely engrossing story to emerge and develop. This is in some ways a simpler, more linear narrative than that of the earlier books, but is all the more gripping for it. It is essentially the story of how Malcolm, with Alice playing no small part, saves baby Lyra; of the many hardships suffered, dangers faced and prices paid in doing so. As in the earlier trilogy, the institution of religion is a prime adversary here, with the the 'Magisterium's' henchmen, the 'CCD' (Consistorial Court of Discipline), a truly terrifying organisation not totally unlike the Spanish Inquisition, desperate to bring little Lyra within their clutches. This time, however, it seems not to be Christian religion per se which Philip Pullman presents as the threat, but rather any form of rigid, fundamentalist doctrine that seeks to crush individualism and freedom of thought. This theme is reinforced by the introduction of the truly horrendous 'League of St Alexander', a nightmare organisation that recruits children to report any infringements of the orthodox doctrine, be it  in thought word or action, even when the perpetrators are the children's own peers, teachers or family. Such scarcely imaginable sickness immediately echoes the McCarthyite denouncements in Arthur Miller's The Crucible as well as such abominations as the Hitler Youth, and its equivalent in Mao's China or North Korea. Against the 'mind police' in their various forms are ranged the forces of 'Oakley Street', a clandestine organisation dedicated to their defeat. However, although they may be important in the longer term, its members can be of only peripheral help to Malcolm and Alice who must face their task of finding sanctuary for baby Lyra alone. 

Indeed Malcolm and Alice have yet more to face beyond the Church and its agents, and in some respects this threat is even more menecing . This comes in the person of a predatory paedophile, Garard Bonneville, a man with superficial, if sickly, charm, but whose true nature is hideously betrayed by his three-legged hyena dæmon, a nightmare creature, persistent gnawing at its own missing limb. The relentless pursuit of Malcom and Alice by this despicable monster is truly terrifying and together with the equally constant threat of the CCD, and the trauma of the flood itself, drives the narrative at devastating, sometimes shocking pace. 

How good are the nuns?

However, in this particular book, not all religious institutions suffer the full lash of Philip Pullman's writerly censure. The nuns of the priory, where Lyra is initially cared for, are patently good people, sincere in their faith and kindly in their intentions. Yet even they are not without fault. They are clearly aware of some of the behaviour of the CCD and The League but turn a blind eye to it, or explain it away as something beyond their understanding. Since these organisation are part of the Church they must be for the good, even though the nuns themeselves are not party to understanding how. The extent to which this can be excused is debatable. At best the sisters, like many of us on many occasions, fall into that category of good people who allow evil to flourish by doing nothing. They are at least human. 

Nothing is just anything

Of course this book is a companion to His Dark Materials, so whilst La Belle Sauvage is an enthralling story, it is far more too. It is an allegory, but not a blatant or simplistic one. It is not intended to be, nor should it be. This is not a blatant or simplistic book. It draws on the reader's own resources, knowledge and sensitivities as much as on the author's. It challenges assumptions and conventions, without instituting new ones. It provokes resonances rather than imposes ideas. It is after, all a book that stands against the imposition of rigid ideas, so it would be a work of hypocrisy were it guilty of the same itself. It is not a work of hypocrisy. It is a work that liberates thinking, as well as feeling  and, indeed, being. 

Its resonances are many and hint at a range of sources and influences, as befits a piece of great writing. I for one pick up, in Malcolm's watery wandering , at least some fleeting images of Odysseus, and his long, eventful sea journey. The text's closing quotation, too, seems to flag up some degree of loose shadowing of Spencer's The Faerie Queene.There is also  some small way in which Malcolm echoes the biblical Noah, as least in so far as he is the fundamentally good person to whom the task falls of using his boat to save from the devastating flood an element of promise and potential for the future, the seeds of regeneration and new life. Of course we know from the earlier (later) books that Lyra does embody such a instument of future hope, and indeed fulfills her promise, but the question here is what efforts and sacrifices were needed to ensure for her that opportunity. 

In another sense, however, this flood is not a 'God' sent purification of the world. Again, we know from the other books that many 'evils' survive it, as well as Lyra. If it is not a completely natural phenomenon, then the implication here is that any 'powers' controlling it come from much older mythologies. Perhaps that makes them more 'natural' too. Whatever, this is a major all-consuming catastrophe from which that hope for the future has to be saved - and saved regardless of the cost. Certainly Malcolm has to sacrifice much, and pays dearly. 

The warmth and comfort of the home he has to leave behind is beautifully evoked by the frequent references to simply, homely meals. But such leaving could be considered essential to all growing up, including his. The role he ends up having to fulfill costs him far more than that, and not only in the loss of his adored boat. Ultimately, to protect Alice and Lyra, he must leave himself and do evil that is totally against his very essence. Sacrifices do not come much greater, as many must know who have, against all inclination and moral code, killed in war, to similarly protect what they love and value.  

Not only out there, but in here too

La Belle Sauvage is replete with images and archetypes, some conjured or coloured from imagination, many inspired by diverse traditions and literatures. Some are familiar from His Dark Materials, others are new. It strikes me that Philip Pullman's book itself has much in common with the alethiometer which is so central to it. 
The narrative spins you around and then shows  a number of symbols. Some are easy to identify, many vague or ambiguous. Each have any number of meanings on any number of levels, going ever deeper and more erudite. Some require scholarship and further reading to interpret, others depend more on the sensitivity and openness of the reader. Different readers will understand different things from them. The answers they get will depend on the questions they ask. The book's meaning is not only 'out there' but 'in here' too. It is collaborative thinking, shared imagining, drawing not only on the author's immense talent and erudition, but on the reader's own understanding, experience and sensitivities. It is one of the finest works involving both emotional and intellectual exploration of the human condition. to have come along for a very long time. 

Deep and complex and close

And the conclusion? Of course,  we must wait and see what the rest of this new trilogy brings. I have every expectation that, as with His Dark Materials, the whole will prove even greater than the parts. But meanwhile La Belle Sauvage has proved to justify every iota of the pre-publication excitement it aroused. It is a virtuoso triumph, displaying coruscating writing talent. It sparkles, albeit rather darkly. This reader found it totally engrossing and richly rewarding. To borrow words from the author himself: 'It was deep and complex and close, and it touched every part of him, body and dæmon and ghost.'

I am sure the rereading that will certainly follow will yield deeper resonances yet. Hold it close. As with ourselves and our world, nothing  here is just anything. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Maudlin Towers: Curse of the Werewolf Boy by Chris Priestley

Good recommendation, thanks

To be honest, children's comic fiction is not really my thing. I have nothing against it. In fact I know it has an important place in many children's reading. It's just that it's not my bag. Despite the passing years, I have appear to have retained a good deal that is childlike (and probably much that is childish too).  But I do seem to have rather outgrown a child's sense of humour. However, I read this little book on the Twitter recommendation of two favourite authors, Philip Reeve and Gareth P Jones, and I am mightily glad I did. It amused me no end and entertained me royally. It is childish, in a playful way - but it is very cleverly funny too. 

This delightful humour in Chris Priestley's book struck me as particularly 'English' and rather old-fashioned. I do not mean either of these as a negative. More than anything it put me in mind of Spike Milligan and The Goon Show. That is to say it used an almost manic silliness as the canvas for humour which is really brilliantly clever, well educated, highly literate and even, at times quite literary. For example,  the opening map is a wonderful spoof of those found in high fantasy fiction. There is also a brilliant passage contrasting a 'herring' with a 'red herring', the humour of which is dependent on the reader knowing the meaning and usual context of the latter (as well, preferably, as having suffered the traumas of learning algebra).

I know my bookish son would have enjoyed this enormously in his younger days - and probably would even now.  He did actually listen repeatedly, at one stage, to old recordings of The Goon Show - and quoted them incessantly. (Milligan voice: 'He's fallen it the wa-ter!')

Going public

One thing occurred to me. The setting, and indeed the whole ethos, of this tale belong very much to the minor English Public School*. Will the less privileged kids out there be able to relate to it? Than said, exactly the same applied to Harry Potter and I suppose that managed to attract a few readers. Perhaps there are so many books around about boarding school life (magical or otherwise) that most children will understand its ways even if they have not experienced them directly. 

Sparkling writing

Curse of the Werewolf Boy is a sparklingly brilliant piece of comic writing from Chris Priestly, who also sustains the hilarious entertainment amazingly well. It is all too easy for an initial amusement to wear thin - but not here. Even if the actual gags become less frequent as the story progresses, they are quickly overtaken by a gloriously amusing and entertaining tale of mind-boggling time travel. It is here that the Werewolf Boy is to be encountered, as well as a possibly ghostly (or even ghastly) Viking , not to mention a stolen School Spoon of indescribable importance. (Sorry, was I not supposed to mention the spoon.) Together with a delicious madcap, and hilariously named, cast of teachers and pupils, they are wonderful creations all. 

The author manages delightfully to spoof a number of literary genres (not least the detective story), but it is the confusions and complexities of time travel that are at the heart of the story's delight. And, indicative of the tale's underlying intelligence, there is actually logic to them. The time-travel paradox is more skilfully negotiated here than in many more serious attempts to fictionalise the concept. Then, Chris Priestly keeps one of his cleverest  suprsises until late in the story when our intrepid heroes speed off into the future. But no spoilers. 

Classic comedy

This book does not have any pretentious to great profundity, but it is a quick, easy read - and a hugely enjoyable one.  It will, I am sure, provide a delightful diversion for many children and it's cod 'spooky' elements will be an added bonus. 

The author's own copious, wacky illustrations add to the liveliness of the text in much the same way that Ronald Searle's did to the classic Molesworth books, back in the day. It is good that a new generation now has a similar comic talent of their own to revel and delight in. 

Mildew and Sponge are the stuff of comedy classic and Maudlin Towers could well prove to be the Fawlty Towers of children's literature. Readers will both want to return to these characters and to have more - much  more - of their exploits. It looks as though this title is to be the start of a new series. I, for one, am delighted.  Countless children will be too. 

Note: Any readers of this blog from outside the UK need to remember that we here, very logically, call some older, selective, fee-paying boarding schools 'Public Schools'. Schools which are funded by the state and free to all children (almost always day schools) are 'state schools' - what else?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Deeply interesting 

This book is every bit as darkly, lusciously, intriguingly alluring as its cover. Despite its historical setting, it is also very much a book for our times.

Frances Hardinge is a deeply interesting writer. Her oeuvre to date can, on one level, be thought of as falling into two 'periods'. Her first works were full fantasies, set in imagined worlds*. Her debut was the delightful Fly by Night, fizzing with quirky imagination and exuberant language play. She continued by developing hugely entrancing fantasies through to the even stranger A Face Like Glass. Her  more recent 'phase' began with Cuckoo Song, when she shifted towards a slightly older readership** but also changed from straight fantasy to books with an authentic historical setting, albeit ones that still drew in elements of strange and often disturbing fantasy. This period included her deservedly award winning The Lie Tree and she has now  continued it further in A Skinful of Shadows, this time with a setting in the English Civil War. 

Language and darkness

There are however several very prominent, and quite wonderful, characteristics which run through all of Frances Hardinge's work and these distinguish it even more than the differences. In all her books are to be found a rich and masterly use of language, a highly original and idiosyncratic imagination, a tendency to darkness and a dry, wicked sense of humour. Indeed her self-projected author image, with long dark hair and an ever-present black hat, seems to echo her writing very well; not quite a witch, but with an almost eccentric air of rather dark mystery and intelligent, thoughtful eyes .

Through her later books, the effervescent language of Fly by Night has matured into a rich mastery of prose. In A Skinful of Shadows, it is this that draws you into her world and story. It is said, at one point,  when describing a response to a particular location of the narrative, 'Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.' There could be no better example of this author's command of language, nor any more potent image of the effect that language has in immersing the reader in her vision. 


In A Skinful of Shadows too, Frances Hardinge's highly individual imagination and her ability to conjure strange darkness are at their strongest. The story of the book centres on Makepeace***, a young girl who has inherited the 'talent' of hosting departed spirits within her own body. In consequence of this, her malevolent relatives wish to use her as a vessel for their accumulated store of ancestral 'ghosts'. Some scenes, where Makepeace witnesses these spirits being transferred from a dying body into a new human host are disquieting in the extreme, and her deep dread of being posessed in this way both moving and terrifying. 

The English Civil War is a palette for the story; an integral element but never its prime focus. Frances Hardinge does not so much have anything to 'say' about war as to invite her reader to reflect upon it. The changing situations in which Makepeace finds herself move her several times from amongst Protestant to amidst Royalist factions and the views she picks up emphasise the way each side justifies its position by describing the same events and characters in starkly contrasting ways. Yet she herself is always concerned with the human fallout of the war, not its politics

As befits its subject matter, the author's more humourous writing is not at the forefront in this particular book. However, it does sometimes run beneath the surface and occasionally emerges, as in the bickering between the disparate 'ghosts' that Makepeace gradually collects inside herself. These include that of a bear, the essence of nature in the raw, whose freedom humans had cruelly quashed when it was alive, but which Makepeace eventually restores by accepting that nature as part of herself. 

(USA edition)

Frances Hardinge's books are certainly not typical of many classified  as 'YA'. They are not variations on the cliches of adolescent, romantic fantasy. They are, if anything,  more literature for young adults, as long as that description is not taken to imply any dullness or heaviness. They are for the reader who wants to reflect rather than simply to emote, to be enriched as much as to escape, to be intrigued rather than indulged, to be pulled into a totally original and imaginative narrative by thrillingly skilful writing. 

Much more than history

In part, the book is about the danger of being demonically possessed by the past, by ones 'ancestors'. It is a brave and  desperate quest  to escape that stranglehold and be freely oneself. These demons perpetuate a rigid certainty, a belief in their own righteousness, even when they are wrong. But Makepeace knows that badgers do not have two legs shorter than the other two, whatever the old books say.  There is no rigid rule ordained by 'God'. We need to discover for ourselves what is right and necessary for people to live in peace, to discover ourselves without infringing the need of others. We must fight against those who wish to impose an extremist rigidity on ourselves and our world. This it is a book for today and for tomorrow. Makepeace, together with her brother, and all the 'ghosts' who have been freely accepted as a genuine part of herself, must 'find a new world, with its own rules'.  

It is also a generous and compassionate book about second chances. 

Frances Hardinge is one of the most richly enjoyable writers around. She is fully on song here. This makes A Skinful of Shadows one of the most richly enjoyable books of the year. It pulses with all the distinctive qualities of her writing, but housed in a totally new skin, a compellingly original and imaginative story. It is a skinful of dark but wondrous shadows. 

*The one slight exception is Well Witched (aka Verdigris Deep) which is set in the contemporary world but is still essentially a fantasy. 
**Although there are, of course, no hard rules about who can read what book. Whatever is right for a particular reader at a particular time. 
*** A pious name typical of those given to some Puritans in the 17th century. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Illegal by Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, Illus. Giovanni Rigano

An imperative 

I hope that as many booksellers as possible will copy the lead of the one shown below and do all they can to promote this book.  Similarly teachers, parents, bloggers and any others in a position to do so. Why? Because it is simply one of the most brave, committed, communicative and vitally important children's books to have been published in a very long time. 

Graphic is good

For starters, it is great that another huge name children's author has collaborated with an established writer of, and an illustrator of, graphic novels to produce a high profile new work in this format*. Not long ago the same happened when Philip Pullman authored his excellent The Adventures of John Blake**.  Hopefully these books will move us towards a situation where the graphic novel is given the status it deserves in the world of children's fiction. That is, as a valid format in its own right, and not as an inferior sub-genre, looked down upon by many parents and teachers and offered, if at all, only to young readers who are perceived as unwilling or unable to cope with a 'proper book'. Whilst different from prose fiction, and requiring a different reading style, involvement with a graphic novel requires highly acute visual literacy alongside verbal literacy, and offers a whole reading experience which can be just as rich and rewarding as prose fiction. It should be a valued part of every child's reading repertoire. 

How can human beings be illegal?

However it is not the format alone, not even the format itself, which makes Illegal such a vitally important publication. It is its content and message. 

Here is the story of a young boy, Ebo, and his traumatic journey from East Africa to Europe. He stands representative for all those refugees/economic migrants (call them what you will) who make such journeys in search of a better life for themselves and their families. He, like most of them, comes from extreme poverty, the extent of which many of us have no direct experience. Like them, too, his journey is horrendous, the depredations he suffers unspeakable, the perils quite literally deadly. The book skilfully alternates its narration between his Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Sicily and the first part of his journey, from East Africa, across the Sahara and to the coast. Each leg of the journey is an almost equal nightmare of deprivation and danger, subject to squalid conditions and appalling exploitation at the hands of traffickers. 

It is a disturbing, distressing story. It has to be, because that is what it is. However, it is also told with great sensitivity.  Ebo and those sharing his plight are characters with whom  many children will be able to identify. They will to some degree share his longings, his sufferings and his dreams. Amidst the trauma, and despite the distance of events and places from the experience of most readers, the authors skilfully build in many points of contact and empathy. Most will, for, example, identify with the devotion of Ebo's brother, Kwame, to Chelsea Football Club (even if they are not Chelsea fans themselves), as well as Ebo's own devotion to his 'big brother'. Like many other aspects of this story it ignites a familiar, common humanity that they will know well. 

The power of pictures 

Having mentioned separately the format and content of this book, it needs to be said, that one of its greatest triumphs is the way that the latter benefits from the former. This presentation allows its young readers into the situation, and its emotions, in a very direct way. The pictures show far more than the words. Their details and their colourings, their atmosphere and their inbuilt expressiveness provide vivid and telling ways into awareness, understanding and empathy. Like other good graphic novels, there is amazing effectiveness too in the layout and 'pacing' of the pictures. These subtly but very powerfully convey  emotion - terror, awe, desperation, longing - often moving  us in ways which can be as deep as the most skilfully constructed words.  

The power of children

And this is a story which children need to know and to understand. They need to be shocked and appalled by it. And they will be. To understand the experience of one individual is to the understand better the experience of the many. To vicariously share Ebo's journey is the better to share humanity. I trust them to care. And, through that care they may come to play a part in reducing the appalling amount of mistrust, self-centredness and downright prejudice currently so rife in our societies. 

It is also the case that, whilst many of the truly terrible situations explored in this book are now well known to the political world, the only attempted solutions currently in place are short-term ones, even if well-intentioned and assuredly better than nothing. Few however are finding real answers. Perhaps our children might, now and into the future.  Their voices can be remarkably powerful and  persuasive. Our world needs them at least to try to move us all forward. This book could potentially do so much. We must get it to as many children as possible. 


The end of the Illegal story does convey much warmth and some hope for the future. For Ebo it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit; but for the rest of us it is a warning of what happens when we collectively abandon humanity. The graphic placement of the tale's final images against the mesh fence of a 'reception centre' is a harsh reminder that life on arrival in Europe is, to our shame, still not a bed of roses for Ebo and those in his position. But at least there are holes in the caging. Perhaps there will be a way out. That hope may well lie with our children. If this book can be put into the hands of enough of them it will help enormously in tuning them into the issues, the emotional ones more than the intellectual, the human more than the political. I trust them to understand that 'no human being is illegal'*** At least not in any place where law accords with natural justice. 

The cover image has been cleverly selected to include a speech bubble stating, 'You know as well as I do that he shouldn't be here ' The 'here' shown is an overcrowded, inadequate boat in the middle of the ocean. It does not refer to our doorstep. Children will indeed know that. They will understand the difference. 

*There are excellent graphic novel versions of some of the Artemis Fowl titles, but they are essentially spin-offs from the prose versions, whereas Illegal is a major publication in its own right. 
**See my post from June '17
***Quote from Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, used as a preface to Illegal. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

Here is a title I have been eagerly waiting for, the final part of a story to which I feel already very committed. Like countless other fans  I desperately wanted to discover how things turn out for people I feel I know and, yes indeed, care for. It is no disappointment. The final book in this hugely popular series is everything readers (including me) could want. 

A writer with form

I have been a great admirer of Jonathan Stroud for a good while now. I consider his Bartimaeus books to be one of the very best of contemporary children's fiction sequences, a brilliant blend of comedy and fantasy. (See my post from April '17.)  More recently, I have explored his earlier novels and found that very rewarding indeed. (Post June '17.) I notice that the UK paperback of The Empty Grave has at the back a page advertising his first four major novels*. I do hope it succeeds in attracting some attention as they are all great reads, well worth seeking out. They are very different from each other, as well as from the later sequences, but each is a very fine novel in its own right.  It is also fascinating to track through his development as a writer. 

Series finale 

His most recent sequence,  about teenage spook-busters, Lockwood & Co, is aimed at a perhaps slightly older audience** than Bartimaeus. It is also probably his most overtly popular success to date. Deservedly so. It is quite splendid entertainment, providing gripping adventures and believable, endearing characters. It is set in a world which resembles our own but has been overrun by supernatural visitations. Our little band of adolescent heroes each have 'talents' to fight back against ghosts,  ghouls and other horrors they are employed exorcise. It turns out they are pretty good at it as well - although they do not always have  the luck to escape totally unscathed.  The books are  laced witn both high humour and dry wit and somehow succeed in combining a rather homely comfort (lots of cake and biscuits) with plenty of contemporary 'edge', gripping suspense and high adrenaline action.

From a great start, the Lockwood series has just been getting better and better. The through line plot has broadened out from separate incidences of ghost-busting to the thwarting of a mega villain, who may well have caused all the haunting in the first place. At the end of the last book readers were left in cruel suspense as to how the whole situation would develop and resolve. This final book, involving, amongst other trials for the intrepid young 'firm', a terrifying attack on their own home, a horrendous journey through the 'other side', and a cataclysmic battle at the headquarters of the controlling  'agency ' itself, just racks up the tension at every thrilling turn. Jonathan Stroud is a true master of plot building.

Bickering and bonding 

However it is the relationships between the young agents of Lockwood & Co which really underlie the irresistible pull of these stories. Characters, and the interplays between them, have become deeper and richer with each successive book. By this final stage, readers have come to know the Lockwood team as familiar friends. Narrator, Lucy, a mixture of a young Bridget Jones and Zoro (well, sort of), is continually enchanting despite, or perhaps because of, her many insecurities and foibles.  She is certainly no great physical beauty (in her own eyes at least), nor any angel either, but her flaws make her all the more lovable. At one point team-mate George, on seeing a particular ghoul emit a repulsive  splurge of slime, comments that it is almost as bad as Lucy with a head cold. Whilst he is clearly being wickedly teasing, one suspects there may be some modecome of truth behind the comment. Such an exchange is in fact typical of the bickering and crosstalk that is one of the delights of the Lockwood crew. Yet, when push comes to shove, they also display loyalty and mutual caring to the nth degree. 

In Lucy's even more acrimonious yet strangely strong attachment to her cynical, obstreperous talking skull-ghost, which she persistently carries around in a jar, lies one of the richest veins of the story's humour. However it is her developing relationship with the darkly handsome, and somewhat enigmatic Lockwood which is at the story's heart. In this final instalment, she has a pervasive fear that he might end up sacrificing his own life to save her , that he might far too soon occupy the empty grave of the title. It is this terrible conviction, as much as the story's action, which compels the reader forward, sharing Lucy's apprehension and quaking at the ever-increasing likelihood of her fears being realised. 

Building through the successive books of Lockwood & Co, are the early adolescent stirings of romance, but Jonathan Stroud handles them with sensitivity and real understanding . We are still really in the area of special friendships rather than anything more mature, but the feelings he explores are all the more affecting for that. They pull at the heart-strings and consequently pull the story strongly along too. A good  example of his sensitive, sympathetic  writing of character is the way he gently introduces hints that Holly, another prominent Lockwood team member, may have different growing emotional/sexual interests of her own. In doing so he skilfully adds a further level of depth and humanity to the telling, without any fuss or sensationalism. 

Grand climax

Needless to say, this 'series finale' pulls all of the strands of this long narrative journey very cleverly together. I would of course not dream of saying how. But I am certain fans will not be disappointed. 

Jonathan Stroud uses language like a master, never pretentiously but with a skill that evokes in his reader vivid  images of his characters and their world. It has been announced that a screen version of Lockwood and Co is in the offing. This will, of course, recruit countless more fans, many of whom will subsequently read the books too.  That will be a very good thing indeed. However imposed screen images do tend rather to swamp individual visualisation and can be difficult to shrug off when subsequently reading. My advice to any who have not yet discovered this series is to get in and read it first, whilst your own imagination will take you (with the writers help) powerfully into what becomes a shared creation. 

You would best start at the beginning of course, but this page turner will rapidly pull you in. And you can move through the five books in the assurance that a great start just gets better and better. 

These are not novels of any particular profundity, but they have no pretensions to be. They are, however, some of the most hugely compelling and entertaining reads currently around. It will be really interesting to see what this fine writer comes up with next. 

The paperback editions are arrestingly designed and will, I am sure, meet the needs of most young readers. However, it is a shame that, with such an important and successful series, the UK publishers seem to have abandoned their hardback set after the third volume. Fortunately there is a very attractive US set of hardbacks for those who wish to collect and keep the whole series longer term. 

* Buried Fire, The Leap. The Last Siege. Heroes of the Valley. 
** Older children and young teens (although, of course, readers of a huge range of ages can enjoy almost any book, if it is the right thing for them at the time). 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K.Rowling) illustrated by Jim Kay

An unnecessary recommendation 

This most recent addition to the emerging Illustrated Harry Potter sequence really needs no recommendation from me. However I can't resist adding my two penn'orth on such a significant publication. Jim Kay's new contributions are an outstanding and most welcome addition to the Potter library and will, I am sure, encourage and support many young readers. That makes them important as well as special.  

Like many others, I consider 'Azkaban' to be the very best of the Potter books. Its storyline is somewhat deeper and richer (as well as darker) than those before, but not yet as sprawling as those that follow*. Jim Kay has responded wonderfully to the quality and character of this third book and his illustrations are also possibly the best yet. Certainly they too are somewhat darker than those for the first two books. 

Triumphant images

Amongst many other delights, the images of the 'Knight Bus' are a triumph. I am not at all surprised that one was selected for the jacket. It makes the most arresting Potter cover yet. I was also bowled over by the picture of Buckbeak in Hagrid's cabin, by Harry, Hermione and Ron trekking through the snow and by the depiction of Azkaban itself; each very different is style but equal in stunning effectiveness. As was the case in previous volumes, however, it was the pencil drawing, this time of Lupin, which I found most evocative of all. Unlike the screen versions, these are visualisations which magically ignite the imagination, without swamping it. 

This is another potentially wonderful gift volume and its format makes it ideal for an adult to share with a child, an activity which would render it an even richer gift.  

*Of course, most children who have read the early stories are more than sufficiently hooked in to cope with the greater length of the later ones. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A huge book

This is not the kind of book I generally blog about. Although it is a children's book, it is not even fiction, let alone 'magic fiction'. Is is subtitled A Book of Spells, but it is not, I imagine, one that would be found in the Hogwarts library. 

Nevertheless, The Lost Words just cannot, should not be ignored. It is a huge book in so many ways. It is hugely important, profound and hugely beautiful. In fact it is jaw-droppingly, soul-achingly beautiful. It is the work of two hugely talented people, who see, think and feel in hugely special ways. It is also just huge. 

The book is, in fact, physically too big to be terribly practical. But practicality is emphatically not what it is about. Its presence, its impact, its genuine awesomeness would not be the same were it any smaller. Some things emphatically should not be contained and are cruelly diminished if we try. 

Expectations exceeded

Recent years have seen the publication of many outstanding non-fiction books for the adult market featuring detailed, personal observations on the natural world. At the very forefront of this trend has been Robert Macfarlane. His books* are revelatory in terms of seeing the world around us afresh and he is arguably one of our finest contemporary writers, in any genre. 

Artist Jackie Morris is the creator of some of the twenty first  century's most iconic and stunning picture books**,and her large, close-up images of animals linger long in the mind. Her skill is outshone only by her sensitivity and  compassion.

So when it became clear that these two were to collaborate for the first time on a children's book, my expectations were high. But not high enough it seems. The combination of his writing and her art has turned out to be a splendid addition to the canon of great children's books. I will be most surprised if it does not prove a seminal publication. 

Spells and poems

The book's prefacing words say that Robert Macfarlane's contributions are 'not poems but spells'. The import of this is clear. The author intends these 'spells' to conjure for children the names of some of the indigenous plants and animals which they have lost, or are in danger of losing. I don't actually think this loss applies to all our children. Amongst today's young people are to be found some of our most passionate conservationists and our greatest hopes for the future. However it does apply to many, for whom their lifestyle, the games they play, the technology they (over)use, the books they read (or, tragically, don't read), separate them from any closeness to nature and the ever-changing pattern of seasons. Even more children, I fear have lost any sense of awe and wonder for the natural world and it is in restoring this that these spells will be most effective. They are very potent indeed. 

However, despite protestations to the contrary, and even though they may not be verse as such, these pieces are poems as well as spells. Indeed they are poetry in the best sense and of the highest calibre. They use patterns of the richest and most intense language to evoke awareness of profoundly important thoughts and feelings. They illuminate life. In fact, not, I think,  since Ted Hughes has there been a collection of such fine and important nature poems for children. And these have the advantage of being rather more accessible to young people, without any less measure of deep awareness, sensitivity, resonance or sonority. These spell-poems beg to be read aloud to children and by children, to be sounded and savoured, to be word-sung. They are to be learned and learned from, to be grown with and grow by.  

In them readers will be enchanted by, amongst many others, the 'bickering, snickering' magpie; the conker that cannot be crafted, commanded, or engineered, but made only by a tree; the ancient fern 'furled, unfolding and fanning'. They  are spells of beauty to which as many children as possible need to fall victim. 

Spreading art

However, the words, wonderful as they are, are only a part of this book. Jackie Morris's art spreads through it in lavish fecundity, complementing, extending, enriching the spells. In fact 'spreads' is a very appropriate description for each subject, each individual plant or creature, is allowed three enormous double-page spreads. 

The first of each trio of pages instigates the spelling by conjuring the name from letters strewn across subtle traceries. Each is a hint, a foretaste of  what is to come: a stand of delicate grass heads, a stave of telegraph wires, the embryo outline of a weasel, the meandering ghost of a stream. Even here the variety of imagination and subtly of artistry is outstanding - and enormously evocative. 

On each second double spread, the left-hand spell is offset by a right-hand page where a detailed image of the plant or animal itself  is  highlighted against a ground of applied gold leaf. Each picture is a ravishing illumination of the words. There are distant echoes of medieval manuscript in the pairing, and the impact is stunning. 


The final spread of each trio presents a vast canvas with more naturalistic context. These breathtaking pictures gain added impact from their scale and come a long way towards bridging the gap between seeing a reproduction and looking at an original work of art. Each one a combination of watercolour detail and wash, their beauty needs to be seen not described. Here, amongst other marvels, are an owl-flown woodland, its bluebell carpet evoked only by its distinctive hue; a mesmerising murmuration of starlings; a heron surveying it watery domain from the hide of an evocative old willow. Please do not let children miss out on this wonderful gallery of nature art, to be found between the covers of a book. 

A gift for teachers

As a former teacher, I would have given my eye teeth to have this book in my classroom (probably to use around Y5 or Y6). Just reading and knowing its  spell-poems would model so much about language use: how effective alliteration can really be, when it is not gratuitously forced; how potent is truly apt vocabulary choice; how strong acrostics can be when used for real communication rather than as an  imposed exercise; how real poetry for children can be so much more than the rhythmic rhyme  to which 'children's poetry' is too often confined. The book's art work could teach so much about reading pictures, both in terms of closely observing detail and of responding to overall impact. 

Many schools do an excellent job of inspiring children with a passionate commitment to important global conservation issues. However exploring the nature on our doorstep, once the staple of Primary education, seems to have declined somewhat.   This book could help considerably in a vital rebalancing. 

A gift for children

Apparently this book has been described in some social media posts as 'too beautiful for children'. This is nonsense as well as being horrendously patronising. Children often respond to beauty more fully and directly than many adults. They are perfectly capable of valuing and treasuring beautiful things. They need some beautiful things in their lives They need things that they can value and keep long and carefully. 

This book has a recommended retail price of £20.00, which some may consider expensive for a children's picture book. My response would be that there are precious few real treasures to be had for such a sum, apart, of course, for that completely free treasure, the wonderous world around us. This book will cast its spell over children in such a way as to open minds, ears and eyes to that wonder. I can think of few better presents to give to a child or grandchild. 

This book may send children off to look out for the plants and animals it represents.  But it will do more than that. To see a kingfisher is undoubtedly a glorious thing. But perhaps that kingfisher does not actually need to be seen. Just to know that it is there makes the world a more wonderous place. To be able to name it, to know it as 'halcyon',  to see its 'flame-flicker' in the minds eye - and to know that it is truly there somewhere in the world. Our world. That knowledge is the real gift of 'lost' things that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris give. 

*Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Holloway, and Landmarks as well as a delightful essay, The Gifts of Reading. 
** Including, Something About a Bear; The Snow Leopard; The Ice Bear; One Cheetah, One Cherry; The White Fox and The Seal Children (N.B. There are stunning new large-format editions of The Snow Leopard and The Ice Bear, recently out from GRAFFEG, which would also make superb treasures for children. There are signed copies around too, but look for them in independent, 'real' bookshops. )