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, 29 January 2018

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

'Perhaps it was just as important to be still - to listen keenly - and to see into the heart of the things that most people missed.' (page 95)

Coming late to the party

Yes. I know. I am way behind the crowd on this one. Sky Song has been piled high in bookshops for weeks now, lauded and recommended all over the place. 

After delighting in the author's previous The Dreamsnatcher trilogy (see my posts from March '16 and June '17) I was not in the least surprised at this enthusiastic reception for her latest release. And now that I have read it I can only (belatedly) add my voice of recommendation to so many others. In doing so I feel rather like the sad sort who ends up feebly sending a 'Sorry I missed your Birthdaty' card. Yet I can't neglect recording my own thoughts on such a significant release, however tardy. Rather than simply repeat all the plaudits about this being an enchanting story both for children to read themselves and for teachers to read to them (which it is), I would like rather to try to explain why I think this little gem is so much more than just a good story.  Abi Elphinstone is a writer of great sensitivity and because of this offers much that will help sensitise her young readers to some crucial aspects of both literature and life. 

Difference is good

Sky Song is most wonderfully strong on celebrating  diversity and inclusion. One of its trio of protagonists is Blu, a girl with characteristics that, in the terms of our own world, suggest Down Syndrome. It is both inspired and inspiring to see such a girl feature so prominently in a mainstream book. There are, it's true, a good number of recent children's books about individuals who are 'different' in some way. Some personalities especially, such as children on the autistic spectrum and those with specific reading issues, have featured relatively prominently. This is certainly an excellent thing But in all my extensive reading, I don't think I have come across DS in much mainstream children's fiction, so Blue is particularly welcome. That she is not turned into an 'issue' but treated as an accepted lead character in her own right, contributing significantly to the success of the book's quest, makes it even better. It is really important for all children to be able to find themselves in the books they read or hear, but it is equally important that all children are sensitised to the idea that 'difference is good' when it comes to those around them. This book will help enormously. 

Stereotypes are bad

Additionally Eska, the story's lead character, provides a wonderful role model for the 'rebel girl'. It takes her no time at all to show that she is no mere 'rescued princess', despite her being liberated from the snow queen's Winterfang Palace - by a boy! She is everything a strong, gutsy, determined, resourceful protagonist should be, including being enormously likeable. Yet there are quite a few strong girl leads to be found in recent children's fantasy fiction. And a mightily good thing it is too. About time. However, even more remarkable (and laudable) for me is the almost equally prominent presence in Sky Song of Flint, a sensitive and sensitively drawn boy character. Feminism brings crucial understanding of girls' rights and potentialities to our society and is justifiably prominent. But it is perhaps easy to forget that boys too can be constrained and sometimes even crushed by a gender stereotype imposed and reinforced by society. Some boys also need to be encouraged and supported to be 'rebels' if they are to break free from the pressure to conform as 'real lads'. Some need to find themselves in other ways than as noisy, aggressive, sport-loving 'warriors'. That Flint is presented as a caring, empathetic and inventive believer in magic is enormously helpful. 

'I'm not sure I'm going to make a very good warrior though. Too much - '  (Flint) looked at Blu, searching for the right word, '- gentleness.'
'I don't think you have to fight with weapons to be a warrior,' Eska whispered. 'You can fight with love and tears and inventions instead.' 

There are different ways of being a rebel and, if our society is to become a better place for everyone, we need to learn to respect them all. Of course I know that there are some sections of our society who understand this already. But, sadly, there are also all too many who do not. A book like this can help, perhaps more than laws or lectures. Flint is is just as important a role model to find in mainstream fiction as are Eska and Blue. We owe Abi Elphinstone enormous respect and gratitude for putting all three in there. 

'If hope was a song it would sound just like this.'

The magic of 'the wild'

Perhaps because of her personal experience, through her upbringing and later travels, this author is also enormously responsive to landscape. Through her, her characters show the same sensitivity to place and to the abundance of nature it supports. In Sky Song, close relationships with animals figure strongly and are most tellingly and touchingly portrayed. 

'I don't belong to a tribe - I don't really know where I fit in exactly - but if my tribe ends up just being you and me, Balapan, that would be enough.' (Eska to her eagle)

Of course, such human/animal closeness is not uncommon in children's fiction, but Abi Elphinstone goes further. It is the sense of her protagonists' empathy with nature as a whole, with 'the wild', which is so beautifully captured.

'As Flint glanced at Eska he felt a strange tingling fill his body. She was surrounded by the wild - her tribe - and for a moment it felt like the animals were singing just for her.'

Even the 'magic of Erkenwald', forgotten by so many but kept alive by Flint and a few others, is the magic of nature, of the earth itself. 

'Flint still trusted Erkenwald's magic . . . because his mind was attuned to the things most people missed - river stones that shone in the dark, sunbeams tucked behind trees, coils of mist hovering above puddles.'

In their wonderful book of art and poetry, The Lost Words (see my post from October '17) Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane conjure 'spells' to put young readers more in touch with the natural world. Here, albeit through a different genre, Abi Elphinstone does very much the same. And although the location of her tale is probably not that of most of her  readers, sensitivity to nature is transferable. Through this strong and moving story I believe many children will become more sympathetic to the whole notion of 'the wild', whether it is far across the world or in their own backyard. And in fact both are vital. 

A door into fantasy

In an earlier post, I welcomed The Dreamsnatcher trilogy as 'entry level' fantasy for young readers. I do not see this as a pejorative description in any way. Quite the reverse. High fantasy abounds for somewhat older readers, (YA and beyond) but it is always good to have books that introduce such stories to children in an accessible and exciting way. Recently these seem to have been rather thin on the ground, here at least, if less so in The States. Fantasy is an important genre. Just as much as 'real life' books, fantasies help us discover more about who we are; about what other people do, think and feel; about the world in which we live.  It is not just 'pretending', it is imagining. Like much of poetry, fairy tale and fantasy explore life through images, through symbol and metaphor; and, at its best, it can plumb deeper than perceived 'reality'. It resonates, sometimes unconsciously, with the depths of what we human beings are and always have been. It points to the universal in all of us. And Sky Song is an even richer imaginative fantasy than Abi Elphinstone's earlier books. It resonates in exactly this way. It is replete with many of the classic tropes of fantasy: the rescued prisoner; the divided kingdom; the wise magician who shape-shifts; the wicked queen or witch who steals voices (identities, souls, daemons?); the warrior who scorns magic; the hero journeying to complete the quest that will end evil. It is not necessary for a young reader to understand all or even any of these, just to get to know them is enough. A book like this will help children remember and internalise these archetypes, so that they will later be able to appreciate classics like Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising and new wonders such as Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage. It is a magical doorway into a magical world in more ways than one. 

Language that speaks - and teaches

There is one further sensitivity in Sky Song  that I think important to mention, and that is Abi Elphinstone's profound sensitivity to written language. It is not that her usage is 'fancy', quite the reverse. It is communicative without being ostentatious, descriptive without being florid. It clearly moves the story, builds the characters, creates and releases tension as appropriate for such an adventure. But it is just the sort of writing that familiarises  children with the power and potency of  the written word. And it does not always need cumbersome disection by a teacher, or even conscious awareness on the part of the reader, for such quality language use to be absorbed. The young are sensitised to the apt choice of word, the nice turn of phrase, the elegant balance of a sentence by encountering these things frequently in their reading. Writing is, at heart, learned from reading, and the simple but telling use of language is best learned from the models unobtrusively provided by skilled authors such as this.

A wonderful example is the passage about flying the 'Woodbird' on page 243.  

Want the good news or the good news?

Sky Song is a hugely engaging story beautifully told, and the many sensitivities enmeshed in its telling make it a major addition to the canon of contemporary children's fiction. Wrapped within its fantasy is a book of tremendous heart.  No. Not just heart, humanity. 

I have picked up from Twitter than Abi Elphinstone has been commissioned by her publisher Simon & Schuster to write a new fantasy series, which she is currently calling The Unmapped Chronicles. This is brilliant news.  I will await it eagerly. I also know that huge numbers of other readers will be doing the same. Which is equally excellent. 

One final thought. As someone who values and treasures books in the long term I think it is sad that often these days  UK publishers do not produce a hardback edition alongside the more ephemeral paperback. Having said that, this edition of Sky Song is one of the best designed and presented children's paperbacks I have come across in a good while. It too will help sensitise children, this time to both the look and the hand-feel of beautiful books. Perhaps we will soon get a US-published hardback to go alongside it. I do hope so. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

York: Book 1. The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

'It was hard to sketch in the dark, but he did it anyway, quick lines that limned his thoughts.' Jamie, p 388. 

I ❤️ (New) York*

I love a big , thick book that looks like it's going to keep me engrossed for hours. I love even more when it has 'Book 1' on its cover. I love a beautiful, intriguing jacket. I even love US editions with those crazy deckle edges that we never see on UK publications.

I love dry American humour and droll repartee. I love books that burst with original imagination and invention. I love authors who take a regular genre and transform it into something fresh and sparkling. I love characters that leap straight off the page and into your affections. I love books that entertain but also make you think, ones that don't go where you think they're going. I especially love truly inclusive books that unobtrusively reinforce the unique value of every individual. I love a strange, enigmatic world of fantasy that bides so close to our own that its presence limnes our lives, like a sketch drawn in the dark. 
In short, I love York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby. It has all of these things. In spades. (Are you getting the idea?) 

A mystery tradition

In its early stages,  this book has the feel of a US kids' mystery story, much in the well-loved tradition of The Westing Game and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Basically, three kids try to solve an old cypher and find a treasure that will prevent their beloved apartment building home from being destroyed by an unscrupulous developer. Yet from the outset this novel has two outstanding features that lift it head and shoulders above just another fathom-the-clues story and render it a very fine book indeed in its own right. 

New York, not New York

One is the delightful amount of creative invention that has gone into building the book's world, or more specifically its city. This is a New York which has many reference points to the real location, but is embellished with many creations that are part steampunk, part Sci-fi, part fantasy. These are a supposed legacy from Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr, genius inventors and developers of the city from the 19th Century, as well as the instigators of the titular cypher. Their amazing additions include the 'Underway', a weird railway, that runs not only underground, but often emerges on fantastic raised trackways which loop and twist spectacularly around the city's skyscrapers. The children's home building, also a Morningstarrs original, has an escalator that moves horizontally and well as vertically and takes irregular, erratic routes between floors. And then the streets are kept clean by 'rollers', mechanical creatures that emerge from traps in the roadway, gather the trash and roll it away, much in the manner of scarab beetles. And on top of all this, protagonists Tess and Theo (who are themselves named after the Morningstarr twins) have an odd, giant lynx-cat pet, who also plays a prominent role in the story. 

The continual, often almost casual, introduction of these fantastic creations is endlessly intriguing, and a triumph of  invention by Laura Ruby. Equally enthralling is the way that  the otherwise very realistic, contemporary characters, living (to them) very real city lives,  take completely for granted what are (to us) mind-boggling aspects of their milieu. 

What characters!

And that thought nicely introduces the other great delight of this book. Its young characters constitute just about the strongest, liveliest, most entertaining and engaging portraits of American kids that I remember encountering since I delighted in the books of Betsy Byars a good few years ago. Their banter is a frequent joy and sometimes laugh-aloud hilarious. They are also very distinct and 'real' as personalities; it is made easy for us as readers to identify with them, to care about what happens to them. Theo is a boy who, in our world, could very well end up diagnosed as 'on the autistic spectrum'. His twin, Tess, becomes so obsessed with totally speculative risks that she could almost be called 'paranoid'. Their friend, Jamie, living with his Grandmother, has to cope without  parents, his mother dead and his father long-term absent. 

But this is, thankfully, not a book that labels children. Rather it shows them as being the totally credible and worthy heroes of a story, each accepted, each with his or her very valuable contribution to make; each, in their particular way loving and deservedly loved. 

And then there is young Cricket. Well, I think I'd better leave you to meet her for yourself. Enjoy! I know you will. 

Many of the adult characters are drawn with equal richness and wonderfully represent a society of different beliefs  and ethnicities. This is a book that, without being about diversity issues, reinforces and celebrates inclusion, the fact that it is  good to be different. Few messages are more important to put before our children. To have them presented, as they are here, with quiet conviction, and with tolerance and acceptance as simply part of the way things are, is wonderfully welcome. 

As befits an exciting children's adventure, though,  it does a pretty good line in villains, and in character shocks too. 

The mystery of the mystery

But it gradually becomes apparent that this is not all there is to York. Not by a long way. A book that starts out feeling like one thing shifts intosomething quite other, something far more complex. Mystery is layered on mystery, enigma on enigma. And it is through the puzzle, through the cipher, that the mysteries of the book become deeper and stranger, even as does the city, the world in which everything happens. More and more disturbs the children, and the reader too: the almost inhuman presence of the 'Guildmen' on the Underway, the terrifying behaviour of the trains when the children ride a prescribed sequence of line, a machine that seems organically to metamorph into something quite other. Then there is the pervasive presence of the deeply enigmatic, long dead (?) heiress of the Morningstarrs. All becomes darker. 

Our young trio start by supposing they are solving clues, following a trail, but soon come to think that the solutions they unearth are, in Tess's words, 'way too adorable'  Clues and solutions seem to fall into place too neatly, too easily, almost of their own accord. But then that's the point. What is happening to the children becomes more the mystery than the mystery itself. Theo questions: 'Has the treasure been waiting there for us to discover? Or are we somehow creating the puzzle ourselves, building it out of the choices we make?' But then are they really their own choices? Is their unfolding journey a fiendishly clever legacy from the past or something even more disturbing? It is all deliciously, thrillingly intriguing.


And yet, through all this of this Laura Ruby's story remains poignantly human. When the residents of 354 W. 73rd. come to the point of actually having to move out of their homes it is near heartbreaking. 'More than that, what about fairness? What about justice? What about right and wrong? What about Grandpa? What about us?' (Tess, p 414)

York has many other layers of fascination and illumination too. Despite all the sci-fi fantasy embellishments, it somehow still comes across as a love song to New York, and a plea for recognition of its heritage, for the contribution of all those from the past who have made it what it is. 'Maybe saving their own homes wasn't the point anymore. Maybe the point was to save a piece of history,'  says Jamie on page 386. There are important aspects of the story that leads us all, perhaps, to reflect on our homes and what they meant to us, wherever we live. 

And the climax of the book is truly devastating. It is not at all what either characters or reader expected. But no more of that. 

And now . . . 

If this sequence continues as strongly as it has started, then it could well turn out to be one of our finest and most important works of children's speculative fiction. 

Book 2, please. Soon. Bring it on. 'All that opens is not a door.'

For non-US readers ONLY ☠️

Of course this book comes from America, so it's written in American and we Brits have to get past a few weird words now and then. Any language that consistently misses the 's' off 'maths' and then goes and sticks a totally redundant one on the end of 'Lego' has to take a bit of getting used to. But its mostly not that hard, honestly. Probably even less so for children brought up on a media diet that includes numerous US TV shows and movies. And the payoff is well worth any effort. It is a big book inside as well as out, a truly fine read - and a hugely entertaining one. In any case it is good to get a feel of lives that are at the same time so like and so different from our own. And in fairness calling Lego bricks 'Legos' is at least shorter. (Although just calling them 'Lego' is shorter still.)

*I love the old one as well, which is close to where I live - but that's (literally) a different story. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Polar Bear Explorers' Club by Alex Bell

Let it snow

It has taken a couple of months for me to get around to reading this one, but at least it is still seasonal. It  is also one of the most delightfully enchanting books for the younger end of the MG range that I have come across in quite a while. I am even tempted to call it a 'magic fantasy'; it is most certainly fanciful and does involve some magic too. However, it contains a whole sled full of other things as well. 

Not as we snow it

The book's core scenario involves polar exploration during a pseudo-historical period which, in its 'gentlemen's club' ethos at least, most closely resembles the Edwardian era. However the  'Icelands' to which the expedition goes adventuring are not at all as we know them. They are apparently inhabited not only by polar bears and penguins (reasonably predictable, if geographically impossible), and sledge-pulling wolves (credible if unusual) but also yetis (found in folklore at least) and then creatures such as malevolent frost fairies and aggressive cabbages (totally fanciful). The story also involves, amongst many other disparate elements, a somewhat ineffectual young magican, a boy who can speak to wolves, an incorporate shadow animal, living miniature dinosaurs and a snow queen's palace. It even features unicorns whose favourite diet appears to be iced gem biscuits - particularly the pink ones. In short the imaginative invention here is whimsical to say the least, occasionally even 'twee'. (Pink iced gems indeed!)

In fact, such an eclectic mix of ingredients could, and probably should, stretch credibility beyond even a willing suspension of disbelief. However, in this instance, it works delightfully. And it does so for one simple reason. The clever author never even attempts to explain or justify this bizarre world; her characters just accept it all as a matter of course, and consequently so do we as readers. 

The storyline is brimful of exciting action which, like a young readers' version of Indiana Jones, propels the reader from one cliffhanging thrill to the next. Yet this is not, for me, the main thing that makes the book such a fine and worthwhile one. It is rather its wonderful cast of young protagonists  (and one older one too) who are the making of it. Their rich characters and developing relationships just leap off the page. They are not only touching and heartwarming but also embody profound and important messages for life. 

Snow persons

Its four lead children constitute the beating the heart of this book. The tale may have elements of fairy story, but its main character, feisty young Stella, is most certainly not going to turn into any sort of fairy tale princess. Her determination to prove herself in a world dominated by male chauvinism sets a glowing example at the same time as it raises hackles that such thinking should exist in the first place. 

Her friend Beanie clearly has personality traits which today would be identified as placing him 'on the autistic spectrum'. It is, however,  to the author's credit that he is never restrictively labelled. Although it is made clear that he has suffeed bullying from other children as a result of his behaviours, the attitude consistently and strongly promoted through the book is very much that is 'good to be different'. Beanie comes to be accepted and valued by his fellow explorers precisely for who he is, and this provides another wonderful model for young readers. 

Wolf-whisperer, Shay, is the most overtly caring of the four, as might possibly be expected from one so close to animals. However, Ethan, the final member of the little group, is far from being an easy person to get along with. But here again it is the way the others come to understand why he is as he is, and to accept him for who he is, that carries such an important message. 

And then there is Felix, Stella's beloved adopted father. In his wisdom and kindness, he is the adult largely responsible for inculcating attitudes of caring inclusivity in the next generation. Our world needs more like him. 

The ice(ing) on the cake

Alex Bell's book is an example of what I would call 'Enid Blyton for the 21st Century'. It is far better written than its populist predecessor and much more imaginative. But it has that same feeling of  thrilling adventure wrapped in a cosy blanket of easy, escapist reading. It focuses on a group of children with whom readers can readily identify and on the forging of friendship through shared experience.In Alex Bell's book, however, this is underpinned by mutual understanding of what each of them has been through, and consequently acceptance of who they are. What they learn about valuing difference, rather than fearing or despising it, appreciating the contribution that each individual can make, provides  a wonderful model for today's young readers. The Polar Bear Explorer's Club is about friendship in its fullest and most glorious sense.  It is an excellent example of how fantasy stories can help children learn about important things in their own lives just as powerfully as more 'realistic', issues-based stories. 

Had I read this book before a Christmas, rather than after, there is a very good chance I would have included it with my 'Books of the Year' (see post from Dec). I think we need more high quality fantasy stories for this age group to balance the plethora of zany comedy that can  rather dominate the market, in the UK at least.  Combining important messages with exciting  action and engaging protagonists, this would make an excellent read-aloud for teachers of younger KS2, as well as being highly recommendable to children directly. Its subtle promotion of humane and inclusive attitudes is particularly welcome, as is its strong support for 'rebel girls'.

The beautifully produced book book is very considerably enhanced by Tomislav Tomic's outstanding double-spread, greyscale illustrations.