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.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

'The real magic is imagination.'

Really twice magic?

Cressida Cowell was already a phenomenon, who enticed countless children into reading, and kept them reading, with her enormously entertaining How to Train Your Dragon series*. Then, last year she struck pure children's literature gold with The Wizards of Once. If ever a book were deservedly destined to joint the ranks of great children's classics, and delight generations now and to come, this is such a one. (See my review from September 2017.)

The question was could she perform the same magic twice? 

Of course, being the writer and artist she is, the answer is a resounding yes. Inevitably, revisiting the same characters and world, this sequel cannot have the original total freshness of the first in the series. However, this is a world and characters well worth revisiting, and they come back alive here just as captivatingly as they did before. Once again the adventure rollicks along, with a clever mixture of thrills and laughs at every turn. The pervasive humour can be witty or farcical and is, as ever, hugely enhanced by the author's copious, anarchic illustrations. Her sketchy drawings, inky doodles and scrawled annotations, so attractive and entertaining to her young audience, hide great artistic skill and sensitivity behind their apparent casualness. 

Deeper magic yet

Yet her characters have some real depth too, and engender emotional empathy as well as providing vicarious experience of magical power and derring do. What child does not want literally to fly off on the door of their former 'punishment cupboard'? Although providing villains aplenty, the  plot too has more to it than simple good v evil, and its  themes will make its young readers think, even amidst their guffaws, yelps and cheers. 

In fact, one of Cressida Cowell's great gifts to all of us who wish to promote children reading is that through enticing humour and excitement she leads young readers subtly towards the world of literature and fine writing. With its 'unknown narrator', changing perspectives, and relatively involved, extended plot, Twice Magic is actually a fairly sophisticated novel, introducing literary conventions with which children can begin to become accustomed whilst hardly realising it. It is fine writing in jesters clothing, a treasure hoard that will buy yet more riches into the future. 

More than anything though, Cressida Cowell's greatest gift of all is that of imagination; imagination in spades; imagination that engenders imagination. 

'The real magic is imagination', she herself writes, and this magical imagination is Cressida Cowell's. 

It is book that will truly help children to 'keep hoping, keep guessing, keep dreaming'.

The closing poem on page 386 says all. Every parent and teacher should stick it to their fridge door - and perhaps take its message to heart. 

'I am young, I am poor, I can offer you nothing,
All that I have is this bright pair of wings 
This air that I eat, these winds that I sleep on,
This star path I dance in, where the moon sings . . . '

Once. Twice. Magic. 

*And continues to do so. 

The Book of Dust: 1 La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Paperback Edition)

If there are any children's literature enthusiasts left who haven't read La Belle Sauvage then the opportunity of its recent issue in paperback should not be missed. This sequel/prequel to His Dark Materials wonderfully extends and expands what is undoubtedly one of the  masterworks of contemporary fantasy. (See my full review from October 2017.)

However, even for those who already own a hardback copy, this new edition is worth buying for its inclusion of new original artwork by Chris Wormell. His many striking wood engravings now augment the scale, richness and intensity of the story most effectively. Like all the very best illustrations,  they help create both the detail and the drama of  the narrative without demeaning either the author's vivid text or the reader's own imagination. They are in themselves a stunning achievement and their images will long haunt this particular reader, along I suspect with many others, so that I can now hardly countenance the book without them. 

For those who have already ridden in the 'Sauvage' they provide a compelling incentive to read it all again. In fact, if you will excuse me . . . 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

'My mother says you just have to live it and lump it,' said Hilda. 
'I won't lump it,' I said. 
'You have to,' said Hilda. 'That's all there is. Nothing's the same since the war. Nothing's the same any more.'
Except the sky, I thought. It was the same sky. (p 157)

A wonderful discovery

Whilst I always strongly advocate the use of real bookshops whenever possible (and preferably independent ones), I have to admit that the internet does provide some benefits for book buying. One such is that children's books published in North America, but not in the UK, are now much easier to get hold of than they used to be. Since these include many by quite wonderful authors, that has to be a great thing. Sadly, however, this accessibility does not currently apply to the same extent to Australian publications. Yet the Antipodes too have some truly outstanding children's writers. Thankfully there are exceptions to the sourcing difficulty,* but it does still mean that we miss out on some very fine children's books. For example, I think it is fair to say that Ursula Dubosarsky is very little known or read here. Yet I would place her in the very top rank of children's authors writing today. She is producing children's literature that is both groundbreaking and breathtaking - and often heartbreaking too. 

Happily, her latest novel for young readers**, The Blue Cat, has just become available to those here who are prepared to seek it out - an action that I would most strongly urge you to take. 

A sophisticated book for sophisticated readers

We need to be clear, though. Many of Ursula Dubrovsky's novels are great works of children's literature. This makes them something close to the children's equivalent of high quality literary fiction for adults. They are not 'airport reads'. They are not necessarily books for the many children who (understandably enough) look to reading for comforting escape, for amusing entertainment or for exciting  adventure. They are probably not books to entice reluctant readers. Although their actual language is relatively simple, and many incidents superficially quotidian,  they are actually deeply challenging in style and content.  This author throws in startling images, that would be easy to gloss past, but need instead to be savoured. Unlike Ellery!

'Ellery was sitting, reading a book. When he turned the pages, he did so quickly as though he could hardly wait for the words coming next, like gulps of food.' (p 43)

Readers need to stick with her books,  even when nothing much seems ,superficially, to be happening. They need to be able to read between lines to find the fascination, the mystery, the beauty, the tragedy and the human truth that are all indubitably there. 

Hers are, however, books for young readers who want to be transported to other places and other times; who want to be taken right inside lives very different from their own; who possess a deep sense of empathy and who want to understand more about the world in which they are growing up, even when that understanding comes at a price. It is for children who no longer believe that all dragons can be slain by bold warriors, (or even humble Hobbits) and that 'happily ever after' is far too simplistic an ending. The Blue Cat is no exception. 

The impact of war

It is set in Sydney in 1942, as the affects of  WWII impinge more an more on the lives of Australian children: many parents and older siblings go off to combat,  American forces become a familiar sight, refugees arrive from Europe, and the threat of Japanese invasion increases almost daily.  All of this is recorded principally through the eyes of of a young girl, Columba. In the hands of this author, her first person narrative catches the voice, and mind, of the child quite brilliantly. There are many things happening that Columba does not fully understand, and has to try to make sense of in her own terms, but she is also sensitive and intuitive . She feels more than she knows, and her feelings are often chillingly perceptive. 

'Everyone knew the Germans were winning and soon the Japanese would arrive and we would soon be killed, but most of the time we all pretend it wasn't happening. There were only those very quiet moments - when someone, or something, laid a frozen hand on my neck.' (P 61)

Images verbal and visual

In a particular act of inspiration, Ursula Dubosarsky integrates into her text sourced images, a period picture here, an ARP notice there, 'the sort of thing Columba might have seen and read as she roamed the streets of Neutral Bay in 1942'. Remarkably, what could have been mere illustrations are absorbed into her narrative,  adding further complexity to her verbal conjurings in a way that intriguingly suspends her tale on an enigmatic cusp between history and fiction; one that speaks of truth if not of actuality. 

UK readers need not fear though, that this Australian context will make it is a story our children will find distant or hard too relate to. Whilst the small differences in life and culture are fascinating, the parallels with life in wartime Britain are huge, and the book's themes universal at almost every level. 

And an enigmatic cat

In many senses The Blue Cat is a novel that reveals itself backwards,  even as its story moves forwards. That is to say, its ending throws much of the book into perspective, bringing many enigmatic images into sharper focus and diving down through layers of former simplicity. Only having finished its journey do you see where it was taking you all along - although you may well wish you had not. It is a truly remarkable book, and its  climactic scene in the amusement park one of the most skilfully written pieces of utter devastation I have ever read. It captures all the soul-rending horror of the Auschwitz gas chambers whilst describing something utterly different. Few if any other writers could pull it off. In closing the author quotes a poem of Friedrich Rückert, famously used as a text for one of Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children). The irony of its superficial comfort is just about as distressing in this context as it is when accompanied by the music. Read it without screaming inside if you can. Is there comfort to be had? Only in the same reality as its searing tears.  We live under the same sky. 

No book relating to the Second World War and its horrors has moved me more since I read the life-changing 0nce sequence, by another wonderful Australian writer, Maurice Gleitzman. Although here the horrors are only conjured obliquely, through metaphor, they are no les affecting. Neither writer is 'better', they are just very differently great. You need to read both.  

The Blue Cat is not a particularly long book, but it is one that needs to be read slowly, to relish its captivating detail, to pick up its delicate nuances, and to spot the rare glimpses of the elusive blue cat amidst the seemingly commonplace experiences of a war-haunted childhood. 

'I always imagined swimming like an eel or a platypus, down in the deep water where it was black as night. If I went even deeper I would be able to see nothing at all and it would be so cold I wouldn't feel anything either. I would forget I had a body. It would be as though I had turned into water, free and invisible.' (p 10)

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Is it, then, a book for children? Yes. But it is not perhaps a book for all children. It is a book for those who have the sensitivity to let startling images speak to their hearts rather than to their superficial understanding; for those who ponder, wonder, dread, hope, empathise and care. It is a book for those most aware that we do indeed all live under the same sky. 

Also available 

Two other novels by this author were published here only a few years back (from Walker Books, labelled 'World Voices') so should still be obtainable. The Red Shoe has to be another of the very finest works of young people's fiction, but again it is challenging in both style and content. Although written before The Blue Cat, this book has a setting that is just a little later, shortly after the end of WWII. It is the story of three sisters in a family whose life is seriously affected by a father traumatised by his recent wartime experience. It is again a superlative example of capturing the voice of a young child, her thinking, her emotions, and her completely individual way of seeing the world. Matilda, the youngest of the three sisters often sees more than she understands, yet she can be sensitive and naively honest too. She is a superlative fictional creation, and it is by reading between the lines of her observations that we begin to piece together the tragedy that underlies her quiet but intense family drama. The skilful  author remarkably shows how all this can be achieved through a third person, past tense narration. Although Matilda's remains the dominant voice, Ursula Dubosarsky sometimes subtly shifts perspective between the sisters. The whole is like a master class in writing, without being in the least dry or didactic. 

Once again there is an oh-so-clever, indeed a truly mind-expanding, blending of her imagined narrative with snippets of 'found' actual material, this time extracts from the Sydney newspapers of the period. They add yet more depths to a fiction that already comprises more layers than an onion. Once again the denouement of the fiction is devastatingly shocking, but this time it is followed by a more comforting resolution - thank goodness. The whole is a true masterpiece and emphatically not to be missed. 

And more awaits

In the same series from Walker Books is also The Golden Day. I haven't read that one yet, but hope to do so very soon, along with as many of her other books as I can get my hands on. 

*International blockbuster authors like Garth Nix and John Flanagan are, of course easily found, and thankfully a some very fine writers like Karen Foxlee have secured UK (and US) publication. 
**Perhaps age 11-14ish, broadly speaking. She has also written many picture books and stories for younger children, as well as non-fiction about language itself. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Book of Three (Chronicles of Prydain Book 1) by Lloyd Alexander

Welcome back, welcome anew

In a high street bookshop yesterday, I was delighted to see that The Book of Three, the opener for Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, has just been republished in a new paperback edition, under the Usborne Modern Classics imprint. 

Of course, originally written in the early 1960s, it is not actually 'magic fiction since Potter'. But what it is is one of the most important precursors of almost all subsequent 'high fantasy' for children. It is strongly rooted in Welsh landscape and mythology (especially the Mabinogion), an interest which its US author apparently developed whilst training there during WWII. However, it is far from a simple reworking but a piece of immensely powerful and hugely entertaining imaginative storytelling. It full deserves to be ranked as one of the all-time greats of children's fantasy literature, and arguably of all children's fiction. 

Today, it is perhaps not as widely renowned here as it has always been in the USA, but it fully deserves to be. I strongly recommended any UK (and other) Primary teachers, who do not already know it, to take this opportunity to add it to their repertoire. It is a real 'classic', but not in any off-putting sense.  As a read for children (9-13 ish?) it shows hardly a day of its 54 years, and remains as enthralling and exciting an extended high fantasy as you could possibly find. I truly hope the new version in the shops will bring many more young readers to discover its magic and that Usborne will extend the republication into the rest of this seminal series. 

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold

David Almond

I don't generally use this site to write about picture books. It's not that I don't like them. I love them. But I have so many wonderful novels to write up and I feel I have to try to focus my dilettante enthusiasms, at least to a degree. There has to be room for exceptions though. There just has to be room for The Dam. 

To start with, David Almond is one of our foremost contemporary writers for young people. I have admired and enjoyed his books for many years now. There is far more to him than Skellig -  a truly wonderful book, although just possibly over-used as a KS3 'class reader'. Over recent years, his wide range of other fiction, much with a North Eastern grounding, and all with a masterly economy of evocative language, has built into one of the finest canons in the genre.  My own favourite is Secret Heart, but there is not a book of his that should be missed*. 

Words that sing

Here he takes what is essentially a contemplation of the early '80s damming of the Kielder Valley in northern Northumberland. Working from a story told to him by two local folk musicians, he creates a terse lyrical text about a young girl and her father. She fiddles  a lament for what has been lost and, in doing so, conjures the 'ghosts' of past inhabitants to celebrate both the land and its music, its heritage and its beauty. 

I was going to write that David Almond's words are 'almost poetry', but that would not do them full justice. They are poetry, even if they are not verse; they dance and sing from the page as surely as the tunes from the girl's fiddle. They lament the loss of the past, but also celebrate the wild glory of the present. They do not preach and so they do not lead us to judge, only to reflect, to take joy in both past and present. His song, like the keen of her playing, weaves through the pages. 

Levi Pinfold - images that sing

Yet I am sure David Almond will not mind me saying that his text is only half, perhaps less than half, of this thoughtful and deeply affecting book. To call Levi Pinfold the 'illustrator' of this work is again to do less than justice. He is very much its co-creator and his ravishingly evocative images contribute every bit as much as the words. They not only complement but extend their touching meditation. In fact, some important aspects, such as the tender communion between father and daughter, are to be gleaned more from the pictures than from the text. If there has been a more captivating visual/verbal collaboration since the publication last year of Lost Words** then I have not yet discovered it. Levi Pinfold's images sing to the heart of the story and to the heart of the reader. He and David Almond together make Kielder a part of us all 

A lesson-plan (of sorts)

It is not often, these days, that a book gets me thinking as the classroom teacher I used to be, but The Dam was an exception in this too. So, for any teachers interested, here are some very generalised suggestions. Creative work is something that should emphatically be planned for, but not itself meticulously planned. Start with a wonderful stimulus, as this is, and just allow possibilities. (The teaching of knowledge and skills can be fed in at other times and in other  ways.)

Share and absorb The Dam. Luxuriate in it, the words, the images. Think about it. Talk about it. (What was lost? What was gained? What links them?) Above all, enjoy it. 

Then (any or all of): 
Read the final information page and find out more. 
Listen to some of the songs of Kathryn Tickell. 
Research other 'lost' villages (e.g. the 1930s drowning of Mardale Green in Cumbria to create the Haweswater reservoir). 
Find out about 'dark sky' and its importance. Read the poems Night Walker and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross (see my post from July '18). 
Think about losing a home and stories about losing a home. 
Think about wild places and stories about wild places. 
Think about (folk) music and stories about the importance of music. 

In response, let the children (any or all of): write, draw, paint, role-play, dance, play/create music, think, dream. 

Books can sing

It is a joy to welcome another fine example of just how much some picture books have to offer older children   Key Stage 2 (MG) teachers, parents, and of course children, who are neglecting this genre are missing out on a most wonderfully rich source of reading challenge, imaginative stimulation and sensuous enjoyment. 

David Almond and Levi Pinfold turn paper pages into potent dream. They float a lament for loss and a skirl of wild wonder on the air of Kielder. Books, like music, can sing to the soul. 

*Most of his novels are perhaps principally for early teens readers. 
**By Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. See my post from October '17

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

'How little I had known then. .  .  I had not known it possible for there to be people with hair a colour other than black and skin a colour other than brown. . . I did know now, but I felt like one of those magic vessels that could never be full in those stories told by the ancients. I felt like I could never know enough.' (p 214)

A very special book

This is not only a gripping read, but a hugely important book too. It is also an exciting, terrifying, moving and deeply disturbing one.  It is a story that made me reflect profoundly on the world in which we live, where it has come from and where it is going. It took me to a place I have never been, a culture I have never known - and it helped me to realise, with shock and with grief, that all along it has been part of me, and I of it. 

It is always good for children to be given access to places, times and cultures far distant from their own. For those who have roots in such cultures, it is good to recognise themselves in books, helpful in understanding who they are and where they come from. But for all others too, it is an important part of discovering their world culture and heritage. And when all of this is done as well as it is here, then it is a very splendid thing indeed. Such is the quality and sincerity of this writing that it doesn't take more than a few pages of Bone Talk for readers to be transported far away in both time and place - and yet to feel they completely belong there. 

The 'cut'

There are two main themes to the story. It is the tale of Samkad, a boy from Bontok in the Philippines in 1899, who desperately wants 'the cut', the ceremony of circumcision that will initiate him as a man of his tribe. Echoing this, it is also the story of  Luki, a highly spirited girl of the same tribe. She very much wants to be a boy, or perhaps, more accurately, wants to have the freedoms, opportunities and privileges of being a boy in a society where females are severely subjugated. 

All changed, changed utterly

The other strand is that of an indigenous, tribal society whose way of life is shattered by the violent intrusion of 'advanced' western culture. In this case the aggressors are the Americans. However this particular occurrence in many ways stands representative for the 'rape' of tribal  societies that occurred in many parts of the world and over a period of many decades. It was a monstrosity of which the colonial British and other Europeans were every bit as guilty, as were the immigrant white Australians and various others. Of course we must not get over-romantic about such tribal societies; this one, for example, included head-hunters. But  this author never sugar-coats the realities. She merely paints them in terms of accepted 'normal' life for her protagonists   

This globalisation of  'civilisation', was perhaps inevitable, even necessary. However its implementation was frequently insensitive and more often viciously cruel and unspeakably arrogant, as well as selfishly acquisitive.  In many senses the way of affecting change for such societies was more barbaric than the life it changed. All of this is disturbingly and uncompromisingly laid  before Candy Gourlay's young readers in Bone Talk. However, by prominently including the figure of a 'good' American healer, she also shows her young readers the dangers of stereotyping and  over-generalisation, even in these extreme circumstances. Thankfully, nothing here is too simplistically polarised. 

Powerfully engendering empathy

This story is rendered even more powerful by being told from the Bontok perspective, from the point of view of a boy who understandably accepts his tribal life simply as everything he knows. I think we are well aware that history is so often written by 'the winners'. It is therefore so good and so important for children to hear the voice of the conquered as opposed to the conquering, both in this specific Philippines context, and in relation to its more general relevance. Empathy is all. 

Old world, new world

Writing Bone Talk as a contemporary children's novel must have presented Candy Gourlay with many challenges, but she has met them with wonderful solutions, solutions that are both imaginative and sensitive. She says, in her own concluding note, that what she has written is 'not history'. However, she has succeeded in honouring the past whilst still succeeding in producing outstanding reading for today's children. She has also provided them (and many of us adults too) with enormously valuable education. Kids need to know this stuff, and could well develop as better, richer human beings when they do. Yet the book is in no way didactic or preachy. The author takes her readers into the world of Bontok from what feels like the inside. We know and understand its people, even when we objectively would not agree with or even admire them. We understand and care for Samkad and Luki. It cleverly provides a strong girl protagonist without misleading about the essentially male-dominated society from which she came. It does not lead us to over-sentimentalise the tribal way of life,  but yet it wracks us with pangs of guilt at what was done to it 'in our name'. It is a book to make us reflect on who we were, what we are and who we want to be, both as individuals and as a global society. 

Another of the author's remarkable successes is the way that she ends the book, giving her young readers satisfaction and optimism about the future of the young protagonists about whom they have come to care, whilst making it totally clear that things will never and can never be the same again. 

'See the tiny village, that once sat unnoticed on the mountain's knee. Now discovered. See the new road, a white ribbon cutting its way through the old forest. . . See the new people, moving in from everywhere.' (p 234)

Is the change for good or for bad? There is no easy answer and none is provided. But we are left with no illusions about the cost; or the way in which it was extracted. 

Poet W B Yeats once wrote: 'All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.'* Here we might say, rather: 'a terrible beauty was lost'.

Enough to make you think

Perhaps most profound and deeply moving the of all are the parallels which Candy Gourlay allows us to draw between the individual fate of Samkad and that of his tribe. He spend the whole story wanting desperately to have 'the cut' and become a man. Yet, although he eventually achieves it , what he learns is that the grown-up world is full of difficulties, complications, horror and loss. Perhaps it is much the same for Bontok. That change would inevitably come sooner or later, does not make everything all right. Sometimes we are understandably lonely for the past. 

'A day is made of hours. A month is made of days. A year is made of months. And a man is made of years. . . And still . . . I feel like a little boy again, lonely for my mother and father.' (p 238)

In the end, the two strands of Bone Talk are more the same story than they might superficially appear. 'The cut' is hard; it is grotesquely painful. Is it really a necessary step to growing up, to becoming a man? Or indeed, to becoming a 'civilised' people?

Bone Talk was obviously a long labour of love for Candy Gourlay. Not a moment of it was wasted, and not a word of it must ever be lost. 

Amazing artwork too

To my eyes, there is another particular bonus to this book. Some of the  stunning drawings of artist Kerby Rosanes are so fascinating  that I am continually tempted to buy his colouring books, even though I never spend any time at all colouring-in. To find one of his amazing, intricate works on the jacket of Bone Talk makes it almost worth its price for the cover alone. (Which is not to detract from the outstanding novel itself.) He should be credited far more prominently than he is in the minuscule print on the back flap. 

*In his poem Easter 1916.