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.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Anna at War by Helen Peters

‘I am grateful for . . life every single day, knowing how many people would have loved my opportunities and never had them.’ (p 287)

WWII remembered

The period of our history involving the Second World War has attracted some of our very finest children’s writers, and there are many wonderful novels covering both children’s lives on the home front, and the truly appalling treatment of Jewish children by the Nazis. They are all hugely important books in terms of keeping awareness alive for children born into a world where this dark time is rapidly passing from living memory, even for their oldest relatives. However, the number of evocative and deeply moving examples of such books already available begs the question of whether the children’s canon really needs yet another one covering the same ground. The answer must be a resounding yes when it is as fine as the upcoming Anna at War. 

WWII relived 

This is one of the most accessible novels on this theme that I know, and yet it achieves this in the context of an involving and deeply affecting story. It takes considerable writing skill to say so much through such a relatively simply and straightforward narrative. In this, it harks back to something of the quality of Nina Bawden’s wonderful Carrie’s War. Only Emma Carroll’s and Lucy Strange’s recent books exploring the same period have had much the same qualities. Yet the more direct focus here on the human abomination that was the treatment Jews by the Nazis makes Anna at War even more powerful. Anna’s story is also an exploration of the experience of immigrants and of the consequences of prejudice. As such, it could not be more relevant and important for today’s children. 

For me, only Judith Kerr’s wonderful When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is more potent, and that comes largely from the fact that it spring from first-hand experience. But, even written over seventy years after the event, Anna at War too has its own very special qualities. Helen Peters draws on the experiences of real children who came to England on the Kindertransport. She has a wonderful ability to put herself inside the mind of Anna, and to take her readers there too. Through the voice of her young protagonist, she continually conjures the details of experience, yet expresses them in ways that seems genuinely that of the child. She vividly places a young girl’s everyday concerns into the context of momentous, and deeply troubling, times. Overall, it is the pure power of this author’s storytelling that makes the book so effective, direct, yet skilfully constructed to engage utterly. This is the past relived, and hence made relivable. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching , but it is also humanising; as uplifting in its resilience and love of life as it is paining in its cruelty and loss. Without ever preaching, it both enlightens and enriches. 

WWII honoured

To bring this period of history into the easy access of today’s 9-12 year olds, to make it an engrossing read, with elements of exciting adventure, without in any way exploiting history for cheap entertainment, is a fine achievement. Helen Peters also helps contemporary readers to relate this period to their own by a framing narrative that brings Ann’s experiences closer to the generation of her grandchildren. It all makes Anna at War highly recommendable, and the book could well, I hope, lead young readers into exploration of some of the many other exceedingly fine works of children’s literature that deal with the same period and its issues.  (See my post from January of this year.) 

Many have hoped that all the sacrifices of those years in the mid twentieth century would achieve the final demise of the despicable actions and attitudes on which the monster of warfare feeds. Subsequent events have shown that, tragically, this has not been the case. However, books such as this could well help a new generation of children grow up to build the better world for which so many gave so much. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

The Wizards of Once: Knock Three Times by Cressida Cowell

Let me live my life doing Impossible Things!’ (p 129)

Open up (again)

Open sez me.
Bang. Bang. Bang. 
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Hey. No need to get agitated. Once you get hold of a copy of Knock Three Times, you’re in - in for a real reading treat.

Once was wizard, twice was pure magic, but number three is an absolute knockout. It knocks most younger children’s fantasy out of the park. When it hits the shops in September, it will knock everything off the top of the children’s bestseller charts for sure, and rarely has anything deserved to do so more. Cressida Cowell’s books are where huge popularity and real writing quality meet. I know of few contemporary children’s writers who are doing more to put the pleasure into ‘reading for pleasure’.

Yet this third book of her Wizards of Once series, like its predecessors, is no patronising, simplistic read, written down to its young audience. Rather it takes just about every ingredient children love and, without diminishing their enjoyment one jot, elevates them to  richly stimulating fest of language, ideas and  imagination. It is quite a feat. Underneath Cressida Cowell’s anarchic littering of untidy text and apparently scrawled drawings, which carry so much instant appeal to children, she is quite a writer - and a very skilled artist to boot.

Thee times special

For starters her use of language is very special. Unobtrusively, she seeds her writing with interesting and challenging vocabulary, and builds her apt word choices into prose that has its own most pleasing rhythm and cadence. It falls comfortably, yet excitingly on the reader’s ‘internal ear’. In fact this will be wonderful prose to read aloud. For example, the description on pages 43-45 of the witches swooping down to attack, ‘like a couple of infinitely evil peregrine falcons,’ is quite superbly evocative, thrillingly terrifying, without letting up for an instant on delicious entertainment. 

Whereas many (too many?) currently popular children’s reads employ  a simple, single viewpoint, Cressida Cowell tells her tale through multiple, shifting perspectives, manipulated by her intriguingly mysterious, anonymous narrator. It makes for a rich, complex tale, that, nevertheless avoids being in any way confusing or disconcerting. Rather its shifting viewpoints only add to intrigue and excitement, driving the reader compulsively forward through a sequence of thrilling events and encounters between her vivid characters. Whilst her story plays on the classic fantasy opposition of good and evil, darkness and light, it is here threaded with interesting ambivalences too. The protagonist children are gutsy and brave, but inexperienced and vulnerable, not without their foibles, whilst opposing  ‘villains’ can show a glimpse of a human face at times.

Then and now

Like the best children’s fantasies, the narrative draws deep on tales long told and so pulls with it the resonant archetypes of dark forest, magical races, riddling with a monster and apocalyptic conflict. But the tale delves too into our lost lore of landscape, and images like those of a chalk mound with carved horse, a great hall inside a hill, opened by a magical word, and mistletoe-clad oaks, root it into the power of ancient nature magic. In fact the links reach back long and far, and shake hands with humankind’s origins.

‘The cave was decorated with drawings of animals, bears and wolves and Snowcats just like their own, and deeper in the cave still, with the bright red handprints of the ancestors . . . helping them along in their quest with a handshake from the past.’ (p 369)

There is also more than a hint of Fairy Tale romance. Yet Cressida Cowell’s story is no simple regurgitation of either older tales or current fantasies. It crackles with the electricity of originality and imagination. 

‘Even for the Wizarding world, this is weird.’ (p 104)

Her themes too spring directly from her fantasy context, yet emerge as deeply relevant to the world in which her young readers are growing up. Crucial is the idea of a mechanistic, and often bellicose, society driving out the values  of imagination and ‘magic’. Feminism gets a look in, as indeed it should.  She evokes, too, a sympathy with the natural world worthy of Robert Macfarlane, not least through the amazing character of her ‘philosopher giant’, as well as continually challenging prejudice in a way that provides such a wonderful model for her young readers. 

There are people who think that just because trees have no mouths, they cannot talk. Those people are wrong, and they are often the kind of people who think that other people have to be exactly like themselves to count as people at all.’ (p 36)

For those able to pick them up (chortling with self-congratulatory mirth) a few literary allusions even fly as thin as driving rain through this Writer’s Tale: ‘Faster than fairies, faster than witches’ and ‘Exit, rescued by a bear’ to quote but a couple. 

Craftily careless 

I have written in reviews of her earlier books how the child-pleasing, apparent carelessness of her illustrations bely considerable artistic skill in conveying character, emotion and movement. Such depictions are also, from time to time, supplemented by drawing that moves into somewhat more representational territory and conveys a different type of empathy. In fact, I suspect that Cressida Cowell harbours a great fondness for animals , because it is in depicting wild creatures that she often brings out her most sensitive style. One of the more effective (and effecting)  combinations of these diverse approaches is to be seen in the illustration of Wish riding the great bear, during her escape through the forest fire. 

Lucky again, again?

The original characters and scenarios for the Wizards of Once, were inspired, imaginative variants on conventional fantasy protagonists, zany yet hugely engaging. However, even sparkling creations can begin to get tired and their adventures repetitive when an author starts to extend original concepts into an ongoing series.  Not so here. Cressida Cowell keeps her young heroes and their fantastic world vividly alive, and most certainly kicking too. Long may they remain so. Children’s reading will be invaluably the richer. 

This story will stimulate the imagination gloriously, as well as exposing children to rich language, wrought into skilful  prose. It will subtly but powerfully make children think about our own world and some of its most pertinent issues, not least those of the importance of inclusion and tolerance, the acceptance of those who are different, and the worth of all individuals, regardless of, well, regardless of anything. 

‘“My sister isn’t as prejudiced as everyone else,” said Caliburn. “There are kind people in the world. You just have to find them.”’ (p 19)

It is warmly human. It will help sensitise children to both the natural world, and to our heritage of story and literature. And it will do all of this in the context of highly amusing, joyful, exciting, engrossing entertainment. The many who will read it will indeed be third time lucky.

And the luckiest thing of all? The story of The Wizards of Once is not quite finished yet. Part Three ends with a wish.  Could one wish more?

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Reading Allowed

My article on encouraging children to read for pleasure is now published in the Summer 2019 edition of ‘Primary Matters: The Primary Magazine for the National Association for the Teaching of English’ (NATE).

Have you met much-loved teacher, Ms. Bixby, yet?

Ms.Bixby regularly reads aloud to her class. She serialises whole books, books she loves, and she reads them in a way that enchants her children into loving them too.’

In the same issue is an essential article by the wonderful Professor Teresa Cremin. Worth the small price of NATE membership for this alone. There are also fine contributions from James Clements and Anne Glennie, amongst others. Unmissable for Primary teachers, or anyone concerned with developing reading with young children.

Below is a link to my article about children’s fantasy fiction in an earlier edition the same publication.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

The Fire Maker by Guy Jones

‘Strange how the extraordinary and the ordinary separated themselves and lived side by side. Strange how quickly the unbelievable became almost, if not quite, normal.’  (p 90)

A childhood of magic

Alongside reading piles of books, I spent a good deal of my childhood leisure time practising magic tricks. I think it all started with a Christmas present of a ‘David Nixon Magic Set’. (David Nixon was the Dynamo of his day, but not quite as dynamic. Magicians weren’t in those days.) Like many other youngsters, I guess, I used to imagine being able to do real magic instead of just parlour tricks. A little later I discovered Paul Gallico’s wonderful (but now, sadly, neglected) The Man Who Was Magic* and it became one of my frequent re-reads. Little wonder, then, that I am attracted to books about magicians, and couldn’t resist this new one from Guy Jones. It turned out to be a real find. 

Initially the storyline, about a boy from a split family, bullied at school and neglected by his work-obsessed father,  feels a little deja-vu in terms of children’s fiction. However this is significantly offset by the author’s use of skilfully evocative description and his very sensitive and highly credible handling of the thoughts and emotions of protagonist, Alex. It is also good for others to see that ‘middle-class’ children, of which Alex is clearly one, are not in any way immune from life’s traumas.

However, it is the introduction of ‘real’ magic, into Alex’s aspirations as a stage magician, that truly brings this narrative to life. The discovery of a trio of fire-magic ‘jinn’, together with their ancient keeper, plummets the story into dramatic and engrossing action. And whilst the juxtaposition of actual magic and real-life complexities could have been an uneasy one, it is not so here. The catalyst of fantasy only enriches this tale of fractured family, lost friendship and childhood dreams. 

The magic of childhood

Guy Jones turns out to be no slouch in constructing an engaging narrative, and he succeeds in springing a number of  intriguing twists. Indeed there is one major surprise which even I, as a very seasoned reader of such books, didn’t see coming, a rare phenomenon indeed.

In the end, this is a novel of no little depth, of thought as well as of feelings, and the issue of how much children need to use external magic to be special, when they have a particular natural magic of their own, is well explored - with a satisfying resolution. 

Although the recent prominence given to strong girl characters in children’s fiction is important and timely, in a current publishing scene where such girls protagonists predominate, it is a welcome balance to have a novel with a central boy character, especially one of imagination and sensitivity. Not that The Fire Maker lacks a strong girl character too. In fact, whilst many other books also feature pre-adolescent boy-girl friendships, this one is handled with particular insight and originality. 

This is a book that will, I’m sure, ignite many an imagination, as well as showing that others can find growing up difficult too. A neat trick. 

*Although I am pleased to see that his delightful Jennie, another childhood favourite, is still around in some bookshops. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Galloglass (Worldquake Book Three) by Scarlett Thomas

‘Applying stories to life - or vice versa - is one of the things we’re best at. It can go too far of course. But that’s never stopped me.’ (p 295)

A quiz

Books in Scarlett Thomas’ Worldquake series have the distinct advantage of being easily locatable in the dark. Switch off the bedside light (after the lengthy bedtime read that they inevitably provoke) and once it’s gone (the light that is) they will spontaneously emit Luminiferous Ether (well, something like that).

Another distinguishing feature of these novels is their ability rapidly to identify the age and character (kharakter?) of any reader (by means of a quick and entertaining quiz). Viz:

Did you think Galloglass was:
A) a brilliant fantasy adventure about five children with magical talents; the best thing since a Harry Potter?
B)  a highly entertaining pastiche of just about every children’s fantasy novel ever written, underpinned by brilliantly wicked satirical sideswipes at contemporary society?
C) a witty amalgam of creatively reimagined fantasy tropes and scenarios giving them vital new resonance in a post-modern age?

If your answer is:
Mostly A: You are a child of around 9-12; never stop reading
Mostly B: You are a Senior Citizen who has spent a lifetime reading far too many children’s books; no point in stopping now
Mostly C:  You are a professor of English who is possibly too clever(and too talented)by half: never stop writing

No kidding

Joking apart, the correct answer is actually ‘all of the above’, which could easily have ended up as “a bit of a pile-up”. But not here.  Scarlett Thomas proves that it is possible to take many well-used elements from much-loved children’s fiction and, by bringing to them both writerly skill (not least in narrative construction),  rich imagination, and no little wit, remould them into something original, and joyous. And the most remarkable thing is perhaps, that, by and through all her cleverness, she successfully tells a story for children that is completely compelling, and, well . . . quite magical. Galloglass, will be much enjoyed by adults who like reading children’s books, too, but that is something different. It has many elements of sophistication, but then many children are remarkably sophisticated readers. It is still a essentially a children’s book. However, there  is absolutely nothing demeaning about saying this. To write such books well, requires exceptional skill, and their potential influence is staggering. ‘Every new book makes a much bigger difference to a child than it does to an experienced adult reader.’* Scarlett Thomas’ Worldquake novels will be enjoyed by many, on any number of levels, depending on the experience and sensibilities of each reader. They will, however, glow hauntingly in the memories of all. 

Best yet

It can be the case, with series fiction, that inspiration becomes thin and ideas over-stretched once the energy of the initial volumes has dwindled. That is emphatically not the case here. If fact, quite the opposite, the first two titles in the Worldquake series were fine books; Galloglass is a truly great one - strange, quirky, complex, challenging and, yes, truly great. 

I love that Scarlett Thomas, skilled and experienced writer of high quality literacy fiction that she is, does not condescend to her young audience, as can many of the popular children’s books currently piled high in bookshops. At present, the (over?) simple viewpoint of first person, present tense narrative, seems to be ubiquitous. I know this makes for easy reading, and children do sometimes need the security of easy comfort. But literature should challenge as well as merely entertain, and I think children’s literature is no exception. 

Scarlett Thomas weaves her narrative from multiple strands and perspectives including  those of different members of the story’s group of magical children, several (potential) perpetrators of unspeakable evil - and, indeed, a cat. Amongst her many other writerly skills, she is a true expert in plot construction.  She understands exactly how to bring readers with her every step along the convoluted path of her narrative, and hold them enthralled. She knows just how to lull with candy floss and pretty flowers before suddenly throwing a vicious punch to the emotional guts. She knows how to intrigue and tease with story lines suddenly, if temporarily, dropped, only to pick up another exciting thread. And then, just as Galloglass is developing beautifully, along the lines that you might expect of the sequel to its two predecessors, the author catapults her reader into worlds that are, even in this context, truly bizarre, with storylines, by turns, intellectually challenging and emotionally disturbing. 

Not only does the author pick up on imaginative worldscapes from her previous books - the wonderfully named Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange in the ‘Realworld’ and Dragon’s Green with its Awesome Great Library in the ‘Otherworld’ - but readers will also find themselves amidst a futuristic variant of the Hunger Games scenario, where combat is by ethical questionnaire rather than armed conflict, and even a surreal world of 
cats, served by butlers and drinking ‘pawsecco’ and listening to jazz in a cellar, that conjures the paintings of Louis Wain. 

‘“That,” said Marcel, “is the local cats’ home. . . Someone donated a billion pounds to them. Inside the building are the richest cats in the whole world. . . I hear that the chef is in line for the first Michelin star to be given for pet food.”’ (p 108)

There are even ‘personal’ appearances from no less than The Bermuda Triangle and The Northern Lights. That’s not even to mention the odd spacewarp into the world of Douglas Adams (The Luminiferous Ether manifesting as a gigantic stick of pink rock!) To say the whole is a riot of wild and wonderful imagination is almost an understatement. 

From satire to ethics 

And all of this is peppered with witty authorial sideswipes at many aspects of contemporary life. Her targets can be trendy vegan food, self-help manuals, or ‘survival guides’,

His trained warrior’s eyes scanned . . . for landmarks he could use to navigate, for enemies, and for sources of food or materials he could use to construct a shelter. Flowers often pointed south, he’d read once. But of course Wolf didn’t know where he was and therefore in which direction he was supposed to go. And there were no flowers.’ (p 109)

or even, perhaps, contemporary politics,

‘(It was) the subject of many complex negotiations . . . But complex negotiations took a very long time.’ (p 285)

All add amusing leaven to Scarlett Thomas’ fantasy world.

However, what singles this book out for particular greatness is the depth of its thinking, and the depth of thinking it provokes. One of its story strands deals with the very serious issue of child molestation. The abuse is not overtly sexual, but is sufficiently disturbing to heighten children’s awareness about what is inappropriate. The victim’s responses are both sensibly and responsibly dealt with and the resolution will be hugely helpful to children, as well as to adults, many of whom will want to discuss this with their charges. 

Beyond this, though, the storyline raises deep moral and philosophical issues, to the extent that it could well be used as a text in ‘ethics for active young minds’ It asks such provocative questions as ‘Is selfishness necessarily always bad thing or altruism invariably a good thing.?’ It treats of Nietzsche and of a  concept of ‘flow’ as might be found in, say, Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful poetic translation of the Tao Te Ching. Few children’s books come close to this level of intellectual stimulus, but it is so well handled here, so cleverly integrated into the issues and choices faced by its magical protagonists, that it will be a ‘Realworld’ boon for sensitive and thinking young readers. This is another wonderful book for them to grow up with and through.  

Neptune, like all creatures bound to one universe, one planet or one locality, simply could not visualise the unknown. The unknown is, of course, by definition, not known.’ (p 136)

Galloglass helps to expand the universe we can visualise and so to push back the shadows of intellectual darkness.  

US edition

Famous for fun

Although I was already a fan of her adult novels, enjoying some and admiring all, I think her decision to write children’s books has been the making of Scarlett Thomas. She puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters:

‘Lady Tchainsaw was quite famous and had recently joined the university‘s Creative Writing Department. It was always good to get in with the creative writers. Not only were they the most famous members of the university, but everyone knew they had the most fun.’ (p 120). 

Well, Professor Thomas, if Galloglass is anything to go by, you might just be correct on this second point, and fully deserve to be so on the first too.

University Library (Special,Collection) Rules: ‘We only have three rules. No chewing gum. No talking. And if you die, it’s your own fault.’  (Galloglass, p 134)

*Peter Hunt, How Did Long John Silver Loose his Leg? (2013), p 136

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson; Ghost by Jason Reynolds

New Knights on the block

‘Knights Of’ (KO) are an exciting new company dedicated to bringing more diversity into children’s book publishing in the UK: into management, production, editing, writing and illustration, as well as into the characters and contexts of the stories themselves. 

Recent years have seen massive strides forward in liberating and celebrating the roles of girls and women in children’s books, and a wonderful and important thing this is. Diversity and inclusion are starting to emerge far more positively too, but there is still a long way to go, so initiatives like this one are to be welcomed warmly  - and, hopefully, supported strongly. 

Happily, these two recent titles from KO look set to establish themselves amongst current bestsellers. They certainly deserve to do so. 

An important new take on a popular genre

Another fine writer, Robin Stevens, had done a great job of bringing something akin to ‘golden age’ detective stories to a children’s audience. Her ‘Wells and Wong’ murder mysteries have kicked off a popular trend in children’s fiction, as well as providing many young readers with thrilling entertainment, cleverly written and with some pertinent messages slipped in amongst their period coziness. 

Now Sharna Jackson has added important new dimensions to the children’s murder mystery. Her up-to-date story is set amongst the high rise blocks of an urban estate, and her two young detectives are kids from the top floor of one of them. These two protagonists, Nik and Norva, are wonderfully drawn, and their characters, providing complementary detecting skills, are clearly and entertainingly distinguished. Their lives and language feel very credible and their interactions are often amusing, always engaging. Many young readers will identify readily with  them. Similarly, the residents of their home block have identifiable elements of authenticity as well as providing the usual varied cast of  witnesses and suspects. The storyline is kept light, as befits the age of this audience, with the emphasis on the puzzle of the detection rather than the horror of the crime. (If such subject matter can be considered light - but then that is the way of the ‘cozy murder’ genre.). The mystery is as clever and entertaining as any - and its young detectives far more so than many. 

This book contributes an important contemporary counterbalance to the white middle-class ethos of some children’s books, whilst still providing a highly quality, light entertainment read for any enthusiasts of junior sleuthing. It will surely make many new fans for the this particular genre too, and is warmly to be welcomed. 

‘Nova grabbed my hand. “Time to shine,” she said, throwing her braids over her shoulders. “This is our moment.”’ (p 350) 

Indeed it is!

Far wider appeal than might first appear 

Ghost, by justifiably lauded US author, Jason Reynolds, is a truly exciting find for children’s reading and we should be enormously grateful to KO for bringing it to the attention of a UK audience. 

As someone not really into sport, or, for that matter, a fully paid-up subscriber to ‘The American Dream’, if I had been asked in advance if I were particularly interested in reading a book about a poor American kid, whose life was turned around by becoming a member of a ambitious track running team, under the direction of a pushy coach,  I would, in all honesty, almost certainly have said no. Same old, same old? Field of Dreams rework yet again? That just shows the folly of making rash assumptions. If I hadn’t actually read Ghost I would have missed out on a truly wonderful and important children’s book, so I am inordinately thankful for the book bloggers who raved about it so much that I felt I had better check out what the fuss was about.

Ghost is contemporary, relevant  and truthful. The voice of its first person narrator, Castle Cranshaw (Ghost is his self-chosen nickname) is superbly caught, with enough of the vernacular to convince of authenticity, without making comprehension over-challenging for those not of the culture. The story touches, very poignantly, on some of the hardest aspects of life for some children today. But it also majors on some of the qualities that are best, and some of the things that are most important, about humanity. It has warmth and heart as well as darkness. It reminded me, in part, of lines from a hymn I sang at school: ‘Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’  That it is set in America and concerns track running gives it grounding, but in no way limits its universal resonance. It is ultimately a positive, hopeful tale, and not only is that right for a book for this age group, it is right for all of us. 

It is not about winning the race; it is about starting it. 

Ghost is, of course, fiction, and its ‘reality’ is carefully manipulated by the author, as it should be, to create a fully satisfactory read. Yet it is one of those novels that is not only experienced as real in the reading, but contains enough of the truth of actual life, enough real experience and enough deep understanding of human beings, to give those with similar lives many point of identification, and those with different lives,  greater understanding and empathy.  Both of these are so important for our young readers, and for our world, for both provide insight that can change, for the better, how we see ourselves and others. 

It seemed like we were all connected in some strange way that none of us had imagined.’ (p 158)

Once again, I say, ‘Indeed!’

On shelves, please: in shops, homes, schools, libraries

It would be good to see both of these books included with the offers in many upper KS2 classrooms. They will contribute strongly to the range and diversity of reading available as well as to its attractiveness and quality. Getting and keeping children reading is often a matter of leading each one gently towards the right book at the right time. I am sure that these books will speak to many children, of all backgrounds, and I hope that Ghost, particularly, will become the hugely enriching part of their reading diet that it has the potential to be. 

Thursday, 4 April 2019

To the Edge of the World by Julia Green

‘I thought of those tiny remote islands . . . way out in the Atlantic ocean, right at the edge of the world.’  (p 54)


Even being the hopeless fantasy addict that I am, I sometimes crave respite from remarkable children battling to save the entire world from unspeakable evil. I yearn, at least temporarily, for something more ‘real’. I need recovery from trying to keep track of numerous oddly-named characters and unravelling multi-stranded plots. My mood requires something simpler, gently evocative , perhaps, rather than viscerally exciting. 

I have been saving this book for just such an occasion, and it was a brilliant choice. In this context, Julia Green’s lyrical evocation of two children’s short summer in the Outer Hebrides was perfect. (And I do not use the word lightly.) I think many children sometimes crave the same things in their reading too.

This is a story completely devoid of wizards or monsters, yet is has its own magic, transportation magic. It is writing that takes you with it to the very places it describes, so that you see its wildly beautiful island landscapes. You hear the churn and crash of its waves against the rocks, you catch the sting of its sharp breeze against your skin, feel its white beach sand between your toes, smell the pungent tar of its boathouses, and taste the smoke from its tideline bonfires. There may be no spells here either, but the author so beautifully conjures the characters of her two protagonist, Jamie and Mara, that you live their experiences, share their days, know their hopes and fears, almost breathe their air. The story, too, may have no dramatic conflict between the light and the dark, but yet is far from being without excitement or tension. The young pair’s sea journey to remote, and long abandoned, St Kilda, is brave, foolish, cold, wet, terrifying and at times deeply moving. 

More than anything, though, this is the simple story about a boy and a girl (and a small dog) who share a few weeks in a remote and wonderful place, and, in doing so change each other, and help each other to grow. 

‘You’re always too careful . . . Though you’re getting better.’ (p 164)

It is also a tale of the wild ocean that takes them to the edge of the world and back.

Perhaps not so simple

However, the very best ‘simple’  writing is underpinned by well-honed craft and consummate artistry, and that is very much the case here. Julia Green is an author of subtly potent  language and of sensitive insight into the lives and minds of children. Apparently simple books can be profound too, sometimes the most profound of all. Here, a young boy’s all-too-understandable fear of the sea, and a young girl’s determination to control her own future, are transformed into a wild adventure,  dangerous and scary, but exciting too, alive - and survivable. This story embraces the wild wonder of remote islands, of their beaches, their winds, their skies and their stars - and, of course, of the sea that is their essence. And the sea can be many things; imagination, other people, change, freedom, danger, life; life that is a wild, scary, exciting, beautiful adventure; yet life that is also anchored in secure return to harbour and home. 

‘I want to live a big life.’ (p 188)

Like many of Julia Green’s books before, To the Edge of the World is a wonderful gift to our children. Her next, The House of Light, is apparently not far off, and I look forward to it enormously.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

The House witn Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

I don’t want to spend my life guiding the dead, and feeling all their joys and sorrows. I want to live my own life, with my own joys and sorrows. . . I want one life. My life.’ (p 289)

Late to the party

Yes, I know, I am shamefully late in getting around to this one. It took a CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlisting finally to precipitate it, even though I have been meaning read the book for ages. Moreover, The House with Chicken Legs has now had so many accolades and reviews that almost everything that can be said by way of recommendation probably has been. Yet, for all that, I was still so taken aback by just how wonderful a book this is, that I couldn’t resist adding my voice, even at this late stage. 

I have to admit that, generally, I am no great fan of the current fad for narrative written exclusively in the first person present tense. There are exceptions though, and this book is certainly one of them. The immediate intensity of the protagonist voice is here quite magically caught. The book also has many other exceptional qualities that make it stand head and shoulders above many other recent works of children’s fiction. 

Old Russian tales 

What I am, however, is a fully committed aficionado of fantasy fiction that is rooted deep in legend and folklore. It links a contemporary story to heritage, inherited truths, the origin of which may be long forgotten. Sophie Anderson’s tale scores highly on this front, building richly on images from Russian folk tradition. Such tales have only rarely been exploited by Western children’s literature, so this has the double benefit of bringing fresh imaginative stimulus, and an insight into a culture very different from ours, whilst still providing memes that resonate with a common humanity.

Narrative power

A second thing that makes this novel stand out is the sheer power and engagement of it storytelling. Without being a rollercoaster adventure, the story nevertheless moves through a sequence of engrossing twists and turns. Some of them are truly shocking and all of them completely compelling. The vividness of the author’s drawing of  protagonist, Marinka, ensures that we travel her personal journey ever eager to know what will happen to her next. The skill of her narrative construction leaves us always breathlessly enthralled. Other characters too, like her grandmother Baba  and her friend Benjamin, are rich and appealing, as are the shifting, and often deeply touching, relationships which develop between them. In another strongly imaginative twist, these characters include not only a bird, but a very special house too. (One with chicken legs, of course.)

Life not death

Yet there is one quality in the book that outshines even these exceptional delights, and that is the richness and depth of its ideas. The core of the story is that of the ‘Yagas’, semi-immortal beings whose role is to guide the dead through the last gate and towards their eternal destiny amongst the stars.  Marinka is brought up by a grandmother who is one such Yaga, and the girl herself seems destined to become her elder’s successor in time. The tale is very much about life and death, and yet it is never either morbid or particularly frightening. It is, in fact, often almost poetic, a paean to life. It is passionate yearning for life, not death, that drives Marinka’s personality and actions. As the story develops, she learns many lessons about what it means to be alive and readers will share much of that thoughtful education with her. 

‘I am not sure,’ she says at one point, ‘how long I will get to spend with Benjamin, but I will appreciate the time I have. I wish I had appreciated the moments I had with Baba more. Nobody is yours to keep. Nothing is for ever.’ (p 314)

The earlier and more deeply we can understand these truths the richer our life will be. Perhaps children will not get all the way there, but this book well help on that journey of understanding . And, in the final analysis, the story does celebrate something that is for ever - life. Not just our own life , but life in essence. This book is a most powerful working through of what it means to be human and to be alive. As such, is a most wonderful contribution to the canon of children’s literature. 

Elisa Paganelli’s internal illustrations, often strewing flowers or stars across pages that are occasionally black as well as white, also add beautifully to the atmosphere of this very affecting tale.

‘I see the whole universe in the tiny puddle and I smile.’ (p 337)

Justly lauded

So far this year, I have read several quite brilliant children’s books by Australian and American authors. Although there are many fine books by UK authors around, I have been searching for one of fully equal calibre. Now I have found it. This book deserves every one of the accolades it has received - and more. The biggest advantage of discovering it so late is that it is not too long to wait until the next one. 

US edition

For any who enjoy the opportunity to compare and contrast, Whichwood, by Tahereh Mafi, although perhaps for slightly older children, explores a similar scenario. It is also, in its own, different way, a very fine novel. (See post from Feb ‘18)

Monday, 25 March 2019

Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

Accessible delight

The last four books I have reviewed have been, in my view, wonderful examples of the very finest children’s literature.  However they were all very demanding reads, intellectually and emotionally. I was looking, next, for something that was still highly recommendable, but a little bit easier on the old grey cells. I found exactly that in Claire Fayers uber-charming latest book. I much enjoyed her previous Mirror Magic (see my post from June ‘18) but, if anything, I warmed to this book even more. It would make a great read-aloud for a younger KS2 (MG) class and is a ideal entry-level fantasy to hook children into the exciting world of magic fiction. It will equally delight many already committed young readers. It has numerous admirable, and hugely engaging features. In fact it is a storm of adventure, magic, humour and heart-warming sentiment.

Landscape and legend

In a very accessible way, it is a celebration of that tradition of landscape and legend that has been the stuff of many of our greatest works of children’s fantasy since the days of Alan Garner. 

‘What is geography, after all? It’s a study of the land, and you can’t begin to understand a land and its people until you know something about their legends. When you look at a mountain, what do you see? A pile of earth and rock, or a sleeping myth?’ (p 70)

And, here, it is mythological landscape in one of its most powerful geographical locations, Wales. The tale draws on powerful folk beliefs such as The Wild Hunt and shape-shifting white hares. It evokes the potency of legendary figures, with evocative names, and of ‘earth magic’. It calls up the power of storms that crash and flash off rugged mountains and rumble down lush valleys. And it pulls all these together into an exciting adventure, pitting engaging protagonists, and mysterious other-world characters, against against evil (if somewhat incompetent) magicians. 

Reality too

However it also succeeds in relating its narrative to real life and its issues. A story thread that treats of a young girl coping with the recent break-up of her parents, and a consequent move to a completely unfamiliar location, will illicit identification in many children and evoke empathy in others. 

In its direct, simple way, too, it is a celebration of creativity, of storytelling and image making. 

The creators had a special place of honour in Odin’s halls. Those who told stories or made pictures or played music. They saw the world a little differently.’ (p 76) 

A storm of a story 

Even more, running through all of this is that bonding of a child and a pet animal that pulls at the heart strings of so many young readers (and, perhaps, older ones too). In this case it is protagonist, Jessie, very unsettled by her recent drastic changes in domestic circumstance, who finds solace in an adopted puppy, Storm.

There is too an important developing friendship with a strange ‘non-boy ‘, Morfran. However it is Storm himself who is the real star of this book, and it is his depiction that is the imaginative triumph of author Claire Frayers. For Storm is not a mortal dog, but a Storm Hound of Arawn’s (Odin’s) Wild Hunt, accidentally left behind one night as a puppy in Aberystwyth. The complete delight of the book is that Storm still has the mindset of his wild mythological essence, but the behaviours of his present puppy form. The dichotomy and incongruity between these two, and the way they are so cleverly exploited by his creator, is a source of constant humour, delight and, at times, touching pathos. 

He was Storm of Odin, who ran with the Wild Hunt and tore the night apart for the joy of it. He was everything that was untamed and free. Humans and their little lives were over in an instant and none of them should matter to him. But, here and now, he was Storm, licking salty tears off his human’s face as she cried.’ (p 156)

The character of Storm is one of the true gems of recent children’s publications and he turns a book with many admirable qualities into a truly adorable triumph for Claire Fayers. 

There is an incredibly exciting storm of a climax, too, literally and magically. Potentially heartbreaking dilemmas strike lightening through the narrative, and, as befits a story for this age group, are resolved through love and understanding. The best of accessible, younger children’s stories can have their own particular greatness; this book is most certainly one such. 

And satire too?

And, in the last analysis, I cannot but warm to a writer who has her power-crazed, but somewhat buffoonish, magicians claim that they intend to ‘make magic great again.’ (p 26)

Claire Fayers’ earlier books are also published in the US (under slightly different titles). Hopefully this one will soon be published there too. 

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee


‘She was thin with worrying, our mother. She combed out her long fair hair with her fingers, closed her eyes. She was made almost entirely out of worries and magic.’ (p 4)

I admit I am no saint when it comes to book blogging. Often, the reviews I have in my head pile up on me and it takes far too long to write them up. However, sometimes, but only rarely, I read a book that makes me so buzz with excitement that I just cannot  wait to try and find the words to share my enthusiasm. Then I know the title is something very special indeed. And such is the case here. 

Of course, I should have known. To a large extent I did. But, even so, I was bowled over by just how breathtakingly wonderful this book is. It is made almost entirely out of worries and magic.

A marvellous boy and a magical girl 

I should have expected it because Karen Foxlee is one of my top favourites amongst contemporary children’s writers. Her first children’s book, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, is a little gem, exploring very real issues through charming fairy tale fantasy and has one of the most endearing protagonist of recent years. (See post March ‘15) Her second, A Most Magical Girl, is more of a ‘total’ fantasy, most beautifully written and, again, with a great deal to say. (Post June ‘17.) And now, hooray, we have her third. It is about young boy with a serious medical problem. 

Over recent years, there have been a good number of books about children with ‘conditions’, physical or mental. This sub-genre is epitomised, perhaps, by R. J. Palacio’s understandably lauded Wonder, although books about children with autism may be the most numerous. The best of these books play a very important role in engendering empathy and are most welcome additions to any young person’s reading experience. 

A (very) big little brother

That Lenny’s Book of Everything centres, unusually, around a young boy with a condition akin to pituitary gigantism, where a particular form of brain tumour promotes abnormal fast growth, already makes it very different. However, it has many other remarkable features too, that make it stand out, not only from other books of its type but, indeed, from most other recent children’s novels. 

Actually, this book is not principally about Davey Spink, the boy with the condition, so much as it is about his slightly older sister, Lenny (Lenora), who is the story’s narrator. Although we learn a very great deal about Davey and his issues, with which the clearly loveable boy copes amazingly, the story essentially explores how Lenny lives with and through the years of her own childhood alongside him. Although clearly a big feature, Davey is not the only trauma in her life. She is also coping with the departure from it of her father, a loss so sudden and complete that it is essentially a bereavement. 

All of which may sound very drear and depressing, but, in fact, Lenny’s story is laced through with warmth and humour in a continually delightful way. When Lenny is discussing her brother’s rapid growth with her school friend, CJ (‘a blast of fair hair that wouldn’t stay in the bunches her mother tied. Sometimes she had just one bunch left by the end of the day, like the handle on a teacup ‘):

‘“Like with Jack and the beanstalk, he just keeps growing,” said CJ. 
“The beanstalk kept growing,” I said. 
“Yeah,” said CJ, who was very wise, “but it’s the same thing.”’ (p17)

Burrell’s Build-at-Home Encyclopaedia

The framework for the story is provided by the fact that the Spinks win a competition, which earns them a free subscription to a part-work encyclopaedia, ‘The Gift of Knowledge’. The regular arrival of its alphabetical issues punctuates, and, indeed, soon become a major ingredient of the lives of both Lenny and Davey. Sometimes fascinating, at others more disappointing,  new letters bring new interests into their daily routines and provide major distraction  from both the humdrum and the heartbreak. Lenny’s obsession with beetles, and Davey’s with raptors, both derive from their ‘Burrell’s’, as indeed does a dream of  escape to the wilds of Canada’s Great Bear Lake, which they both share. 

The story has a beautifully evoked setting in the US of the 1970s. This brings with it a good number of references that will probably be unfamiliar to young UK readers, but they should not be a problem. It will be easy, with the internet, for children to explore the relevance of ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘space monkeys’, and insights into a culture simultaneously so like and so unlike their own will be enriching in themselves. 

Breathtaking language

But there is an even greater delight to this book. Karen Foxlee’s is some of the most deliciously wonderful writing I have come across in a long time. It is not that her vocabulary is challenging or her phraseology poetically fancy, but rather that she has a quite remarkable ability to turn a phrase, capture an image, and express a thought or feeling in a stunningly fresh and evocative way. She starts at the very opening of her first chapter:

‘Our mother had a dark heart feeling. It was as big as a sky inside a thimble. That’s how dark heart feelings are. They have great volume but can hide in small places.’ (p 2)

And she never lets up. She creates a rich cast of fascinating characters, both children and adults, and conjures them up vividly, often in only few lines. She conveys deep emotions in a breathtakingly communicative way, and brings situations to life that can be heartbreaking at the very same time as they are achingly funny. 
‘Sometimes rain made me want to cry, like there was something deep inside me - the sadness flower that opened up when rainy days came, and blossomed inside me until I couldn’t breathe.’ (p 22)

‘My eyes were tired from staring into my imaginings.’ (p 110)

‘We deliberately did not think of the possibility of finding our father. We imagined the cousins across our dark little room instead.  . . We imagined them to life. We imagined them bright as stars until they burned behind our closed eyes.’ (p 131). 

Karen Foxlee imagines her characters to life , through her stunningly original and potent language, until they burn behind the closed eyes of us, her readers. Similarly, under her pen, the everyday incidents of Lenny’s life fizz with such vividness that they feel charged with electricity.

The voice of the child

What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Karen Foxlee succeeds in turning this breathtaking language facility into the totally convincing voice of her young protagonist, Lenny. It wraps Lenny’s naive perceptiveness in a remarkable sensitivity. Her beetle-obsessed diversions from the realities of her life cushions but never quite shields her from its multiple heartbreaks. It sets her alongside Ophelia (she of the Marvellous Boy) as one of the most endearing and touching of contemporary children’s fiction creations. In this exceptional ability to voice children, Karen Foxlee reminds me of another great Australian writer, Ursula Dubosarsky (see my earlier posts), although both have many very distinctive talents too. 

In Lenny’s Book of Everything Karen Foxlee does not rush her story. But its slow unfolding, day by day, month by month, as the alphabet progresses and the part-work Encyclopaedia builds, only adds to our intense involvement in the life of Lenny Spink. 

Spinning towards the inevitable 

Iterative themes spiral through the story: the arrival of encyclopaedia parts;Lenny’s beetles and Davey’s raptors; the dreams of Mrs. Gaspar, their child-minder; the imagined trip to Great Bear Lake; the unstuck sticker from Buffalo, Wyoming, that is the only physical the legacy of their father. But just when the gyre appears to be widening into the sky, it twists inescapably downwards. You desperately want it not to, but you know it will. 

Karen Foxlee is a writer of sparkling genius. Hers is a hard book to read; not one with hard words, but one with a depth of emotion that is hard to take. It is all the more powerful in that it does not overly try to ‘make everything all right in the end’. But those who do read it will be glad they did. 

Actually, I would not classify this book with the ‘condition’ stories. It is not really a Wonder or a Goldfish Boy. For me, it belongs with those other great children’s works which deal with loss, yet bring their readers enormous gain - books like Bridge to Terabithia, A Taste of Blackberries, and Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. It will break the hearts and enrich the lives of countless children for many years to come. 

‘Holy Batman!’ Indeed

Thankfully this book has recently been published in the UK. We should again be grateful to the fine imprint ‘Pushkin Children’s’ for bringing us yet another outstanding work of international stature. 

For once, the quote on the UK & US covers (above) is totally apt. In the story, one of Davey’s favourite expletives in ‘Holy Batman!’. R. J. Palacio adopts it to describe a response to the whole book. It says it all. 

original cover

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

They all have better outcomes when they are together.’ (p 356)

Amazing Americans

I have had an exceptional run of reading recently and found three mind-boggling, brilliant books in a row, all of them, as happens, by American authors. Ever if they’re not great on Presidents right now, they do have some truly wonderful children’s writers over there.  

This third exciting read was not as much of a surprise though. Anne Ursu has been well up my list of all-time favourites for some while. Both Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy are ‘modern classics’ of children’s fiction, as entertaining as they are profound. I know of few, if any, better examples of using fantasy elements as metaphor for very real and pertinent children’s issues. So I have been eagerly awaiting her latest novel The Lost Girl, and believe me it is no disappointment. It joins its two illustrious predecessors as a book that is both riveting and revelatory, from a writer of breathtaking skill and imagination - as well as deep humanity. 

An amazing opener

From Chapter One is is clear that we are in the hands of a world-class, and very classy, children’s author. For a start the language is skilfully strong without being the least bit heavy or pretentious. It is used to communicate powerfully, to conjure image, to enchant, and, here, at the tale’s top, to intrigue. 

‘This is a story of a sign and of a store. Of a key. Of crows and shiny things. Of magic. Of bad decisions made from good intentions. Of bad guys with bad intentions. Of collective nouns, fairy tales, and backstories.’ (p 3)

Quite wonderfully, what follows is all of these things, and more. More behind. More beneath. More beyond.

This early piquing of the reader’s curiosity is further heightened by the intrusion of an unidentified narrator. The mystery of who they are will develop as one of the principal drivers of the story, and the ultimate staggering reveal of their identity is one of the novel’s pivotal moments. 

Amazing twins

Basically, the tale is one of identical twin girls, often a matter of fascination in itself. Here . . .

‘The two sisters were alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.’ (p 1)

One twin, Iris, is competent and organised. However, much angers her in the world and, when it does, she tries to argue what she sees as the cause of righteousness. When the world seems not to listen, her lack of success is a source of further anger and frustration, although not of discouragement. She is not trying to be Supergirl:

‘Really, all she wanted was to be able to organise the world in a way that made sense, and that was not a superpower. Though it felt as impossible as one.’ (p 185)

In contrast, her sister, Lark, is disorganised and creative. She tries to imagine the world better, to recreate it the way she needs it to be through art and play, by making it anew in her dreaming. 

‘Getting to Lark’s bed meant traversing a jungle of Lark’s things - Library books, bits and pieces of her various collections, bookstore books, stuffed animals, drawings, half-finished Rainbow Loom puppets and knitted scarves.’ (p 30)

The sisters are, in many ways, complementary. Are they, to some extent, different aspects of one personality? Or different approaches to a single problem? Is either the best one? The right one? The real one? This book asks many such questions. 

Amazing images

Against the twins ‘realistic’ home and school life is played out a fantasy concerning a weird pop-up antique shop with very strange signs, and an even stranger proprietor. This Mr. Green claims that he, and his shop are magic. He has lost his sister and the sudden appearance of his store, its contents and its notices, are, he says, all devices to further his goal of finding her again. 

The interplay of these two worlds, that of the twins real life and of the ‘magic’ shop, are at the fascinating and compelling heart of Anne Ursu’s fiction. The ultimate collision of the two constitutes its devastating climax. 

The other principal development of the plot is precipitated by a decision taken, without the twins knowledge, by the adults in their life. It is taken, they are informed, ‘for their own good’. And that decision is to split them into different school classes, a separation they have never had to experience before and one that they decidedly do not want. Its effect on them is more than confusing; it is more than unsettling; it is destabilising in many ways and on many levels. 

‘Lark got home from art camp . . . full of talk of negative space and perspective and colour theory, while Iris had no stories to tell. Iris had no colour theory, no perspective. Everything remained grey and mushy. And everywhere she went she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was the wrong girl.’ (p 165)

Much is leaned from their separation, but not necessarily for the good, and the author’s charting of the disintegration of their personalities is quite brilliant, if devastating. Which twin suffers most? Which is more dependent on the other? The ground shifts shockingly under them, and under the reader. There are more questions than answers. 

The story is full of enigmatic, but strangely potent, images: the mysterious shop with its odd signs, bizarre non-magical magical inventions, and an even weirder ‘well of magic’; crows, both solitary and in murders - crows that both take things and bring things; a doll’s house, fantastically transformed by one of the twins; unique specimens of nature and art stolen from society. The book builds itself on image and metaphor At least something of their meaning becomes clearer as the layers of this onion story are peeled away. But not all. This book, like life, holds some of its secrets close, to be pondered, to be teased at, even to worm their way into a reader’s dreams.

And yet there is story here too - and what story. As well as all the mystery and  intrigue, the narrative engenders a deep commitment to the twins. The tortuous journey of their separation, sometimes amusing, often heartrending, and frequently deeply disturbing, keeps the pages turning relentlessly. This is as much ‘What will happen?’, ‘How will it all turn out?’ as it is ‘What does it all mean?’. In short, it is a riveting read. 

Amazing girls

By the later stages of the book a clear, simple message does emerge. This is a deeply feminist novel. The sorority of young girls from ‘Camp Awesome’ demonstrate their collective potential and power in the final confrontation with the patriarchal proprietor of the magical store. The conviction of ‘stronger together’, epitomised by the twins, is of no little importance, to the author, or to the girls of our world. 

‘They had better outcomes when they were together.’ (p 27)

But there is more than this to this fine, but challenging book. This is deeply feminist book, but that does not mean it is a book only for girls. (Actually I do not believe that any books have genders in this sense.) Anne Ursu has one of her character pertinently point our that patriarchy hurts boys as well girls. It hurts humanity, and this is a humane book as well as a feminist one. Mr Green’s crimes are against humanity, against the birthrights of us all as well as specifically against his sister, the girl he has ‘lost’. It is an important book for all children and the world in which they themselves wish to grow up. 

It is not an easy or comfortable book. It is one to read and then return to. Its profound themes and enigmatic images do not give up their full meanings easily. I have spoken before of ‘books to grow up with, and to grow up through.’ The Lost Girl’ certainly belong in this category. It is a book to help our world grow as well as each of us as individuals. 

One of the most mind-blowing images in the book is the disappearance of a fabulous sculpture acquisitively stolen from an open air gallery. The art piece described is an imagination-boggling work entitled ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’. And, hey, what do you know? It really exists. And, thanks to the twins and their friends, we seem to have got it back, in Minneapolis and our world. Good on you, Amazing Girls. 

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

‘You can’t always pinpoint the moment everything changes. Most of the time it’s gradual, like grass growing or fog settling or your armpits starting to smell by mid afternoon.’ (p 223)


I found this book almost by accident. I was intrigued by reviews of a new novel, Finding Orion, by an American author I didn’t know, John David Anderson. I put in an order for it, hoping it just might be a discovery, but was disappointed and a little frustrated to learn that it won’t be published until later this year. As a kind of compensation ,I decided to try one of his earlier books, and what I came up with just happened to be Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Well, talk about serendipity. I was looking for an exciting discovery and this title , actually from only as far back as 2016, turned out to be exactly that. A real gem. Had I but known it, I would have been devastated to miss out on a work of children’s literature such as this. It has a rare quality of being entertainingly accessible yet hugely enriching at the same time. 

Laughter through tears 

The story concerns three ‘fifth grade’ (10-11 year-old) boys and Ms. Bixby, a teacher they think of as being of a rare, very special kind. 

The (ones) we simply call the Good Ones. The ones who make the torture otherwise known as school somewhat bearable. You know when you have one of the Good Ones because you find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it’s not art class. They’re the teachers you actually want to go back and say hi to the next year. The ones you don’t want to disappoint.  . . . Like Ms. B.’ (p 7)

When they learn that she has terminal cancer, and will soon have to  leave the school, they set out to do everything they possibly can to make her last day a very special one. Now, this may sound either morbid or sentimental, or both. But believe me it is neither. Although it is both touching and sad in parts, thoughtful and, ultimately, quite deeply moving , it is overwhelming a very heart-warming and life-affirming book. More than anything else, it is very, very funny. It quite wonderfully mixes what I think of as a particularly American dry humour with elements of anarchic farce. Often, the boys’ behaviour is ever so well intentioned, yet naively childish. The author captures brilliantly, and very endearingly, their uniquely pre-adolescent combination of insightful intelligence and worldly inexperience - with hilarious results. 

Complexity beneath simplicity

However, I found that there was even more about this book that left me feeling  very excited indeed. The way it is written is also especially wonderful. To start with, the narrative unfolds through the interleaved perspectives of the three boys. Each had a very different personality, different needs and different ways of coping with life, and their three distinct voices are each caught most effectively. This adds enormous richness to both the content of the story and the nature of its telling. On top of this, the major part of the book’s action has much of the unity of time that characterises Classical Greek drama. That is to say, it happens in ‘real time’, over the course of a single day. However, within this , are narrative sections where the boys recount revealing incidents from their pasts. Yet, the author very cleverly uses tenses and voices to ensure that the whole narrative sequence remains perfectly clear for his young audience.

The result is that storyline, characters and relationships - all of them rich, complex and resonantly truthful - emerge and coalesce gradually in the course of reading. It is skilful writing, really very sophisticated in an authorial sense. Yet the book remains a hugely entertaining page-turner, an easy, comfortable read that engages from first page to last. This unusual combination makes it a quite superb, accessible introduction for young readers to complex narrative forms and devices more often characteristic of fiction intended for a much older audience. It is a real gift for those wishing to extend and develop children’s reading, without trying to force them into text inappropriate for their age and interest. 

Books teach too

On top of this, of course, there is all that is to be learned from a book that deals with some of life’s very real and important issues in a sensitive and fully appropriate way. It is a story that I think will truly help children to cope with life, and encounters with death,  not only at the time of reading, but quite possibly well into their futures. 

And one final bonus. Whilst it is wonderful (and important) that so many current children’s books feature strong girls as principal characters, it is  equally good to find here the clear promotion of boys who are caring and sensitive. Patriarchy harms many boys, as well as girls, and alternative role models to boys who are sports-playing, sword-wielding monster-bashers are to be warmly welcomed.

This is a very American book. It is centred in US Elementary School life and ‘small town’ culture. As such, it is a valuable window into childhood on the ‘other side of The Pond’ - its stark differences and its remarkable similarities. It is also somehow very American in its emotional openness; a freedom of expression that is all too easy for us to dismiss as sentimentality, but is actually an honesty we would perhaps do well to emulate more often. 

This novel celebrates a ‘day in the life’. Its three protagonists seek with all their young hearts to make it a special day -and ultimately succeed. It is a Carpe Diem sort of book. It is a book about a last day, but emphatically not a lost day. Ms.Bixby’s last is not a day to be shunned, but one to be sought and caught and kept. 

‘After all - you never forget the Good Ones.’ (p 300)

. . . teachers or days - or books. 

Roll on Finding Orion. Meanwhile I must try to catch up with some other books from this fine author.