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.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Ghouls of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson


Cover illustration: Kim Geyer

Well done, Mr Tomlinson 

Often, if you dip a bucket into the well of a book, the first few sentences you wind up will give you clear indication of the quality of the water and, indeed, of the depth of the well itself. 

Nick Tomlinson’s new children’s novel has no pretensions to be anything but humorous, spooky entertainment (in which ambition it succeeds gloriously). Yet, when I raised that first test bucket from his particular source, what instantly glistened within it it was a brimming pail-full of joyously evocative language and inventive wit. This well of a book may not be as deep as some, but its water has the liveliest of sparkles, giving it a richness that hugely enhances both its merit and its enjoyment as a read.

‘Mrs Fullsway flung open the door and stood looming . . .“0h! Yug Mommy!”
“Yug Mommy?’
Mrs Fullsway pirouetted, flowed to her bedside table, plucked her teeth from a glass of water and slotted them into her mouth . . .
“Young Molly!” She said again.’ Mrs Fullsway had a voice like very heavy tomato sauce.’  (p 21)

In fact Nick Tomlinson’s descriptions are often so lush that, in a ‘serious’ work, they might be considered over-written. But, here, they simply add to the effulgent entertainment that suffuses almost every page. Time after time his language, his turn of phrase, and, indeed, his own obvious delight in writing, morph what could have been vaguely amusing incident, into chortles, guffaws, and truly joyful reading experience. 

Every trick in the graveyard

The story itself bursts with crowd-pleasing features: Molly, a plucky girl protagonist (almost de rigeur these days); a best friend, Lowry, partner in much hugely entertaining banter; a classmate ‘enemy’, Felicity, to up the ante; a boy, Carl, to balance out representation; a rather odd, but much-loved cat; a strange, small town that provides both a mystery to be solved and enough spooky goings on to stock countless Halloweens; dastardly doings and a creepy villain to hiss at. Nothing is lacking for an ideal escape under the duvet with a torch, although the quaking to be seen from without will be as much from mirth as from horror.

Nick Tomlinson’s storytelling has many touches of delightfully fresh imagination too. I particularly love his conjuring of the disturbing orphanage building:

‘The odd thing about Howlfair Orphanage was that it had no windows. Instead, windows had been painted on. Within their phoney frames were painted various scenes of happy orphans in bygone attire playing in cosy firelit rooms. But the paint had run and faded and the children’s features were misshapen.’ (p 88)

Decidedly creepy.

Just what the spook-doctor ordered

Sometimes what young readers want, and need, is a light, entertaining read. When it has real energy and flair in its writing, then that makes it a particularly valuable addition to their bookshelves. This title  reminded me quite a lot, in its tone and qualities, of the wonderful, humorously spooky books from Eva Ibbotson that I so much enjoyed reading to my class when I was teaching. (Humphrey the Horrible, from The Great Ghost Rescue was a particular favourite of us all.) The Ghouls of Howlfair will provide a highly motivating independent read for many children, but it would also make a glorious read-aloud.

The back cover promo calls this author ‘a fresh new voice’, which he certainly is. He also looks to be a very talented and spine-tinglingly promising one.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll


Cover: Julian De Narvaez


A shelf-full of delights 

Children’s author, Emma Carroll has good reason to feel very proud of the remarkably long line of novels that she has produced since her 2013 debut, Frost Hollow Hall. They now fill almost a whole shelf (if your bookcase is not too wide).Young readers have good reason to feel enormously grateful too, for her books are a wonderful addition to the store of children’s literature, both individually and collectively. Each is somewhat different in content and tone, each being set in a different places at, largely, different times in history, so inevitably some will appeal more to some children than others. But each is an enchanting read, in its own way, and many young readers, I know, avidly devour each title of hers as soon as it is published, as, indeed, do I.  Thankfully, we never seem to have too long to wait.

Favourites 

Amongst my own particular favourites are Letters from the Lighthouse, one of the best younger children’s WWII stories of recent years, and Strange Star, a lyrical ghost story built loosely around Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein, perhaps best suited to somewhat older children or ‘tweens’. And now there is a further volume to add to my shelf, and to my favourites, because The Somerset Tsunami is another particularly sparkling gem amongst Emma Carroll jewels.




A new favourite 

This time we are taken back to the England of 1616. But, as in many of her books, Emma Carroll does not pretend to write history as such, rather to borrow elements of history as the background to a completely engaging, and viscerally exciting, story of her own. Yet there is much history to be learned from its pages, even if this is not the book’s principal purpose. As the twin foci of this story, she cleverly intertwines a historically attested huge, sudden and violent sea surge (the ‘tsunami’ of the title, even if it would not have been identified in that way at the time), with the witch hunts horribly real enough under the patronage of King James I. It is very much to the author’s credit, and a testament to her writing skill and experience, that she succeeds in conveying this horror to her young audience in a way that disturbs in its total unfairness and injustice, as it must, but without ever descending too far into the most gruesome details of historic practice.

Girls and boys . . .

Most importantly for me though, this is a strongly feminist novel. Yet, despite having a wonderfully strong, ‘modern’ and plucky hero in the highly memorable character of Fortune Sharpe, it does not make its point by overtly preaching. Rather, it does so by continually pointing up the truly horrendous attitudes to women endemic in this period of history. Through this, it implicitly raises questions as to how much better things are (or aren’t) in our own time..

Wonderfully, too, Emma Carrol does not ignore the equally important issue of stereotyping boys. When Master Ellis, son of a prominent landowner and merchant, displays aspirations to become a travelling acrobat, his grotesquely prejudiced father tries instead to ‘make a man’ of him. That Ellis is shown to succeed in being his own self, despite such depredation, is one of the many triumphs of the book. In fact this is a title that celebrates, as strongly as any children’s novel I have read for a good while, the importance of children being who they need to be, despite all the pressures of social stereotyping,

I hope that it will be widely read and enjoyed by both girls and boys, as both a valuable window on the appalling attitudes and treatments of the past, and an invaluable reflection on how much they have changed, and how much they still need to change in our own societies. It certainly deserves to be.

. . . and books

And of course it is a great read into the bargain.

Long live tolerance. Long live diversity. Long live books.

Long live the right to be who we choose to be. Long live the right to read what we choose to read.  

Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different 2; Stories for Kids Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks


Cover Design: Arnauld     Illustrated by Quinton Winter

I am a strong supporter of the feminist cause, and make it known at every possible opportunity, delighted that so many recent children’s books celebrate the limitless potential of girls. However I am also starkly aware that many boys can be painfully and destructively limited by the horrendous prejudice of stereotyping. A particular concern is those countless boys who do not wish to be ‘real men’ or ‘proper lads’, or, indeed, know that they simply cannot be. This is not only an issue of sexuality, but applies to boys who are ‘different’ in a myriad ways. I was therefore thrilled to welcome Ben Brooks’ Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different (see my post April ‘18), when it came out as a kind of counterpart to the deservedly global megastar book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (see my Christmas posts Dec ‘17 and Dec ‘18).

Now we have a ‘Boys who Dare’2, to balance ‘Rebel Girls’2 and doubly welcome they both are. This second volume greatly  expands the range of potential role models offered, and what a tremendously important job it continues to do in the process.

To be even more warmly welcomed, I think, is the further follow up Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different, for here is a volume that even eschews the potential divisiveness of being focused on a particular gender. All are kids, all have the right to be different in their own way, and this is perhaps the most important message of all.

Of course, with each of these books, not everyone will necessarily approve of all the portraits offered, in words and pictures, but that is not the point. Or rather, it is the point. Diversity and unconventionally are its strength - and its purpose. In there somewhere many kids will  find figures, aspects of whose lives they can identify with, figures whose interests and ambitions they may share, figures whose achievements they may aspire to. But more than anything they will perhaps find there, permission to be different, to be themselves.

These books, together with ‘Rebel Girls’, cannot but help a vital ambition for a society, a world, where all children have a right to be accepted and respected for who they are, and the opportunity to strive to be who they want to be.

My only real regret about these particular titles is that the artist Quinton Winter is not acknowledged on the cover, even though he is inside. His striking, ‘poster-print’ illustration are often amusing, sometimes enlightening, occasionally touching and always entertaining. They are every bit as important an element of the book as the text.



Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The Velvet Fox by Catherine Fisher


Cover: Anne Glenn

Faery interlude

I am actually in the middle of reading Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, (along with half the reading world, of course), but I had to travel to London by train yesterday, and the thought of carrying that particular tome around with me was daunting, however eager I was to read on. So I took this instead and read the whole thing over the two legs of the journey. A most diverting and enjoyable interlude it was too.

Having interjected one story into my reading of the other, it did not take long to realise a commonality. Although far more complex, Philip Pullman’s concept of the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ is, on at least one level, much the same as the dominant presence in Catherine Fisher’s Welsh-myth-based tale: the ‘Fair Family’ or Tylwyth Teg, that world of faery folk that exists beneath the surface of our own reality, and can sometimes be glimpsed at the periphery of our vision, if we are sufficiently attuned to it.

Old fashioned - in a good way

When I read The Clockwork Crow at about this time last year (see my review from then) I warmly welcomed this fine writer back to MG fiction after many years of her writing outstanding, if sometimes decidedly scary, YA fantasy. I have long been a huge fan, and think her early Garneresque works, like Fintan’s Tower and The Conjuror’s Game still well worth seeking out as well as later ones for older readers, like Incarceron and the Chronoptika series. 

The Velvet Fox is a truly splendid sequel to her triumph of last year. If I call it a piece of old-fashioned children’s fiction, then I mean this in the most positive of senses. It eschews some of the more fashionable trends and styles of many current children’s fiction offerings, but rather tells a splendidly engrossing, not to say spine-tingling, story through simple yet effective language. It is never less than accessible, but always imaginative, sensitive and thoroughly engaging. It could, in a sense, have been written at any time in the last forty or fifty years, and is none the worse for seating itself firmly in what might be considered the golden age of children’s literature.  Sometimes it reminded me a little of the likes of Joan Aiken and I even caught vague echoes in places of Frances Hodgson Burnett. There are times, of course, when we want contemporary and ‘relevant’, but there are also times when what is needed is simply a good story, beautifully told. And that The Velvet Fox certainly is.

More faery than fairy

But if all this sounds like it is simply a cosy read, then think again. Catherine Fisher’s fantasy worlds can be very dark, and although, here, she has rightly and successfully moderated this for her younger audience, her Tylwith Teg are still a very long way from Cicely Mary Baker’s Flower Fairies. Definitely not the sort of creatures you would wish to meet on a dark night, or, in this case, an Autumn afternoon.  Sinister figures escape a disquieting toy carousel, a tormenting drummer, a  dangerously beguiling dancer, a vicious juggler - and there is worse to come, far worse. No plush toy fox will every feel quite the same again.

In fact, for me, the highlights of this book are a series of chilling dreamlike evocations of the evil faery world into which hero Seren and her cantankerous clockwork companion are drawn to save her friend Tomos. As I might expect from this author both characters and settings are evocatively drawn, with just enough feeling of Welshness and snippets of its wonderful language to feel authentically steeped  in Celtic magic. Of course the good characters are brave, kind and loyal and the evil ones scarily malevolent, and that is exactly as it should be in this type of book.

This is one for young readers everywhere to curl up with, and temporarily escape the realities of everyday humdrum into imaginatively conceived and skilfully crafted fantasy.

Monday, 30 September 2019

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay


Cover: Dawn Cooper

In parenthesis 

If I didn’t already know (which I do because I have read The Skylarks’ War) I would have identified Hilary McKay as a truly fine writer within the first page or two of reading this book.

At grammar school, fifty-odd years ago, our English teacher Bernard D***** (commonly referred to as ‘Nard’) taught us many rules for writing English prose, amongst which were: Never start a sentence with ‘And’, ‘But’ or ‘Because’ and Never use brackets; for parenthesis use enclosing commas. An inveterate rebel against such constraints, I have always taken delight in the likes of William Blake (‘And did those feet, in ancient times . . .’). And I now have the example of the breathtaking writing  of Hilary McKay (who strews her opening pages of text  with brackets like sprinkles on a trifle ) to add to my conviction. She seems to respect only one rule of writing (to me, the only correct one), that the language used should  communicate effectively. And that she achieves superbly. 

And there (right in the first paragraph) comes the mind-expanding phrase: ‘Abi herself, hunched over her book like a diving bird on the edge of a pool, poised between worlds.’ (p 1) Well, what more need be said?

The Time of Green Magic is quite simply another unspeakably wonderful book, from a superb children’s author. It has sentence after sentence, page after page, image after image of breathtaking writerly skill evoking equally intoxicating readerly pleasure.

Follow that? Why try?

The Skylarks’ War, Hilary McKay’s most recent book prior to this, is unquestionably one of my favourite children’s titles of recent years. (See my post from November, ‘18.)  It is in many senses a huge, and hugely important book. Although it explores events through the lives of only a relatively compact cast of characters, they are animated on the huge stage of the First World War, and carry with them all the life-shattering issues, all the devastating disruptions and and heart-rending conflicts, all the love and loss, that engulfing  war involves. The book is a microcosm or a macrocosm - and is deeply affecting.

The Time of Green Magic is no less a book, albeit in a somewhat gentler, more domestic vein. Its canvas is far more limited - but not its import.

Profoundly simple

It is, superficially, a slight, simple story about a girl (who happens to have dark skin) and her two new step-brothers. Throw in a caring (step-)father, an absent (step-)mother, a beloved grandmother on the other side of the world, an attractive, young French babysitter, a friend lost and found, and you have almost the complete personae of the book. The core characters move into a strange new house (strange in both senses) and what they find there is a magic that is both real and unreal. This ‘green magic’ is simultaneously what precipitates the story and what provides some of its most potent images. Few books can have a more apt or telling title.

But what is this ‘green magic’? That is for readers to discover, alongside some of the most beautifully drawn, most lovable and most profoundly human characters in recent children’s fiction. To read this little book is to make friends for life; friends to grow up with; friends to come back to again and again.

Words on paper

Towards the end of the book, the youngest boy, Louis, writes a letter, and Hilary McKay says of it:

‘It was words on paper, It opened a door, it made a friend, it told a story.’ (P 213)

All these truths apply to equally to The Time of Green Magic. Simple truths. Deep truths. Simple magic. Deep magic. The best sort. But, at the same time, what words they are, what a door, what a story! This is a ‘Tardis’ of a book: its small exterior opens into a huge interior. It is a wise book, full of encouragement, and no little humour. It is a book for families and about families; a book about new starts, new places, and new people (even if they are not always sought). It is a book about books and the magic of books. It is a book about insecurity and need, about love, and the need for love. So many children’s books are about being ready to grow up; this is, perhaps, a book more about not (yet) being ready to grow up. Somehow (I can’t  quite say how)  it is, to me, a twenty-first century equivalent of Edith Nesbit’s ground-breaking magical children’s adventures. But in this book the children’s adventure is to find the magic in each other.

It is a story to read as summer comes to and end and winter draws in. It is a perfect book to read in the run up to Christmas. It is a book for all time. It is a joy.

Once again, Dawn Cooper’s striking cover beautifully echoes the tone of the story as well as subtly pointing up some of its key elements. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

I Go Quiet by David Ouimet


‘When I read I know that there is a world beneath my branches. I read that every living thing is a part of me. I think I may be part of everything too.’

Words and pictures 

There are a comparatively small number of hard to classify books, by highly talented artist/writers, that seem to me to fall somewhere between the graphic novel and the older children’s picture book. They are generally characterised by few words, if any at all, yet often deal with very sophisticated subject matter, brilliantly explored through stunning artwork.Too often overlooked as being unchallenging for more able readers (which is most certainly not the case) they not only provide a rich and stimulating independent reading experience but also make wonderful resources for imaginative, thoughtful teachers and their classes. David Wiesner and Shaun Tan are prominent amongst artists-authors who have produced some truly mind-blowing books of this type. And David Ouimet’s recently published I Go Quiet is a particularly outstanding example.

Words

The very short text is superficially simple, but is actually profound in its ideas and implications. It shows perfectly how a few words can say a very great deal. A young girl feels herself alienated from a noisy world, and so turns inward; literally and metaphorically, she goes quiet. Yet she frees herself through imagination. This book is itself a compelling testament to all books, to their power to liberate, to educate in the fullest send. And, in the end, the loud, clear message of I Go Quiet is superbly positive, supportive, encouraging. Silence will find its voice in good time, and what a voice that will be.

Pictures

Yet it is David Ouimet’s detailed, idiosyncratic and compelling illustrations which carry the greatest power within this work, adding multiple layers of both meaning and mystery to the text. Primarily monochrome, yet playing mesmerisingly with darkness and light, they are often disturbing, hauntingly surreal. The countless people who populate this world all carry masks of conformity, which they sometimes do and don’t t wear, yet their faces are mask-like either way. Across one double page spread, these hordes seem to pass through some vast, dark machine, like product on complex conveyors. In another they are arrayed as a vast ancient army, malevolent terracotta warriors. At what appears to be school, ranks of desks with their masked/unmasked pupils stretch, towards infinity, multiple indoctrinated clones. It is no wonder our girl goes quiet. Yet, when her imagination is freed, the drawings rush, swoop and soar towards flight in exhilarating abandon. And, in the vast library, the girl climbs and climbs up the dark stacks of books until her hand reaches towards the light, the sky, the grass.

Images

These are images that ask questions, many questions, questions in their wholeness and even more in their detail, more questions than answers. But therein lies their power and their potency.

This is a book to disquiet, but ultimately one to comfort and support too. Support for those who feel intimidated , those who feel alienated, and perhaps do not even want to belong, for those who go quiet, for those who read and learn and imagine. It provides the encouragement, the hope, the certainty, that someday they will make a ‘shimmering noise’.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson


Illustration: Kathrin Honesta

‘We don’t have to be the same to fit together.’ (p 376)

At last

After what has seemed like an interminable wait, I have finally managed  to buy a copy of the new Sophie Anderson. (I won’t say from where, as I think they sold it to me a bit before the official release date, and I’m certainly not going to dob them in, as I was so desperate to read it.). Inevitably I dropped everything else and raced through it in a couple of days. 

The Girl Who . . .

Probably the first and most important thing to say about this book is that it is categorically not the next in the Stig Larson Dragon Tattoo series.  (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,  etc., etc.) Anyone expecting the further exploits of Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed.

However,  those who know better will be hoping for a captivating follow-up to this author’s justifiably lauded children’s debut, The House With Chicken Legs (see my review from July ‘18). And they will most certainly not be disappointed. Not one jot. 

That first book was a highly original tour-de-force that managed simultaneously to be excitingly readable, deeply moving and richly though-provoking. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is not exactly a sequel as such, but it is set in the same Russian folklore-inspired world, and, indeed, another house with chicken legs does put in a notable appearance, together with its ‘Yaga’ inhabitants. Whilst it is in no way essential, it is perhaps advantageous for young readers to have experienced  the earlier title first, so that they understand the background of what happens inside this animated dwelling.

However, this new book not only turns out to be a worthy successor to its illustrious predecessor, but in many ways exceeds its remarkable achievements.

Grown from the rootstock of folklore

I have always loved and admired children’s books that have their roots in both particular place and the folklore of that place - what I think of as the Alan Garner tradition. Not only is The Girl Who Speaks Bear one such book, but it has the added advantage that the particular tradition of old Russian tales on which it draws will be novel ground to many young readers in the West. It makes for an intriguingly fresh quality of  ‘fairy tale’ experience whilst still evoking, albeit unconsciously, those deep archetypes and universal emotions that resonate with the humanity of us all.

Form and content dancing together

But, for me, it is the fact that this book is a veritable masterpiece of narrative form, that most completely sets it apart. Many of the finest examples of literature (children’s or otherwise) are those where form and content work in perfect harmony to reflect and complement each other. Again, this book is one such. And, because of this, I am confident, it is destined to become a classic of the children’s fantasy canon.

Superficially, the book alternates between a principal narrative, in the present tense, and past tense retellings of what are nominal folk tales, each with its ‘Once upon a time’ opening. Yet it is really not as simple as this, for, from an opening that seems to find its setting in a credibly ‘real’ picture of village life in the far north of Russia, the main narrative itself soon takes on elements of the recounted fairy tales, so that these two elements of the structure move closer and closer together. The folk tales become more like flashbacks in the personal history of protagonist, Yanka, or, to put it another way, her story becomes a living out of the consequences of the the folk tales. It is all most cleverly handled by a wonderful writer already hitting superb form.

So many delights

All this is not to mention beautifully crafted language, evoking vividly the landscapes of village, forest and legend. These, too, are peopled with rich and engaging characters, human and animal. And, through all, distinctive Yanka, a protagonist far from the clich├ęs of storybook ‘heroine’, is engaging, admirable and lovely in the very best sense. She is a character fascinatingly torn between the pulls of society and nature, civilisation and wildness, life and story, and many children, girls and boys, will be honoured to know her and call her their friend. She seeks to belong, despite being different, and her dilemma is shared by many, so her story’s ultimate celebration of home and family (whoever they may be) will comfort and encourage.

The book is quite a long one, but the time taken to read it will repay children a hundredfold. Its cumulatively exciting incident is mixed with gradual revelations about the book’s central mysteries, and its extended climax is thrillingly compulsive. Yanka’s tale will enrich their reading, and their lives, immeasurably. Many will learn to speak bear too, discovering the language of the bear from the forest, the bear from story, and the bear that will always be somewhere within themselves. If a story can have a soul, then this one does.

‘(I wonder) what other stories from my past lie in the forest. My heart races and my toes twitch. But . . . more important than the stories of my past are the stories of my future. And those - with a little help from my family and friends - I can write for myself.’

Wonderful writers like Sophie Anderson help a little too.

. . . and ravishing visually as well

I cannot finish with out adding a word in praise of Kathrin Honesta’s enriching illustrations, which themselves manage beautifully to hover in the hinterland between realism and fairytale, the very place of magical adventure that is the very heart of this life-enriching tale.

US readers can rejoice in the fact that The Girl Who Speaks Bear is coming your way next March. (And book collecting fanatics, like me, will be able to buy an additional hardback edition.)


US cover

Monday, 5 August 2019

The Colour of the Sun by David Almond


Cover: David Litchfield

‘Get yourself out into the sun, lad,’ 

Over the course of twenty years or so, I have read David Almond’s books with frequent intakes of breath at his remarkable writing skill, his honest sensitivity, his consummate artistry. I  tried to say as much when I reviewed The Dam, his picture book with artist Levi Pinfold, back in my post from September of last year. However, seeing his endorsement on the cover of Chloe Daykin’s Fish Boy, brought to mind that I hadn’t yet caught up with his own most recent full-length  novel, The Colour of the Sun

Once the thought had landed, it couldn’t be postponed one (sunny) day longer. 

Within a few pages of returning to this author’s writing, the phrase that was burning in my mind was one from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover: ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.’

His first children’s novel, Skellig, probably remains his best known, and it is a very fine work. However, he has written many other great books since, and to chart his journey from that first novel to this one is to delve ever deeper, ever more richly and rewardingly, into the potential of literature for young readers. 

So what, makes David Almond so special? What makes this book so breathtakingly wonderful? I can only offer tentative thoughts and fumble clumsily for some of the vivid colours.

Perhaps

it is the way that every single word he uses seems to be the right one, in the right place. His language is superficially simple, yet every sentence he crafts transports you, every image he conjures, every small action of his tale, takes you right to the heart of his narrator, Davie, to the heart of the author, and to the heart of yourself. Davie’s life, past, present and future, is caught in his wandering on a single, particular day, and so is your own, even though you have never before seen it though his eyes.

Perhaps

it is the way that this superficially slight narrative is redolent with images, depths, and resonances, with folk memories, with ghosts and portents, with things real and unreal, with enigmas. It is profoundly rich, even in its beautiful simplicity of form. It is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Davie wanders to the top of a hill and down again, and neither he nor you will every be quite the same again. Literally? Ah! That’s the question.

Perhaps 

it is that there are precious few, if any, other writers who can make a highly significant moment out of the sharing and eating of a dusty fruit gum. Perhaps only he notices its potential to glow in the sunlight.

‘Davie chews the green gum, mixed it in his mouth with the remnant of the purple gum. It’s so sweet, so delicious. He thinks of the multi-coloured light inside him and the thought pleases him.’ (p 43)

Perhaps 

it is because he can capture with tender poignancy the thoughts and feelings of a boy on the cusp between childhood and early adulthood, belonging to both and neither; that he understands so completely how the first loss of a parent can be the most devastating event in a young life; and that he can explore these things with deep honesty, and profound empathy, yet not one jot of over-sentimentality.

Perhaps

it is because he can write a whole book where almost nothing happens - a young lad spends a single sunny day wandering about the places he has known all his life - and yet leave you desperately turning pages to know how it all ends. (Although he does throw in the discovery of a murdered body, and the ever present possibility that the lad will encounter the murderer - which I suppose you might consider takes the edge off this just a bit.)

Perhaps 

it is  because he can tell you very near the beginning of his book what the whole thing is about,

(‘This is a world of wonder. And some folk stroll through it with their eyes down to the dirt like it’s all nowt but a great big bore! Look around you! You should be running around dancing and singing your head off at the glory of it all! )

not to mention telling you again on the back flap, and yet leave you desperately turning pages to know how it all ends. (Although the same qualification applies as above, which you might still think is a bit of a swizz.)

Perhaps

it is because a very particular place is the heart of his book, and this is a book of his heart; because he is that place, and Davie, and both are everything he writes, and has ever written.

‘It’s a place, like all the places he passes through today, all the places he has passed through since he was an infant, that seeps deep into Davie’s dreams. It’s a place, like all the places, that feeds the tales he writes, that infects the sentences and pages that fall from his pen as day comes to a close and night comes slowly on.’ (p 125)

Perhaps 

it is  because he sees nature, becomes nature, in the city, in the streets, in the fields, everywhere,

‘Amid the gorse and the bees and the exploding seed pods, below the blue sky and the yellow sun and upon the blazing earth, he loses himself, finds the fox and the deer inside himself, and he is wild.’ (p 177)

Perhaps

it is because of the way he says bollix to stultifying religion, bollix to the need for two sound legs, and bollix to ingrained prejudice and violent hatred.

Perhaps

it is because his book is suffused with generous, understanding, forgiving, accepting humanity; because it is profoundly optimistic.

‘And the larks sing high in the sky as they always do, no matter what dreadful things might have occurred on the earth below.’ (p 113)

Perhaps

it is because he doesn’t just write this book for young readers, but writes it for old men too, as he and I are; for the children we were and are.

‘This is a world of wonder. And some folk stroll through it with their eyes down to the dirt like it’s all nowt but a great big bore! Look around you! You should be running around dancing and singing your head off at the glory of it all!  . . . There’ll come a time when you have to leave this wondrous place, you know?’ (p 12)

Don’t I know it. 

And what’s that got to do with the price of fish?

Well, this book is a master’s masterpiece. It is profound and profoundly beautiful. It stands in relation to David Almond in something of the same relationship as The Stone Book Quartet does to Alan Garner. They are very different, of course, because the two writers are very different people. And very much the same, because the two are very much the same.

Why have I never read it until now? Sometimes a book finds you when you need it. This is a book to read when you are thirteen or fourteen, and wandering without quite knowing where you want to go.  But it is is book to read and re-read later too.  Every year?  Every month? Every day? Every day when the sky is grey. Every day when the yellow sun shines. (Which is every day.) 

Walk on.Walk on. . . . and don’t tread on the fairies.


Friday, 2 August 2019

The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle


Cover: Bill Bragg

‘It was always a storm.’  (p 194)

Now number two

I warmly welcomed the first in this series, The Storm Keeper’s Island, as one of the most original and exciting of recent children’s fantasies, and it easily made it onto my list of Children’s Books of the Year for 2018. (See posts from July and December, 2018.) 

This follow-up does not disappoint in any way. In fact, it builds most thrillingly on all the promise of its opener. Catherine Doyle most successfully combines four ingredients. Primarily her setting on the remote island of Arranmore off the Atlantic coast of Ireland has a completely authentic feel in terms of both landscape and people. The sea, which plays a prominent role in this story, is an ever powerful presence and the inhabitants who live under the influence of its bounty and its dangers, its waves and its storms, are a vividly drawn group of families. Credibly for such a small, isolated community they exhibit both longstanding loyalties and equally in-bred rivalries. Against these, the three friends, Fionn, Sam and Shelby, who are the book’s protagonists make for ready empathy and compulsive reading. Their various  interactions are not without humour too, and, in fact, Chapter 10, where the ‘Third Musketeer’ rejoins the other two after enforced absence on the mainland, is one of the most entertainingly amusing I have read for some time.

Storms and candles

Into this context the author has dropped  her own very original fantasy concept, where storms and other weathers are ‘caught’ in wax candles, which, when burned, transport the holder into different layers of Arranmore time. These phenomena, and other magical powers for the defence of the island, are in the control of the ‘Storm Keeper’, a role that in the previous volume fell to young Fionn These promising plot devices are mesmerisingly exploited in this sequel. To come up with original magic ideas for a new children’s book sequence is quite a feat, and Catherine Doyle’s candle magic is a triumph of invention, different, yet convincingly compelling. 

Under and around this, the author ties her tale in to the resonances of Ireland’s mythic heritage by building into her drama some of the legends and ancient beliefs of her location. This allows her to weave real richness and potent threat into her narrative and build it into a furiously exciting race to to thwart the forces of  ancient malevolence.

Irish English

In some ways most powerfully of all, Catherine Doyle continues to conjure all this through often startlingly skilful and evocative language, that thrills and excites sentence after glorious sentence.

‘Dionne and Shelby stepped over the old waterline, and the smell slammed into them. It was like opening an old can of tuna and drowning in that first, pungent whiff.’  (p 193)

What is it about Irish writers and the English language?

Magical potential

Perhaps less original, yet still important, within these inventions are embedded some of the rightly timeless themes of children’s literature: friendship, loyalty, courage, and, of course, the determination to save the world from unspeakable evil. Protagonist, Fionn, is discovering in himself a power (for magic) which he has not yet mastered, and this is a frustration that will chime pertinently with many pre-adolescents, even those whose burgeoning potential is not so overtly magical, 

So, what we end up with is the second part to a classic children’s fantasy adventure, moulded in the finest Alan Garner tradition, in that it draws heavily on particular place and its legends, yet refreshed in the fullest possible way, vibrant with new energy, vivid imagination and evocative language. After two such thrilling additions to the children’s fantasy canon, we can surely look forward with impatient confidence to a triumphant Part Three. The sky is already black with ravens!

Bill Bragg’s cover art is wonderfully dramatic too and will help attract numerous young readers to discover this storming read.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Fire Girl, Forest Boy by Chloe Daykin


‘Sometimes you have to pull the strings of your heart and go.’ (p 25)

The two before this one 

In a totally metaphorical (non-violent) way, Chloe Daykin’s debut novel Fish Boy took children’s fiction by the scruff of the neck, shook it until its teeth rattled and left its brain swimming. (That last bit is almost literal - kind of.) 

There are a lot of books around about kids with ‘issues’, and some of them are great, but none of them are anything like this one - and few are quite as special. This upstart author virtually invented a new style of writing children’s fiction (a sort of stream-of-consciousness-with-added-talking-mackerel). Her book is just devastating in language, concept, form and depth. (Is Chloe Daykin the James Joyce of  Middle Grade? Well, kind of.) It shows just how surreal reality is. It is, consequently, not the easiest of reading for children (although easier than James Joyce) but it is something close to the most rewarding. It sensitively shows us much about some of the other people who share our world, and consequently allows us to understand ourselves better.*

How can you resist writing like:
He looks at me like I’m crazy, Hurt. Like a cat that you’ve just offered a fruit pastel to.’ (p 35)

I have to admit that I was somewhat late discovering Fish Boy, much to my regret. However, if I had read it when it first came out in 2017, it would have been one of my Books of the Year, for sure.

Her second novel, The Boy Who Hit Play, came within a whisker of maintaining the same level of brilliance (always a huge ask) and developed her stunningly idiosyncratic style into something more of a road-trip adventure whilst retaining its focus on individual and family issues. She was still The Author Who Hit the Spot for hyper-imaginative insight into the thoughts, feelings and needs of touchingly human characters.

Even if just slightly in the shadow of her first, it is still a highly recommendable book. Oh, and its very funny too. And has accompanying music - kind of 



Covers: Richard Jones, David Dean

Now number three

Interestingly, her most recent book, Fire Girl, Forest Boy, manages to represent both a radical departure and a strong consistency in her writing.

The continuity comes from what I now think of as her trademark writing style, which still defines the new title and makes it unmistakable hers: short, sometimes very short, ‘chapters’; a use of the present tense that in her skilled hands feels totally credible; an ability to take you right inside the heads of her protagonists and share every thought and feeling with sometimes shattering intensity. In this new book, the narrative is shared between the girl and boy of the title, with their (generally) alternating perspectives enriching the telling immeasurably. Although cleverly very different, each is a strong and complex character, and readers will be able to identify strongly with both children - this author allows us to know and understand the two so well. 

Quirky language 

Then, through everything, Chloe Daykin threads a vibrancy and originality of language that can be quite breathtaking.

Iquitos is the city in the jungle. The furry piece of mould in a cracked piece of cheese.’ (p 34)

‘Memories creep out of the shadows and run out at me with their arms up.’ (p 88)

‘The silence feels like a visitor that comes in and sits with us. Hey, I’m silence. We don’t shake its hand. No one smiles at it.’ (p 98)

Both her language and her thought somehow manage to be quirkily original and at the same time tellingly universal.  Beneath her oddness lies truth that touches us deeply, even as it makes us laugh, puzzle or squirm. 

Same but different 

Where this new book represents a fairly radical departure from its predecessors is in the nature of the story itself. Whilst the earlier two novels treated primarily of individuals and their immediate families, Fire Girl, Forest Boy is passionately concerned with a major global issue, the deforestation of the Amazonian cloud forests, with its disastrous impact on both indigenous peoples and planet Earth itself.  This story develops into a full-blown rollercoaster adventure, with dastardly villains from corrupt corporations, and the two protagonists swept into a desperate mission to help the local ‘resistance’ prevent humanitarian and environmental disaster. Within this theme are layered the author’s more familiar, sensitive concerns for identity, family and friendship (‘Friendship is a kind of magic. Fragile and lovely.’, p 266) but her narrative canvas is essentially large scale. 

Again, it has to be said that using children’s fiction to explore rainforest issues has been done before, and done well, by other authors. Once more, though, it is the way that Chloe Daykin tells her story, and gets her message across, that makes this book so fresh, original and exciting. Her writing is littered with wonderfully evocative word-painting of both the jungle itself and the lives lived within it. But, over and beyond this, what makes her narrative so particularly distinctive is her introduction of a fantasy element. Amidst all the realistic action, against such credibly drawn backdrops, Fire Girl, Maya, develops the ability to conjure ‘creatures’ of light, entities of intense heat that can both devastate enemies, and guide the way towards discoveries.

Fantasy, but not as we usually know it

Although the term can be overused in fiction generally, it is perhaps helpful here to call Fire Girl, Forest Boy ‘Magical Realism’ for children. This is perhaps particularly appropriate since the origins of that genre and the setting of this story are both Latin American. Of course, there are many children’s books set in fantasy worlds and possibly even more where children pass through some form of portal from the real world into a fantasy one. However, I can think of few which introduce magic directly into an otherwise (disturbingly ) real world in quite the way that this book does. And I am certainly aware of none that does it as effectively and powerfully as this one. As in the best magical realism, Maya’s magic fire/light is both reality and symbol. It is spirit manifest; the spirit of the forest; the spirit of those who have sacrificed their lives in ‘the cause’; the spirit of Maya herself; the spirit of righteous anger, justice and truth. Take your pick. Possibly it is all of these. But, as it becomes more powerful in Maya’s life and in the climaxing narrative, it is a spirit that flares and glows with illuminating force.

It is delightful that, in deference to her young readership, Chloe Daykin balances the terrifying power of Maya’s light ‘creatures’ with friendly eyes and even chubby little arms. Nevertheless this will be a challenging read for those who expect their stories to be accessible, straightforward entertainment. But, for those who can take it (and we far too often underestimate the potential of children to respond to more sophisticated texts, consequently feeding them far too prosaic a fictional diet) it will be all the more rewarding. This is a powerful read in very many different ways.

Come December, Fire Girl, Forest Boy will get onto my Books of the Year for sure. Moreover, I ask those responsible for more significant accolades and awards to, please, pile them on. This author has now proved herself to be one of our finest contemporary children’s writers.

An adventure awaits

These three books together provide a most wonderful adventure into the potential of children’s fiction, and demonstrate just  how fully it can deserve to be called children’s literature. At its best, it is possible for it to to be both hugely entertaining and highly stimulating. It can be thrillingly original in concept, language and form and add immeasurably to young readers’ understanding of themselves, of others and of their world. It can challenge, stretch and grow young minds at the same time as engaging and delighting them. And Chloe Daykin shows just how.

If our children are able to create a better world in the future, and I am optimistic that they might, then books like these could well have helped them.

‘With time we can change the future.’ (p 271)

Stunning artwork 

Extra accolades too, please, for David Lichfield’s glowingly wonderful cover. What an author/illustrator he is. (Picture book enthusiasts look out for Lights on Cotton Rock this September. And if you don’t know The Bear and the Piano, well . . . )





Note:
* After all,  e e  cummings did write,  ‘It’s always ourselves that we find in the sea,’  in his poem ‘Maggie and Millie and Mollie and May’.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Unexpected Find by Toby Ibbotson


Cover: Matt Saunders

In the Valley of the Quest one must change one’s state.’ (p 251)

Mother’s son

I do not generally think it is right or fair to identify an individual primarily in relation to their more famous parent. However, since Tony Ibbotson seems to have moved into writing specifically by following up the legacy of his mother Eva, it is perhaps at least partly justified here. 

The late Eva Ibbotson’s is certainly a name to conjure both affection and admiration from those interested in children’s literature - and indeed from countless young readers too. After her death, her son, Toby, helped to edit what was to become her final, posthumous title The Abominables.  He subsequently ‘wrote up’ a book idea his mother and he had shared before her death, and it became the delightful Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2014). Spooky comedy was one of Eva Ibbotson trademark genres, in deservedly popular modern classics like Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13*, and her son’s affectionate follow-up caught her style and spirit quite brilliantly, creating a truly enchanting read as well as a most fitting tribute. 

Unexpected and certainly a find 

Now Toby Ibbotson has finally written a children’s novel of his own, and in doing so shown himself to be an outstanding author in his own right. The Unexpected Find is exactly that, as a book as well as a title, and it is every bit as exciting as it is unexpected: a most intriguing and original amalgam of genres. 

On the one hand it is a compelling, exploration of the circumstances of two highly credible contemporary children, each, in different ways, neglected. Judy has been inexplicably abandoned by her single parent father, and at the start of the book is living alone on a canal boat, trying desperately to avoid being taken into care. William, a boy who appears to be on the autistic spectrum, is abused by his single parent mother, and escapes into a fascination with collecting objects from the past. A huge storm brings them together and starts what turns into a journey to the far north of Sweden in search of Judy’s missing father. This is actually where author Toby Ibbotson now lives, and the location and its lifestyle are quite wonderfully conjured. Joining these two in very dramatic and captivating adventure are a cast of evocatively drawn, if sometimes more enigmatic characters.

Nordic roots

Central to these is Mr Balderson, a strange old man who is first discovered sleeping in a coffin. He could perhaps be a Gandalf or a Merlin. However, here, with his strong Nordic associations, one eye, and a proclivity to wander, he suggests something more of an Odin/Wotan figure. There is also an ancient key found below a ‘lightning tree’, which hints towards Yggdrasil, the World Ash. There are other treasures, too, that could as easily belong to mythology as they do to our own world’s ancient past. This is not to mention Aristeas, the shamanic wanderer in the far North, here transformed into a camper van! And all are associated with ravens! What are we to make of all that?

The upshot is a very rich contemporary story, set largely in a landscape remote to the experience of most UK readers, but with residual earth-memories of the mythic, the metaphysical; a quest of classic fantasy providing a subtle metaphor, beneath a wild adventure, within a realistic narrative. And all of this is most compellingly evoked through wonderful language and effective multi-perspective storytelling. Empathetic characters, Nordic life and landscape, exciting adventure and encroaching myth. What more could you want? It works just beautifully, and I hope this will be the first of a number of books that continue to prove Toby Ibbotson is his mother’s son - but very much his own writer too. 



*She also wrote some superb adventure stories, like Journey to the River Sea.

Monday, 29 July 2019

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, newly illustrated by Chris Mould



Classic

The Iron Man is truly one of the all-time classics of children’s literature. I am generally no advocate of proscribed books for children, but this is one that I really would not wish any child to leave primary school without having encountered, at least read to them, if not read for themselves. Not only is it utterly special, and seminal, in both story and language, but it is also the ideal introduction to an author whose poetry I sincerely hope many will go on to explore and enjoy. Ted Hughes’ children’s poetry collections show just what high levels of word-craft, what resonance of meaning and what depths of emotion are possible, whilst still maintaining accessibility for young readers/listeners. Even some of his more adult poetry can speak rewardingly to a surprisingly young audience. He is a rare writer who can add immeasurably to our intellectual and visceral experience of being alive in our world. (Incidentally, I consider his book Poetry in the Making to be essential reading for all teachers of writing, alongside works by Sandy Brownjohn and Jill Pirrie - seek them out if you possibly can.)

Classic plus

Now The Iron Man has been revived for new generations of children in a ravishing new edition with quite stunning illustrations by Chris Mould. His imaginative interpretation of Ted Hughes’ text augments the original in ways I would scarcely have thought possible, at once true to the tone and spirit of the story, whilst adding further levels of gripping engagement, drama, humour, pathos and sheer, exuberant artistry. Layout, line and colour are all masterly and the whole is completely irresistible. To have taken an existing masterpiece and added to it so extensively is an act of sheer brilliance for which we should all be grateful. Those who do not know Ted Hughes’ story should rush to access this version and even those who already know and treasure the original will find that Chris Mould has added more than enough to make this edition highly desirable for them too. I would put this new book into the same category as Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words, in that no KS2 classroom should be without it - nor many homes too. 

Classic double plus

For those who hurry, and know where to go, signed, stamped copies are also available, not to mention loads of lovely promotional goodies too. Chris Mould’s social media accounts will lead you to them.



Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Curse of the School Rabbit by Judith Kerr



Pink Rabbit

I do not usually review books for a children’s audience as young as this one’s (6-8 say?), but a final, posthumous publication from the pen (and pencil) of Judith Kerr, who died earlier this year, aged 95, is such a milestone in the history of children’s literature, that I cannot let it pass.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a thankfully irrepressible classic of children’s picture books, and some of the best of her many Mog titles are not far behind, with Judith Kerr’s  own illustrations every bit as charming as her stories. For me though, it is her longer novels, capturing in fiction the essence of her own experiences during and after fleeing Nazi Germany, that are her finest achievement of all. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is not simply one of the best children’s book titles ever, but the story itself, has much the same qualities. Both encapsulate the power and poignancy of a child’s perspective on a period of our recent history that it is terrible to remember but vital never to forget. She devastatingly succeeds in capturing both the inhumanity and the humanity to be found in those traumatic times, without ever straying too far from what is accessible to a young readership. This is something that only a very small group of highly distinguished children’s authors have ever done.(Amongst these are John Boyne, Morris Gleitzmzn, Ursula Dubosarsky, Lois Lowry, Robert Westall and, more recently, Hillary McKay.)  Because of this, I rate her book, and, to an only slightly lesser degree its two sequels, as amongst the all time great works of children’s literature.



School rabbit

So I very much wanted her last book to be something special. And, in its own way, it is. This school rabbit may not be a literary rival to her much earlier pink one, but this new book is is a story with Judith Kerr’s wonderful, kindly, funny, charming, and oh-so-humane spirit suffused through every page. Although never stated, the tale, and particularly the author’s own captivating pencil illustrations, have a feel of the 1950s about them. And this is an old-fashioned story, in more than its setting, but then, when the writer, a survivor of the Holocaust days, is well over ninety years old,  I think she has a right to be old-fashioned, cozy. Her simple tale of a young child’s home life disrupted by the addition of Snowflake, the creature of the title, comprises a series of delightfully entertaining episodes. The said rabbit, on sabbatical from the classroom and ensconced instead in Tommy’s back garden, has a habit of causing minor mayhem, and peeing over people, with the former in fact often closely related to the latter. Judith Kerr  has a magical ability to capture many truths about children’s lives, hopes and fears, not in any terribly profound sense, but rather in terms of the quotidian domestic concerns which are actually the things that effect children most, and mean most to them. It is a rare talent, but one that I think she shared with another contemporary of hers, Shirley Hughes. The Curse of the School Rabbit is a story that I know my daughter would have loved, at the appropriate age. It is one that countless young children will enjoy now, and it is one that will be loved long into the future. The choice of front cover picture is perfect; it captures so much about the story inside. Those pink, caught-in-the-headlight eyes are so simply drawn but convey so much delightfully engaging and amusing expression. 

Treasure

The description ‘national treasure’ can be overused, but Judith Kerr was, and is, a treasure amongst children’s authors and illustrators. As the subtitle of the book below (published at the time of her ninetieth birthday) states, we must celebrate her life and work. The best way of doing that is to share her wonderful books with new generations of children, who will continue to find comfort there. Yes, they also need to be challenged by what our world has since become, and what it still should be. But sometimes old-fashioned is just what they need.


Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell



‘Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it is not escapism: it is findism. Children’s books are not a hiding place, they are a seeking place.’ (p 62)

Words to the wise 

Whilst I am on the subject of Katherine Rundell I cannot neglect mentioning this little book. Actually it is not so much a book per se as a published essay, so it is is a quick easy read, and strongly recommended for all adults, but particularly parents or carers and most especially teachers.

I have on numerous occasion advocated that one of the most important things teachers can do to help establish a reading community in their classes and schools is to read children’s books themselves. Only knowing children’s books well, and from personal reading experience, can teachers truly choose, read aloud, talk about and and recommend books to encourage reading for pleasure by their pupils. I also go on to say that any such  reading will prove to be a personal pleasure not a  professional chore, for the best children’s books have a great deal to offer to adult readers too.

Now Katherine Rundell explains why this is so with eloquence and infectious passion.  She also enunciates wonderfully why writing books for children is not any sort of inferior literary undertaking. Hooray to  that I say, as I humbly hope that many of my posts on this blog demonstrate,

Her contribution to this wonderful and vital cause is a true little gem. Read it. Read it. Read it . . . And then do as she suggests. 

‘Plunge yourself soul-forward into a children’s book: see if you do not find in them an unexpected alchemy . . . Refuse unflinchingly to be embarrassed: and in exchange you get the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.’ (p 62-3)

Friday, 21 June 2019

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell


Cover: Anna Morrison

‘New York waited outside the window, stretching up to the sky like the calligraphy of a particularly flamboyant god.’ (p 8)

A sizzling start

Philip Pullman is quoted as saying, ‘(Katherine) Rundell is now inarguably in the first rank.’ I would not even think of arguing. 

A book that on page one includes the deliciously quotable quote, ‘It is not always sensible to be sensible,’ grabs attention immediately. Then you don’t need to read many pages of this, her new novel, to realise that you are in the hands of a very fine writer - and promised an absolute treat of a read. 

Vita, the young protagonist of The Good Thieves, is a dead shot with hand-thrown missiles; pebble or penknife, she can hit any target with astonishing accuracy. Katherine Rundell hurls amazingly fresh language at the page with the same deadly accuracy, and so hits the thoughts behind her words with telling vividness. There is true wit in this writing and a modest but sharp intelligence, as well as a joyful play with the potential of our language. Yet nothing is either portentous or pretentious. It makes her book spark with thrilling electricity page after page. 

‘Is selfastonishment a word? Because if not, I need it to be one now.’ (p 187)

New York, New York

However, that is not all that makes this novel so captivating. It does not take the author long to propel her characters, and with them her readers, into one of the most exciting and compelling storylines I have encountered for quite some time. This is like the greatest heist movies novelised for children.

Part of the engagement comes from a superbly evoked setting of early twentieth-century New York. Here are the newly-built skyscrapers and the gridlines of bustling avenues, Grand Central Station and The Public Library, street vendors  and gangsters, prohibition and rampant capitalism, hotels for tycoons and the slums of the Bowery. It is all viscerally exciting and so vividly conjured as to enable the reader to experience the presence of the city in every episode. This feeling is also greatly enhanced by Matt Saunders’ wonderful chapter head drawings, themselves brilliantly evocative of both place and period. Amongst many gems, I particularly thrilled at his image of Central Park, which magically conveys a sense of space and calm amidst the turmoil of the never-sleeping metropolis.



Characters to die for, and live for 

Yet even more than its setting, it is this story’s young characters who bring it leaping off the page and into the minds and hearts of it readers. What a varied, original and engaging  bunch they are: Silk, an orphaned pickpocket; Arkady, an ‘animal-whisperer’ from an indoor circus (temporarily housed in Carnegie Hall, no less); Samuel, a black boy with aspirations to ‘fly’ a trapeze (or indeed anything from which he can swing); and Vita, an an English girl with a club foot, newly arrived in New York. She should by rights feel lost, but far from it, for she arrives  with a clear mission burning through every ounce of her being. Remarkably too, in a story about thievery that could carry a questionable morality, these young protagonists each bring a rectitude that not only balances the story firmly in favour of goodness but  also resonates strongly with important issues of our own times. Silk, hates the way poverty has forced her into dishonesty and desperately wants escape from her present life; Arcady despises the way his circus humiliates and tortures wonderful wild creatures, and seeks rather enlightened appreciation of the wonders of the animal world; Samuel bravely strives to fulfil his ambition despite being continually told that such paths are closed to those with his colour of skin; and, most of all, Vita is driven by deep love to do whatever is needed to right the terrible wrongs perpetrated on her grieving grandfather. 

‘Love has a way of leaving people no choice.’ (p 8) 

And even then, she makes choices that will not seriously hurt even those she hates:

‘To throw the knife would be death. . . She wanted nothing to do with death - nothing to do with finality, with endings, with the dark of it. She hated the man more than she hated any living thing, but he was living.’ (p 275)

Vita’s is a story for all who want to change the world for the better, whoever they are. It shouts loudly and clearly that those who may seem to have been given a raw deal in life, can actually achieve wonderful things.

More than . . .

This is the sort of book that I know I would  myself have enjoyed as a child, an all-absorbing, edge of the seat adventure, with a wonderful warm, resolution to make me feel that there was at least a part of life where everything was ‘all right’. It is just the sort of book that helped me survive the cross-country run that I loathed, the maths homework that I got all wrong, the ‘big boys’ who threw my school cap into the bushes. And that is no small thing. 

But no book that I read back then (probably a Malcolm Saville or a Geoffrey Trease) was anywhere near so well written as this, so rich in language and thought. And that is a big thing too.

Katherine Rundell’s story is full of warmth and wisdom:

‘Learn as much as you can, for learning is the very opposite of death.’ (p 16)

It embodies a  deep respect for life and a passionate belief in the potential of (young) human beings:

It is a book to inspire as well as to entertain royally. Today’s readers are incredibly fortunate to have such a writer. 



US Edition


Thursday, 20 June 2019

The House of Light by Julia Green


Cover: Helen Crawford-White

‘The sea never stopped. Wave after wave after wave, day and night, from since time began until time ended. Granada’s words came to her again. ‘Create a better world.’ That’s what they had to do now.’ (p 185)

Mastery of Children’s Writing 

I doubt it is possible to teach someone to be a fine writer. But it seems that it is possible to provide the opportunity to learn to be one. When I explore the background of contemporary children’s writers who particularly excite me, association with one of two writing courses seems to crop up with remarkable regularity. Both opportunities offer Masters in Writing for Children, although the two are located on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One is based at Hamline University in the USA, the other at Bath Spa University here in the UK, and each of them must be doing something very right to be growing so many wonderful children’s authors. 

Perhaps, though,  it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bath Spa course helps so many fine writers to flourish, because its leader, Julia Green, is herself one of our finest contemporary children’s novelist. I greatly admired her last book To the Edge of the World (post April ‘19) but now I find her latest is even better. Her books appear uncomplicated, compared to those of many other children’s writers, and this one is no exception. Her language seems simple, with often short, telling sentences. Her narrative is straightforward and compact, although no less gripping for that. Her few characters are strongly and clearly drawn, with transparent thoughts and feelings. Her themes are lucid. Yet every word of her writing epitomises the ‘art that conceals art’. She can make her little say infinitely more that many other writer’s effusions.

Rowing to the light

The world of The House of Light is essentially classic dystopian, similar to that created by many other writers already, but Julia Green has no need to build her context through detailed exposition. Rather it is skilfully and subtly conjured through the lives of her protagonist Bonnie and the aging grandfather who had brought her up alone. Their subsistence living, gleaning a near-starvation diet from land and shore, together with the persistent  intimidating intrusion of over-regulation from ‘border guards’ is enough to paint a picture. Similarly the discovery of a small rowing boat and Ish, the ‘refugee’ boy to whom it belongs, are sufficient to prompt a terrifyingly audacious escape to a better life. The trio of girl, grandfather and boy fetch up on a tiny island with a long-abandoned lighthouse and there life moves on, as it inevitably must. The author’s handling of events is sensitive and compassionate, fully reflecting the maturing feelings of its young protagonists. The island and its house of light, bring them closer, too, to the wild, free beauty of nature. And that is also a wonderful thing. Julia Green’s images are potent, her descriptions vividly evocative. We come to know her characters simply but intimately - and to care about them deeply, even passionately.  So that when Bonnie and Ish eventually leave the island and launch themselves further into the unknown they carry us with them every oar-stroke of the way.

Hugely simple

Ultimately this is a book that needs to take its place with other children’s classics about escaping oppression and captivity: Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Morris Gleitzman’s Once, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Sonya Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo. And it will. It is a title to bring consolation to any children who are coming to terms with the loss of a loved grandparent, as many will inevitably have to. It is a novel to embolden all who seek a better life, in any form. It is a simple song, but it is is huge in its simplicity. It is a hymn to the untameable, terrifying but uplifting beauty of our world. It is an anthem of freedom and the indomitably of the human spirit. It is for our time and all time. It is simply a wonderful book, a book of light.


The cover by Helen Crawford-White captures the elements of the story and their deep simplicity beautifully.