Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Monday, 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.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby


Cover art by David Litchfield

‘Dark, angry purples and greys swirled in the sky as the rain poured down and met the ocean, which churned in shades of dark blue. . . It was like staring at a living Van Gogh painting. Fig walked to the edge of the boardwalk, squinting, wanting to see the impasto in those waves, the brushstrokes in the clouds.’ (p 237)

Educating for diversity 

I stand resolutely with the many parents, carers and other educators who believe we have a responsibility to help children grow as tolerant members of an inclusive society, happily accepting differences in background, ethnicity and sexuality as welcome aspects of a richly varied society. Our duty of care must include doing all we can to counter the influence of the stereotypes and prejudices that still blight that our current society. And if we cannot yet bequeath our children a completely better world, then we must at least open for them the possibility of building their own.

The books children read can provide one important route into developing an inclusive outlook. It has been said before that the best stories act as both mirror and window. They allow many children to see themselves there, and this can be a crucially supportive experience, particularly if they feel, or have been made to feel, different and inferior. To find, in a book, others just like them, presented in a positive light, is often both comforting and encouraging, helping to restore a positive self-image. Similarly children can learn, through fiction, to empathise with and come to accept people that they might otherwise have thought of as  different; to realise that differences are not to be feared but celebrated; to understand that ‘normal’ can and should be a wonderfully diverse concept.

Few better examples 

It is in this spirit, that I recommend US author Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season in the strongest possible terms. And yet I am able to recommend it not simply because it presents single-sex relationships, between females and between males, as a very positive  aspect of normal life, which it certainly does, but because it is a truly outstanding piece of children’s fiction on any count.

Hurricane Season is in many ways a truly beautiful book. It is beautifully conceived and written, beautiful in its cultural resonances, and deeply beautiful in its humanity. It is also a very harrowing read. But then it is one of those stories that, once you have read it, you are profoundly thankful that you did. In fact, it is not essentially about single-sex relationships, but about living with someone with mental illness. And that makes it even more important and special because children’s books like this one, bringing sensitivity and compassion to our  relationship with those suffering from mental health issues, are as rare as hen’s teeth. This is an inclusion issue for our society that shamefully lags behind even other deserving causes. 

Those we love, loved

Fig, the book’s vividly realised protagonist, lives with her single parent father, whose life is being devastated by a form of bipolar disorder. She loves him desperately and wants to help and support him despite her childish lack of understanding of what is going on. She lives in constant fear of them being separated by the social services to whom the case had already been notified by well-intentioned outsiders, and this permeates what are otherwise the normal, early adolescent concerns of an eleven year old schoolgirl. One of the very remarkable and powerful things about the novel is that the situation is always shared with readers through the thoughts and perceptions of Fig herself. Through this we come fully to experience the way her desperation to understand her father battles with her resentment at being shut out from his life. We learn about her situation, not through cold objectivity, but by sharing in an utter confusion and impotence, that is nevertheless permeated by deep love.

When Fig’s father, in due course, finds himself in a loving relationship with another man, Fig is initially resentful but works towards the realisation that this it is, in fact, helping all of them to move forward. As the partnership grows towards providing a new feeling of family for Fig, its positive role in making all their lives better is another of the book’s wonderfully integrated messages. That the author achieves this in a way totally accessible to her young audience makes it even more remarkable.

Hurricanes and starry nights

I have yet to mention, though, another of this novel’s greatest triumph, one that in my mind unreservedly elevates it into the category of fine children’s literature, and this is the way that iterative images and cultural parallels are woven through the narrative with consummate skill. First, there  is the theme of weather, particularly storms - the hurricane season of the title - which forms a powerful background of both actuality and metaphors to the turbulence of the tale. Even more striking, though, are the recurrent references to Van Gogh, his work, life, letters and, perhaps especially, his relationship to his brother Theo. These occur not only directly in Fig’s thinking about herself and her father, but subliminally too in chapter titles and other subtle references. It is all quite magically handled by this remarkable author.   

Complementing the story wonderfully, David Litchfield’s lovely cover illustration is to be warmly commended for cleverly referencing the Van Gogh connection, whilst still creating an image that captures the book’s unique feeling, and its accessibility to a children’s audience.



Some other strong recommendations 

I have recently enjoyed many other very fine books that incidentally introduce same-sex relationships in the way I think they should for children; that is, not as an issue, but as a perfectly normal aspect of a diverse society. Amongst special favourites are Piers Torday’s moving There May Be a Castle (reviewed here  Dec ‘16), The Marvels from the brilliant Brian Selznick (review July ‘15) and two delightful children’s books from Room author Emma Donoghue, The Lotterys Plus One (Review April ‘18) and its sequel, The Lotterys More or Less.     

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo



‘I tell Aggie about things I’ve never seen, places I’ve never been. I know them, though, somewhere deep in my bones. . . Like some long-ago bird whispered stars to my heart, made clouds scuttle through my veins. . . I know what it is to fly.’ (p 29/30)

Different voices 

A children’s fiction woven from the strands of three very different voices excites my interest immediately.  When the three are as distinct, innovative, and downright entertaining as they are in Cory Leonardo’s novel then I positively fizz with readerly excitement. Where else would you meet in the same book a poetry-writing parrot with considerable attitude, a lonely boy obsessed with the terminology of medical conditions, and an elderly woman much given to dancing and wearing a red feather boa (*1)? This book pushes the boundaries of children’s fiction in the kind of wonderful ways that thrills and delights me.

The titular Alastair, the book’s principal narrator, somehow manages to be a parrot of considerable charm despite, or perhaps because of, his distinctly curmudgeonly nature. (‘I’m not depressed. I’m anti-social.’ p 197) He can also be very funny indeed. Generally speaking, I am no great fan of anthropomorphic animals, and certainly not the kind who walk on rear legs and wear cute clothing. However, Alastair does not really fit in to that category, being more akin to Richard Adams’ rabbits. That is to say he can express and explain himself in human language, and even consideres himself ‘half-human’, but his behaviours remain essentially those of the caged African Grey that he is. He has learned to love classic poetry, and other information, through the act of tearing up and consuming the pages of various books, most notably Norton’s Anthology (*2) . He has even thereby developed a talent for composing both clever pastiches and original pieces. It is a learning strategy that I am sure many a teacher will dearly wish could be applied by their students. However, it achieves happy credibility in this context through the classic willing suspension of disbelief.

Prosody aside, pet-shop born Alastair has two principal redeeming features, a deep love of his fledgling sister, Aggie, and an instinctive yearning to fly free, with which I am sure we all identify, wingless status notwithstanding. 

Interspersed  with the parrot’s  own narration are those of two characters destined to become an integral part of his story: Fritz, a twelve year old boy who works part time in the pet shop, and Albertina Plopky, a feisty old woman, its sometime customer (of sorts). The contribution from Fritz, a would-be doctor, takes the form of his ‘Official Medical Log Book’, whilst Mrs Plopky writes letters to her husband, Everett. Part of the joy of the book is how well these three voices are brought to life, and it is particularly interesting to find an adult perspective as as significant, even if subsidiary, element of a children’s book. 

Hilarity and thoughtfulness 

However, for all the shenanigans of the parrot siblings, as sale items and subsequent purchases - and they are many and delightful - the novel has a rich, deep and indeed very touching theme running through it. Between the squawks and skirmishes seeps out affecting pathos. Underneath, this is a story about attachment and loss. Moreover, it is all the more touching as its emotive power creeps up on you subtly, a gradual awakening to the pain that all three of the book’s protagonists struggle to live through. Central is Alastair’s devotion to his sister Aggie, and his subsequent, devastating separation from her. However, this is echoed in many other heartaches of enforced separation and bereavement, human and animal.  It is a moving  novel, exploring the kind of  very real pain that touches all of us, or will do at some point in life. 

It is a book with a rich subtext. Much is implied rather than stated. Its full appreciation requires inference and deduction as well as literal reading, and, because of this, it is a wonderful gift to young readers. How refreshing that this clever author does not write down to her young audience, but leads them into the richness of understanding by degrees.

The power of poetry

Call Me Alastair is also a paean to the power and potency of poetry. The author’s many literary references are amongst its greatest delights. And if it focuses largely on American literature, then no matter, for its subjects are largely those writers who also loom large on the world stage. You don’t have to know something of classic poetry to enjoy this book, but it certainly adds an extra frisson if you do. And I love the unpatronising stance of that too. Amidst other delicious entertainments, the  parrot’s  pastiche of Jabberwocky is pure joy, not to mention the subsequent explanatory conversation between a cat and a goldfish. You have to read it. And perhaps the poetic references will even prompt a little exploration of the originals by some of its young readers. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

A gift of a book

Were I still teaching upper KS2, then this is just the kind of book that I would choose to read aloud, discuss and hope to enthuse my class about. It is one that would provide stretch and challenge, helping to open young mind to the full potential of fiction, whilst still amusing and entertaining them hugely.

Cory Leonardo puts these words into a the mouth (or perhaps I should say the beak) of Alastair himself:

‘The unexpected creeps up on you. One moment it’s silent in the shadows. . . and the next it explodes on the stage. . . You can’t predict where lightning will strike - or when a goldfish will explain your poetry with perfect clarity. Life is weird. Unexpected. Surprising .’ (p 220)

She could well be describing her own book. It is weird (in a good way), unexpected and  surprising. It is original and clever. It is is hilarious and touching. 

The art of flying

Throughout the book Alastair is prevented from flying free not only by clipped feathers, but by a broken wing that has never truly healed. The wing is actually as much the point as the feathers.  Feathers can grow, if we don’t, like Alastair, continually pull them out. Other things are part of who we are, and we just have to learn to live with them. But perhaps we can fly anyway.  

It’s not just wings you need to fly.’ (p 30)

If the conclusion of this tale seems to verge on the sentimental, well, that’s because the simple truths in life often do. Sentiment is not always such a bad thing, and being simple doesn’t stop them from being true.

‘Love is where you find it.’ 

This is a book that will help young readers to fly. It is a simple art.



Published in US as The Simple Art of Flying


*Notes:
1. In this instance, not a ‘red hat which doesn’t go’ (Jenny Joseph), although the intention is much the same.
2. A classic American anthology of poetry.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge


Cover: Matt Saunders/Joel Holland

‘What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’
T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets 


Albie Bright, Jamie Drake, Maisie Day, and now Charlie Noon

When modern physics reaches for its boundaries, for the unimaginable vastness of astrophysics, and the equally unimaginable minuteness of quantum physics, it seems to encircle a globe of understanding from the two different directions and meet in much the same place. Of course, this place is not unimaginable at all, or else human understanding would never have reached it. Imagination is how it is reached, and the edge of comprehension is where it lies. It is indubitably a place of some of the most complex and challenging thinking in all science. 

Yet, it is this very realm of ideas that Christopher Edge has sought to bring to children - and has done so quite superbly in his set (*1) of recent books. He has done it so well, and so importantly, because he has done it through the medium that children can often understand best, the medium of story. He knows that story can bring subliminal, intuitive assimilation, even where explicit intellectual understanding is beyond reach. He has made himself the thrilling master of such books. And now he has added another mind-bogglingly brilliant novel to this set. 

A Night in the Woods

This time his subject matter is the concept of time itself. Consequently, if this novel feels a little distinct in quality from the earlier three, it is because it is as much about metaphysics as it is about physics. It is as much about the thinking of T.S. Eliot as that of Albert Einstein, as much about the fiction of Penelope Lively or Alan Garner as about the science of Steven Hawking or Carlo Rovelli. Rather, perhaps, it is about the meeting of minds of all of these and more (*2).What Christopher Edge has so skilfully created is science and philosophy, poetry and mysticism - for young minds. It is quite an achievement. I can only say little of the much he has created. You must read it for yourself, and, more importantly, so must our children. 

A great deal happens to Charlie Noon during this longest night, and the story has many layers, many levels. It takes place in the Wild Wood. It is the Wild Wood of Kenneth Graham (*3), the wood of imagination, of story. It is also the Wildwood of Roger Deakin (*4), the ancient woodland of Nature. Perhaps these two woods are ultimately much the same, the wood in which we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. They exist in time, and out of time, in past and future, eternally present. 

Time present

Christopher Edge, has consistently made more literary sense than most of narrating in the first person present tense. Here, it is particularly germane in a story about time that is always present. Think of the author , in his crafting of this book, as much akin to a stage magician. He is tricking you with clever sleight of hand. (Perhaps here we should call it ‘sleight of pen’.) As with the magician, it does not matter that you know that he is tricking you, he will fool you anyway. He is immensely clever at misdirection. Once you see what he has done, you will kick yourself for not getting it earlier. You will realise that the clues were there all along - small, subtle, but there. You should have known, but you didn’t. That is how clever he is.  But his meaning is in his trick.  It was never what you thought. You could never see from where you were standing. He had to fool you to get you to see. You had to lose yourself in the Wild Wood in order to find the answer. The way forwards was the way back. Much of the clue to the story is in code, and that is important too. Once again, when you have cracked the code, you will think you knew how to read it all along. But of course you didn’t. And I am certainly not going to tell you now. It must remain an enigma. I will not give away the conjuror’s secrets. Where would the magic be then?

Dawn chorus

However, if you think all of this exploration of abstruse ideas sounds dry and intellectual, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Christopher Edge’s great talent is to be able to explore his challenging themes through dramatic and very human narrative. This story of three children lost overnight in a wood is compelling; by turns, funny, frightening, affecting and shocking. His characters are as vivid and real as their experiences are fantastic and bewildering. Again, sorry, no secrets.  All I will say is that it ends well, or, at least, has the potential to do so. Dawn follows the long night, and the new day is wonderfully in tune with the natural world, quite literally. 

‘Another bird starts to sing and another and another and another. Whistles and warbles, chirrups and tweets; flurries of notes falling like rain inside my brain. The sound seems to be coming from all around, every bird singing at once, their melodies twisting and twining until my mind is filled with an ocean of song.’  (p 174-5)

The final message of this story is one of the most crucial for our children. And that makes this a very important book, as well as an entertaining, puzzling, thrilling and challenging one. It is a book for those who want children to think big thoughts, and live big lives. It says to us all, those who are children, or have been, or will be:

You can’t stop what’s coming, but you can help to shape it into something better. . . . The actions you take will change the world.’  (p 170/171)





*Notes:
(1) The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, The Jamie Drake Equation and The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day. These books are stand-alone stories, not a sequence, but are linked by their ability to explore  difficult scientific concepts through engaging narrative. 
(2) Christopher Edge helpfully lists many of his sources/inspirations under his ‘Acknowledgments’ at the back of the book.
(3) The Wind in the Willows, 1908
(4) Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, 2007

Sunday, 26 May 2019

In the Shadow of Heroes by Nicholas Bowling


Illustration: Erica Williams

‘Even the heroes wept. They loved, and they lost. Indeed, it was their loving and their losing that made their stories worth the telling.’ (p 371)

Bewitching precedent

Although his first, hugely enjoyable, novel Witchborn had a strong and, in many aspects, authentic historical setting in Elizabethan England, it was essentially an entertaining YA fantasy adventure, often witty, but  with witchcraft bringing in elements of dark magic too.

His second novel for young readers, In the Shadow of Heroes, initially seems even closer to being a historical novel as such. Whilst clearly a fictional story, it is grounded firmly in the locations, events, beliefs and culture of a particular place and time. In fact Nicholas Bowling, a specialist in Greek and Latin himself, seems very much at home in the Roman world that is so integral to his narrative. His depiction comes across as authentic in detail as well as in broad background. He recreates the ethos of the ancient world quite wonderfully, and its atmosphere, by turns chilling and intoxicating,  is endlessly fascinating. In many ways this is very scholarly writing  (even Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ gets a notable revival), but the author wears his erudition lightly. His conjuring of a long-past world is highly evocative without ever being didactic, educational in the very best sense, and hugely entertaining with it. This is helped in no small part by language that is richly descriptive, but never heavily cloying. 

History red in tooth and claw

At the heart of this story, as with so many of the best, are its characters - and quite wonderfully rich, vivid creations they are. Intelligent young slave, Cadmus, makes a fine protagonist. Supposedly found abandoned by a benevolent master, he has been educated far beyond his status and makes a sensitive and observant guide to his world, yet with enough flaws and foibles to make him readily empathetic. It is however, Tog, his frequent companion in adventure, who, for me, is the book’s most compelling creation. A runaway slave, her taciturn personality resides within a physical frame of mind-boggling stature and strength, that renders her eventual revelation as the offspring of a Celtic British warrior chief completely credible. In, quite rightly, ensuring that his tale features a strong female protagonist, to equal (or excel) his male ‘hero’, Nicholas Bowling has moved about as far away from the simpering princess as it is possible to get. And good on him. 

Subsidiary characters are wonderfully drawn too, peopling Ancient Rome with the rich mix of the ordinary and the grotesque, the humble and the arrogant, the sympathetic and the downright chilling. They both bring his story to life and give it compelling power. They even include a megalomaniac and delusional Nero, whose portrait here, popular history tells us, may not be too far from the truth. The cruelty and violence of his time live and lurk behind the whole novel, but so too, in the telling of it, do the sensibilities of our own age

The story is not, in fact, confined to Ancient Rome itself, but ranges widely across the ancient map, embracing Athens  and indeed the shores of a Roman Britain as well. Yet the real strength and greatest interest of the book lies in the way that it draws not only upon the actuality of this ancient world, but on its storytelling too. 

 Myth lives on

Deep into the fabric of this narrative are woven the myths of the ancient world, principally those recorded by Apollonius of Rhodes in the Argonautica, tales of Jason and his companions who sailed on the Argo in quest of the Golden Fleece. Particularly pertinent is the character of Medea, Jason’s later abandoned helpmate and wife. 

What makes the book most particularly remarkable, though, is the way that remnants of this myth gradually impinge on ‘reality’, intrude into history and the lives of  Nicholas Bowling’s characters. The self-claimed descendants of the heroes, the Heroidai, make an appearance as, indeed does the Argo itself. Wreck of an ancient relic that  it has become, it is patched back into service, almost taking on a life of its own. 

‘The heroidai were concealed completely in (the Argo’s) shadow, giving the impression that it was being drawn to the sea of its own accord. On either side, trailing back up to the forest, it left a bow-wave of swirling yellow dust.’  (p 249)

This is an Act of Medea played out long after Euripides’ version has ended. I suppose it could be thought of as a history mystery. Not so much  ‘mystery’ in the later  Blytonesque sense of  The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat, but in the far older sense of the York or Wakefield Mysteries, masked actors, perhaps, reinvigorating the myths of belief amidst the daily lives of their times. This adds another rich dimension to the story and gives the title an extra frisson of meaning. It is delicious, original  stuff, and very clever writing to boot; the perfect spell for conjuring an imaginative past from the dust of history. It builds a world whose own stories and beliefs mingle with reality in its fictional present, just as they must have in its actual past. It credits young readers with the  ability to understand the distinction, and the lack of distinction, between them - and rightly so. 

A future for the past

As well as everything else, this is a cracking story that surprises at times, shocks at others, and keeps the reader guessing to the end. The final door to Cadmus’ future is left open. So are we simply to imagine for him a life of further adventures, or is this author going to provide us with them? If a further instalment is to be of the quality of this firstthen I sincerely hope it is the latter.

This highly entertaining ancient history adventure has protagonists of around fourteen, and therefore seems aimed at younger teens. I am sure that any who want to escape for a while from the realities of the present will revel in the mysteries of its superbly recreated world. However, I suspect that many avid younger readers, of nine or ten plus, will lap it up too.


Friday, 17 May 2019

Anna at War by Helen Peters


Cover: Daniela Terrazzini

‘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.