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.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Invisible in a Bright Light by Sally Gardner


Cover: Helen Crawford-White

‘Time turns on a wave; the tide changes; the clock resets.’ (p 322)

(Un) Usually strange

This book is an intriguingly strange mixture of genres, but then it was written by Sally Gardner, who has been writing books that are an intriguingly strange mixture of genres even since her triumphant debut into children’s fiction with the wonderful I, Coriander, in 2015. Since then she has proved herself one of our most imaginative and engaging authors in a string of excellent titles. All are well worth seeking out by bookish young readers, who will be enthralled on many different levels. Often her books mix history and magic in a way that purist historians  may disapprove, but open-minded children will relish at the same time as they learn much. They are magical realism of a kind, I suppose, but very much of their own kind. I doubt few children will actually confuse their elements of fantasy with past reality. One of my absolute favourites of her books, though, Maggot Moon, is slightly different in its genre, being one of the most effective (and moving)  dystopian adventures that I know for younger readers.

Wrapped in mystery

Invisible in a Bright Light is every bit as much of an enigma as its title suggests. Insofar as it is a story about children who live in and around a nineteenth century opera house, it could be a tale from the pen of Eva Ibbotson in her more romantic vein (as opposed to her comic one), or even that of Noel Streatfeild. It has an inhibited girl who discovers a great talent, a diva mother, cruelly jealous of her own daughter’s flowering artistry, an admired little dancer, a kind-hearted boy who helps create scenery, and an avuncular, if rather enigmatic clown - all very endearing, with no lack of emotional tug. It could be such a tale, that is, if it did not exist within the framework of a horrifying  life-and-death game run by a disquieting undersea guardian of hook-suspended, seemingly-drowned corpses. It is nightmare stuff that could almost come from the likes of Stephen King. 

In the juxtaposition of these two disparate elements abide many mysteries. There is a huge galleon-shaped chandelier that crashes disastrously without obvious cause; there is a ship at sea found inexplicably bereft of any human life (it is not without significance, perhaps, that two of its principle young characters are called Maria and Celeste); there are unfolding memories of a part life different from the one being lived, and objects that prompt those recollections; a miraculous ability for a young girl to radiate intense light. Woven through everything are pervading issues of both reality and identity. Is the action of the story dream or reality, present or past, life or game? Or perhaps it is just a play acted out for a toy theatre? Is Celeste really Maria, or was she in the past? Can she ever find herself, or her lost family? The intrigue of it all pulls the reader irresistibly through a truly enchanting, if sometimes chilly, narrative.

Truth in fantasy

I love children’s authors who feed the imagination of readers with their own rich imaginings, and Sally Gardner is one such. Despite her darknesses, in the end she promulgates wholesome values; she is a writer with heart. Many children, now and in the future, will find in her writing the same courage and hope that she conjures in her character, Celeste. 

‘You shone so bright with the truth, with the ferociousness of love, no monster could face that and live.’  (p 326)

Saturday, 7 December 2019

My Books of the Year 2019


Reader of children’s books since 1953

The best of the best

December has come around again, so here are my highlights from another year’s meandering through the delights of children’s fiction. I have enjoyed enormously all the books I have reviewed on this blog over the past twelve months (I never write about books unless I can wholeheartedly recommend them) but these are the very best of the best. Of course, my reading choices are very much influenced by personal taste, together with a good deal of chance as to what fate and opportunity happen to have put my way. I am sure that there will be many wonderful books I have missed, or simply not yet discovered. Regardless, the titles that are here made an outstanding impression on me, and confirm, yet again, the breathtaking quality of literature  currently available for readers between about 9 and14.

First class sequels

This year has seen the arrival of a number of follow-ups to books that I hugely enjoyed. To be honest, sequels can sometimes be a bit of a let down, especially when they have been eagerly awaited, but not so any of these. Every jot of anticipation was delightfully fulfilled, and even exceeded.


Piers Torday is developing as a very special link between children’s classics and the best of contemporary writing. Together with others such as Michael Morpurgo and Cressida Cowell, he does much of enormous value to promote children’s reading, both within and beyond his books. He would, in fact, be my nomination for the next Children’s Laureate. His homage to C.S.Lewis, The Lost Magician (review Aug ‘18), was far more than mere pastiche, a fine work of fantasy in its own right. Now its sequel, The Frozen Sea, lives up to that auspicious start quite wonderfully. It is magical, in every sense, and a book-lovers delight.

The Train to Impossible Places by P.G.Bell (review Nov ‘18) was one of the best examples of children’s entertainment reading that I have come across in a long time. Its sequel, The Great Brian Robbery is no less so. It has just about everything: humour, excitement, wild imagination, delightful characters - and trains. It is a real portmanteau of everything children will love in a zany, escapist fantasy.

Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island (review July ‘18) is a children’s fantasy that stands in a line of  succession stretching back to the likes of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper - and it is a totally worthy successor to those illustrious predecessors. The recent sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors retains, and indeed exceeds, all the same wondrous qualities. It has  a rootedness in place and the grounding resonances of traditional story and myth, whilst still adding new layers of wonderfully fecund imagination. This is a developing sequence of exceptional quality.

I found The Shadow Cipher, the first volume in Laura Ruby’s York sequence (review Jan ‘18) to be an astonishing delight in so many ways.This quirky mystery adventure is a totally intriguing read, brought alive by a quite devastatingly entertaining, and diverse, cast of characters, not least its young protagonists. The sequel, York: The Clockwork Ghost  now continues and extends the saga with huge originality and breathtaking writerly skill. UK readers should not be put off by the US cultural context of this series; its pervasive humanity and its compelling narrative involvement are universal.

Stand out stand-alones

Much as I love sequels, sequences and sets, my most outstanding reads of all this year happen to have been stand-alone stories. They are also, in their various ways, very challenging books. None of them are easy reads:  some are difficult to handle emotionally; some involve  difficult themes and ideas; some are difficult structurally; and some are all of these. They are, in fact, superb examples of when children’s books become children’s literature. It is, of course, important for young readers to have access to books that provide amusement, entertainment and diversion. It is equally important, though, that they experience books which take them further; books which can help them grow as people and as citizens of the world; books which can perhaps encourage and support them in making that world a better place.

Donna Harraway, in her introduction to the brilliant The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K Le Guin (published by Ignota, 2019) says: ‘Storytelling might well be fundamental to organising and promoting cooperation in human evolution.’ 

These books contain storytelling of exactly that mind-expanding, life-enhancing, humanity-evolving kind. It is no good expecting them to be easy.



Christopher Edge has recently written a number of brilliant children’s books using engaging story to explore some of the most difficult concepts of recent physics. Now with The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (review May ‘19) he has produced a gripping, puzzling, surprising novel which approaches metaphysics in its exploration of time itself. It is a book for those who want children to think big thoughts, and live big lives. It says to us all: 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)

Chloe Daykin is an author who tells wonderful, and important stories, often making accessible to young readers sophisticated narrative forms more usually associated with adult fiction. In doing so she offers up to them early glimpses of the rich possibilities that fiction has to offer.  Fire Girl, Forest Boy (review July ‘19) introduces a version of magical realism as a way of exploring  both environmental and character issues. It is a book that expands experience and engenders empathy, yet it succeeds in being an engrossing adventure at the same time. Her writing is a joy. Her rich gifts to children are invaluable, and given without any hint of patronising. 

Rarely have I encountered a children’s book that deals so sensitively with illness and loss of a much-loved sibling as Karen Foxlee’s Lenny’s Book of Everything (review March ‘19). One of Australia’s leading contemporary children’s authors, she had written other outstanding books too. This one actually came out in Australia last year, but since it was only published here (in paperback) this year, I feel justified in including it. Its very moving story involves a young girl living alongside a brother with the unusual condition of gigantism. However the book’s profound understanding and acceptance easily translate into sensitivity towards all who are unavoidably different. It, therefore, has much to say to all children. It is harrowing, but equally charming, amusing and beautiful - and not to be missed. 

Anne Ursu is one of my favourite US children’s authors, and, I think, one of the greatest, Her book The Lost Girl (review March ‘19) introduces twin girl characters, almost identical in looks but very different in who they are, in a story that encompasses both the real and the fantastic. It explores in depth questions of identity, of truth and illusion, of individuality and of group solidarity. It is a deeply feminist book, but it is far more too.  It is not a comfortable book. It is one to read and then return to. It is full of enigmatic images. Its story, like life, holds some of its secrets close, to be pondered, to be teased at, even to worm their way into a reader’s dreams. This is a novel that is both riveting and revelatory, from a writer of breathtaking skill and imagination.

Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season (review June ‘19) treats bravely with two subjects that have too long been taboo in children’s fiction, mental illness and same-sex relationships. It deals with them openly and honestly, yet it also deals with them with great sensitivity, in a way that to me seems totally appropriate for young readers. It also explores the life and experience of a child thrust into the role of carer, a situation that some readers will know well, and others need to understand better. Those who have experienced something similar to the life this author so touchingly evokes will find comfort and hope in seeing themselves here. Those who don’t will learn much. It is a story brim full of life, music, art, love, sadness, beauty - and humanity.

Although Frances Hardinge began her rightly acclaimed writing career with delightfully quirky fantasies, she has more recently turned to deep, dark fiction with a quasi-historical setting. Now she returns to fantasy with Deeplight (review Dec ‘19). However, here she conjures a world from her wildly idiosyncratic imagination with much of the same depth and complexity as in its award-winning predecessors.  This is a novel of rich ideas and multiple themes. It challenges and confronts, as well as entertaining magnificently. More than anything, though, it is a story about the power and potential of stories: stories true and untrue; stories invented and inherited; stories believed and doubted; stories that save and stories that kill. It says that stories are what we are, and make us what we are. And it is not wrong. 

My Book of the Year

In previous years, I have not singled out an overall favourite, but this time one novel made such an outstanding impression on me that it begs for this title.


Cover: David Litchfield

Last summer, I read right through all the principal novels of David Almond in writing order, and I have to say it was one of my finest reading experiences ever. There is so much more to this author that Skellig, remarkable  book though it is, and in my view he ranks with the likes of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin as the truly great writers of (children’s) fiction in English. His latest novel The Colour of the Sun (review Aug ‘19) is the quintessence of his writing, with a theme he returns to often, that of the relationship between identity and place. This short novel’s superficially simple writing belies layers of richly resonant imagery and meaning. It explores a lifetime of experience and growth through one day’s there-and-back-again ramble. It is quite simply a masterpiece.

And now . . . My Publisher of the Year



I have never before nominated a Publisher of the Year, but feel the need to do so now. Children’s titles created by BAME writers and books with lead BAME characters are becoming just slightly more in evidence - but still far too slowly. What Knights Of are so strongly contributing in this is therefore warmly to be welcomed and should be supported with conviction. Their work to place into the mainstream of UK children’s publishing outstanding  writers like Jason Reynolds (see my review of Ghost, June ‘18) and popular adventures like The High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson (review April ‘19) is a wonderful thing. These fine books are of inestimable importance both for children who are of BAM ethnicity and for those who aren’t. They provide high quality reading experience with vital implicit messages about the value of all individuals within our wonderful, diverse society and need proudly to be present on classroom shelves in every school in the country. We who are passionate about children’s reading should shout out, at every opportunity, for Knights Of, and for all writers and publishers who are providing children with positive images of diversity and inclusion.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge


Illustrations: Aitch

‘Stories were ruthless creatures, and sometimes fattened themselves on bloody happenings.’ (p 8)

From fantasy to history (of sorts) . . .

Frances Hardinge describes her own books as ‘odd’, and it is hard to disagree with this. However they are odd in a good way, a very special way. Her oddness is that of a striking fecundity of imagination, often devastatingly original. Her early books were an absolute joy of fantasy invention, and her first, Fly by Night, remains one of the true treasures of speculative fiction for young readers. She followed this with several other fantasy gems, but more lately her novels have left the realms of ‘high’ fantasy, and delved more into history, although with significant elements of what could be supernatural thrown in. Her stories have also grow darker with time, and their orientation towards, perhaps, slightly older readers. They  have culminated in what I consider two masterpieces of contemporary literature, The Lie Tree (the recent hardback re-issue, wonderfully illustrated by Chris Riddell, is well worth looking out for), and A Skinful of Shadows (see my review, posted Oct. ‘17), which was one of my Books of the Year in 2017.

. . . and back to fantasy

Now her most recent novel, Deeplight, returns to a context of pure fantasy, and does so with all the panache, all the wild, idiosyncratic imagination of her early forays into this genre. The naming of things, characters, places, and perhaps, especially, gods, has always been one of her many delights; no less so here, where the defunct sea-monster gods that inhabited a stratum of breathable water below (!) the bottom of the conventional ocean, are a triumph of both evocative nomenclature and highlights of highly original world/myth building. Diving and scavenging for ‘godware’, remnants of these defunct deities, has become a major activity for the entrepreneurs of Myriad, the multi-island geography she conjures, be they the impoverished child equivalents of Thames mudlarks, or the viciously completing gangs of submarine pirates.

Deeps with depth

As might be expected from Frances Hardinge, she conjures yet another new world of fascinating and highly entertaining, not to say astonishing, oddness. And yet this latest novel of hers is not altogether a return to the style or feel of her earliest book. Rather it retains a great deal of the darkness, complexity and thought-provoking disruption of ‘normality’ that were dominant characteristics of her more recent literary triumphs. This story is deep and disturbing in more than its oceanography. It has more layers than its physics-defying waters. It is a book with many themes, and plumbs ideas associated with our creation of and need for ‘superstitious’ religion, with priesthoods, with cults and with science. It equally treats of phobias; of true and false friendship and how they arise, and are destroyed; of belonging and dislocation; of roots and nationalism; of the ties of family, actual and developed. It is as rich in though-provoking themes as it is in vivid, quirky imagination. Although not as rib-tickling as, say, Fly By Night, it is not without touches of wry sharpness either. For example it is drily said of the former sea-creature gods: ‘What’s the point of a god you can pickle?’ (p 243)

Signs of empathy

There is something further, too, that makes this book particularly special. Its fictional surmise is that the amount of extremely deep diving that many inhabitants undertake causes profound hearing loss. This means that a number of its characters are deaf, including a young girl protagonist. The book therefore explores communication through both sign language and lip-reading, together with some of their inherent difficulties, not as an ‘issue’, rather as a given and ‘normal’ aspect of life. That deaf characters are included and accepted in this way will both provide a rare point of identification for children with similar characteristics and allow hearing children valuable insights. It is a story that carries important messages about empathy, diversity and inclusion.

Story story

And one of the most remarkable things of all about Deeplight is that, at the same time as being a profound novel of ideas, it also succeeds in being a totally engrossing and exciting story, a thrilling rollercoaster of a read. Don’t miss it. This one too is headed straight for inclusion in my Books of the Year.



‘Stories, stories. He had always been a storyteller of sorts . . . Now other people’s stories were the treasures he prized. He was a storykeeper for gods and heroes. . . You could keep people alive forever through stories.’ (p 434)

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper in new editions introduced by Robert Macfarlane


New cover illustrations by Joe McLaren

Stunning new editions 

I am just thrilled to see these beautiful new editions of Susan Cooper’s deserved classic, the Dark is Rising sequence, released by Puffin. They should bring a whole new readership to these wonderful books - and our children’s reading experience (and very possibly their lives) will be hugely the richer as a result. 

Prelude

The first of the set, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written well before the others, and its earlier genesis does show, although it is still an important development in children’s literature, and well worth reading. It provides a valuable prelude to what follows.

The dark days of Midwinter

Susan Cooper really hit her stride, however, with the book that now gives its title to the whole series,  The Dark is Rising. This is one of the very greatest works of children’s fantasy fiction, and a very fine piece of literature at any level. With its narrative spanning just a short period of days from Midwinter’s  Eve to Twelfth Night, it is perhaps the apotheosis of a child’s stand against the forces of the ‘Dark’. It also draws on the resonances of British landscape and folk myth more sensitively and yet more powerfully than almost any book I know.

. . . and beyond 

The series subsequently develops into a quite devastatingly memorable fantasy sequence. Overall, it is truly a story for all time, which very much deserves a presence in our own.

New contributions from two other greats

There are also two very particular reasons for seeking out these new editions. Firstly, the sequence is introduced, at the start of each book, by Robert Macfarlane, a brilliant writer, who is fast becoming the Merlin/Gandalf (Merriman?) for our contemporary world. He conveys his love of, and admiration for, these books most tellingly, and his illuminating introduction is unmissable for any aficionado of children’s literature, as well as for more general readers. No less an attraction are Joe McLaren’s striking new cover illustrations which brilliantly capture the distinct character and energy of each book, whilst still subtly tying them together as a set. Both new additions bring these titles vibrantly into our own time, and a wonderful thing that is.

For now . . . and the future

The Dark is Rising sequence needs to be discovered by as many new young readers as possible, not to mention any older ones who have not yet read these stunning books. They are not one jot less accessible, powerfully thrilling or rewarding than when they first came out fifty or so years ago. I hope these reissues will also prompt revisits from many old friends too, for these are books which amply reward multiple re-readings.

Robert Macfarlane reminds us in his introduction that, ‘The dark is always rising, and the work of the greatest stories is to hold it back.’  Few books succeed better in this than these from Susan Cooper. Long, long may they continue to help hold back the dark.

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 pages 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’.