‘Fairytales are always wrong. If you want to be truly brave, listen to your heart - then ignore it.’ (p 261)
Fresh as a . . .
I love my reading to be steeped in the tropes of traditional fantasy. Yet, perhaps because I read so many children’s books, I quickly lose interest with those who simply re-churn the same jaded characters and scenarios. So it is a real pleasure to welcome to the canon of children’s fiction a debut writer whose novel is as fresh and lively as Samuel J Halpin’s.
. . . fairytale?
Of course, modern children’s novels drawing on much older fairy stories are many, some good, some less so. But this author does manage to pull off a very original and entertaining take on them, capturing much of the potency of the genre whilst still producing something as surprising, and indeed shocking, as the originals must have been in their day. That he also manages to be quirkily funny, spookily scary and warmly touching at the same time is a considerable bonus. If the book reminded me of anything at all, it was of Adam Gidwitz’ delightful series A Tale Dark and Grimm. However, whereas those books draw much more directly on the stories of the famous German brothers, Samuel Halpin is far more eclectic in his references and does not simply dress older tales in redesigned clothes but weaves some of their powerful elements into a richly hued bolt of his very own stuff.
Zany but not vacuous
After an intriguing, if disquieting, opening, which certainly grabs from the offset, the author drops protagonist Poppy, and her new friend Erasmus, into a world with names, characters and and scenarios that are rib-tickling in their childish wackiness. We seem almost to be in a crazy, cartoonish world, and this is beautifully caught in Hannah Peck’s highly entertaining illustrations. Yet the text itself has an underlying wit and wry intelligence that distinguishes it from many simply populist comedy titles.
Very then, but very now
Even more remarkable is that, in and amongst all this, are to be found some very real children’s issues, together with sensitive and touching treatment of them: the loss of a parent in tragic circumstances, a boy ‘on the autistic spectrum’, social ostracism and the declining health of a much loved grandparent. In many contexts this intermingling of comedic fantasy and stark reality would feel uncomfortable or incongruous. But here the author pulls it off brilliantly. Each element provides a most effective counterfoil to the other - and is the source of more welcome humour too.
‘There weren’t many scenarios in life when your friends’ lives depended on speaking to a catfish.’ (p 280)
Into the woods
From a little way into the story, our protagonists ‘enter the woods’ and the tale takes on a much darker tone, sometimes even a rather frightening one. But then, of course, this was always an integral element of most original fairytales too. The narrative also becomes grippingly exciting with no few twists and turns. It is quality writing in terms of both its language and its plotting, and the payoff is an excellent read.
A place on a fine shelf
This is a very clever piece of work. It has much that will immediately appeal to its young readership (echoed in its design and presentation by the publisher). Yet it also envelops much that is richly thoughtful in its humanity. It is a book about valuing others, looking beyond the superficial, and thus about acceptance and inclusion as much as it is about silly names and scary excitement.
In the end, this new novel rates justified comparison with other books that cleverly explore children’s issues by slipping into fantasy. It deserves to be shelved alongside fine works such as Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and Piers Torday’s There May Be a Castle. That is not to say it is in any way derivative. It is its own unique and very entertaining book.
At one point the contents of Erasmus’s mind are described as:
‘humming with a sweetness known only to bees, peppered with the fire of stars, moulded by the wisdom of an ancient library, twisted with the cunning of snakes and the loneliness of the twisted shadow.’ (p 314)
This could almost be a distillation of Samuel J. Halpin’s startling and delicious new novel itself.