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, 31 March 2019

The House witn Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson



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

Late to the party

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

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

Old Russian tales 

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

Narrative power

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

Life not death

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

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

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

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

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

Justly lauded

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


US edition

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

Monday, 25 March 2019

Storm Hound by Claire Fayers



Accessible delight

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

Landscape and legend

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

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

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

Reality too

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

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

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

A storm of a story 

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

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

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

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

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

And satire too?

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



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

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

  

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


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

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

A marvellous boy and a magical girl 

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

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

A (very) big little brother

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

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

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

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

Burrell’s Build-at-Home Encyclopaedia

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

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

Breathtaking language

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

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

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

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

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

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

The voice of the child

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

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

Spinning towards the inevitable 

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

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

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

‘Holy Batman!’ Indeed

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

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



original cover

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu



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

Amazing Americans

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

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

An amazing opener

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

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

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

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

Amazing twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing girls

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson



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

Serendipity 

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

Laughter through tears 

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

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

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

Complexity beneath simplicity

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

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

Books teach too

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

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

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

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

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

. . . teachers or days - or books. 



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