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.

Friday, 21 June 2019

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Cover: Anna Morrison

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

A sizzling start

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

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

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

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

New York, New York

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

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

Characters to die for, and live for 

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

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

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

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

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

More than . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Edition

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The House of Light by Julia Green

Cover: Helen Crawford-White

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

Mastery of Children’s Writing 

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

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

Rowing to the light

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

Hugely simple

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

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

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby

Cover art by David Litchfield

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

Educating for diversity 

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

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

Few better examples 

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

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

Those we love, loved

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

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

Hurricanes and starry nights

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

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

Some other strong recommendations 

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

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

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

Different voices 

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

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

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

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

Hilarity and thoughtfulness 

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

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

The power of poetry

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

A gift of a book

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

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

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

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

The art of flying

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

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

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

‘Love is where you find it.’ 

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

Published in US as The Simple Art of Flying

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