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.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Fire Girl, Forest Boy by Chloe Daykin


‘Sometimes you have to pull the strings of your heart and go.’ (p 25)

The two before this one 

In a totally metaphorical (non-violent) way, Chloe Daykin’s debut novel Fish Boy took children’s fiction by the scruff of the neck, shook it until its teeth rattled and left its brain swimming. (That last bit is almost literal - kind of.) 

There are a lot of books around about kids with ‘issues’, and some of them are great, but none of them are anything like this one - and few are quite as special. This upstart author virtually invented a new style of writing children’s fiction (a sort of stream-of-consciousness-with-added-talking-mackerel). Her book is just devastating in language, concept, form and depth. (Is Chloe Daykin the James Joyce of  Middle Grade? Well, kind of.) It shows just how surreal reality is. It is, consequently, not the easiest of reading for children (although easier than James Joyce) but it is something close to the most rewarding. It sensitively shows us much about some of the other people who share our world, and consequently allows us to understand ourselves better.*

How can you resist writing like:
He looks at me like I’m crazy, Hurt. Like a cat that you’ve just offered a fruit pastel to.’ (p 35)

I have to admit that I was somewhat late discovering Fish Boy, much to my regret. However, if I had read it when it first came out in 2017, it would have been one of my Books of the Year, for sure.

Her second novel, The Boy Who Hit Play, came within a whisker of maintaining the same level of brilliance (always a huge ask) and developed her stunningly idiosyncratic style into something more of a road-trip adventure whilst retaining its focus on individual and family issues. She was still The Author Who Hit the Spot for hyper-imaginative insight into the thoughts, feelings and needs of touchingly human characters.

Even if just slightly in the shadow of her first, it is still a highly recommendable book. Oh, and its very funny too. And has accompanying music - kind of 



Covers: Richard Jones, David Dean

Now number three

Interestingly, her most recent book, Fire Girl, Forest Boy, manages to represent both a radical departure and a strong consistency in her writing.

The continuity comes from what I now think of as her trademark writing style, which still defines the new title and makes it unmistakable hers: short, sometimes very short, ‘chapters’; a use of the present tense that in her skilled hands feels totally credible; an ability to take you right inside the heads of her protagonists and share every thought and feeling with sometimes shattering intensity. In this new book, the narrative is shared between the girl and boy of the title, with their (generally) alternating perspectives enriching the telling immeasurably. Although cleverly very different, each is a strong and complex character, and readers will be able to identify strongly with both children - this author allows us to know and understand the two so well. 

Quirky language 

Then, through everything, Chloe Daykin threads a vibrancy and originality of language that can be quite breathtaking.

Iquitos is the city in the jungle. The furry piece of mould in a cracked piece of cheese.’ (p 34)

‘Memories creep out of the shadows and run out at me with their arms up.’ (p 88)

‘The silence feels like a visitor that comes in and sits with us. Hey, I’m silence. We don’t shake its hand. No one smiles at it.’ (p 98)

Both her language and her thought somehow manage to be quirkily original and at the same time tellingly universal.  Beneath her oddness lies truth that touches us deeply, even as it makes us laugh, puzzle or squirm. 

Same but different 

Where this new book represents a fairly radical departure from its predecessors is in the nature of the story itself. Whilst the earlier two novels treated primarily of individuals and their immediate families, Fire Girl, Forest Boy is passionately concerned with a major global issue, the deforestation of the Amazonian cloud forests, with its disastrous impact on both indigenous peoples and planet Earth itself.  This story develops into a full-blown rollercoaster adventure, with dastardly villains from corrupt corporations, and the two protagonists swept into a desperate mission to help the local ‘resistance’ prevent humanitarian and environmental disaster. Within this theme are layered the author’s more familiar, sensitive concerns for identity, family and friendship (‘Friendship is a kind of magic. Fragile and lovely.’, p 266) but her narrative canvas is essentially large scale. 

Again, it has to be said that using children’s fiction to explore rainforest issues has been done before, and done well, by other authors. Once more, though, it is the way that Chloe Daykin tells her story, and gets her message across, that makes this book so fresh, original and exciting. Her writing is littered with wonderfully evocative word-painting of both the jungle itself and the lives lived within it. But, over and beyond this, what makes her narrative so particularly distinctive is her introduction of a fantasy element. Amidst all the realistic action, against such credibly drawn backdrops, Fire Girl, Maya, develops the ability to conjure ‘creatures’ of light, entities of intense heat that can both devastate enemies, and guide the way towards discoveries.

Fantasy, but not as we usually know it

Although the term can be overused in fiction generally, it is perhaps helpful here to call Fire Girl, Forest Boy ‘Magical Realism’ for children. This is perhaps particularly appropriate since the origins of that genre and the setting of this story are both Latin American. Of course, there are many children’s books set in fantasy worlds and possibly even more where children pass through some form of portal from the real world into a fantasy one. However, I can think of few which introduce magic directly into an otherwise (disturbingly ) real world in quite the way that this book does. And I am certainly aware of none that does it as effectively and powerfully as this one. As in the best magical realism, Maya’s magic fire/light is both reality and symbol. It is spirit manifest; the spirit of the forest; the spirit of those who have sacrificed their lives in ‘the cause’; the spirit of Maya herself; the spirit of righteous anger, justice and truth. Take your pick. Possibly it is all of these. But, as it becomes more powerful in Maya’s life and in the climaxing narrative, it is a spirit that flares and glows with illuminating force.

It is delightful that, in deference to her young readership, Chloe Daykin balances the terrifying power of Maya’s light ‘creatures’ with friendly eyes and even chubby little arms. Nevertheless this will be a challenging read for those who expect their stories to be accessible, straightforward entertainment. But, for those who can take it (and we far too often underestimate the potential of children to respond to more sophisticated texts, consequently feeding them far too prosaic a fictional diet) it will be all the more rewarding. This is a powerful read in very many different ways.

Come December, Fire Girl, Forest Boy will get onto my Books of the Year for sure. Moreover, I ask those responsible for more significant accolades and awards to, please, pile them on. This author has now proved herself to be one of our finest contemporary children’s writers.

An adventure awaits

These three books together provide a most wonderful adventure into the potential of children’s fiction, and demonstrate just  how fully it can deserve to be called children’s literature. At its best, it is possible for it to to be both hugely entertaining and highly stimulating. It can be thrillingly original in concept, language and form and add immeasurably to young readers’ understanding of themselves, of others and of their world. It can challenge, stretch and grow young minds at the same time as engaging and delighting them. And Chloe Daykin shows just how.

If our children are able to create a better world in the future, and I am optimistic that they might, then books like these could well have helped them.

‘With time we can change the future.’ (p 271)

Stunning artwork 

Extra accolades too, please, for David Lichfield’s glowingly wonderful cover. What an author/illustrator he is. (Picture book enthusiasts look out for Lights on Cotton Rock this September. And if you don’t know The Bear and the Piano, well . . . )





Note:
* After all,  e e  cummings did write,  ‘It’s always ourselves that we find in the sea,’  in his poem ‘Maggie and Millie and Mollie and May’.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Unexpected Find by Toby Ibbotson


Cover: Matt Saunders

In the Valley of the Quest one must change one’s state.’ (p 251)

Mother’s son

I do not generally think it is right or fair to identify an individual primarily in relation to their more famous parent. However, since Tony Ibbotson seems to have moved into writing specifically by following up the legacy of his mother Eva, it is perhaps at least partly justified here. 

The late Eva Ibbotson’s is certainly a name to conjure both affection and admiration from those interested in children’s literature - and indeed from countless young readers too. After her death, her son, Toby, helped to edit what was to become her final, posthumous title The Abominables.  He subsequently ‘wrote up’ a book idea his mother and he had shared before her death, and it became the delightful Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2014). Spooky comedy was one of Eva Ibbotson trademark genres, in deservedly popular modern classics like Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13*, and her son’s affectionate follow-up caught her style and spirit quite brilliantly, creating a truly enchanting read as well as a most fitting tribute. 

Unexpected and certainly a find 

Now Toby Ibbotson has finally written a children’s novel of his own, and in doing so shown himself to be an outstanding author in his own right. The Unexpected Find is exactly that, as a book as well as a title, and it is every bit as exciting as it is unexpected: a most intriguing and original amalgam of genres. 

On the one hand it is a compelling, exploration of the circumstances of two highly credible contemporary children, each, in different ways, neglected. Judy has been inexplicably abandoned by her single parent father, and at the start of the book is living alone on a canal boat, trying desperately to avoid being taken into care. William, a boy who appears to be on the autistic spectrum, is abused by his single parent mother, and escapes into a fascination with collecting objects from the past. A huge storm brings them together and starts what turns into a journey to the far north of Sweden in search of Judy’s missing father. This is actually where author Toby Ibbotson now lives, and the location and its lifestyle are quite wonderfully conjured. Joining these two in very dramatic and captivating adventure are a cast of evocatively drawn, if sometimes more enigmatic characters.

Nordic roots

Central to these is Mr Balderson, a strange old man who is first discovered sleeping in a coffin. He could perhaps be a Gandalf or a Merlin. However, here, with his strong Nordic associations, one eye, and a proclivity to wander, he suggests something more of an Odin/Wotan figure. There is also an ancient key found below a ‘lightning tree’, which hints towards Yggdrasil, the World Ash. There are other treasures, too, that could as easily belong to mythology as they do to our own world’s ancient past. This is not to mention Aristeas, the shamanic wanderer in the far North, here transformed into a camper van! And all are associated with ravens! What are we to make of all that?

The upshot is a very rich contemporary story, set largely in a landscape remote to the experience of most UK readers, but with residual earth-memories of the mythic, the metaphysical; a quest of classic fantasy providing a subtle metaphor, beneath a wild adventure, within a realistic narrative. And all of this is most compellingly evoked through wonderful language and effective multi-perspective storytelling. Empathetic characters, Nordic life and landscape, exciting adventure and encroaching myth. What more could you want? It works just beautifully, and I hope this will be the first of a number of books that continue to prove Toby Ibbotson is his mother’s son - but very much his own writer too. 



*She also wrote some superb adventure stories, like Journey to the River Sea.

Monday, 29 July 2019

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, newly illustrated by Chris Mould



Classic

The Iron Man is truly one of the all-time classics of children’s literature. I am generally no advocate of proscribed books for children, but this is one that I really would not wish any child to leave primary school without having encountered, at least read to them, if not read for themselves. Not only is it utterly special, and seminal, in both story and language, but it is also the ideal introduction to an author whose poetry I sincerely hope many will go on to explore and enjoy. Ted Hughes’ children’s poetry collections show just what high levels of word-craft, what resonance of meaning and what depths of emotion are possible, whilst still maintaining accessibility for young readers/listeners. Even some of his more adult poetry can speak rewardingly to a surprisingly young audience. He is a rare writer who can add immeasurably to our intellectual and visceral experience of being alive in our world. (Incidentally, I consider his book Poetry in the Making to be essential reading for all teachers of writing, alongside works by Sandy Brownjohn and Jill Pirrie - seek them out if you possibly can.)

Classic plus

Now The Iron Man has been revived for new generations of children in a ravishing new edition with quite stunning illustrations by Chris Mould. His imaginative interpretation of Ted Hughes’ text augments the original in ways I would scarcely have thought possible, at once true to the tone and spirit of the story, whilst adding further levels of gripping engagement, drama, humour, pathos and sheer, exuberant artistry. Layout, line and colour are all masterly and the whole is completely irresistible. To have taken an existing masterpiece and added to it so extensively is an act of sheer brilliance for which we should all be grateful. Those who do not know Ted Hughes’ story should rush to access this version and even those who already know and treasure the original will find that Chris Mould has added more than enough to make this edition highly desirable for them too. I would put this new book into the same category as Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words, in that no KS2 classroom should be without it - nor many homes too. 

Classic double plus

For those who hurry, and know where to go, signed, stamped copies are also available, not to mention loads of lovely promotional goodies too. Chris Mould’s social media accounts will lead you to them.



Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Curse of the School Rabbit by Judith Kerr



Pink Rabbit

I do not usually review books for a children’s audience as young as this one’s (6-8 say?), but a final, posthumous publication from the pen (and pencil) of Judith Kerr, who died earlier this year, aged 95, is such a milestone in the history of children’s literature, that I cannot let it pass.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a thankfully irrepressible classic of children’s picture books, and some of the best of her many Mog titles are not far behind, with Judith Kerr’s  own illustrations every bit as charming as her stories. For me though, it is her longer novels, capturing in fiction the essence of her own experiences during and after fleeing Nazi Germany, that are her finest achievement of all. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is not simply one of the best children’s book titles ever, but the story itself, has much the same qualities. Both encapsulate the power and poignancy of a child’s perspective on a period of our recent history that it is terrible to remember but vital never to forget. She devastatingly succeeds in capturing both the inhumanity and the humanity to be found in those traumatic times, without ever straying too far from what is accessible to a young readership. This is something that only a very small group of highly distinguished children’s authors have ever done.(Amongst these are John Boyne, Morris Gleitzmzn, Ursula Dubosarsky, Lois Lowry, Robert Westall and, more recently, Hillary McKay.)  Because of this, I rate her book, and, to an only slightly lesser degree its two sequels, as amongst the all time great works of children’s literature.



School rabbit

So I very much wanted her last book to be something special. And, in its own way, it is. This school rabbit may not be a literary rival to her much earlier pink one, but this new book is is a story with Judith Kerr’s wonderful, kindly, funny, charming, and oh-so-humane spirit suffused through every page. Although never stated, the tale, and particularly the author’s own captivating pencil illustrations, have a feel of the 1950s about them. And this is an old-fashioned story, in more than its setting, but then, when the writer, a survivor of the Holocaust days, is well over ninety years old,  I think she has a right to be old-fashioned, cozy. Her simple tale of a young child’s home life disrupted by the addition of Snowflake, the creature of the title, comprises a series of delightfully entertaining episodes. The said rabbit, on sabbatical from the classroom and ensconced instead in Tommy’s back garden, has a habit of causing minor mayhem, and peeing over people, with the former in fact often closely related to the latter. Judith Kerr  has a magical ability to capture many truths about children’s lives, hopes and fears, not in any terribly profound sense, but rather in terms of the quotidian domestic concerns which are actually the things that effect children most, and mean most to them. It is a rare talent, but one that I think she shared with another contemporary of hers, Shirley Hughes. The Curse of the School Rabbit is a story that I know my daughter would have loved, at the appropriate age. It is one that countless young children will enjoy now, and it is one that will be loved long into the future. The choice of front cover picture is perfect; it captures so much about the story inside. Those pink, caught-in-the-headlight eyes are so simply drawn but convey so much delightfully engaging and amusing expression. 

Treasure

The description ‘national treasure’ can be overused, but Judith Kerr was, and is, a treasure amongst children’s authors and illustrators. As the subtitle of the book below (published at the time of her ninetieth birthday) states, we must celebrate her life and work. The best way of doing that is to share her wonderful books with new generations of children, who will continue to find comfort there. Yes, they also need to be challenged by what our world has since become, and what it still should be. But sometimes old-fashioned is just what they need.


Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell



‘Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it is not escapism: it is findism. Children’s books are not a hiding place, they are a seeking place.’ (p 62)

Words to the wise 

Whilst I am on the subject of Katherine Rundell I cannot neglect mentioning this little book. Actually it is not so much a book per se as a published essay, so it is is a quick easy read, and strongly recommended for all adults, but particularly parents or carers and most especially teachers.

I have on numerous occasion advocated that one of the most important things teachers can do to help establish a reading community in their classes and schools is to read children’s books themselves. Only knowing children’s books well, and from personal reading experience, can teachers truly choose, read aloud, talk about and and recommend books to encourage reading for pleasure by their pupils. I also go on to say that any such  reading will prove to be a personal pleasure not a  professional chore, for the best children’s books have a great deal to offer to adult readers too.

Now Katherine Rundell explains why this is so with eloquence and infectious passion.  She also enunciates wonderfully why writing books for children is not any sort of inferior literary undertaking. Hooray to  that I say, as I humbly hope that many of my posts on this blog demonstrate,

Her contribution to this wonderful and vital cause is a true little gem. Read it. Read it. Read it . . . And then do as she suggests. 

‘Plunge yourself soul-forward into a children’s book: see if you do not find in them an unexpected alchemy . . . Refuse unflinchingly to be embarrassed: and in exchange you get the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.’ (p 62-3)