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.

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 page or two 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 clichés 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