Cover: Dawn Cooper
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.
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.