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, 17 July 2017

Masterwork collaborations from CHRIS RIDDELL

This very recent publication from author/illustrator Chris Riddell is, in itself, not really either a children's book or a fantasy, although it is closely related to both. It is a visual notebook of the two years he has just completed as Children's Laureate. However, is an absolute joy of a book and warmly recommended to parents and teachers, especially all you 'woolly liberal lefties' out there; it strewn with his political cartoons from the Observer. It is a veritable treasure trove to dip into for wit, wisdom, enlightenment, inspiration, quotations, ideas, amusement, or simply to lose yourself in his amazing worlds. 

The reason this book is here, though, is that its acquisition has motivated me to reflect on some of the real  gems of children's fantasy literature with which Chris Riddell has been involved in recent years. 

Illustrating Neil Gaiman

One of the truly great pairings of 21 century children's literature has been Chris's as illustrator of fantasy author Neil Gaiman.  

Amongst other outcomes this has resulted in two quite stunning picture books, Odd and the Frost Giants and The Sleeper and the Spindle. However calling them picture books might confuse any who (mistakenly) associate such productions only with young children. These two books are certainly not for the very young. They are sophisticated works of considerable literary complexity and richness. The first is a fantasy adventure drawing on Norse mythology and is largely the lighter toned of the two, although not without its own touches of darkness. It is also not without considerable tension, excitement, enchantment - and imagination. Chris Riddel's delightful and copious illustrations are the ideal complement. The second is more of a fairy tale, borrowing traditional elements, but merging these with both reimagination and original invention. Like real fairy tales though (not the Bowdlerised retellings) is is often dark and disturbing. However,  it is also funny in parts and overall hauntingly beautiful. Again Chris Ridell's illustrations are the perfect match. These ones are subtly different in style, almost at times reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. They are haunting. In both these books text and pictures are very special in their own right. Yet it is the two together, with neither dominating, but each complementing, indeed extending, the other, which make these quite superlative editions as enriching as works of literature and as they are beautiful as physical volumes. 

Novels enriched

Chris Riddell had also fairly recently illustrated each of Neil Gaiman's full-length children's novels, again quite superbly. His additions are truly illuminating. 

My favourite is Coraline, for which he illustrated the 10th anniversary edition in 2012, probably so because it is the finest of several very fine Neil Gaiman works. This is such a classic and much-admired work that it needs no recommendation from me. Its simple, important and wholesome message about bravery underpins the multiple layers of resonance of the very best of dark  fairy tales. Suffice it to say that any who have somehow missed out should rectify their  omission of one of children's literature's deserved icons. Nor should any who know it only from the 2009 animation neglect the book itself. The film may be special in its own terms, but it is a rather different experience from reading the book as written, principally for two reasons. Firstly the Coraline of the text comes across as a very realistic, very human girl. It is easy to identify with her boredom and perceived parental neglect, as well as with her strong personality and sharp mind. The doll-like figure of the film just does not capture this. Even more vital however is the power of the book's language. The text has an elegance of prose, aptly simple and potently effective, which is just masterly. (Quote: 'The Sky had never seemed so sky; the world had never seemed so world. . . Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.') This is an ideal and superbly affecting read-aloud book for the right audience. (Please see note 1.) Unlike the filmic images, Chris Riddell's drawings compliment the text magnificently, adding to, rather than supplanting, the reader's imagination. I think the button eyes of the 'other mother' become even more disturbing in the light of these pictures. 

Other Neil Gaiman books which Chris Riddell has magically illustrated also fall into the must-read category. The outstanding and highly entertaining The Graveyard Book, is perhaps somewhat less darkly disturbing than its title and setting might suggest. The drawings fully catch its spine-tingling spookiness and it is essentially good hearted. Similarly the many qualities of the delightful younger children's novel Unfortunately the Milk, again justly award-winning, are perfectly caught and extended in Chris Riddell's integrated illustrations. 

Although diverting now from my Neil Gaiman heading, I must also mention here that the Chris Riddell illustrations added to the 2016 edition of Frances Hardinge's masterpiece The Lie Tree, have exactly the same effect of turning a wonderful text into an even more sumptuous one, both as literature and as artefact. 

Fantasy par excellence

His work in illustrating the words of others notwithstanding, and despite some excellent books for younger readers which he has also written himself (his Ottoline series and his Goth Girl books are both well worth exploring for those of appropriate age), Chris Riddell's towering contribution to contemporary children's fantasy is his collaboration with Paul Stewart in creating The Edge Chronicles

This is a vast series of fantasy quest adventures set in the vividly imagined world of 'The Edge', a land 'jutting out into the emptiness beyond, like the figurehead of a mighty stone ship'. In style and substance it is rather more akin to Terry Pratchett than to Harry Potter, although, unlike most of the Discworld books (please see note 2), this is primarily for children. As befits its young audience, this lacks Terry Pratchett's satire, and even his dry wit, however the Edge Chronicles are also very funny at times. More pertinently, though, they effervesce, burst, explode with the most delightfully wild, wacky and original invention. Their imagination almost literally knows no bounds, and in that they are one of children's fantasy's greatest creations. 

Whereas many fantasty worlds are based on some variation of our own, at least loosely related to some historical period or other, the wold of Edge is supremely and originally imagined, a world unlike any other with its own totally improbable geography, history and science. Similarly, whilst it has some 'human' characters (and hugely likeable its protagonists are too) many are creatures with little origin beyond their creators ' fertile imaginings. The whole is pure, ebullient joy. Nor are the stories without  engaging invention  . They are gripping page-turners all with action and excitement in almost every chapter. Exactly what is needed to keep young readers reading. 

Chris Riddell is coauthor of these works, not simply illustrator and I suspect his numerous and wonderfully evocative drawings, maps and diagrams are as much a part of the creative process as they are a response to it. The words are not any second fiddle either though. At best stylish and always effectively communicative, they partner superbly with the illustrations to carry each story forward. Of course Paul Stewart must be given equal credit for these brilliant creations. This is clearly a partnership of rare genius. 

The original body of  Edge Chronicles was created between 1998 and 2009 and covers the exploits of several generations of characters through different periods of Edge history, creating overall a vast integrated saga. It developed into three chronological trilogies and a concluding volume, although they were not written in this order. These now comprise the Quint, Twig and Rook trilogies, followed by The Immortals. There are a number of spin-off stories, too, mostly written for World Book Day, but these have now been incorporated into the latest editions of the main books. 

Any of these individual books could be read as a one-off and would provide huge entertainment. However it is the creation of the epic saga of The Edge Chronicles as a whole that is particularly special. In the rich, complex entirety of its mind boggling inventiveness it is one of finest gems of children's imaginative fantasy fiction. Period. 

After publication of The Immortals in 2009, the authors seemed to have concluded their epic (apart from some online stories). However I am delighted to say that they are currently in the midst of adding a new sequence, The Cade Trilogy. The first two parts are now published, but we await the final one, The Descenders. I would hope to write more about these as soon as I have caught up with this latest incarnation. 

Note 1: I know that a good number of teachers now read this blog and I would not wish to mislead anyone into upsetting young children. Some of Neil Gaiman's books are dark and disturbing. You do need to read first any you are considering using or recommending . You know your children and will be able to decide whether they can cope or not. Most will. In fact they will revel in his weird imaginings and find them 'good frightening' not 'bad frightening'. However a few may react differently. 

Note 2: The Tiffany Aching sequence is a highly recommended exception (see my post from April '17) and there are a few others. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Secret of Solace, The Quest to the Uncharted Lands by Jayleigh Johnson

Overdue catch up

A couple of years ago, I very much enjoyed The Mark of the Dragonfly, the first book in this US-published sequence. I somehow missed the second book when it came out, though, and was only prompted back to the series by the very recent appearance of its third part. However I have caught up with both sequels now - and I am mightily glad that I did so. An interesting mix of fantasy, post-apocalypse and sci-fi, they continue the imaginative flair and gripping storytelling of their predecessor and are well-worth seeking out by older children and younger teens. (Please see my post from March '15 for more details.)

Moonlocket by Peter Bunzl

A most welcome trio

I have recently found three new  writers who are reinventing what might be called the children's 'adventure story' for a new generation, each one in a different but very special way. At a time when children's bestsellers are so dominated by comedy, they are to be welcomed most warmly. Of course, to be be  entertained by often rather farcical and scatalogical humour is a characteristic of childhood. All credit to the books which meet this need. Nevertheless children also need the opportunity to become totally immersed in engaging and exciting story and these three emerging fiction sequences provide that wonderfully. I posted here in June '17 about two of them, Abi Elphinstone's Dreamsnatcher trilogy and Jennifer Bell's The Uncommoners. Here is the third. 

Victorian clockwork

Peter Bunzel's deservedly popular debut Cogheart, has now been followed by an equally entertaining sequel Moonlocket. Both are set in a fantasy version of Victorian England, involving some aspects of classic 'steampunk' but with the delightful addition of clockwork as what might punningly be termed a key energy source. This world is populated not only by humans but by wind-up androids, 'mechanicals', and indeed by 'mechanimals' too. Malkin, the 'pet' fox of protagonist Lily and her adopted brother Robert, is indeed one such - and a delightful and entertaining addition to their small band he is too. The storylines of both books involve high adventure of an intentionally melodramatic kind, peopled with dastardly villains, fiendish plots, hidden secrets, enigmatic clues, and high adrenaline chases and confrontations. They are classic derring-do, reminiscent of the cliff-hangers of the past. However, they are emphatically children's books too and, although the action is tense and thrilling, it is never graphically violent or disturbing. 

Robert's story

Whilst the first book is essentially Lily's story, this second features Robert far more prominently. It centres on his need to find his true mother, following the tragic death of his much loved father. However, alongside this, Lily still needs to prove her worth to her own father, and to herself too. In fact the humanity of its main child characters adds much to the high adventure of its storylines The emotional journeys they experience, alongside their villain chasing, are engaging and often very moving. The books manage a good deal of humour too. Peter Bunzl throws in many a pun and witticism along the way and his stories are all the more entertaining for it. For example, in this second book, the real name of the villainous thief, known as Jack of Diamonds, is Jack Door. At one point Robert teases the clockwork fox with, 'Malkin, you're so easily wound up.' You get the feel I'm sure. Children will love it. 

Escape into adventure 

In terms of their offering vicarious adventure, these books could be described as Enid Blyton for contemporary children. Ms Blyton may not have been a great literary stylist, nor was her imagination particularly fecund, but she did understand supremely well what it was that the children of her day wanted and needed in their reading. In all her most iconic series, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven,and the Adventure  books themselves (Valley of . . ., Circus of . . ., etc.), she created likeable characters with whom readers could readily identify and gave them exciting adventures, the like of which her audience were highly unlikely to experience themselves.  Her books allowed children to escape temporarily from their everyday lives and to forget  themselves in story. They provided dangerous thrills within the safe comfort of familiarity, securely bound within the covers of a book. For some they also allowed children to discover 'friends' of a quality and intimacy they did not otherwise have. Her books were less about children finding themselves as about children losing themselves. They were essentially escapist. But, within reasonable bounds, that is no bad thing at all. 

Not always the best years

It is romantic myth to think that all of childhood is idyllic; a myth created, I suspect, largely from the nostalgia of those who have long left their own childhood behind. Sadly, for far too many, much of childhood is traumatic, seriously affected by family conflict, breakdown or tragedy. For many others it is stressful. Bullying, school issues, social and peer pressures are amongst difficulties all to real. And even when blissfully free of these, whole periods of childhood can, frankly, be dull, humdrum, routine. It is enormously helpful for many children to loose themselves for a while in a diverting book. Of course it is also important for them to read stories in which they can learn about life, in which they can come to know themselves and others better. But they need to be able to escape from their everyday reality for a while too. And as long as it doesn't become obsessive, or delusional, then I believe it is a healthy and helpful survival strategy, an aid, not a hindrance, to growth and development. This is just as important now as it was in the days of Enid Blyton, perhaps more so. The advantage for today's children is that they can indulge in temporary respite from reality through far superior and imaginative fiction like these Cogheart Adventures

Adventure plus

Books by Abi Elphinstone, Jennifer Bell and Peter Bunzl are most valuable editions to the contemporary children's canon. They offer the highest quality escapist adventure and a lot more besides. They also feed the imagination, engender empathy and understanding and immerse young readers in an enriching language experience