Having been so completely taken with York: The Shadow Cipher (see my post from January '18), I decided to catch up on some earlier children's books from this clearly talented writer, which had previously passed me by. Turns out it was a sad omission, but I have thankfully caught up now.
Some children's writers seem to start off with an amazing blockbuster of a book, but then spend a career trying in vain to really match it. Others rollercoaster between fine novels and less convincing ones. Yet others develop a remarkable consistency, often through long series and sequences of books and establish themselves as real favourites.There are a rare few authors, though, usually the finest of all, who just get better and better, who continually develop their skill and thrill us with ever more breathtakingly writing. Laura Ruby is one such. However, to say she keeps on developing as a children's writer is in no way to patronise or belittle her early work; the graph of her improvement starts somewhere around 'highly enjoyable'' and rises quickly to 'totally outstanding'. She has explored a range of audiences in her overall output, writing for teens and adults as well as for children, and I am sure this will have helped to hone her craft. As you might expect though, I have focused essentially on her books for younger readers.
Lily's Ghosts seems to be Laura Ruby's first published childen's book, from 2003, although it was reissued in a new edition in 2011 (pictured), presumably once some of her other books had become popular.
It is essentially a 'tweenage' title with a basic story about a girl, the eponymous Lily, who has had to move to a strange house in a new town and feels displaced from her former life and friends. This is a scenario not uncommon in children's books, but Laura Ruby riffs very imaginatively and entertainingly on this 'standard' theme. The tale draws very loosely on a once 'gentile' US seaside resort, and its out of season atmosphere. It is enlived by a cast which includes several ghosts (including at least one with considerable 'attitude' and one with a Dark past) an aging-hippy mother, a fake medium and an intriguing mystery involving the disturbing hauntings. It is occasionally creepy but more often very funny indeed. However, the heart and highlight of the book is the developing relationship between Lily and Vaz, the boy she (literally) bumps into and falls for (in both senses). Encounters between these two result in a good deal of hugely entertaining dialogue, a strong feature which is to become something of a 'trademark' in all this writer's books. Vaz also provides a fine role model of a boy who reads (an exceedingly good thing) and Lily does a great line in put-downs if anyone expresses opinions which might be called 'male chauvinist' (making her an even better role model perhaps).
Despite the tale's supernatural elements and its predominance of humour, Laura Ruby manages to explore a range of human feeling and relationships with touching understanding. Unfortunately the highly melodramatic last few chapters, together with a rather trite ending, almost detract from all the good things the book has to offer - but not quite.
This title clearly carries within it the embryos of the even finer works to follow, and is worth seeking out in its own right as an entertaining read for the appropriate age group.
However, Laura Ruby gets fully into her children's fantasy stride with The Wall and the Wing. It is is a real cracker, one of the very best of the post-Potter years. It may not be quite the book that York is, but that is only because it stands in the shadow of a masterpiece. It already shows many of the signature qualities of this fine author: vivid imagination tempered with great sensitivity, explored through rich language and laced throughout with delightful humour.
Compared to most other recent children's fantasies, it is wonderfully original. True, its basic story premise - supposed orphans living in a decrepit institution ruled by a horrendous 'matron' - is one that has been much exploited already. But, in, around and beyond this, Laura Ruby's imagination soars. The idea of children wanting to fly, or to turn invisible (or both), which lies at the heart of this tale, treats of fantasies that fascinate and resonate with us all. The protagonist are warmly likeable (and humanly flawed) and the villains are suitably dastardly and monstrous. The action is non-stop, and continually enthralling, even though the plot is strewn with wild coincidences and Dick-Barton-style escapes.
In fact the story is wild, crazy. The precepts that underly its magic - its Wings, Wall, Professor, monkeys, Punks, villains and all - are somewhat complex and sometimes confusing. But to the reader, this matters not at all. It is is a rich imagination-fest, a smorgasbord of fantasy concepts, characters, conflicts and contentions. It is a constant joy, a truly thrilling read.
It also holds another bud that will blossom in a later book, a deep affection for New York. In fact, in Chapter 11 the two protagonists, Gurl and Bug, find themselves in Central Parkt at night and experience the city in a particularly magical way, in every sense. It makes for a very special and affecting piece of writing.
This excellent fantasy seem to have been rather overlooked (here in the UK at least) which is a great pity. It has huge kid appeal and I am sure many young readers would enjoy it no end. It is well worth digging out*.
Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap
Bone Gap may seem a slight anomaly in this little survey as it is most definitely a YA title (even edging towards adult). However I do from time to time include such titles on this blog, if they are sufficiently exceptional. And this one is most certainly that. Even more though, it seems to me to represent another huge development in Laura Ruby's writing, and as such begs inclusion here.
It is in many respects ways a fantasy, although it is one with a close, even intense, relationship to the reality of both the book's world and our own. It is a fantasy that delves into character more than it defines setting; a fantasy that explores themes more than it established context. It places very real people into a fantasy context, but does so in a way that augments their reality rather than diminishing it.
It is firmly rooted in place (small town rural America) yet it is as much about about 'inscape' (in the sense coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins) as it is about landscape. It is about how we see people (or we don't), about what we love in a person (or don't), about not having the right to possess some one just because we think them beautiful. It is itself a beautiful story, but also a deeply disturbing one. It is written in stunningly beautiful, but never, pretentious, language . More than any of the earlier titles, the story it tells becomes intimately blended with both the form and the language of its telling. It develops far further too the use of dry humour and repartee, very effectively conveying character and development through dialogue as much as through continuous prose. It is a complex book, yet a completely cohesive one. It is very American and yet totally universal.
Although a very different book, it strikes me as something of an American equivalent of Alan Garner's The Owl Service - and that is saying a great deal, for I consider The Owl Service as one of the finest examples of children's literature, period.
Bone Gap has been heaped with awards and accolades, and deservedly so.
And now York
However, the outstanding quality of Bone Gap notwithstanding, I for one am delighted that Laura Ruby has now returned to MG fiction. And I think that she has brought the exceptional writing quality of that title forward with her, albeit appropriately translated for her younger audience. She also capitalises on some of the wonderful strengths of her earlier MG books, adding greater cohesion without losing an ounce of imagination or richness. The 'trademark' dry humour and delicious dialogue, of course, remain. And there are always cats.
I am hopeful that we are just about entering a time when the very best YA fiction is being recognised (at least in some quarters) as meritorious literature. However, I am also well aware that many adults still rather look down on Children's (MG) Fiction as an intrinsically inferior form, if indeed it merits being called literature at all. They may well think her latest book a bit of a come down from Bone Gap. I beg to disagree on all counts. Although for a largely different readership, I think York is every bit the equal of Bone Gap in quality and import and is indeed Laura Ruby's second masterpiece to date. Bring on the next instalment. (Again, I refer you to my detailed post about York - from January '17 - if you haven't already been there.)
Up amongst the stars
There are a number of American MG (loosely 'magic fantasy') authors who I rate amongst the very finest currently writing in English. I now need to add Laura Ruby to this glowing list, alongside Anne Ursu, Kate Milford, Adam Gidwits and Kelly Barnhill. Even though we have some outstanding writers this side of 'the pond' too, UK readers (including parents and teachers) should not bypass these transatlantic gems, which will add enormously to the richness of children's reading.
*The Wall and the Wing, originally published in 2006, was a few years later, given what seems to me to have been a somewhat misguided 'makeover'. It was reissued with the rather unexciting, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of The Invisible Girl. If this is the edition you come across, and like me initially react rather unenthusiastically, I can only beg you not to judge the book by its cover.