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. I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the truly great books authors are currently writing for our children and of the important, life-affirming experiences these offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts these writers give.

I was, recently, graciously awarded an MBE. It pleased me, not so much for myself, but as an affirmation of my career-long efforts to promote children's reading and the high quality literature which supports it.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Deeply interesting 

This book is every bit as darkly, lusciously, intriguingly alluring as its cover. Despite its historical setting, it is also very much a book for our times.

Frances Hardinge is a deeply interesting writer. Her oeuvre to date can, on one level, be thought of as falling into two 'periods'. Her first works were full fantasies, set in imagined worlds*. Her debut was the delightful Fly by Night, fizzing with quirky imagination and exuberant language play. She continued by developing hugely entrancing fantasies through to the even stranger A Face Like Glass. Her  more recent 'phase' began with Cuckoo Song, when she shifted towards a slightly older readership** but also changed from straight fantasy to books with an authentic historical setting, albeit ones that still drew in elements of strange and often disturbing fantasy. This period included her deservedly award winning The Lie Tree and she has now  continued it further in A Skinful of Shadows, this time with a setting in the English Civil War. 

Language and darkness

There are however several very prominent, and quite wonderful, characteristics which run through all of Frances Hardinge's work and these distinguish it even more than the differences. In all her books are to be found a rich and masterly use of language, a highly original and idiosyncratic imagination, a tendency to darkness and a dry, wicked sense of humour. Indeed her self-projected author image, with long dark hair and an ever-present black hat, seems to echo her writing very well; not quite a witch, but with an almost eccentric air of rather dark mystery and intelligent, thoughtful eyes .

Through her later books, the effervescent language of Fly by Night has matured into a rich mastery of prose. In A Skinful of Shadows, it is this that draws you into her world and story. It is said, at one point,  when describing a response to a particular location of the narrative, 'Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.' There could be no better example of this author's command of language, nor any more potent image of the effect that language has in immersing the reader in her vision. 


In A Skinful of Shadows too, Frances Hardinge's highly individual imagination and her ability to conjure strange darkness are at their strongest. The story of the book centres on Makepeace***, a young girl who has inherited the 'talent' of hosting departed spirits within her own body. In consequence of this, her malevolent relatives wish to use her as a vessel for their accumulated store of ancestral 'ghosts'. Some scenes, where Makepeace witnesses these spirits being transferred from a dying body into a new human host are disquieting in the extreme, and her deep dread of being posessed in this way both moving and terrifying. 

The English Civil War is a palette for the story; an integral element but never its prime focus. Frances Hardinge does not so much have anything to 'say' about war as to invite her reader to reflect upon it. The changing situations in which Makepeace finds herself move her several times from amongst Protestant to amidst Royalist factions and the views she picks up emphasise the way each side justifies its position by describing the same events and characters in starkly contrasting ways. Yet she herself is always concerned with the human fallout of the war, not its politics

As befits its subject matter, the author's more humourous writing is not at the forefront in this particular book. However, it does sometimes run beneath the surface and occasionally emerges, as in the bickering between the disparate 'ghosts' that Makepeace gradually collects inside herself. These include that of a bear, the essence of nature in the raw, whose freedom humans had cruelly quashed when it was alive, but which Makepeace eventually restores by accepting that nature as part of herself. 

(USA edition)

Frances Hardinge's books are certainly not typical of many classified  as 'YA'. They are not variations on the cliches of adolescent, romantic fantasy. They are, if anything,  more literature for young adults, as long as that description is not taken to imply any dullness or heaviness. They are for the reader who wants to reflect rather than simply to emote, to be enriched as much as to escape, to be intrigued rather than indulged, to be pulled into a totally original and imaginative narrative by thrillingly skilful writing. 

Much more than history

In part, the book is about the danger of being demonically possessed by the past, by ones 'ancestors'. It is a brave and  desperate quest  to escape that stranglehold and be freely oneself. These demons perpetuate a rigid certainty, a belief in their own righteousness, even when they are wrong. But Makepeace knows that badgers do not have two legs shorter than the other two, whatever the old books say.  There is no rigid rule ordained by 'God'. We need to discover for ourselves what is right and necessary for people to live in peace, to discover ourselves without infringing the need of others. We must fight against those who wish to impose an extremist rigidity on ourselves and our world. This it is a book for today and for tomorrow. Makepeace, together with her brother, and all the 'ghosts' who have been freely accepted as a genuine part of herself, must 'find a new world, with its own rules'.  

It is also a generous and compassionate book about second chances. 

Frances Hardinge is one of the most richly enjoyable writers around. She is fully on song here. This makes A Skinful of Shadows one of the most richly enjoyable books of the year. It pulses with all the distinctive qualities of her writing, but housed in a totally new skin, a compellingly original and imaginative story. It is a skinful of dark but wondrous shadows. 

*The one slight exception is Well Witched (aka Verdigris Deep) which is set in the contemporary world but is still essentially a fantasy. 
**Although there are, of course, no hard rules about who can read what book. Whatever is right for a particular reader at a particular time. 
*** A pious name typical of those given to some Puritans in the 17th century. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Illegal by Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, Illus. Giovanni Rigano

An imperative 

I hope that as many booksellers as possible will copy the lead of the one shown below and do all they can to promote this book.  Similarly teachers, parents, bloggers and any others in a position to do so. Why? Because it is simply one of the most brave, committed, communicative and vitally important children's books to have been published in a very long time. 

Graphic is good

For starters, it is great that another huge name children's author has collaborated with an established writer of, and an illustrator of, graphic novels to produce a high profile new work in this format*. Not long ago the same happened when Philip Pullman authored his excellent The Adventures of John Blake**.  Hopefully these books will move us towards a situation where the graphic novel is given the status it deserves in the world of children's fiction. That is, as a valid format in its own right, and not as an inferior sub-genre, looked down upon by many parents and teachers and offered, if at all, only to young readers who are perceived as unwilling or unable to cope with a 'proper book'. Whilst different from prose fiction, and requiring a different reading style, involvement with a graphic novel requires highly acute visual literacy alongside verbal literacy, and offers a whole reading experience which can be just as rich and rewarding as prose fiction. It should be a valued part of every child's reading repertoire. 

How can human beings be illegal?

However it is not the format alone, not even the format itself, which makes Illegal such a vitally important publication. It is its content and message. 

Here is the story of a young boy, Ebo, and his traumatic journey from East Africa to Europe. He stands representative for all those refugees/economic migrants (call them what you will) who make such journeys in search of a better life for themselves and their families. He, like most of them, comes from extreme poverty, the extent of which many of us have no direct experience. Like them, too, his journey is horrendous, the depredations he suffers unspeakable, the perils quite literally deadly. The book skilfully alternates its narration between his Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Sicily and the first part of his journey, from East Africa, across the Sahara and to the coast. Each leg of the journey is an almost equal nightmare of deprivation and danger, subject to squalid conditions and appalling exploitation at the hands of traffickers. 

It is a disturbing, distressing story. It has to be, because that is what it is. However, it is also told with great sensitivity.  Ebo and those sharing his plight are characters with whom  many children will be able to identify. They will to some degree share his longings, his sufferings and his dreams. Amidst the trauma, and despite the distance of events and places from the experience of most readers, the authors skilfully build in many points of contact and empathy. Most will, for, example, identify with the devotion of Ebo's brother, Kwame, to Chelsea Football Club (even if they are not Chelsea fans themselves), as well as Ebo's own devotion to his 'big brother'. Like many other aspects of this story it ignites a familiar, common humanity that they will know well. 

The power of pictures 

Having mentioned separately the format and content of this book, it needs to be said, that one of its greatest triumphs is the way that the latter benefits from the former. This presentation allows its young readers into the situation, and its emotions, in a very direct way. The pictures show far more than the words. Their details and their colourings, their atmosphere and their inbuilt expressiveness provide vivid and telling ways into awareness, understanding and empathy. Like other good graphic novels, there is amazing effectiveness too in the layout and 'pacing' of the pictures. These subtly but very powerfully convey  emotion - terror, awe, desperation, longing - often moving  us in ways which can be as deep as the most skilfully constructed words.  

The power of children

And this is a story which children need to know and to understand. They need to be shocked and appalled by it. And they will be. To understand the experience of one individual is to the understand better the experience of the many. To vicariously share Ebo's journey is the better to share humanity. I trust them to care. And, through that care they may come to play a part in reducing the appalling amount of mistrust, self-centredness and downright prejudice currently so rife in our societies. 

It is also the case that, whilst many of the truly terrible situations explored in this book are now well known to the political world, the only attempted solutions currently in place are short-term ones, even if well-intentioned and assuredly better than nothing. Few however are finding real answers. Perhaps our children might, now and into the future.  Their voices can be remarkably powerful and  persuasive. Our world needs them at least to try to move us all forward. This book could potentially do so much. We must get it to as many children as possible. 


The end of the Illegal story does convey much warmth and some hope for the future. For Ebo it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit; but for the rest of us it is a warning of what happens when we collectively abandon humanity. The graphic placement of the tale's final images against the mesh fence of a 'reception centre' is a harsh reminder that life on arrival in Europe is, to our shame, still not a bed of roses for Ebo and those in his position. But at least there are holes in the caging. Perhaps there will be a way out. That hope may well lie with our children. If this book can be put into the hands of enough of them it will help enormously in tuning them into the issues, the emotional ones more than the intellectual, the human more than the political. I trust them to understand that 'no human being is illegal'*** At least not in any place where law accords with natural justice. 

The cover image has been cleverly selected to include a speech bubble stating, 'You know as well as I do that he shouldn't be here ' The 'here' shown is an overcrowded, inadequate boat in the middle of the ocean. It does not refer to our doorstep. Children will indeed know that. They will understand the difference. 

*There are excellent graphic novel versions of some of the Artemis Fowl titles, but they are essentially spin-offs from the prose versions, whereas Illegal is a major publication in its own right. 
**See my post from June '17
***Quote from Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, used as a preface to Illegal. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

Here is a title I have been eagerly waiting for, the final part of a story to which I feel already very committed. Like countless other fans  I desperately wanted to discover how things turn out for people I feel I know and, yes indeed, care for. It is no disappointment. The final book in this hugely popular series is everything readers (including me) could want. 

A writer with form

I have been a great admirer of Jonathan Stroud for a good while now. I consider his Bartimaeus books to be one of the very best of contemporary children's fiction sequences, a brilliant blend of comedy and fantasy. (See my post from April '17.)  More recently, I have explored his earlier novels and found that very rewarding indeed. (Post June '17.) I notice that the UK paperback of The Empty Grave has at the back a page advertising his first four major novels*. I do hope it succeeds in attracting some attention as they are all great reads, well worth seeking out. They are very different from each other, as well as from the later sequences, but each is a very fine novel in its own right.  It is also fascinating to track through his development as a writer. 

Series finale 

His most recent sequence,  about teenage spook-busters, Lockwood & Co, is aimed at a perhaps slightly older audience** than Bartimaeus. It is also probably his most overtly popular success to date. Deservedly so. It is quite splendid entertainment, providing gripping adventures and believable, endearing characters. It is set in a world which resembles our own but has been overrun by supernatural visitations. Our little band of adolescent heroes each have 'talents' to fight back against ghosts,  ghouls and other horrors they are employed exorcise. It turns out they are pretty good at it as well - although they do not always have  the luck to escape totally unscathed.  The books are  laced witn both high humour and dry wit and somehow succeed in combining a rather homely comfort (lots of cake and biscuits) with plenty of contemporary 'edge', gripping suspense and high adrenaline action.

From a great start, the Lockwood series has just been getting better and better. The through line plot has broadened out from separate incidences of ghost-busting to the thwarting of a mega villain, who may well have caused all the haunting in the first place. At the end of the last book readers were left in cruel suspense as to how the whole situation would develop and resolve. This final book, involving, amongst other trials for the intrepid young 'firm', a terrifying attack on their own home, a horrendous journey through the 'other side', and a cataclysmic battle at the headquarters of the controlling  'agency ' itself, just racks up the tension at every thrilling turn. Jonathan Stroud is a true master of plot building.

Bickering and bonding 

However it is the relationships between the young agents of Lockwood & Co which really underlie the irresistible pull of these stories. Characters, and the interplays between them, have become deeper and richer with each successive book. By this final stage, readers have come to know the Lockwood team as familiar friends. Narrator, Lucy, a mixture of a young Bridget Jones and Zoro (well, sort of), is continually enchanting despite, or perhaps because of, her many insecurities and foibles.  She is certainly no great physical beauty (in her own eyes at least), nor any angel either, but her flaws make her all the more lovable. At one point team-mate George, on seeing a particular ghoul emit a repulsive  splurge of slime, comments that it is almost as bad as Lucy with a head cold. Whilst he is clearly being wickedly teasing, one suspects there may be some modecome of truth behind the comment. Such an exchange is in fact typical of the bickering and crosstalk that is one of the delights of the Lockwood crew. Yet, when push comes to shove, they also display loyalty and mutual caring to the nth degree. 

In Lucy's even more acrimonious yet strangely strong attachment to her cynical, obstreperous talking skull-ghost, which she persistently carries around in a jar, lies one of the richest veins of the story's humour. However it is her developing relationship with the darkly handsome, and somewhat enigmatic Lockwood which is at the story's heart. In this final instalment, she has a pervasive fear that he might end up sacrificing his own life to save her , that he might far too soon occupy the empty grave of the title. It is this terrible conviction, as much as the story's action, which compels the reader forward, sharing Lucy's apprehension and quaking at the ever-increasing likelihood of her fears being realised. 

Building through the successive books of Lockwood & Co, are the early adolescent stirings of romance, but Jonathan Stroud handles them with sensitivity and real understanding . We are still really in the area of special friendships rather than anything more mature, but the feelings he explores are all the more affecting for that. They pull at the heart-strings and consequently pull the story strongly along too. A good  example of his sensitive, sympathetic  writing of character is the way he gently introduces hints that Holly, another prominent Lockwood team member, may have different growing emotional/sexual interests of her own. In doing so he skilfully adds a further level of depth and humanity to the telling, without any fuss or sensationalism. 

Grand climax

Needless to say, this 'series finale' pulls all of the strands of this long narrative journey very cleverly together. I would of course not dream of saying how. But I am certain fans will not be disappointed. 

Jonathan Stroud uses language like a master, never pretentiously but with a skill that evokes in his reader vivid  images of his characters and their world. It has been announced that a screen version of Lockwood and Co is in the offing. This will, of course, recruit countless more fans, many of whom will subsequently read the books too.  That will be a very good thing indeed. However imposed screen images do tend rather to swamp individual visualisation and can be difficult to shrug off when subsequently reading. My advice to any who have not yet discovered this series is to get in and read it first, whilst your own imagination will take you (with the writers help) powerfully into what becomes a shared creation. You would best start at the beginning of course, but this page turner will rapidly pull you in. And you can move through the five books in the assurance that a great start just gets better and better. 

These are not novels of any particular profundity, but they have no pretensions to be. They are, however, some of the most hugely compelling and entertaining reads currently around. It will be really interesting to see what this fine writer comes up with next. 

The paperback editions are arrestingly designed and will, I am sure, meet the needs of most young readers. However, it is a shame that, with such an important and successful series, the UK publishers seem to have abandoned their hardback set after the third volume. Fortunately there is a very attractive US set of hardbacks for those who wish to collect and keep the whole series longer term. 

* Buried Fire, The Leap. The Last Siege. Heroes of the Valley. 
** Older children and young teens (although, of course, readers of a huge range of ages can enjoy almost any book, if it is the right thing for them at the time). 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K.Rowling) illustrated by Jim Kay

An unnecessary recommendation 

This most recent addition to the emerging Illustrated Harry Potter sequence really needs no recommendation from me. However I can't resist adding my two penn'orth on such a significant publication. Jim Kay's new contributions are an outstanding and most welcome addition to the Potter library and will, I am sure, encourage and support many young readers. That makes them important as well as special.  

Like many others, I consider 'Azkaban' to be the very best of the Potter books. Its storyline is somewhat deeper and richer (as well as darker) than those before, but not yet as sprawling as those that follow*. Jim Kay has responded wonderfully to the quality and character of this third book and his illustrations are also possibly the best yet. Certainly they too are somewhat darker than those for the first two books. 

Triumphant images

Amongst many other delights, the images of the 'Knight Bus' are a triumph. I am not at all surprised that one was selected for the jacket. It makes the most arresting Potter cover yet. I was also bowled over by the picture of Buckbeak in Hagrid's cabin, by Harry, Hermione and Ron trekking through the snow and by the depiction of Azkaban itself; each very different is style but equal in stunning effectiveness. As was the case in previous volumes, however, it was the pencil drawing, this time of Lupin, which I found most evocative of all. Unlike the screen versions, these are visualisations which magically ignite the imagination, without swamping it. 

This is another potentially wonderful gift volume and its format makes it ideal for an adult to share with a child, an activity which would render it an even richer gift.  

*Of course, most children who have read the early stories are more than sufficiently hooked in to cope with the greater length of the later ones. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A huge book

This is not the kind of book I generally blog about. Although it is a children's book, it is not even fiction, let alone 'magic fiction'. Is is subtitled A Book of Spells, but it is not, I imagine, one that would be found in the Hogwarts library. 

Nevertheless, The Lost Words just cannot, should not be ignored. It is a huge book in so many ways. It is hugely important, profound and hugely beautiful. In fact it is jaw-droppingly, soul-achingly beautiful. It is the work of two hugely talented people, who see, think and feel in hugely special ways. It is also just huge. 

The book is, in fact, physically too big to be terribly practical. But practicality is emphatically not what it is about. Its presence, its impact, its genuine awesomeness would not be the same were it any smaller. Some things emphatically should not be contained and are cruelly diminished if we try. 

Expectations exceeded

Recent years have seen the publication of many outstanding non-fiction books for the adult market featuring detailed, personal observations on the natural world. At the very forefront of this trend has been Robert Macfarlane. His books* are revelatory in terms of seeing the world around us afresh and he is arguably one of our finest contemporary writers, in any genre. 

Artist Jackie Morris is the creator of some of the twenty first  century's most iconic and stunning picture books**,and her large, close-up images of animals linger long in the mind. Her skill is outshone only by her sensitivity and  compassion.

So when it became clear that these two were to collaborate for the first time on a children's book, my expectations were high. But not high enough it seems. The combination of his writing and her art has turned out to be a splendid addition to the canon of great children's books. I will be most surprised if it does not prove a seminal publication. 

Spells and poems

The book's prefacing words say that Robert Macfarlane's contributions are 'not poems but spells'. The import of this is clear. The author intends these 'spells' to conjure for children the names of some of the indigenous plants and animals which they have lost, or are in danger of losing. I don't actually think this loss applies to all our children. Amongst today's young people are to be found some of our most passionate conservationists and our greatest hopes for the future. However it does apply to many, for whom their lifestyle, the games they play, the technology they (over)use, the books they read (or, tragically, don't read), separate them from any closeness to nature and the ever-changing pattern of seasons. Even more children, I fear have lost any sense of awe and wonder for the natural world and it is in restoring this that these spells will be most effective. They are very potent indeed. 

However, despite protestations to the contrary, and even though they may not be verse as such, these pieces are poems as well as spells. Indeed they are poetry in the best sense and of the highest calibre. They use patterns of the richest and most intense language to evoke awareness of profoundly important thoughts and feelings. They illuminate life. In fact, not, I think,  since Ted Hughes has there been a collection of such fine and important nature poems for children. And these have the advantage of being rather more accessible to young people, without any less measure of deep awareness, sensitivity, resonance or sonority. These spell-poems beg to be read aloud to children and by children, to be sounded and savoured, to be word-sung. They are to be learned and learned from, to be grown with and grow by.  

In them readers will be enchanted by, amongst many others, the 'bickering, snickering' magpie; the conker that cannot be crafted, commanded, or engineered, but made only by a tree; the ancient fern 'furled, unfolding and fanning'. They  are spells of beauty to which as many children as possible need to fall victim. 

Spreading art

However, the words, wonderful as they are, are only a part of this book. Jackie Morris's art spreads through it in lavish fecundity, complementing, extending, enriching the spells. In fact 'spreads' is a very appropriate description for each subject, each individual plant or creature, is allowed three enormous double-page spreads. 

The first of each trio of pages instigates the spelling by conjuring the name from letters strewn across subtle traceries. Each is a hint, a foretaste of  what is to come: a stand of delicate grass heads, a stave of telegraph wires, the embryo outline of a weasel, the meandering ghost of a stream. Even here the variety of imagination and subtly of artistry is outstanding - and enormously evocative. 

On each second double spread, the left-hand spell is offset by a right-hand page where a detailed image of the plant or animal itself  is  highlighted against a ground of applied gold leaf. Each picture is a ravishing illumination of the words. There are distant echoes of medieval manuscript in the pairing, and the impact is stunning. 


The final spread of each trio presents a vast canvas with more naturalistic context. These breathtaking pictures gain added impact from their scale and come a long way towards bridging the gap between seeing a reproduction and looking at an original work of art. Each one a combination of watercolour detail and wash, their beauty needs to be seen not described. Here, amongst other marvels, are an owl-flown woodland, its bluebell carpet evoked only by its distinctive hue; a mesmerising murmuration of starlings; a heron surveying it watery domain from the hide of an evocative old willow. Please do not let children miss out on this wonderful gallery of nature art, to be found between the covers of a book. 

A gift for teachers

As a former teacher, I would have given my eye teeth to have this book in my classroom (probably to use around Y5 or Y6). Just reading and knowing its  spell-poems would model so much about language use: how effective alliteration can really be, when it is not gratuitously forced; how potent is truly apt vocabulary choice; how strong acrostics can be when used for real communication rather than as an  imposed exercise; how real poetry for children can be so much more than the rhythmic rhyme  to which 'children's poetry' is too often confined. The book's art work could teach so much about reading pictures, both in terms of closely observing detail and of responding to overall impact. 

Many schools do an excellent job of inspiring children with a passionate commitment to important global conservation issues. However exploring the nature on our doorstep, once the staple of Primary education, seems to have declined somewhat.   This book could help considerably in a vital rebalancing. 

A gift for children

Apparently this book has been described in some social media posts as 'too beautiful for children'. This is nonsense as well as being horrendously patronising. Children often respond to beauty more fully and directly than many adults. They are perfectly capable of valuing and treasuring beautiful things. They need some beautiful things in their lives They need things that they can value and keep long and carefully. 

This book has a recommended retail price of £20.00, which some may consider expensive for a children's picture book. My response would be that there are precious few real treasures to be had for such a sum, apart, of course, for that completely free treasure, the wonderous world around us. This book will cast its spell over children in such a way as to open minds, ears and eyes to that wonder. I can think of few better presents to give to a child or grandchild. 

This book may send children off to look out for the plants and animals it represents.  But it will do more than that. To see a kingfisher is undoubtedly a glorious thing. But perhaps that kingfisher does not actually need to be seen. Just to know that it is there makes the world a more wonderous place. To be able to name it, to know it as 'halcyon',  to see its 'flame-flicker' in the minds eye - and to know that it is truly there somewhere in the world. Our world. That knowledge is the real gift of 'lost' things that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris give. 

*Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Holloway, and Landmarks as well as a delightful essay, The Gifts of Reading. 
** Including, Something About a Bear; The Snow Leopard; The Ice Bear; One Cheetah, One Cherry; The White Fox and The Seal Children (N.B. There are stunning new large-format editions of The Snow Leopard and The Ice Bear, recently out from GRAFFEG, which would also make superb treasures for children. There are signed copies around too, but look for them in independent, 'real' bookshops. )

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

The (not very) old dragons

Cressida Cowell is a phenomenon of current children's publishing. Deservedly so. Her How to Train Your Dragon books have done more to support and encourage children along the road to becoming enthusiastic, independent readers than scores of other authors put together. An artist  as well as a writer, she has exploited a vital area, helping to bridge the gap between the picture books and full prose fiction. Her books are complete novels, but so copiously  illustrated with drawing, diagrams, 'hand written' notations and the like that the graphic elements become fully integrated into the storytelling; as much a part of the reading experience as the printed text.  With the addition of bright, lively covers, this does much to make then both attractive and accessible to young readers. 

She is not the first or only author to adopt this aproach* but she does it supremely well. And not only does she engage and entertain hugely but she also contributes a great deal to many children's growth and development. Her drawings are sketchy and childlike**,  often apparently haphazardly placed and accompanied by scrawled 'handwriting'. This does much to support creativity by giving licence to spontaneity and imperfection,  even to mess, banishing insecurity and inhibition. As one who was until very recently heavily involved in primary education, I know that her stories have inspired many children to write, draw and even create their own 'books'. 

Yet there is far more to Cressida Cowell's works than their format, splendid though it is. She is one of a select number of authors who understand perfectly what young children most enjoy in a book. She hits their sense of humour on the button, and indulges it extensively. Her enormously likeable heroes have more than enough flaws and foibles to make them easy for children to identify with. She creates ridiculous and entertaining characters with equally ridiculous and entertaining names, yet still makes them totally credible in their context. She keeps her stories relatively simple and straightforward, yet tells them with zest, never short on action, excitement and suspense.

The (very) new wizards

In short, her How to Train your Dragon books are not at all bad. However***, she has now written rather a lot of them. So it is especially welcome to see her launching off in a new direction with her latest offering. Particularly so when that new offering is as special as The Wizards of Once. 

First off, it needs to be said that this book will not disappoint her innumerable existing fans in any way. It has every single one of the wonderful attributes of her earlier series. In fact it has them in spades. This said, it seems churlish to expect even more on top, and we probably wouldn't. But that is exactly what Cressida Cowell gives us here.  She clearly hasn't run out of spades yet. 

Introducing her new 'Wizards', she moves her writing onwards and upwards in ways that are both surprising and delightful. In switching from  a world of Vikings, pirates and dragons, to one of wizards, witches and warriors, she seems to find new riches in both that world and in herself as an writer/artist. In exploring deep magic (and its potential loss), in conjuring the ancient forest and its many creatures (both wonderous and terrifying) and in opposing them with a new  'iron' order of rationalism (and military aggression), she subtly plumbs the resonances of old beliefs and archetypal images. And even if young readers are little conscious of such matters, their potency remains. Within this high adventure , she subtly finds humanity with all its vulnerability and enigmas as well as its potential.  Can this be done in a book for young children? Can it be done in a funny, exciting, engaging, popular, successful book for young children? The answer is clearly 'yes'. And The Wizards of Once shows how. 

Heart amidst the humour 

Cressida Cowell has sneaked in amongst her funny, 'sketchy' drawings, one or two much more sensitive 'realistic' images. There is a stunning drawing of the heads of two wolves; the images of Crusher, the thoughtful giant, are amazingly powerful, especially the one which shows him amongst the treetops, contemplating the stars; the hands that hold the injured sprite, Squeezjoos, are not those of a cartoon character, but delicately and touchingly human. The same feeling of sensitivity and thoughtfulness creeps into the writing too, without ever detracting from the excitement of the narrative. There is a beautiful passage when the giant lifts Wish, one of the story's heros, into the treetops, and the really quite long section describing the 'Song of Lost Magic', as heard in the dungeons of the Iron Fort, is just superbly affecting. 

This a story that pulls at the heart strings as well as triggering the adrenaline. In fact, at one point it is in danger of stopping the heart altogether. It treats of human relationships and the importance (and danger) to life of free, imaginative magic. It raises issues and asks questions, without necessarily giving answers or even explaining the questions themselves. It even flirts with metafiction and post-modernism when it intrudes the role of an unidentified narrator into the storytelling itself.  In the midst of their laughter and excited involvement in the story, will young readers be terribly aware of any of this? Possibly not. Will it affect them, cause them to pause for thought, live with them long after the book is finished. Almost certainly. 

Wizards of (more than) once

Without ever losing the qualities that have made her books so deservedly popular, very gently (and cleverly) Cressida Cowell leads her young readers into something deeper, something richer, something even more magical. In doing so,  her contribution to children's literature follows exactly the same path. She is a true hero of current children's fiction. Her books are a gift and children, parents, carers, and teachers should all be deeply grateful for it.

The close of this book clearly sets us up for more to come. Joy indeed. Bring it on. 

Then, at the end of this rather special story, there is a poem. It is a rather special poem. It may not be as simple as it seems.  It may just be magical. You must find it for yourself. In fact you can only find it for yourself. You must find the time when we were wizards. Once. 

(I would write these in very scrawly handwriting except that my blogging tool is not that versatile.)

*For example writer Geoffrey Willams and cartoonist Ronald Searle very successfully used a similar approach in creating the Molesworth books back in the 1950s - books which could perhaps be said to be the precursors of Tom Gates and the Wimpy Kid (as well, of course, of a whole stack of extortionately expensive notebooks).
**Of course it takes a great deal of artistic skill to create this impression and still communicate as effectively as she does. 
***Alas, poor authors, always that 'however'. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Murderer's Ape by Jakob Wegelius

A queue jumper 

I must apologise to all the other (possibly wonderful) books that have been waiting patiently on my reading pile for a while now. This one jumped the queue. 

For starters,  a strong recommmdation from Philip Pullman is hard to ignore and he is quoted as saying of this: 'I don't know when I last read a book with such pure and unalloyed pleasure.' I often give only limited (if any) credence to book jacket hype, but this seemed to have a ring of genuine enthusiasm. Then, as soon as I picked the book up and opened its pages, it struck me as one of the most beautiful and intriguingly attractive volumes I have held since . . . well, since Thornhill actually (and that wasn't very long ago) but then that book itself was quite exceptional. The two incentives together made The Murderer's Ape irresistible and I started reading before I put it down again. That I finished it before going back to reading anything else is testament to this book being far more than an entrancing cover. 

Charmingly quirky

In fact it turned out that entrancing is an excellent description for the whole story.  I have noticed that children's stories from continental Europe often have a quirky element, less common in those originally written in English.*
I do not mean this as a negative. Quite the contrary. It tends to give them what is, for an English-speaking reader, delightful freshness and inordinate charm. Here we have a story with a gorilla as the main character, indeed the eponymous narrator.  She is Sally Jones (all one name, not two, despite appearances!) and is not only intelligent and literate (although she cannot speak) but a skilled artisan and talented engineer. She lives amongst a cast of otherwise totally human characters and the rest of her world seem to accept her presence and nature, often without apparent surprise or question. This odd situation is never really explained or justified, yet it is presented as so much a given of the story that we as readers happily accept it too. The situation itself becomes very much a central element of the book's allure. 

The long and the short of it

The whole narrative too has a rather different feel from many of our contemporary children's books. There is a tendency these days to try to hold children's interest either with lashings of silly humour, or with a pell mell torrent of highly dramatic action.  Although The Murderer's Ape  has a good deal of both humour and incident, these are couched within a lengthy, meandering narrative, more reminiscent in some ways of Dickens. It leads the reader through many episodes and involves them in journeys across oceans and continents (Asia as well as Europe)  whilst gradually working towards its resolution. It is not afraid to linger and fill in detail of each interesting and different episode along the way. And this is far from being a bad thing. What it does is allow the reader time and opportunity to get to know the characters really well and consequently to care deeply about what happens to them. When things are going well, we are happy to wallow in pleasures along with the story's loveable protagonists. When they are going badly we are keen to turn pages in the hope that our friends will come through to better times. The story's setting in the relatively recent past (between the two World Wars of the 20th century) sheds interesting light onto many aspects of  social and political history  (particularly the development of transport) whilst still feeling relatively easy to imagine and identify with. 

For a children's book, it is fairly long and will require young readers with at least a degree of reading stamina. Yet it continually feels too short rather than too lengthy. The version we have here must, I think, be an excellent translation; its prose is always comfortable to read and (despite one or two instances of US spelling/usage) convincingly idiomatic. Its short chapters propel the reading forward and, even if it's grip is not vice (vise?) like, it is nevertheless completely engrossing and compelling.

Endearing characters

This results primarily from the fact that the book's greatest strength of all lies in its characters, who we come to know so well. A few are wicked and corrupt,  as the story demands,  others develop goodness as a result of what happens in the story itself, but its protagonists are wholeheartedly good, decent people (plus, of course one good, decent gorilla). They continually demonstrate real concern, kindness and loyalty. As readers, they are people (!) we care about and are pleased to spend time with. We desperately want things to turn out well for them and are immeasurably warmed when they do. They are, I am sure, also characters with whom parents and teachers will be delighted for their children to spend time. The Murderer's Ape may not be a deep and meaningful book, like some I have recently reviewed,  but it is the epitome of reading pleasure. It will give rich, entrancing, heartwarming entertainment  to many, I know,  for many years to come. 

A gem in the turban 

The book is considerably enhanced by the author's own copious very skilled and engaging illustrations. Like the best, they do not stifle or supersede the reader's own imagination, but help considerably in drawing us into the world and time of the story. They will, perhaps, be particularly helpful to many children in providing rich, detailed images of places they do not directly know. The depictions of Lisbon are especially evocative.  

There is no better way to describe this book than to say that it is truly and deeply enchanting. It is a gem in the turban of children's literature and will provide its readers with one of their strangest but most enduring fictional frienships. 

We should once again be grateful to Pushkin Press for bringing us not only a sumptuous volume but another children's fiction jewel that most of us could never have accessed in its original language. It is similarly available in the USA from Delacorte Press.

*Dave Shelton's decidedly quirky A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a notable and very wonderful exception.