fairies

Rowan Oakwing and Children’s Literature in London: a guest post by EJ Clarke

Rowan Oakwing fluttered through my door during the summer. With the picture of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament in the background, I knew this would be a book firmly rooted in a London setting. And I was not wrong. I always knew there was magic in London’s parks – those breaths of fresh air and greenery in the heart of a busy, bustling city, but EJ Clarke makes them come alive, as inside each park he has set the homes of tiny, winged creatures. When Rowan, an ordinary girl, cries herself to sleep in Hyde Park, she wakes up to find that she’s been transformed into a fairy. Her new size may be tiny, but Rowan is a fierce, feisty heroine and she takes on her quest to find her missing parent and rejoin the human world with strength and determination. This girl has grit! 

With a setting that’s tangible, a host of admirable characters facing the danger of roaming urban foxes and malicious fairies, as well as a dash of nature and magic, this is a tightly-plotted read. Reminiscent of the flying fairies of Peter Pan, and the ‘Wizard of Oz‘ feeling of wishing to go home, Rowan Oakwing brings fairies into contemporary London. EJ Clarke has kindly shared with us his own recommendations for a children’s literary London adventure.

rowan-oakwingrowan-oakwing-postcard-sep16

Every day I arrive at Kings Cross on my way to work and pass by ‘Platform 9¾’. No matter what time of day it is, there always seems to be a large queue of Harry Potter fans waiting to have their picture taken pushing their luggage trolley ‘through’ the wall.

This of course speaks to the enduring appeal of Potter, but also to one of the aspects of JK Rowling’s fabulous series that always grabbed me personally.

Namely that the world of Harry Potter is not a remote fantasy universe that has no connection with our own, but rather it exists in parallel, accessible from one of London’s busiest train stations, if you only know the right way in.

As Platform 9¾ shows, there’s nothing more delicious for a mind in thrall to a book than to be able to physically stand in the place where your hero has stood and project yourself into their story.

When I was writing my first children’s novel, Rowan Oakwing – a story where an ordinary girl becomes a fairy in Hyde Park and has to make a perilous journey across London – I knew I wanted all the locations that my heroine visits to be places you could go to in real life. Because whilst fantasy can transport you to whole other universes, it’s all the more exciting to know that magic could exist right beneath your feet if only you know where to look.

London itself provided me with inspiration, but so too have many wonderful children’s books that all lend a sense of the magical to our capital city. Here’s my top ten pieces of London-set children’s literature:

peter-pan

  1. Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie. In earlier incarnations, Peter Pan meets the fairies of Kensington Gardens (where a statue of him stands today), but this is the classic version of his story where Wendy Darling begins her adventure to Neverland from her family home in Bloomsbury.

mary-poppins

  1. Mary Poppins by PL Travers. Though 17 Cherry Tree Lane where Mr & Mrs Banks live is an entirely fictional address, the series of novels and iconic film that resulted again use London as a springboard into a magical imaginary world.

paddington

  1. A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. Before Platform 9¾ was even a twinkle in JK Rowling’s eye, a homeless talking bear was made synonymous with another of London’s grand railway stations.

harry-potter-philosopher

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. Kings Cross provides the iconic portal into Rowling’s world of magic, but the Potter series effortlessly weave the extraordinary into the fabric of London. Not least my favourite, Diagon Alley, accessed through the ‘Leaky Cauldron’ pub on Charing Cross Road.

the-wombles

  1. The Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford. So named because the author’s daughter mispronounced Wimbledon Common, all the eco aware creatures living secretly in a London park were inspired by members of Beresford’s own family.

the-borribles

  1. The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti. A YA adventure that is the dark mirror to The Wombles, the elfin-eared Borribles live in Battersea Park and have to undertake a dangerous journey across London to defeat their enemies, the Rumbles.

bfg

  1. The BFG by Roald Dahl. In which Sophie’s imaginative plan to defeat the BFG’s tormentors is to enlist the help of the Queen herself, by bringing the giant BFG to meet her at Buckingham Palace.

ruby-in-the-smoke

  1. The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman. Whilst the fabulous His Dark Materials trilogy contains scenes in London, it’s hard to claim the books for the capital when they are so steeped in all things Oxford. Not so The Ruby in the Smoke however, where another strong female protagonist goes on an adventure in Victorian London to search for clues to her father’s mysterious death.

phoenix

  1. The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit. Edwardian London this time, as five children living in Camden find a talking Phoenix in a magic carpet that takes them on many adventures, including one memorable scene where the Phoenix accidentally sets fire to the Garrick Theatre during a production of The Water Babies.

ballet-shoes

  1. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. The three adopted heroines live on the Cromwell Road in the Kensington of the 1930s, from where they often venture out to look at the dolls houses at the V&A. But this is not a book to put little girls in their place. Instead it’s very much an inspirational story about finding your vocation, which is exactly what the girls do at the ‘Children’s Academy’ near Russell Square.

With thanks to EJ Clarke for his enlightening and inspiring London post. Perhaps during half term you might partake in your own literary tour. In the meantime, you can buy Rowan Oakwing here

Back to School First Readers

It’s September. Back to school time in the UK, and a new school year. Sometimes that means a new school, sometimes a new teacher, and sometimes a new book series. Three new finds for newly independent readers:

isadora moon

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster


This utterly charming and totally irresistible new series follows the adventures of Isadora, half vampire, half fairy. Illustrated throughout in pink (for fairy) and black (for vampire), the book is a delightful twist on the current crop of first readers, which often feature fairies, but not like this one, which comes with extra bite (a fairy with fangs!).

Isadora is both cute and quirky, and struggles to decide whether she would rather attend fairy school, in the daytime, like her fairy mother did, or vampire school, at night, just like her vampire father did when he was young.

Despite being a combination of fantastical characters, Isadora is hugely relatable for her feelings of being ‘different’ to everyone else, and her attempt to make sense of the world. Of course the experiences at the two different schools dominate the book, but it’s the little touches that make the story stand out – mentions of Isadora’s favourite food (peanut butter on toast), the mistake of taking along one’s soft toy on the first day of school, managing parents on different time schedules and trying to please them both.

The illustrations of Isadora and her peers make this truly exquisite. The page dedicated to Isadora trying to dance at fairy school is hilarious, with tiny vignettes of her moves – it turns out colour does matter for Isadora! With plentiful wit throughout, and mischief and magic, this is a wonderfully unique and sparkly new series. My test readers already want the rest in the series (Isadore Moon Has a Birthday, Goes to the Ballet and Goes Camping), and in my opinion this is definitely a series to rival Claude. Well-conceived, well executed. A triumph. For ages 5-7 years (and fun adults too!) Find Isadora here.

the new teacher

The New Teacher by Dominique Demers, illustrated by Tony Ross, translated from the French by Sander Berg

Newly available in English, although first published in French in 1994, this is an adorable tale of what a good teacher – one who doesn’t necessarily follow the rules – can do for a class.

Mademoiselle Charlotte, who doesn’t even walk or look like the other teachers, talks to a rock. She doesn’t write her name on the board, and she asks the class what they want to do. And so begins the class’s foray into a new type of learning. Narrated by one of the children in the class, this is a delightfully subversive, humorous and endearing story, wonderfully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame).

It’s always cheering to see books for young children with exemplary vocabulary, and this oozes it with abundance – I’m sure it is there in the original French too, for there is the odd quirky phrase that might be more familiar in the original language, but retaining it still makes sense, and gives the book its own distinct flavour:

“And as far as schools are concerned, let’s just say I know my onions. My dad and I have moved house loads and I’ve been to tons of schools!”

Embedded within Miss Charlotte’s teaching is daily storytelling, and this love for storytelling shines out from the story. Added to this is the children’s growing attachment to their teacher, so much so that they put on a performance to illustrate the fact. However, like all great fictional teachers and Mary Poppins figures – they go where they are needed most, and so by the end of the story, our protagonist is left to get used to another new teacher. A gentle persuasive story for age six plus (confident reading alone, or shared with parent). Buy it here.

grandma bendy

Grandma Bendy and the Great Snake Escape by Izy Penguin

One of the most popular and talked about elements of primary school education in the UK today has to be ‘show and tell’. Stories of ‘who showed what’ and ‘what was said’ roll from the tongues of little ones on the walk home from school.

So it’s no great surprise that with the launch of publisher Maverick Children’s Books Junior Fiction titles, comes a tale about what can go wrong with show and tell. When Lucy reaches to extract her show and tell item from her schoolbag, she pulls out a snake instead. Bully Mike Grimace has put it there, but when it escapes and everyone blames Lucy, she must find it and reveal the real culprit.

With a cast of zany characters, and exuberant dizzy text, this story zooms along with pace. Grandma Bendy implausibly zigzags and twizzles her super stretchy twisty limbs around the town, getting Lucy and her brother into all manner of places, and mischief, but in doing so helps them search for the snake. There is an inept policeman, a nosy journalist and some other typical characters, but the author has added some nice modern touches, such as Grandma adding broccoli to the children’s ice cream floats so that she doesn’t get told off by their mother for not giving them enough veggies.

The illustrations match the text – a lovely map at the beginning displays the layout of the town with the same crazy aplomb – random sheep, a tree that looks a bit like a sheep etc, which is all the sort of thing that makes a child chuckle. The characters too look like their personalities, and there’s plenty of chaos to behold.

Other titles launching in the junior fiction range include Letter to Pluto by Lou Treleaven and Rickety Rocket by Alice Hemming. They’re not short at 128 pages each, but highly illustrated with different text formats, and might be a good stepping stone from learning to read to reading chapter books alone. You can find Grandma Bendy’s snake escape here.

Superfairies: A Guest Post by Janey Louise Jones

SF Dancer the Wild Pony SF Basil the Bear Cub cover

This week an exciting new series, Superfairies, is published by the author of Princess Poppy – Janey Louise Jones.The books feature a team of superfairies who use their skills and magic to save animals in trouble. Each book has full-colour illustrations by Jennie Poh, a neat story divided into easy chapters, the fairy song and a small interactive quiz about the fairies. The books are delightful – like little collectors’ items, and full of the beauty of nature. I’m delighted to have Janey Louise Jones guest blog for me today about her favourite wildflowers – a huge part of the landscape of the Superfairies.

My Favourite Wildflowers by Janey Louise Jones

Whilst writing my new series, Superfairies, for girls from 6-8 years, I’ve been reflecting on my lifelong love of nature, woodlands and the delicate wildflowers which grow in woods, hedgerows and meadows. All of this fires my imagination and informs all my stories, and is linked to my passion for fairies! And it’s a passion which began at the age of my readers. The Superfairies get their powers from their respect for nature, and they wear floral head-dresses and gowns inspired by flowers.

The colour palette of the flowers in the natural world informs all my thoughts about colour and delicacy in general. What could be more perfectly designed than an exquisite flower head, skirted with dainty, silky petals, as sheer as gossamer – how perfect as a dress for a fairy!

I am not the first to feel this way about wildflowers and I’m sure I won’t be the last. As a child, I fell in love with Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies, collecting the books and china plates. Yes, they are idealised, dreamy, maybe even ‘chocolate box’, but they are much more wholesome and enchanting than many of the garish images fed to children these days.

For me, flowers which grow wild in meadows and tangled through the hedgerows of country lanes, peeking out like sparkling rubies, amethysts and sapphires, are more beautiful than perfect glasshouse blooms forced on for the commercial market.

When I was a child, a great friend once told me that she didn’t believe flowers should be cut, that it was like killing them, and although I do love vases of flowers indoors, it seems more natural and correct that they should grow in the wild, wherever they please, in ill-disciplined, rebellious gaggles.  I would never dream of plucking a wildflower from its roots, and indeed they do not survive for long if one does.

I also think that the names of wildflowers make the prettiest names for girls and have populated my stories with characters named, Poppy, Daisy, Marigold, Lavender and Sweetpea.

Poppies
I have always had a love affair with wild, red poppies. A simple, herbaceous flower, I think they are bold, powerful, simple, emotive and divine. Perhaps the paintings by impressionist painters such as Claude Monet first caught my eye as a child, as well as fields of poppies in my local area of East Lothian. I based my first series of books on a character named ‘Poppy’, and in fact, for many years in my childhood, insisted on being called Poppy. It’s still my favourite girls’ name – but I have three sons!

Bluebells
These flowers spend most of the year underground as bulbs and emerge from April onwards. I love the way they dance and nod in the spring after the colourless, barren months of winter. I would never pick a bluebell – they look just right beneath trees and along riverbanks, and furthermore, they are a protected species! Over half of the world’s bluebells are in the UK.  Sometimes they can looks like a hypnotic haze of purple-blue mist – too beautiful for words.

Daisies
Like many little girls, I adored making a daisy chain, considering it one of the skills I must achieve, along with telling the time, tying shoe laces and baking cakes. Daisies represent purity and innocence, and I find there is something unspoilt about their humble simplicity. What can be a better marker of summer, than daisies on the lawn? As for the name, many people think it comes from ‘day’s eye. Now, Daisy is another girl’s name that I adore!

Cornflower
Bright blue cornflowers are so cheerful and pretty. They got their name from growing in fields of corn (as well as barley, oats, wheat and rye.) I first noticed them when my father started to grow them in our garden. He was interested in attracting butterflies and bumblebees. It’s a pity that so many gardens now are mainly paved with some tubs and shrubs, because these kinds of wildflowers definitely do attract bumblebees and butterflies. I am also passionate about bees and ladybirds…but that’s a whole other topic!

Sometimes I look at flowers which are so cool and trendy, and available all year round, and hardly look like flowers at all, and I think, I’d rather have wildflowers – even if it is just for a few precious weeks of the year. Everything should have its season – its time in the sun.

You can buy SuperfairiesDancer the Wild Pony here, and Superfairies: Basil the Bear Cub here.

Witches for slightly older children

Following last Wednesday’s blog on younger readers’ books about witches, three more witchy series for slightly older children. What’s noticeable about these newly published series is that the reader can almost reach out and touch the amount of fun and tongue-in-cheek mischievousness within.

bella broomstick

Bella Broomstick by Lou Kuenzler and illustrated by Kyan Cheng
This newest witch, Bella Broomstick, was first published this year. Author Lou Kuenzler is a perennial favourite author in children’s libraries, with her series Shrinking Violet and Princess Disgrace, and Bella is a spritely addition to the canon. She’s a young witch, raised by her nasty Aunt Hemlock, and told that she is so terrible at magic that she’s being sent to live in Person World (through the invisibility curtain dividing the two worlds), and she mustn’t use magic ever again.

As it happens, Bella makes herself at home in this new world, and finds it quite exciting – with fluffy slippers, yummy breakfasts and proper baths, as opposed to Aunt Hemlock’s wobbly warts, frogspawn porridge and squelchy swamps.

Of course not everything goes to plan, and Bella does use some magic to rescue a kitten, and before long she’s in a bucket load of trouble.

Lou Kuenzler has cunningly subverted the children’s literature trend for exploring the witch world, and instead has implanted Bella in the Person realm, reminiscent of long ago shows on television such as Bewitched, except here the protagonists are children. The lovely deeper meaning behind the simple story is that Bella doesn’t expect there to be any magic in the person world, whereas in fact, she discovers that although mirrors don’t talk back – there are some magic things, such as toilets that flush and television. There is magic in our world, if we open our eyes and look for it.

There’s also the underlying theme of a child just wanting to be appreciated, and discovering that its not the tricks you can do that define you, but how you behave and how you use those magic tricks.

There are influences of Blyton here – the magic is gentle and beguiling, and a lovely use of animals as comforters for a young child – Bella’s distinguishing talent is that she can talk in animal language.

Accompanied by cute, doodle illustrations throughout, this is suitable for fluent 6 year old readers and certainly for age 8+ yrs. You can buy the book here.

witch wars witch switch

Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Laura Ellen Andersen
This the most fun I’ve had reading a book in quite a while – the most inventive, crazy, yet hilarious read – humour that reaches far beyond the slapstick – although there’s that too. Fashion meets witches in this madcap adventure that takes Tiga Whicabim (work out the anagram), down the drain pipes into a world of witches (a town called Sinkville, ie., the world beneath the sinks – there’s even a map at the beginning of the book).

Fran the Fabulous Fairy from the Sinkville version of Hollywood (Brollywood – so called because it’s under most of the drainpipes from human world and so gets very wet), explains that Tiga has been nominated to take part in Witch Wars, a competition between nine nine-year old witches to see who will be Top Witch. Fran is a TV presenter, and will be following Tiga round with a television camera to film her taking part. In a Big Brother-esque motif, the competitors are all filmed.

Each witch must solve a series of riddles to move onto the next clue and win, as long as another witch doesn’t squash their shrivelled head (carried about on their flat hat – no one in this witch world has a pointy hat – they are made pointed by shooting back up the drainpipes into the human world.)

Indeed, every facet of this book is original, inventive, entertaining and witty. From the underwater spa, to the bed with feet, to viewing television on the back of a spoon or on somebody’s bald head (bringing a whole new meaning to the word portable!), to my favourite scene with the cove witches, where Tiga and her friend Peggy practise their ‘echoes’.

This book is fabulous. Witty, contemporary, the plot zips along, presenting the riddles of the competition to the reader so that they can solve them too, as well as containing jokes for both smaller children and overgrown ones! The nine-year-old witches are told they can be trusted to make all the rules for Sinkville, but not be trusted to look after themselves – brushing their teeth and putting themselves to bed on time.

There are constant allusions to fashion – although there’s clumsy and scruffy Peggy for those who can’t quite identify with the frock fascination. The prose is also punctuated with ‘breaking news’ alerts as each witch is knocked out the competition.

Added to the mayhem are Laura Ellen Andersen’s confident and stylish illustrations, depicting the shoe house, the clothing store, angry fairies and bald witches. They complement the text beautifully. Sibeal Pounder has no bounds to her imagination, and also cleverly alludes to fairy tales – Rapunzel to name but one, as well as Mary Poppins, with the witches’ floating tables. But the overarching theme is friendship.

These witches certainly have edge. They are feisty, funny, fabulous and flamboyant. Reading Witch Wars is like eating a cake that’s been made with the lightest of touches. It’s moreish and sweet. Thank goodness for the second, Witch Switch, and a third to come in March this year, Witch Watch. Try Witch Wars here.

Witchworld witchmyth

Witchworld by Emma Fischel, illustrations by Chris Riddell
Another modern spin on how witches might be in the 21st century. Our protagonist, Flo, is a quietly intelligent and sensitive young witch about to start secondary school. Her mother is editor-in-chief of a celebrity witch magazine Hocus Pocus, and Flo also has a typical witchteen sister Hetty.

As with Witch Wars, it’s the inventiveness and modernising that shouts from this book, although it’s much more serious than Witch Wars. The witches in Witchworld are not antiquated witches who ride on broomsticks and stir potions in cauldrons. They have a cupboard full of Potions2Go, they ride on Skyriders, talk to each other on their skychatters (phones), and their wands have become up-to-the-minute touchscreen spell sticks.

When Flo’s grandmother comes to stay, and warns Flo and her family about the impending Ghoul Attack, no one believes her. After all, she’s a throwback to a bygone era with her broomstick and ‘old ways’. Then Flo discovers that her grandmother is right – and not only do they have to save Witch World from the ghouls, they also have to convince everyone that the ghouls are real.

Featuring celebrity forest pixies and witch school proms, concerns with modern technology (using a magic mirror for hacking), obsession with appearances, therapy and communicating with busy parents, this is a witchworld that holds up a mirror to our own. It’s not subtle, but it’s incredibly fun.

The plot darts along merrily and the beautiful packaging of the book (from cover and inside illustrations by Chris Riddell to the colourful sprayed edges – the first book purple, the second orange) makes this a sure-fire winner with the 8-12 years age group. The second book, WitchMyth was published at the end of last year. Cast your spell here for a copy of the book.

 

Seasonal Books For Younger Readers Part 2

refuge

Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher
If you’re only buying one Christmas book this year, make it this one (although the mind boggles as to why you’d just buy one!). Refuge is a charity book – £5 for every sale goes to War Child. It’s a partnership of two very special people in the children’s book industry – Anne Booth – a magical writer who manages to be continually altruistic whilst writing thought-provoking literature for children, and Sam Usher, whose beautiful illustrations light up my eyes.

Refuge tells the traditional Christmas story in a new way, highlighting very cleverly and simply the struggle faced by a family seeking refuge – a family who could be anyone –  not just people from biblical times. It particularly demonstrates the kindness of strangers who help them along their way, and then take them in. Told from the point of view of the donkey, he explains the generosity of the innkeeper, the harshness of the journey, and the final granting of refuge. Of course it draws attention to the particular nub of our time – refugees and homelessness, and questions our basic humanity.

The illustrations sing from the page – Usher has depicted the nativity seamlessly in pen and wash, but inserted a shrewd narrative device of light on each page to express hope and freedom and sanctuary.

It’s published by Nosy Crow publishers, who are kindly absorbing the cost. They are a fairly new publishing group, who shine with innovation and are proving to have oodles of integrity. Their books are always of the highest quality, and this book is no different, which makes it easy to support.

For all ages. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or in any good book shop.

Snow bear

Snow Bear by Tony Mitton and Alison Brown
A winsome rhyming tale with one of the cutest bears in picturebooks. Alison Brown’s bear is far more abstract and less traditional than most bears, a cute white ball of fluff with dots for eyes and a cylindrical shape, but endearing nevertheless. There is glitter on this cover, snowdrops in silver that will catch any shop’s lights – who can resist glitter at Christmas? The story is more wintry than strictly Christmas – it could appeal to any faith denomination.

The bear is cold and looking for warmth. The other animals can’t help, and then he finally stumbles across a house with warming features – a comfortable armchair, a roaring fire, and a small girl who needs a hug. There is no explanation for the girl’s loneliness or why the bear needs human kindness, but the illustrations show incredible tenderness between the two when they do finally meet – the girl reads to the bear, helps him climb the stairs, and wraps him up warmly. The book is about solving loneliness, finding friendship, and showing kindness. The rhyming works well, the vocabulary is lovely. But it is the atmosphere created that warms the heart – the cold blue winter turning to reds, oranges and purples inside. It makes the reader want to climb inside the book itself. Perfect for reading aloud with a cuddle. 3+yrs. Buy it here.

toothfairys christmas

The Tooth Fairy’s Christmas by Peter Bently, illustrated by Garry Parsons
It’s always great fun to bring together more than one childhood character – in this case a very cold tooth fairy seeks the assistance of Father Christmas so that she can pick up a tooth from a particular child on Christmas Eve. Not everything goes smoothly though, as Santa is a little clumsy and they very nearly wake the sleeping child.

Told in rhyme, this is a fun giggle:
“Thank you for helping me out in this weather!”
She said. “It was lots of fun working together!”

There are some beautiful touches from both author and illustrator, the tooth fairy’s lounge is beautifully decorated – with Christmas tree and stocking – but alongside the seasonal touches are the numerous portraits on the wall of gappy smiles! In this story the tooth fairy doesn’t like the cold, and the wind whirls up her knickers, whereas Santa’s bottom gets stuck in the child’s window. I love the pages in which Santa’s huge face takes over the entire page, and the daintiness with which he tries to leave the tooth fairy her own Christmas present. A real joy to read. You can purchase it here.

fairytale hairdresser and father christmas
The Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas by Abi Longstaff and Lauren Beard
Another not entirely new book (published last year), but part of the fun series about Kittie Lacey, the Fairytale Hairdresser, that likes to splash with the glitter whatever the time of year. Like every other hairdresser, Kittie’s busiest time is Christmas. When she makes a home visit to Father Christmas to trim his beard and tend to all the elves, she discovers the Snow Queen has stolen all the presents.

Together with her hairdryer (isn’t it amazing what hairdryers can do?), and Father Christmas, Kitty melts the Snow Queen’s heart and they all deliver the presents together.

Some hilarious illustrations make this a sure-fire winner – look carefully for the page on which The Snow Queen tries different outfits for the party (the onesie is great), and the presents all the fairytale characters receive for Christmas (particularly Snow White’s). A lovely Christmas book (and Lauren Beard has even drawn in Father Christmas’ utility room). Fun indeed. You can buy it here.

 

Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein.

Ah, fairy tales. How things always come back to these – think of any book you’ve read recently as an adult – did it have elements of fairy tale in it? Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi twists the story of Snow White, Angela Carter is famous for her gory reimagining in The Bloody Chamber, or how about the parallels between Bluebeard and Gone Girl? Evil stepmothers in dysfunctional families, dangers awaiting women in the deep dark wood, conniving witches, brainless giants…

So why do we tell them to children? And why do we keep telling them?

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G K Chesterton.

We use fairy tales for so many different reasons – for a common cultural heritage – even a global cultural heritage as we find many fairy stories twisted and morphed in different versions throughout the world. Mainly, fairy tales teach children to overcome fears. They explain that although bad things can happen to good people, it is how one deals with the bad stuff that matters.

There is a great deal of death and violence in fairy stories – the wolf’s burnt bottom in the Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger and lying in a coma – and yet the point of it is to teach children to surmount that adversity. Hansel and Gretel combat the witch using their cunning and wit – they push her into the oven.

Fairy stories teach children to make the correct decisions – if Red Riding Hood hadn’t strayed from the path as her mother had warned, she wouldn’t have come across the wolf – if the little pigs had built their houses more strongly, the wolf wouldn’t have puffed them down. If Goldilocks wasn’t set on stealing, then maybe she wouldn’t have been confronted by three bears.

Moreover, fairy stories teach critical thinking. Are the characters making the right decisions? Are they being morally upstanding? There is often as much goodness as there is evil, either from unexpected sources (a kind woodcutter) or from unexpected resources inside ourselves – inner strength, intelligence, kindness.

The characters are often two dimensional because it is easier for children to identify with them, and the stories are packed with symbolism so that with each retelling of the story the reader or listener can interpret them in different ways.

And we do keep reinterpreting them.

dublin fairytale

A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton
This is a beautiful new picture book from a debut author that follows Fiona, a small girl dressed in red, to her grandmother’s house. It starts correctly – ‘Once upon a time’, but this is a twist on the traditional Red Riding Hood story. On the way she encounters a giant, a troll, and a dragon, but although they appear scary, they are actually all in distress in one way or another, and Fiona helps them out.

Then when the wolf nabs her basket, her new friends retrieve it for her – one good turn deserves another. They end up at Grandmother’s house – all together enjoying tea – and it turns out that Fiona’s grandmother is a friendly witch with a green face.

The magic lies in the setting. Fiona sets off with a map in hand, and each encounter with a fairy tale creature is set in a real place in Dublin –the book traces the city through illustrations.

The characters exude warmth, as does the book, which boasts tones of oranges and greens. It’s quite a unique illustrative style, old-fashioned almost, and hugely appealing to children, with easy shapes, interesting patterns, and beautiful detail on the buildings. A lovely addition to the fairy tale picture book canon. You can purchase from Waterstones here.

Imelda and the goblin king

Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith
The beautifully produced hardback version – with gold leaves and gold embossed title, a red spine and sumptuous cloth feel – gives an immediate suggestion that this book is fit for a king. The illustrations continue the theme – sumptuous colour and exquisite detail with old fashioned depictions of fairy creatures – elves and pixies with pointed ears, leafy wings, toadstools and garlanded heads. It is highly reminiscent of the flower fairies range.

It tells the story of Imelda, who ventures into an enchanted wood, populated by fairy folk. The Goblin King is a huge bully who arrives and locks up the Fairy Queen when things don’t suit him. Imelda plots for his comeuppance, and succeeds in ridding the forest of the bully – in fact he is turned into a worm!

The illustrations are what bring this story to life – each page is an adventure in itself, every fairy, pixie and elf seems to have its own distinct personality – the wings look like leaves, the flowers droop or bloom depending on mood, and the food looks stunningly sumptuous. There is exquisite detail, lovely use of speech bubbles, and humour as well. And of course, the moral of sharing and being friendly.

A beautiful book that would make a great gift. Purchase here.
 

 

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty