fairy tales

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year starts today, and this year, 2018, starts the Year of the Dog. These two wonderful new picture books celebrate aspects of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts

This wonderful retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale politicises the fairy tale, while also inverting the identity of the hero of the story. Whilst the hero is still a small boy in this version, he is also the emperor himself.

Rosy-cheeked little Ming Da becomes emperor of China at the young age of nine. But because he is so young, the ministers and advisers around him take advantage of him and steal from the treasury for their own gains. Soon, Ming Da’s kingdom is poor – the people can’t afford to dress, or buy food, but Ming Da is scared that the corrupt ministers will take over if he simply fires them.

With the help of his tailors, the boy emperor concocts a plan, and for the Chinese New Year parade, when traditionally people have dressed in new clothes so that evil spirits won’t recognise them, he tricks his ministers into wearing rice sacks and believing that the sacks are enchanted, and actually appear as the finest garments in the world.

A boy in the crowd does pipe up and shame them, but it is the emperor who has the last laugh, seeing his ministers flee in humiliation, enabling him to restore the riches to his people.

Compestine has bravely taken the origins of the tale together with a folklore element, and twisted them neatly to suit her purpose. In fact, she grew up in poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where food was scarce and Western folk and fairy tales banned.

Her book zings with both righteousness in the morality of the tale, but also in its new cultural identity and contemporary storytelling. David Roberts has created vivid, mesmerising artworks to match the tale, with colour vibrancy pared down so that the colour lives in the detail of the illustrations – the patterns of the silk robes, the intricate designs of ancient China. There is a clever switching too between full page framed illustrations and those that live in free space surrounded by white background.

The subtle colouring indicates a light touch, but also lets light onto the beautiful details of the expressive faces, as well as the sweet insertion of an observing mouse on each page. There is a guide to making your own Chinese New Year Parade robe at the back. You can buy it here.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Christopher Corr

A complete contrast in the illustrations here, in which Corr uses his book to explain how the Chinese zodiac came to be. There is colour vibrancy from the outset, and illustrations that take on a looser, less geometric styling than Roberts’ above, but which still carry a fair amount of detail, and feel authentically Chinese, well-researched and lively.

The story begins before the delineation of time, in ancient China when the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted to be able to calculate how old he was, and thus there must be a way of measuring time.

The Great Race begins. The emperor decrees that the first twelve animals to cross the river will have a year named after them. The animals’ personalities come out in their method of crossing, from the rat who is devious to the lucky rabbit. Some of the animals even take to teamwork to get across.

This is such an appealing picturebook. An old folktale told in contemporary language, with breathtakingly colourful images – the picture of Emperor Jade welcoming the tiger across is particularly bright and evocative.

All the animals are ‘male’, which again reiterates the debate made in the Guardian last month, but this may be a nod to how the story was always traditionally told. However, as Compestine has shown above, twisting a tale is perhaps what’s now due.

Despite the male dominance in both books, these are fantastic introductions to the Chinese New Year, and beautifully illustrated. You can buy The Great Race here.

 

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here

Fairy Tales Rejuvenated

Scientists have been looking at how folk and fairy tales, particularly stories of animals and magic, have been distributed from their place of origin. What they are interested in particularly is the different modes of travel – whether the tales are transmitted by a person moving from where they were and retelling the story in their new place – which is migratory storytelling, or whether the tales are told down a ‘whisper’ chain – one to another, but each person remaining static. The scientists are looking at what genomic data can tell us about the historic spread of culture, but that’s not what caught my eye in their studies. What fascinates me is the content itself.

For me, it’s interesting to see how different versions of fairy tales are told to different children, how different folk tales from different cultures overlap in themes and plot, and how we use fairy tale tropes to tell our own stories, or make our own arguments, especially when we update them. I have found that although children don’t always remember being specifically read fairy tales, there are familiar tropes that have sneaked into the vernacular or familiar strands that they have picked up by osmosis (or from Disney). They know, for example that it’s important to stop partying before the clock strikes midnight, that houses are sturdier built from bricks, that eating another’s porridge is rude, that one shouldn’t generally accept shiny red apples from strangers. So how do we make fairy stories exciting and relevant and different for the next generation -for the ‘instant gratification’ generation?

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales have been produced in a stunning publication in time for Christmas, with black and white illustrations within by Sarah Gibb, but also with foil on the cover and a ribbon bookmark (my new favourite thing). But it’s the spellbinding way that McKay recreates the fairy tales that is the real draw here. She has renamed her tales, but given the traditional name underneath, so as to help the readership, covering ten stories from Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin to The Swan Brothers, Twelve Dancing Princesses and more well-known stories including Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But McKay is clever in her storytelling. She understands that her readership may have an inkling of the denouement of the stories, so she finds another way to tell them – be it changing the point of view, or the timeframe through which they are told. For example, The Pied Piper of Hamelin is told from the perspective of the Mayor, who may have a slightly different view from normal on the terrible tragedy of the children being taken away (those noisy, litter-dropping children!). Hansel and Gretel has been renamed ‘What I Did in the Holidays and Why Hansel’s Jacket is So Tight (by Gretel, aged 10)’, and not only tells the story backwards through Gretel’s point of view, but is narrated by the teacher and incorporates much humour and subtle insertion of other fairy stories along the way.

There are newer lessons in here too – with the story of Rapunzel, McKay manages to convey something leaning towards a discussion on freedom and captivity – what it really means to be free and the fears that this can bring. With Snow White, McKay extrapolates our sense of what is considered beautiful, and also whether beauty is held within. By telling some stories from a perspective of the fairy tale characters in old age, looking back, more wisdoms can be brought out with the beauty of hindsight, and sometimes the clever children listening question their grandparents on decisions they made as children – Snow White as a grandmother is particularly effective – also bringing to the discussion the difference between telling a story and making up a story, and things purporting to be truths.

These stories will appeal because they sound modern, despite the ancient stories buried inside, and because they right some ancient wrongs – McKay clearly feels sorry for Rumpelstiltskin, and gives him some relief. This is a wonderful collection of fairy tales retold, with bite and pathos and humour. You can buy a copy here.

If you’re looking for picture books that retell the stories, David Roberts and Lynn Roberts-Maloney have published four fairy tales in ‘retro’ style. Contradictory though that sentence may seem – for these fairy tales have existed for hundreds of years, and yet by ‘retroing’ them, the authors have moved them into different timezones. Sleeping Beauty is set in the 1950s, Little Red in the late eighteenth century, Cinderella in the roaring ‘20s and Rapunzel in the 1970’s.

Updating the fairy tales not only means that the authors can inject them with our own sensibilities, but also showcase thoughts about our own history by setting them in a specific past era. In 1950’s Sleeping Beauty, it is the needle of a record player of course, not a spinning wheel that sends protagonist Annabel to sleep. But more than that, Roberts beautifully highlights the architecture and comforts of the time – the burgeoning building works post-war, the fashions and hairstyles, and before Annabel (Sleeping Beauty) goes to sleep, she is shown to be an up-and-coming wise young lady, complete with reading a book, harbouring a fascination with space travel and robots, her discoveries (Elvis) indicative of the 1950s.

This sleeping teen sleeps for a 1,000 years and wakes to find another strong female protagonist exploring her 1950s house as if it were a museum. The robot poster on the wall is an extra special touch in a book that speaks to discovery and learning, science and science fiction. A unique way of crushing stereotypes and exploring lasting fairy tales.You can buy it here.

More subversion in This is Not a Fairy Tale by Will Mabbit, illustrated by Fred Blunt. This sequel to This is Not a Bedtime Story returns Sophie and her Dad as he attempts to read Sophie a typical fairy story from his book (princess in tower etc), but Sophie interrupts, and then changes the story to suit her. This story within a story picture book pokes fun at traditional gendered stereotyping in fairy stories; the princess using a combine harvester and then a transformer to reach the tower in which the prince is sleeping.

Not only is there role reversal, but because Sophie, her Dad and granddad are all pictured reading the story, there is the humdrum domesticity and mayhem outside the story too – with Sophie and her relatives’ speech in bubbles. It’s a brilliantly colourful book, with illustrations bordering on comic book style, with plenty of humour abounding. There’s more nuance in this metafiction, as the author alludes to where Sophie is getting her inspiration for her retelling, but it’s not all worthy – there are plenty of funny noises and bottom jokes too. You can buy it here.

Fairy Tale Pets by Tracey Corderoy and Jorge Martin pulls characters out of fairy tales and puts them in another story altogether. In this case, Bob and his pet dog Rex decide to open a pet-sitting service to make some money. But all the creatures left with them are from fairy tales – Baby Bear, billy goats gruff, and finally the three pigs’ pet…puppy. Of course, mayhem ensues, and Bob has to turn to making his money some other way. The book relies upon the reader having knowledge of the key fairy tales in order to understand the jokes, but it’s a fun way to show how stories can be manipulated, pulled apart and pieced back together, especially for young readers. The illustrations are large and impactful, with liberal use of colour in quite wacky chaotic scenes. Well worth a look.You can buy it here.

Detective Stories

“If in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns,” said Raymond Chandler on writing detective stories. But in the business of children’s books, should we really be discussing dead bodies, hardened criminals, violent crime? If, like me, your kids (at a very young age) went through a stage of playing nothing but Cluedo, then you might beg to differ. If they can spend an afternoon arguing whether it was Col Mustard or Rev Green who hit someone over the head with a candlestick in the library, then you would assume that their own library could contain a little noir.

Pigeon P. I. by Meg McLaren is a tongue-in-cheek parody of classic detective fiction, which is why, although the publisher has it as for ages 0+ in their catalogue, I rather feel it is best suited to slightly older children. The plot however, is easy to pick up.

Pigeon PI, complete with detective hat, is resting when the Kid (a blonde chirpy little thing) turns up and asks for help finding her missing friends. Her persistent nagging leads Pigeon PI to take the case, and when the Kid herself goes missing, he knows he has a real case on his hands (especially when the birdbrain police won’t take it on – they are busy with doughnuts). The mystery is solved swiftly, but it’s the expressiveness of the birds, the brilliant use of colour, lighting and shadow, and the detective and noir references that make this book so enjoyable.

There are too many in-jokes and references to mention, but my favourites include the ‘Legal Eagles’, wing-clipping, the ‘heavies’, and a hilarious number of visual illustrative jokes too.

Each spread is busy, and different, using many clever devices and effects – from the comic book style of the first few pages to split pages and the use of a red filter.

The end papers themselves are incredibly funny too – from detective thinking poses to asking tough questions – it guides the reader through being a private investigator (as a pigeon). In fact, throughout this busily illustrated book, there are numerous clues and ideas about PIs. The title page shows the private ads of the newspaper, advertising the PI, and there are quite a few bill posters and rubbish detritus throughout, strewn across the pages, but showing images of missing birds, advertisements, articles etc.

The book conjures images of Philip Marlowe, or Eddie Valiant – the PI in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s a book that gives a wry spin on the American detective movie, with plenty of feathers. You’ll find yourself reading it out loud with an American twang. What’s not to like? Seek it out here.

Sky Private Eye and the Case of the Runaway Biscuit by Jane Clarke and Loretta Schauer

One clever way of navigating the world of fairy tales is to re-examine them with a detective, which is exactly what Jane Clarke is doing with her new series about Sky Private Eye.

When the Little Old Man and Little Old Lady report their gingerbread boy missing, Sky must use her wits in Fairytale Town to try to find him. Using clues, and conducting interviews, as well as eventually catching the culprit, the book puts a whole new spin on the classic fairytale. There’s also a good deal of baking and mentioning of cakes, as well as the introduction of the Fairytale Olympics – after all The Gingerbread Man is about running as fast as you can.

The illustrations are bright and appealing – leaving little white space – and provide plenty of visual literacy, being busy and full of items to peruse. The idea is very much for the reader to be his or her own detective, deciphering what is different from the original fairy tale, and predicting what might happen. The book was devoured by my testers here, who definitely wanted more. You can buy it here.

Detective Gordon: A Case in Any Case by Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee

This is the final book about Detective Gordon in this Swedish writer’s trilogy, and is a gentle, illustrated (in full-colour) book that suits newly independent readers, or fills the gap of a softly written story for more confident readers.

Detective Gordon is on a break, perhaps even on the cusp of retirement, leaving assistant Buffy in sole charge of the police station as the new Police Chief. Buffy is a mouse, Gordon, a frog. But Gordon misses the police station and Buffy misses having a companion. When there are strange noises at the police station one night, Buffy asks Gordon for help – after all, being a lone police mouse is dangerous and scary work. Together, the two officers are braver and cleverer.

Again, the plot here is easy to decipher and simple to detect, but there is a much greater depth to these warm stories from Ulf Nilsson. Themes of companionship, and self-discovery, tales of friendship and teamwork. The text and illustrations combine to give this book a feeling of lightness and bounce, and a quiet steady contemplation permeates the entire book – something that’s often missing from children’s fiction – it’s both insightful and yet full of charm. A great introduction to detective fiction for the very youngest – with plenty of cakes and wholesome allusions. Watch out for the slight touches of melancholy interspersed with wry humour – a perfect pitch to capture the emotions. You can buy it here.

The Great Shelby Holmes Girl Detective by Elizabeth Eulberg, illustrated by Matt Robertson

It’s glaringly obvious where the allusions lie in this new book. When John Watson moves to New York from Maryland, he’s fairly stuck for friends. Until he meets neighbour Shelby Holmes. Despite being only nine years old, Shelby is the best detective in the neighbourhood – using her inflated confidence and acute skills of observation to discover everything about everybody.

Within days of John’s arrival, there is a dog-napping of a prize poodle, and Shelby jumps straight on the case, using John as her somewhat unwilling sidekick. It’s rather less menacing than The Hound of the Baskervilles, but very modern, fresh, sassy and cute. The plot skips along at a relentless pace, at the same time showing insights into friendship and sibling rivalry.

The characters are likeable – Shelby is slightly infuriating at times, but always full of words of wisdom, and friendly and abrupt at the same time. She has low tolerance for fools. The black and white humorous illustrations throughout serve to make our protagonist and sidekick rather endearing. Continuing nods to Eulberg’s inspiration add a lightness and many wry smiles.

What’s more the landscape is well-realised. Eulberg may have transplanted Baker Street to New York City, but she paints a realistic, fully-fleshed and diverse neighbourhood, which makes the read even more up-to-date and pertinent. The first of many we presume. Detect it here.

Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham

Okay, so there’s been a plethora of these types of books recently. Mysteries for the 9+ age group abound on the bookshelves at the moment. From the Scarlet and Ivy Series, Murder Most Unladylike, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection – the list goes on and on. This new series, set in Victorian London, is as immersive as any of those aforementioned, and also I would suggest, pitched for a less well able reader.

Rose Raventhorpe is born into the aristocracy and ought to behave as a Victorian young lady (already, the place of women in historical society is a hook), but when her butler is murdered – the third butler in Yorke to be found dead in a week – Rose feels compelled to investigate.

With sinister grave-robbers, underground tunnels and cats with strange powers, this is a dark and twisty little tale, yet highly readable with good pace, and also packs in a good supernatural element.

Rose is a fine protagonist – smart, curious, brave. She isn’t ‘fiesty’ necessarily, seems calmer than that, and is prone to making mistakes, but is always well-intentioned. But for me, the stand-out element is the amount of humour in the story – caricatures abound from the butlers and their gloves, to Emily, Rose’s friend in mourning. A historical giggle with darkness and magic. Investigate how to buy it here.

 

 

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

I’ve written before about the importance of fairy tales, their cultural heritage and why they remain critical in today’s modern culture. But what about fables (stories with a moral message) or folk tales (stories stemming from an oral tradition, passed down by the ‘folk’ who told them), or legends (semi-true stories with important meaning for the culture in which they originate) or myths (stories that explain a history or occurrence)?

This novel isn’t any of the above, and yet reads like one. It borrows many of the familiar tropes from them – good versus evil, the magic of an animal (this time a bird), and the heroics of ordinary people. And throughout the story, the reader can trace glimpses of remembered tales, faint associations with stories of old. It’s a clever little book.

Alberto, the carpenter, lives in a special little town called Allora, where the fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like brightly-coloured jewels on the hilltop. But he suffers great loss when a plague sweeps through the town, killing his entire family. He turns from making furniture to making coffins. When his food starts to go missing, he tries to discover who the food thief is, and before long befriends a boy, Tito, and a rather special bird. But there is danger ahead, and Alberto must risk everything to save the lonely boy from his brutal stepfather and the town’s rather greedy mayor.

The story unfolds in style like a long lost folk tale, both in the way it describes the town, and also in the unfolding of the plot. If you look closely, fragments will remind you of other stories. The stupidity and greed of the mayor with his desire for a huge jewel-studded coffin reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes; Alberto and Tito’s relationship reminded me of Geppetto and Pinocchio; Fia, the bird, reminded me of The Firebird:

“…a bright little bird flew high overhead. Each beat of its wings made a patch of stars flicker out, and another made them flicker back on.”

There is a mythical island of jewels, like the promised land of Oz, or Atlantis or the Ancient Egyptian Island of Flame; the two gossipy, mean-spirited sisters living next door to Alberto reminded me of those from Cinderella; and the near-impossible task of the mayor’s coffin reminded me of all those impossible tasks in myths – the Sisyphean Task; and of course there’s a story within the story…

But even if you strip all that away, what’s left is a beautiful everyman story of the enormity of grief being defeated by the discovery of new friendship and love, of bravery and hope in the face of evil and despair. The book flows beautifully, with enough suspense and adventure to keep the reader hooked, but also the lilting beauty of the text which matches perfectly the beauty of the setting – the small glistening town on the edge of the sea, and a cast of colourful characters.

What’s more, the book is highly illustrated – each page decorated with a raft of foliage and fish in a distinctive ink blue – the text itself also in blue. Full-page illustrations punctuate the story.

But why did I mention fairy tales and folk stories at the start? Why do the allusions in the story make it special? Of course you can read The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker without knowledge of a literary history. It may even be that sometimes a reader comes away from a novel with bells ringing about another story that the author hadn’t even picked up on themselves. But it’s precisely this reader interaction with a text that makes it so interesting. The allusions add a depth to the read.

Ancient myths, fairy tales and fables were told to make moral points, to guide the reader in life, in much the same way that so many modern stories are told to teach empathy and compassion in our diverse world. Our reading will be a much richer experience if we teach the next generation the storytelling tradition – strengthening the relationship between stories of different cultures and literary canons, giving the readers tools so that they can develop an analytical understanding of narrative, deeper connections between texts, seeing bonds and similarities.

I was approached recently by a teacher raised in an extremely religious orthodox environment, who knew none of the fairy tales that we and Disney so often take for granted. She was lamenting her ignorance, until I pointed out the wealth of stories she must have from her religious texts. And these too provided guidance and a way for her to draw parallels with the texts she is now reading with the children.

Crossing barriers, reaching over the divide. Stories do this. And what better way to do it than by creating new folk stories from the old. Borrowing, alluding, and comparing.

You can buy The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.