fantasy

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it 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.

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren: Giveaway

Women may still be under-represented in the FTSE 100 companies, but the number of strong female characters in middle grade fiction continues to rise. Ruth Lauren not only populates her debut novel with a strong female protagonist, a female spy, and a female Head Prison Warden, but also creates a fantasy matriarchal society, in which a queen rules and the line of succession is through her daughter.

This is a pacey first-person text, which reads like a tightly plotted thriller, or a child’s Siberian version of Prison Break. The reader follows Valor in her quest to free her sister, who has been imprisoned for stealing an important royal music box (with diplomatic relevance). The book starts with an action-packed assassination sequence, through which Valor fakes her motive in order to be imprisoned too, and then starts to make plans to break out both herself and her sister.

The novel challenges traditional gender-tropes – Valor is a huntress by trade, taking after her mother – and also challenges traditional softness in children’s books. This may be an easy grammatical read for the 8-12-year-old market, but Lauren doesn’t hold back on the harshness of prison life. Most of the novel is set in prison, after seemingly no real justice system, and there is cruel and hard child labour and even crueller living conditions. Partly because the entire novel is set in a frozen landscape, with roaming wolves and biting cold – so the prisoners remain largely exposed to the cold, and the punishments, when they are doled out, utilise the landscape.

With the ice-cold landscape and the bond between sisters, the novel will bring to mind Frozen, but this is a much darker, grown up option, without an Olaf, and with, one imagines, fuller-waisted girls. The secondary characters remain largely thus, and there is not much time for thought and depth – the novel skates along the surface with all its intents and purposes focussed on escape. This makes it a page-turning read, and a delightful escape novel for the age group. Luckily for you, I have three copies to give away (UK and IRL only), so please find me on twitter @minervamoan to win one. If you’re not so lucky, you can buy your own copy here.

The Huntress by Sarah Driver

Bookshops and libraries don’t shelve children’s books by genre. They don’t want to limit children’s choice, or pigeon-hole them into reading only selective genres. I can see one child in the library who sticks firmly to the ‘boarding school’ genre, and another who adores ‘mysteries’, but where possible it’s good for children to look around, to sample all genres. As adults we tend to be more categorised. You may like ‘crime’, or ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance’.

I find that most books tend to stretch across more than one genre anyway – even if they’re sitting firmly within one space in a bookshop.

Sarah Driver’s The Huntress is a prime example of a book that straddles genre. Marketed as a fantasy, it definitely fits into the ‘adventure’ story box, as well as being distinctly unique, thanks to its quirky, evocative and inventive language.

Thirteen-year old Mouse lives aboard the ship The Huntress, which is captained by her one-eyed grandma, a captaincy Mouse is due to inherit according to the destiny bestowed upon her. She promised, upon her mother’s death in childbirth, to look after her younger brother Sparrow, who is both sickly and also imbued with strange powers. But when her father doesn’t return to the ship when they dock, and instead a stranger boards, Mouse must fight to ensure her destiny and family remain intact.

Driver’s world-building is immersive and dark – a time of deathly cold and swirling seas, in which  strange dinosaur-like creatures called terrodyls plague the skies, and beneath the depths of the sea lurk vicious gulpers and mystical merwraiths. People, named for the most part after animals, journey in tribes on sea, land or in the sky. Mouse’s tribe stays at sea and survive by bartering. Mouse, for example, searches for pearls under the sea, to trade on land.

Driver shows particular flair with her knowledge of ships (a topic mysterious to this landlubber reader), and this is enhanced by the wonderful map at the beginning, illustrated by Joe McLaren and Janene Spencer. This is the first of the trilogy, and it seems logical that the second two titles will dwell in the other landscapes, and complete Mouse’s quest – which is not concluded in this first book.

There is a murky and stormy atmosphere to the novel, which adds to the mystery of the mysticism that surrounds the tribes. The sea tribe worships the whales, who in turn steer the ship through the sea and respond to Sparrow’s haunting songs, but further religion/magic is merely hinted at rather than fully explained. Moon-gathering for example, with pet moonsprites.

But despite some unfamiliarities in the set-up, Driver adds in enough storytelling tropes to keep any reader happy – a mystery surrounding a missing father, a riddle to solve, a quest, a feisty female protagonist and questions surrounding loyalty, family, love and jealousy. There is good vs evil, and plenty of rumbustious action.

Mouse is an exasperating if loveable protagonist. She is in constant movement, never stops to plan or think through the consequences, but she shows enormous pluck and heart.

And it’s this heart, exemplified mainly by the language (for the novel is told in first person), that distinguishes this book and holds it above the crowd. The language is dense, yet highly readable. It contains many new compound words, which Driver has thrown together to exemplify the simple way of life of the tribes, and the expression of their thoughts and emotions. For example, Mouse travels while asleep in a ‘dream-dance’, she can ‘beast-chatter’ with animals, and gives ‘heart-thanks’ to people who help her. She is, above all, ‘heart-strong’. The language lends a lyricism and rhythm to the book, mimicking the rhythm of the waves. It reflects her abode, being the simplistic language of survival, whilst being poetic at the same time. And because the made-up terminology rings bells for the reader – merwraiths like mermaid, terrodyls like pterodactyls, land-lurkers for land-dwellers, it’s easy to translate.

The harshness of the landscape and the ferocity of the violence will thrill many, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Far beyond the ordinary realm of feisty pirates, this fantasy adventure bears out the adage that home is where the heart is – not always the physical place we think it is. Just like a book straddling genres – a book’s home can be in the heart, rather than just on the shelf. For age 10+ years. You can buy it 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 Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis

For Christmas Day, a special classic. This key text in the children’s literature canon is always a delight to revisit, and once it’s been read with the children, it’s always fun when they spot a ‘Narnia’ lamppost when out and about. In fact, it’s the wondrous images created by the book that endure, and is one of the reasons why it’s a classic. From Turkish delight, to a fur-coat laden wardrobe, to a lion (Aslan means lion in Turkish), to Mr Tumnus.

In fact, the book reportedly began as such an image, when CS Lewis pictured a “faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” according to his essay ‘It All Began with a Picture’. This, is in fact, a wonderful resource for writers, showing how Lewis wrote, and how a picture that had been in his head since the age of sixteen turned into a novel at the age of forty.

So what’s the book about? Four children, evacuated from London during the blitz, stumble upon a strange new land through a wardrobe in their new house. This land, Narnia, is under the spell of the White Witch, (a spell of eternal winter with no Christmas). But with the help of the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, soon a new dawn arrives with spring on the horizon. It’s a fantasy landscape, with magical creatures, and yet the normalcy of sibling relationships and rivalries is never far away.

Of course, in children’s literature terms, the blitz was a gift as a literary device – an absence of parents, a new landscape, and a dark threat of insecurity hanging over the children’s lives. Numerous authors made use of this device – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian are another two evacuee classics. But Lewis juxtaposes the very real experience of being a wartime evacuee with a fantasy landscape.

Many point to the Christian allegory that they say underpins the book, the seasons of winter and then the spring when Aslan (representative of Christ) arrives, the stone table for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the temptation of Edmund eating the ‘sin’ of Turkish Delight just as Eve ate her apple. But C S Lewis tended to deny this was the crux of his story – in fact there are many mythologies and fairy tales alluded to within the text, none more obvious than the borrowing of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen; Lewis transforming her into the White Witch who turns people to stone rather than ice, and who also manipulates a boy from the comfort of her sleigh.

It also features Father Christmas.

But for me, and for many others, this book is simply a great fantasy adventure story with the most delightful images, and speaks to the possibility of the impossible. It’s a feeling the book exudes – like any great piece of literature, which when devoured, lets the reader experience a feeling – just how the name Aslan made the Pevensie children feel:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

You can buy it here.

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

podkin

If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.

An Interview with Mike Revell for YAShot

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I discovered Mike Revell’s first book, Stonebird, when Quercus publishers sent it to me in addition to a prize I won. I was captivated from the first page – you can read the review here. Earlier this summer, Mike’s second book, Stormwalker was published. Stormwalker is the ultimate mash-up book for the age group – combining a contemporary story about Owen, a young boy both struggling to cope after the death of his mother and struggling to help his father, a writer, rediscover the joy of writing. This is meshed with an apocalyptic story set in a futuristic parallel universe in which a raging storm called the Darkness threatens to obliterate everything. The startling thing is that Owen is operating as a dual character featuring in both – with two different identities, one in each world, the latter world being the story his father is writing.

Stormwalker is a fantastic read – paced beautifully, with incredible tension and yet a thread of fun simmering throughout. Like all the best apocalyptic movies – it has a running sense of impending doom that is lightened by an everyday boy’s approach to the danger. In fact Owen (Jack) is desperate to return to real life for a football game! Friendships are explored, and there is a fast and zippy dialogue…Mike knows exactly how to get into the head of an eleven year old boy. But he agreed to re-find his adult to answer some questions for me in association with YAShot.

When did you start writing – and what was your journey to publication?

I started writing when I was about 16, but I could never finish what I started because other ideas kept popping up. Ever since reading the third Harry Potter book a few years earlier, I knew that writing stories was something I had to do, so I kept at it, and eventually managed to finish a book. I sent it off to every agent I could think of, and it was rejected by all of them. I was expecting to get rejected, and every letter made me more determined to succeed, so I wrote another book and sent that out too. The first agent on my list both times was Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency, and by some touch of magic she decided to sign me based on that second book. She remembered me from the first submission (note to aspiring authors: rejections aren’t all bad news!) and I think she quite liked that I had come up with two very different books. We sent this second book out, but it was rejected by every publisher. Somewhere along the way, I must have improved, though, because the third book I wrote was Stonebird, and that got picked up very quickly when we submitted it.

What inspires you to write?

The memory of what I was like as a kid. I was a very reluctant reader until I found Harry Potter as an 11 year old, and I have friends who never found their book and never started reading. I know what it’s like to hate reading, and what it’s like to love it, and that transformation is what drives every story I write: I hope to be able to give that feeling to other readers.

Do you use a local library for research/writing?

Yes indeed! Local libraries are always a starting point for me when I’m researching a book. The peace and quiet and rows of books provide a perfect oasis where whole worlds are waiting to be discovered. Sometimes I browse without any direction, just ambling along to see what I find, and this can often lead to some great nuggets I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When doing the actual writing, I tend to stick to my writing room (in a cupboard under the stairs – ha!) or sometimes a cafe to change it up a little bit.

Both your books feature sad family events – one in which the grandma is suffering from dementia and a child’s mother is failing to cope, and another in which the boy’s mother has died. Do you think it’s important in literature to portray children going through difficult times?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s imperative to portray children going through difficult times in that sense. Of course, every story will have some innate difficulty, because a story without conflict isn’t really a story at all. But books have a special kind of magic in that they allow you to talk about things and think about things that are otherwise quite difficult subject matters to discuss – like dementia. I didn’t write about dementia expressly because it’s important to portray it in literature; it was just a personal story that I had to tell. But if I can help children dealing with difficult times through my writing, then that’s something very special and unique to the magic of stories.

Both of your children’s books so far weave real life with the fantastical (magical realism). Do you prefer books that have a balance of the two? In Stormwalker, there is a particular duality – one person with two different lives. Do you think people are like that in reality – the person we are, and then the person other people see?

When I write, I think back to what I was like as a kid, because I figure that if I can write a story that the me-who-hated-books would like, then hopefully I’m doing okay. And back then, unless there was something fantastical about it, I wasn’t interested in the slightest. I think everything I write will always have some form of magic in it, however small. But it’s great fun playing around with that fantastical element, and balancing it with reality. I think both Stonebird and Stormwalker have been experimentations with that balancing act. And totally – especially in today’s social media world, there’s always going to be a bit of a duality reality!

You’re something of an expert on American football. Would you consider writing a series of fiction titles based on the sport?

Ooh, I do LOVE American football. It would be great to weave it into a story somehow, especially as the kids in schools over here always seem very interested in it, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet.

Which children’s book would you most like to have written? 

As for the children’s books I would most like to have written, I’ll have to say The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, and of course Harry Potter.

You say you write for your 11 year old self. Despite being a reluctant reader as a child, was there any particular book or magazine that hooked you into reading?

The earliest story I remember enjoying was The Hobbit, which my teacher read to me in Year Five. Incidentally, she was the same teacher who used the magic marble egg that I pilfered for Stonebird. But at this point, reading still felt too much like work to me. I enjoyed having stories read to me, but I never wanted to read myself. Harry Potter opened that door, then afterwards I was able to find other books, books like Skellig, which really helped to develop that fledgling love of reading. There’s something so purely beautiful about that book, it’s hard not to enjoy reading it.

YA SHOT BANNER SIDE

With thanks to Mike for answering all my questions without hesitation. You can purchase Stonebird here and Stormwalker here