Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the truly great books authors are currently writing for our children and of the important, life-affirming experiences these offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts these writers give.

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

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Ravenmaster Trilogy (Books 1 & 2) by John Owen Theobald

Book I

Here is the best piece of YA historical fiction that I have come across in a long while.

There are a good number of fine children's novels set on the UK 'home front' during WWII, most involving evacuation, but this piece of teen fiction, capturing brilliantly the experience of a young person actually living through the Blitz in London is a very exciting new find. 

 WWII in The Tower

A inspired element of this writer's approach is setting most of the novel's action in and around the Tower of London. Anna, initially a13 year-old, is moved to live within its ancient walls, with her uncle, one of the Yeoman Warders, after both  her parents have been (apparently) killed.  Coinciding with the end of the 'phoney war' and the beginning of Hitler's Blitzkrieg, her disrupted life also becomes wrapped up with looking after The Tower ravens. The central role of 'Ravenmaster' is initially her uncle's, but gradually passes to her. The presence of The Tower itself, its gloomy stones a repository of England's history, albeit a dark as well as an enduring one, makes a powerful symbol as well as a setting. Even though it does not protect Anna from the horrors and heartaches of the war, it becomes an emotional home, just as the ravens, in legend symbols of the nation's security, become her obsession as well as her responsibility. It is a truly inspired combination of location and events on the part of John Owen Theobald, and a deeply enthralling one for the reader. 

Presenting the past

It has become very trendy recently for authors to choose to narrate their fiction in the first person present tense. I have to say that, in general, this particular fad is much to be regretted. More often than not it comes across as a writerly affectation that alienates (at least this particular reader) far more than it involves in the moment of action. I have encountered any number of books recently that had perfectly good storylines but were sadly marred by this often limited and limiting viewpoint. It too often amounts to an abnegation of control over the perspectives that Philip Pullman likens to a director's choices of camera position in movies*. 

However, there are just a few instances where, in the hands of a skilled writer, using it for very specific purpose rather than simply voguish narration, this device works brilliantly. One such instance is in Sally Green's Half Bad books; another is here. And, although these books are very different, I think the reason for the success is much the same in both these cases. Here, as with Nathan Byrn, it is not simply a question of Anna narrating a story in the present, it is that what is going on in her head is the story. These Dark Wings is not simply about the war, or The Tower, it is about Anna's experience of these things. Using the style and approach he does, John Owen Theobald perfectly captures those experiences and allows the reader to share them intimately. What are presented are almost like recollections so vividly conjured that they are relived, moment by moment. So Anna's narration is often somewhat fragmented, even confused, especially when she is at her youngest and her life at its most insecure. It is subjective. We do not know everything that happens, what we know is what happens to Anna, what matters to Anna, what effects Anna. But that we know, see and feel, in vivid detail. It is quite wonderfully done and gives the novel a spellbinding perspective of considerable depth. Through air raids and rationing, through sleeping in The Bloody Tower and through relationships with The Tower's other inhabitants, we experience growing up along with Anna. And all this is spiced with disturbing secrets about her parents, potential spies,  strange friends, and, of course, the ravens. The writer's camera positioning may be limited, but the detailed reactions thus caught are revalatory

Book II

The second book of the series does not have quite the same intensity of focus as the first - but there are compensations. A second voice is introduced, that of Anna's 'friend' from The Tower, Timothy Squire. His internal dialogue is now interleaved with Anna's own to broaden the story's  viewpoint, as well as its action. Much of the latter also moves beyond The Tower itself, although it remains anchored by it. The two protagonists move into a phase of  'doing their bit' in the conflict (each still at a ridiculously young age) and the scenarios they experience become grippingly thrilling as well as devastatingly terrifying. We still see it all through the direct experience of these two, and this writer's device continues to work with stunning effectiveness, bringing searing vividness to quite  horrendous, heartbreaking, scenes. 

Whilst Timothy Squire (almost) trains as a sapper, Anna moves towards flying planes for the 'ATA'. Whether the author knows about WWII planes as intimately as he does The Tower of London, or whether his research of both is simply meticulous, his descriptions of flying and learning to fly rival those of the classics of Antoine De Saint-Exupery; they are viscerally exciting, quite breathtaking   This book is in part a teenage romance, spiked with all the bear traps of inexperience. But it is far more too.  It sensitively explores the first hand experience of living through war in ways that far outstrip many other books on the same topic. Here, too, the effect that the war had on the roles and self image of both young women and young men is broached in an intensely pertinent and affecting way. It is a work of great humanity. 

Book III

Those who have read this blog before will know that my principal penchant is for fantasy, and I tend to like even my history with a touch of fantasy too. But I found this 'realistic' imagining of growing up through WWII totally compelling. I am therefore looking forward eagerly to the publication of the final part of the trilogy, which I understand is due very shortly. 

I hope many young writers and budding writers read Philip Pullman's Dæmon Voices. Then perhaps they will be dissuaded from their current infatuation with present tense narration. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The White Hare by Michael Fishwick


Here is a book which, for me, can indeed be judged by its wonderful cover. Both are engaging, imaginative and beautifully crafted; enchanting in the deeper sense. 

This older children's/YA story is one of those you fall straight into and are carried, mesmerised along, through heartbreak, intrigue and mystery to its thrilling climax. It is on the long list for the 2018 Carnegie Medal and fully deserves to make it onto next year's shortlist, at very least. 

Grittily real in its scenarios,  yet poetically magical  in its treatment, it is a most welcome new addition to a tradition of British writing for young readers that strands back to masters such as Alan Garner (The 
Owl Service and Red Shift, although ultimately not so densely enigmatic) and  David Almond. It reminded me too of Jani Howker's The Nature of the Beast (perhaps little remembered these days, but well worth unearthing) and, more recently, Sara Crowe's Bone Jack. What links it to these earlier titles is a stunning ability to link very realistic and telling characters, their relationships and traumas, with powerfully evocative landscape and nature. Each draws on rooted myth and folklore as both narrative element and metaphor to explore experiences deeply and resonantly. 


However, The White Hare is also very fresh and vibrant, a compellingly new creation that is in no way derivative. It is written  with consummate skill and touching sensitivity in both its language and structure. Michael Fishwick's story draws on much the same ancient images of the hare and its relationship to fire as does Terry Pratchett's equally wonderful (but very different) I Shall Wear Midnight. However here the white hare runs through this lyrical tale like the  hauntingly magical creature it is, setting both landscape and narrative ablaze with thrilling flames. 

Its young protagonists are truthfully drawn and richly developed. All the love and loss, all the pain and acceptance, all the estrangement and reconciliation of the difficult but wonderful process of coming of age are affectingly captured here amidst a mystical wildness that thrills the senses and refreshes the spirit.  

The new Zephyr imprint of publishers Head of Zeus could hardly have got off to a better start and the excellent production values of the volume itself reflect much credit on them. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Poet's Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

Here is a true little gem of a book, from a much-admired US author. Thanks are again due to Pushkin Children's for bringing it to the UK. 

Poignant and accessible

There is already much excellent children's fiction around, dealing, as this does, with bereavement. However, this beautiful but short, simple novel is particularly accessible to younger children, those who have, perhaps passed the initial picture book stage, but are not ready for full-length fiction. It will have much appeal for many older readers too, though; it says a very great deal in comparatively few pages, and says it with poignancy and gentle honesty.  

Apart from its length, one of the things that makes this title so accessible for young readers is the fact that the loss is experienced principally by a dog. It is a talking dog too (for those who can hear him) having been educated into language by his beloved poet owner. Because of the skill of Patricia MacLachlan's writing this is nowhere near as twee a concept as it might have been. In fact, the dog-centred narrative is handled quite beautifully, with past and present cleverly but clearly interspersed. Within its own terms, it is fully believable and its emotions authentic, apt and affecting. 

Warm and consoling 

Its other strong, and fully age-appropriate, feature is that it introduces themes of saving others, and of finding new companionship and love, right from the first pages. This continually balances the pain of loss, avoids too much potential harshness, and ensures that there is positive resolution, not just as a distant prospect, but as a present reality. This story both consoles and heals.  

The language used is straightforward but highly communicative and there is much kindly humour, which adds to the book's charm and warm-heartedness. That it manages all this without excessive sentimementality is greatly to the author's credit. UK readers will probably find some of the  culture very American, but nothing that will intrude on reading pleasure, or diminish this tale's important messages. 

Celebrating language

I have a further major reason, though, for thinking so highly of this little book. Throughout, it quietly but effectively explores an additional theme, that of the importance of  language as found in wonderful poetry and prose. A key message is that we can gift a love of words by frequently reading aloud to children poems and stories that demonstrate the wonder and beauty of language. This enables them, like the dog in the story, to think, understand and communicate in quite magical ways. It is such an important gift, so easily given,  and therefore such an important message for parents, carers and teachers. 

Reading to share 

We have recently been given a superlative new vehicle with which to share the language of wonder and the wonder of language: Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris's gem of a new book, The Lost Words (see my post from October '17.)  There are, or course, libraries more of such riches, both poetry and prose. However The Poet's Dog itself also promotes some fine potential read-aloud titles, including some 'classic' American ones, which are probably little known over here, but are well worth seeking out. 

Indeed, I would like to see far more UK children (and adults) discover another little treasure,  Morning Girl by Michael Dorris, one of the titles mentioned. It would give them real insight into a lost way of  life based on simple connection to nature, beautifully caught through the imagined experiences of two indigenous American children from over 500 years ago. Simple lessons are learned, as deep as oceans. A little more of what they understood then would benefit all of us as human beings today. 

The short chapter where Morning Girl's brother, Star Boy, hides amongst the rocks is one of the most breathtakingly wonderful pieces of writing for children I know; and the one where he weathers the storm is not far behind. The ending is enough to make you weep with shame, and beautifully handled. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Book of Dust: Volume 1 La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

"The gyptian owner of the boat he was travelling on told him that in gyptian lore, extreme weather had its own state of mind . . .
'How can weather have a state of mind?' said Papadimitriou.
The gyptian said, 'You think the weather is only out there? It's in here too,' and tapped his head.
'So do you mean that the weather's state of mind is just our state of mind?'
'Nothing is just anything,' the gyptian replied."

La Belle Sauvage, page 522

Another review

Yes. I know. It feels like half the world is reading and writing about the new Philip Pullman. A goodly proportion of them actually are. I am a slow reader too, so I will not be amongst the first few to blog about it, or even the first few hundred. But this is too significant a publication to let pass. So here goes anyway.  Just another review. 

The years around the turn of the century saw two momentous additions to the canon of children's fantasy; two of the most seminal works of  'children's'  fiction of their era, and very possibly of all time: J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter sequence and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Each, in their own way, is a masterpiece of imaginative fiction, but, although Harry Potter remains the greater popular phenomenon, His Dark Materials is by far the greater work. 

It is one of the finest examples we have of truly original fantasy, involving, as it does, the powerful reimagining of its tropes and conventions;  it is a work that treats of profoundly important ideas about the human condition with more reflection-provoking depth than almost any other children's fiction; it conjures images which resonate on   numerous levels; and it deals with the universal experience of growing up, of  'coming of age' with a sensitivity and understanding that sets it completely apart and above.  It is also a powerfully enthralling and compelling read. 

It is not surprising that  popular and media excitement about the publication of its sequel has reached something approaching Harry  Potter levels, with midnight launches and sold-out editions already being offered at exorbitant prices. All of which, however, begs the question of whether La Belle Sauvage, first part of the proposed Book of Dust, can come anywhere close to the quality and stature of its marvellous predecessor. Philip Pullman has written some fine books before and since, but nothing , so far, to anywhere near equal His Dark Materials, so it is an important question. 

Back to Lyra's Oxford

La Belle Sauvage transports us very quickly and easily back into the universe of His Dark Materials or at least into that subset of it that has come to be identified as 'Lyra's Oxford'. This is the world so closely resembling our own, but with the major addition of personal 'dæmons', in the form of animals, as well as some variant Oxford institutions, such as Jordan College. There are familiar characters too, not least Lyra herself, although her presence as a young baby quickly establishes that we are in a time a little before the beginning of Northern Lights. This is a prequel of sorts, although to some extent it seems to lie alongside as much as before. Other known characters are clearly somewhere on the scene too, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter amongst them.  

We are, however, immediately introduced to new characters too. Primarily, there is eleven year old Malcolm, whose destiny will be to use his beloved canoe, the vessel of the title, to rescue baby Lyra from both a devastating inundation and malevolent human adversaries. He is a most easily likeable boy, an excellent protagonist for this new adventure. Alice, the character who is to emerge as the female 'lead', and accompany the long and difficult journey, is initially presented as less immediately likeable. But we should not judge too quickly, our response will change, or she will, or both. Whether Philip Pullman fans or newcomers to his world, readers will quickly be drawn in, a response assisted in no small part by his unostentateous but truly masterly use of language. 

Gripping story

It doesn't take long for a completely engrossing story to emerge and develop. This is in some ways a simpler, more linear narrative than that of the earlier books, but is all the more gripping for it. It is essentially the story of how Malcolm, with Alice playing no small part, saves baby Lyra; of the many hardships suffered, dangers faced and prices paid in doing so. As in the earlier trilogy, the institution of religion is a prime adversary here, with the the 'Magisterium's' henchmen, the 'CCD' (Consistorial Court of Discipline), a truly terrifying organisation not totally unlike the Spanish Inquisition, desperate to bring little Lyra within their clutches. This time, however, it seems not to be Christian religion per se which Philip Pullman presents as the threat, but rather any form of rigid, fundamentalist doctrine that seeks to crush individualism and freedom of thought. This theme is reinforced by the introduction of the truly horrendous 'League of St Alexander', a nightmare organisation that recruits children to report any infringements of the orthodox doctrine, be it  in thought word or action, even when the perpetrators are the children's own peers, teachers or family. Such scarcely imaginable sickness immediately echoes the McCarthyite denouncements in Arthur Miller's The Crucible as well as such abominations as the Hitler Youth, and its equivalent in Mao's China or North Korea. Against the 'mind police' in their various forms are ranged the forces of 'Oakley Street', a clandestine organisation dedicated to their defeat. However, although they may be important in the longer term, its members can be of only peripheral help to Malcolm and Alice who must face their task of finding sanctuary for baby Lyra alone. 

Indeed Malcolm and Alice have yet more to face beyond the Church and its agents, and in some respects this threat is even more menecing . This comes in the person of a predatory paedophile, Garard Bonneville, a man with superficial, if sickly, charm, but whose true nature is hideously betrayed by his three-legged hyena dæmon, a nightmare creature, persistent gnawing at its own missing limb. The relentless pursuit of Malcom and Alice by this despicable monster is truly terrifying and together with the equally constant threat of the CCD, and the trauma of the flood itself, drives the narrative at devastating, sometimes shocking pace. 

How good are the nuns?

However, in this particular book, not all religious institutions suffer the full lash of Philip Pullman's writerly censure. The nuns of the priory, where Lyra is initially cared for, are patently good people, sincere in their faith and kindly in their intentions. Yet even they are not without fault. They are clearly aware of some of the behaviour of the CCD and The League but turn a blind eye to it, or explain it away as something beyond their understanding. Since these organisation are part of the Church they must be for the good, even though the nuns themeselves are not party to understanding how. The extent to which this can be excused is debatable. At best the sisters, like many of us on many occasions, fall into that category of good people who allow evil to flourish by doing nothing. They are at least human. 

Nothing is just anything

Of course this book is a companion to His Dark Materials, so whilst La Belle Sauvage is an enthralling story, it is far more too. It is an allegory, but not a blatant or simplistic one. It is not intended to be, nor should it be. This is not a blatant or simplistic book. It draws on the reader's own resources, knowledge and sensitivities as much as on the author's. It challenges assumptions and conventions, without instituting new ones. It provokes resonances rather than imposes ideas. It is after, all a book that stands against the imposition of rigid ideas, so it would be a work of hypocrisy were it guilty of the same itself. It is not a work of hypocrisy. It is a work that liberates thinking, as well as feeling  and, indeed, being. 

Its resonances are many and hint at a range of sources and influences, as befits a piece of great writing. I for one pick up, in Malcolm's watery wandering , at least some fleeting images of Odysseus, and his long, eventful sea journey. The text's closing quotation, too, seems to flag up some degree of loose shadowing of Spencer's The Faerie Queene.There is also  some small way in which Malcolm echoes the biblical Noah, as least in so far as he is the fundamentally good person to whom the task falls of using his boat to save from the devastating flood an element of promise and potential for the future, the seeds of regeneration and new life. Of course we know from the earlier (later) books that Lyra does embody such a instument of future hope, and indeed fulfills her promise, but the question here is what efforts and sacrifices were needed to ensure for her that opportunity. 

In another sense, however, this flood is not a 'God' sent purification of the world. Again, we know from the other books that many 'evils' survive it, as well as Lyra. If it is not a completely natural phenomenon, then the implication here is that any 'powers' controlling it come from much older mythologies. Perhaps that makes them more 'natural' too. Whatever, this is a major all-consuming catastrophe from which that hope for the future has to be saved - and saved regardless of the cost. Certainly Malcolm has to sacrifice much, and pays dearly. 

The warmth and comfort of the home he has to leave behind is beautifully evoked by the frequent references to simply, homely meals. But such leaving could be considered essential to all growing up, including his. The role he ends up having to fulfill costs him far more than that, and not only in the loss of his adored boat. Ultimately, to protect Alice and Lyra, he must leave himself and do evil that is totally against his very essence. Sacrifices do not come much greater, as many must know who have, against all inclination and moral code, killed in war, to similarly protect what they love and value.  

Not only out there, but in here too

La Belle Sauvage is replete with images and archetypes, some conjured or coloured from imagination, many inspired by diverse traditions and literatures. Some are familiar from His Dark Materials, others are new. It strikes me that Philip Pullman's book itself has much in common with the alethiometer which is so central to it. 
The narrative spins you around and then shows  a number of symbols. Some are easy to identify, many vague or ambiguous. Each have any number of meanings on any number of levels, going ever deeper and more erudite. Some require scholarship and further reading to interpret, others depend more on the sensitivity and openness of the reader. Different readers will understand different things from them. The answers they get will depend on the questions they ask. The book's meaning is not only 'out there' but 'in here' too. It is collaborative thinking, shared imagining, drawing not only on the author's immense talent and erudition, but on the reader's own understanding, experience and sensitivities. It is one of the finest works involving both emotional and intellectual exploration of the human condition. to have come along for a very long time. 

Deep and complex and close

And the conclusion? Of course,  we must wait and see what the rest of this new trilogy brings. I have every expectation that, as with His Dark Materials, the whole will prove even greater than the parts. But meanwhile La Belle Sauvage has proved to justify every iota of the pre-publication excitement it aroused. It is a virtuoso triumph, displaying coruscating writing talent. It sparkles, albeit rather darkly. This reader found it totally engrossing and richly rewarding. To borrow words from the author himself: 'It was deep and complex and close, and it touched every part of him, body and dæmon and ghost.'

I am sure the rereading that will certainly follow will yield deeper resonances yet. Hold it close. As with ourselves and our world, nothing  here is just anything. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Maudlin Towers: Curse of the Werewolf Boy by Chris Priestley

Good recommendation, thanks

To be honest, children's comic fiction is not really my thing. I have nothing against it. In fact I know it has an important place in many children's reading. It's just that it's not my bag. Despite the passing years, I have appear to have retained a good deal that is childlike (and probably much that is childish too).  But I do seem to have rather outgrown a child's sense of humour. However, I read this little book on the Twitter recommendation of two favourite authors, Philip Reeve and Gareth P Jones, and I am mightily glad I did. It amused me no end and entertained me royally. It is childish, in a playful way - but it is very cleverly funny too. 

This delightful humour in Chris Priestley's book struck me as particularly 'English' and rather old-fashioned. I do not mean either of these as a negative. More than anything it put me in mind of Spike Milligan and The Goon Show. That is to say it used an almost manic silliness as the canvas for humour which is really brilliantly clever, well educated, highly literate and even, at times quite literary. For example,  the opening map is a wonderful spoof of those found in high fantasy fiction. There is also a brilliant passage contrasting a 'herring' with a 'red herring', the humour of which is dependent on the reader knowing the meaning and usual context of the latter (as well, preferably, as having suffered the traumas of learning algebra).

I know my bookish son would have enjoyed this enormously in his younger days - and probably would even now.  He did actually listen repeatedly, at one stage, to old recordings of The Goon Show - and quoted them incessantly. (Milligan voice: 'He's fallen it the wa-ter!')

Going public

One thing occurred to me. The setting, and indeed the whole ethos, of this tale belong very much to the minor English Public School*. Will the less privileged kids out there be able to relate to it? Than said, exactly the same applied to Harry Potter and I suppose that managed to attract a few readers. Perhaps there are so many books around about boarding school life (magical or otherwise) that most children will understand its ways even if they have not experienced them directly. 

Sparkling writing

Curse of the Werewolf Boy is a sparklingly brilliant piece of comic writing from Chris Priestly, who also sustains the hilarious entertainment amazingly well. It is all too easy for an initial amusement to wear thin - but not here. Even if the actual gags become less frequent as the story progresses, they are quickly overtaken by a gloriously amusing and entertaining tale of mind-boggling time travel. It is here that the Werewolf Boy is to be encountered, as well as a possibly ghostly (or even ghastly) Viking , not to mention a stolen School Spoon of indescribable importance. (Sorry, was I not supposed to mention the spoon.) Together with a delicious madcap, and hilariously named, cast of teachers and pupils, they are wonderful creations all. 

The author manages delightfully to spoof a number of literary genres (not least the detective story), but it is the confusions and complexities of time travel that are at the heart of the story's delight. And, indicative of the tale's underlying intelligence, there is actually logic to them. The time-travel paradox is more skilfully negotiated here than in many more serious attempts to fictionalise the concept. Then, Chris Priestly keeps one of his cleverest  suprsises until late in the story when our intrepid heroes speed off into the future. But no spoilers. 

Classic comedy

This book does not have any pretentious to great profundity, but it is a quick, easy read - and a hugely enjoyable one.  It will, I am sure, provide a delightful diversion for many children and it's cod 'spooky' elements will be an added bonus. 

The author's own copious, wacky illustrations add to the liveliness of the text in much the same way that Ronald Searle's did to the classic Molesworth books, back in the day. It is good that a new generation now has a similar comic talent of their own to revel and delight in. 

Mildew and Sponge are the stuff of comedy classic and Maudlin Towers could well prove to be the Fawlty Towers of children's literature. Readers will both want to return to these characters and to have more - much  more - of their exploits. It looks as though this title is to be the start of a new series. I, for one, am delighted.  Countless children will be too. 

Note: Any readers of this blog from outside the UK need to remember that we here, very logically, call some older, selective, fee-paying boarding schools 'Public Schools'. Schools which are funded by the state and free to all children (almost always day schools) are 'state schools' - what else?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Deeply interesting 

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

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

Language and darkness

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

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


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

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

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

(USA edition)

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

Much more than history

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 October 2017

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

An imperative 

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

Graphic is good

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

How can human beings be illegal?

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

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

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

The power of pictures 

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

The power of children

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

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


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

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

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