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.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Twister by Juliette Forrest

'I smelled earth and rock and mushrooms and damp wool and tobaccy and grass and wood smoke and sweet water.' (p 20)

Lost parents galore 

In terms of recently produced children's fantasies, we seem to have hit peak season for parent hunting. Children searching out and rescuing a missing or magically captured parent has been a major plot line in an amazingly large number of the books I have enjoyed most recently. And here is another. Synchronicity strikes again. On second thoughts, perhaps it is not altogether surprising. This is rightly a 'classic ' theme of the genre, and an important one psychologically. Children are at a stage of life where they, quite properly, live under the care and protection of their parents*, but this means that they are very attracted by a vicarious adventure in which the power-role is reversed and a child is responsible for saving a parent. Nevertheless, it still has to be said that this story concept is far from original. However, in every other aspect, Juliette Forrest's new book is just about as joyfully and exuberantly original as they come. 

A Twist(er) in the tale

Finding a new children's writer who already shows considerable mature writing talent is a cause for great celebration. So it should be  a very big  HOORAY for the arrival of Juliette Forest from all who wish to support children's reading. As a debut author she does far more than just promise a substantial contribution to children's literature, she delivers. 

Perhaps, though, I should say 'she surely do deliver', because her principal character and her setting, a 'backwoods' farm and its environs, are clearly American. It was initially a surprise to find a Scottish author situating her first children's novel across he Atlantic. But, of course, there is no real reason why she shouldn't. Juliette Forest has clearly done a lot of research, including extensive consultations with US resident relatives, and is very sympathetic to this idiom. Her  tale has a completely authentic feel and the context  emerges as perfectly suited to the voice of  'sassy' young Twister, which is quite brilliantly caught. It is soon impossible to hear it otherwise. The author captures not only the language of her protagonist, but also the patterns of her young thoughts. She is often quick and smart but at times, too, as yet unaware of all the ways and sayings of the adult world. Twister is highly entertaining and hugely endearing; even when unintentionally funny, we laugh with and not at her. 

Past perfect

In fact , despite its fantasy elements, its excitement and its danger, there is no doubt at all that the star of this particular show is Twister herself. And she shines out  like the very brightest. More than just a story about magic, this is a story about the thoughts and feelings of a young girl as she gamely faces a difficult period in her life, and pulls through thanks to the sheer force of vibrant life which she embodies. She is so brilliantly drawn that she carries the whole book with her uber-charming mixture of resilience and vulnerability. It is quite simply one of the very best creations of a first person narrator in contemporary children's fiction, and one that, written in 'conventional' past tense, is actually far more immediate and involving than many of the first person, present tense narrations that seem to have become so faddy of late. 

Magic naturally

Another particularly recommendable feature of the book is Twister's (and hence the author's) considerable sensitivity to the natural world. This should do a good deal to help young readers develop a similar awareness . Delightfully, Twister is a girl with highly developed sensory perception. Almost every moment of her life is full of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, and her continual evocation of them pulls the reader into her world in a quite wonderfully vivid way. The magic, too, which initially lurks on the periphery of Twister's life, but intrudes more and more violently as the story progresses, is very much a magic of nature, of forest and river and storm.  Both good and evil draw power from the 'souls' of life (and death) which surround them. And in her evocation of this magic, the strength and originality of Juliette Forrest's imagination is very much to the fore. When Twister draws on these powers and is temporarily transformed into a wolf, a river or a storm, the descriptions are truly magical, lyrical, almost poetic. But the evil in the tale is chilling too, including that of some human characters, as well as of the fantastical villain, White Eye. 

Smells great

Although there is warmth and love in Twister's young world (largely brought there by her splendidly characterised Aunt Honey) there is much heartache and loneliness too. She is a brilliantly rich and rounded character. In the second half of the story, when the fantasy element kicks in with a vengeance, there are shocks and  thrills aplenty too. This is a real page-turner, despite, indeed because of, the focus on Twister's character and development. 

And if, at the climax of the story, the esoteric workings of the story's magic system verge on being rather obscurely complex, the outcomes are so totally satisfactory, in both sentiment and actual result, that this matters not at all. We are so rooting for Twister by this stage that our empathetic sharing of her achievements (and her newfound acceptance of realities in her life) are a heartwarming thrill. 

Juliette Forrest's rich writing features a kind of verbal leitmotif, a long string of descriptors, linked only by a series of 'and's. This may seem a simple construct, but in her hands it is a recurring delight. Often olfactory in its subject matter, it acts as a verbal equivalent of a scratch-and-sniff card, releasing a flood of vivid Proustian associations.  Like a musical 'ear worm' it insinuates itself into the brain and becomes a recurrent theme of the reading. It is a stamp. A signature. It says Juliette Forest, and it says Twister in an idiosyncratic and most endearing way. And this is writing that most certainly deserves to be signed. If such things can smell (and I think perhaps thy can) this story smells of hardship and resilience and spirit and family and warmth and nature and darkness and loss and humanity and life. It sure is swell. 

*There are, of course, a minority of children who, through force of circumstance, become real life carers for their own parent. They deserve and need far more understanding and support than, sadly, they sometimes get. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

'The wound is the place 
Where the light enters you.' (P 307)

I have just discovered two more wonderful books. 

Those who have read this blog before will know how highly I value originality of imagination in children's fantasy, especially when paired with skilful writing. I certainly found both here. 

The very recently (US) published Whichwood is actually the second in a series. So, as I haven't posted anything about the first yet, it makes sense to start with that. 

'People are so preoccupied with making sense despite it being the most uninteresting thing to manufacture. Making magic is far more interesting than making sense.' (p 168)

Glowing colours

The core plot of Furthermore may not, in itself, seem startlingly new. A girl from a magical community fails her coming-of-age trial (or thinks she does). She is subsequently whisked off with a boy companion to an even stranger fantasy world in quest of her long-missing father. However, any suspicions of staleness are swiftly and thoroughly dispelled by Tahereh Mafi's wholly original and sparklingly imagination. Her creation of a world where magic is related to colour glows in every possible way. Her inventions are wild, wacky and completely enchanting. Furthermore (sorry!), her whole story is anchored in one of the most entertaining character relationships of recent children's fantasy. Protagonist, Alice, and her counterpart, Oliver, are not only totally fascinating in their own right - complex and flawed,  whilst still being immensely likeable - but their continually developing relationship is an ongoing joy. That may start off by bickering like Beatrice and Benedict but  . . . well, no spoilers. 

Sparkling words

Additionally, Tahereh Mafi's highly skilled use of language is often idiosyncratic in the most delightful way. It surprises on almost every page and this gives the book a thrilling liveliness. She endows Alice's home world with its own word-hoard of coined language, exotic-sounding yet still comprehensible in its context.  This gives Ferenwood, and Alice's life there, a vividness that is completely captivating. A further writerly frisson is added when the narrator (author?) periodically intrudes into her own story. She belongs to the time-honoured 'dear  reader' school, of narration, colouring (sorry again!) both text and section headings with a delicious and highly entertaining soupçon of meta fiction. 

Riotous magic

The place to which Alice and Oliver travel to seek Alice's father is the Furthermore of the title. Here magic  is used profusely, even with profligacy. Its world is a riot of weirdly imaginative invention, like that of Lewis Caroll, bursting with conceits and cleverness, linguistic. literary and logical (or illogical). However, also like the Wonderland of that other Alice, its continual irrationality generates a certain randomness. The protagonists' stumbling from one catastrophic 'adventure' to the next could seem haphazard.  Yet in Tahereh Malfi's hands the through line of narrative is fully sustained: she cleverly engenders a continual fascination with the two heros and their quest. Despite all the seemingly random oddness of Furthermore, the reader is propelled forward by what is the very essence of good storytelling, the desire to discover exactly what is going on, to find out what happens next. 

A ribbon runs through it

There have been many children's novels recently with strong, feisty girl protagonists. Many other books are showing how girls and women have been high achievers in any number of ways. These role models are so important. However Furthermore captures something that I think is important too: a girl who feels inadequate compared to what she sees as all the more obviously talented people around her. It is not just about being strong and successful in the way others are. It is about learning to see the strength in who you are. 

'Darling Alice,' said (her father), reaching for her, 'Why must you look like the rest of us? Why do you have to be the one to change? Change the way we see. Don't change the way you are. . . You're an artist. You can paint the world with the colours inside you.' (p 254)

It is, at the end of the day, a book that revels in the joy of language. It celebrates imagination - and, well, magic. It encourages openness to experience. It promotes difference and extraordinariness and adventure. It is also a compassionate book which gives permission for girls (or boys for that matter) to sometimes be weak as well as strong. And I think that is something we all need. 

'(Alice had) decided long ago that life was a long journey. She would be strong and she would be weak, and both would be okay.' (p 255)

Altogether it is a triumph of original and captivating children's fantasy. It is a dream; it is a poem; it is a painting. It very special and its final messages are amongst the simplest, most difficult and  most important in life. 

Through this magical book, in between its chapters, dances a ribbon. But you must follow it for yourself. 

'the strangest sort of children come to hold hands with the Dark.' (p 41)

Writing an immediate follow-up to a highly successful opener can be a challenge, and many a second book is a little disappointing, even some of those within outstanding sequences. Yet in Whichwood Taharah Mafi far exceeds even her own previous success. She does not try simply to produce more of the same, but takes her tale in a completely fresh direction (and to a radically different world), whilst still maintaining continuity by bringing forward her two protagonists, Alice and Oliver. Additionally, she not only reproduces her most exciting qualities as a writer, but develops them wonderfully too.  

Colours just as rich, but darker

The fantasy world she builds here is every bit as original, imaginative and colourful as Furthermore. However, lacking the random, Wonderland quality of that previous location, Whichwood it is far more consistent in its ethos and atmosphere. In consequence, this story seems far more coherent and even more compelling. It is considerably darker too, disquieting, even at times disturbing. (I know our heros were under threat of being eaten in Furthermore - but even so!) There is a gruesomely fascinating focus on death and the processes involved in ritually dispatching the dead to their otherworld. There are also the spirits of the said departed, who can and do turn particularly nasty at times. But there is also humour, warmth and a good deal of compassion too, so do not worry too much. 

Our heroes now have a new and vital mission in this different world. They are slightly older than they were too - very much entering the 'tween' stage of moving from childhood into early adulthood. In this sense, and in some of its themes, this is perhaps a book for slightly older readers than the first, although such matters are highly subjective. To these two familiar figures are added a richly fascinating new character, Laylee. She is also in her early teens, but weighed down by the burden of being the the last  (functioning!) descendant in a line of 'mordeshoors'. They are practitioners endowed with the magical abilities to 'process' the corpses of the dead and service their residual spirits. Also most welcome is a new boy character, Benyamin, whose peculiarity is to host myriad insects on his body. Complex and beautifully drawn, both these new protagonists clearly reflect the darker nature of Whichwood, but this does not stop them from being immensely likeable. 

Later in the story they are joined by another wonderful character, Benyamin's mother, who, despite 'bad legs' makes a significant contribution to the quest. She is the one to whom the author gives the brilliant line, 'Never, ever again tell a woman she's not strong enough.' A dictum many men would do well to take to heart. On setting off  for the city, she is also the one to ready her younger charges with: 'Everyone's got their coats? You've all used the toilet? No? Well, best hold it in.' An injunction many children would do equally well to take to heart. It is great to see an older character contributing experience and common sense alongside the spunk and verve of younger heroes. 

Sumptuous language

Tahereh Mafi's remarkable use of language is also just as fully in evidence here. In Whichwood it is perhaps not quite as linguistically idiosyncratic as in the earlier book, but it is still just as lushly communicative, sometimes thrillingly surprising, sometimes touchingly beautiful. More than anything it is sumptuous, replete with colour. Compellingly images, which linger long in the mind's eye, are strewn like petals across the surface of the story: the magical red rose bushes that carpet the cemetery; the pomegranate seeds raining red from the sky at Yalda; Laylee ritually bathing herself in the red water. (How many of them are red!)

Her imagery is so often strong and original: 'A skin of darkness had been hitched across the daylight and left to rot until midnight itself had become a curtain of charred flesh you could pinch between two fingers.' (p 35)

Another outstanding feature of this author's writing is her willingness to expand on a moment of time, rather than continually rush into a action. It is not that her story lacks incident or excitement, it has plenty. But her courage to linger in observation and reflection means  that she not only can paint wonderful pictures, but also fully explore her characters thoughts and feelings. She gives her readers real opportunity to get to know them intimately, to share their inner lives as well as their external ones. At such times she is never tedious or dull. Quite the contrary; the insights she provides continually captivate and enthrall. 

The interjected comments of the narrator continue and indeed grow in frequency too. She (?) even begins to assert an actual relationship to the characters whose story she is telling, adding layers of intrigue as well as narrative complexity. Exactly whose voice is this? And will we ever find out?

I admit to virtually no knowledge of Iranian culture or folklore. (Except for a deep love of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - and even there I rather think that the FitzGerald translation may have little of the authentic 'Persian' about it.) But I  suspect that this author's heritage may have had some influence on both her language and on the character and colours of Whichwood, bright and dark alike. If so, such influence is most welcome. Indeed, whatever the author's inspiration, it could not be more rich or enriching. Tahereh Mafi's writing and her worlds are sumptuous and sensuous in the glorious extreme. 

A rose is a rose - or not

The story is as rich in themes and ideas as it is in language. Fantasy it may be, but I know of few better works for  expressing the mysteries of that strange, confusing, conflicting 'tween' time of early adolescence. And certainly none better at articulating the grim, uncomprehending pangs of 'first love', as explored here thorough smitten Oliver. Similarly, in Laylee, she explores the difficulty that circumstance-damaged individuals have in accepting help and friendship, convincing themselves that they do not deserve it. Instead they often protect themselves with anger and resentment. Alice's 'task' shows how difficult it is truly to help the likes of  Laylee. It also shows how much such individuals need to be helped. To stay true to who you are, regardless of what the world thinks, may be fine and noble. But we all need to know that we are accepted by others if we are to be fully ourselves.

If  anyone has doubts that fantasy can be just as much much about human life as can gritty realism, then this is a perfect book to dispel them.  Here the fantasy is symbol and metaphor; it is not reality but it is truth. 

Through the chapters of Furthermore floats and twirls a ribbon. Those of Whichwood are embellished with a twining rose. (I can only see it as red even though the actual image is greyscale.) It is 'simultaneously beautiful and disturbing'. Like the plate patterns of Garner's The Owl Service, which can be either owls or flowers, or the classic optical illusion, which can be either young woman or old crone, the rose encapsulates a paradox.  It is briar and bloom; it is blood and death; it is love and life. And, like Schrödinger's cat, it is an ambiguity which resolves itself only in the eye of the observer. This is a magical story and will make you see the image quite differently at different times. But fear not, dear reader, like Garner before her, this narrator leads us all to good things in the end . 'The wound is the place where the light enters you.'


No ambiguity here

I loved Furthermore, I love Whichwood even more. In my view it earns itself a place amongst the very finest of contemporary children's fantasies. It can also hold its own with some of the greats of the past. Following its US release, the Puffin imprint published a paperback of Furthermore in the UK. I sincerely hope they do the same with Whichwood. These books need to become equally well known to readers over here, and indeed to children worldwide. Those who miss them will most certainly miss out. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

'Perhaps it was just as important to be still - to listen keenly - and to see into the heart of the things that most people missed.' (page 95)

Coming late to the party

Yes. I know. I am way behind the crowd on this one. Sky Song has been piled high in bookshops for weeks now, lauded and recommended all over the place. 

After delighting in the author's previous The Dreamsnatcher trilogy (see my posts from March '16 and June '17) I was not in the least surprised at this enthusiastic reception for her latest release. And now that I have read it I can only (belatedly) add my voice of recommendation to so many others. In doing so I feel rather like the sad sort who ends up feebly sending a 'Sorry I missed your Birthdaty' card. Yet I can't neglect recording my own thoughts on such a significant release, however tardy. Rather than simply repeat all the plaudits about this being an enchanting story both for children to read themselves and for teachers to read to them (which it is), I would like rather to try to explain why I think this little gem is so much more than just a good story.  Abi Elphinstone is a writer of great sensitivity and because of this offers much that will help sensitise her young readers to some crucial aspects of both literature and life. 

Difference is good

Sky Song is most wonderfully strong on celebrating  diversity and inclusion. One of its trio of protagonists is Blu, a girl with characteristics that, in the terms of our own world, suggest Down Syndrome. It is both inspired and inspiring to see such a girl feature so prominently in a mainstream book. There are, it's true, a good number of recent children's books about individuals who are 'different' in some way. Some personalities especially, such as children on the autistic spectrum and those with specific reading issues, have featured relatively prominently. This is certainly an excellent thing But in all my extensive reading, I don't think I have come across DS in much mainstream children's fiction, so Blue is particularly welcome. That she is not turned into an 'issue' but treated as an accepted lead character in her own right, contributing significantly to the success of the book's quest, makes it even better. It is really important for all children to be able to find themselves in the books they read or hear, but it is equally important that all children are sensitised to the idea that 'difference is good' when it comes to those around them. This book will help enormously. 

Stereotypes are bad

Additionally Eska, the story's lead character, provides a wonderful role model for the 'rebel girl'. It takes her no time at all to show that she is no mere 'rescued princess', despite her being liberated from the snow queen's Winterfang Palace - by a boy! She is everything a strong, gutsy, determined, resourceful protagonist should be, including being enormously likeable. Yet there are quite a few strong girl leads to be found in recent children's fantasy fiction. And a mightily good thing it is too. About time. However, even more remarkable (and laudable) for me is the almost equally prominent presence in Sky Song of Flint, a sensitive and sensitively drawn boy character. Feminism brings crucial understanding of girls' rights and potentialities to our society and is justifiably prominent. But it is perhaps easy to forget that boys too can be constrained and sometimes even crushed by a gender stereotype imposed and reinforced by society. Some boys also need to be encouraged and supported to be 'rebels' if they are to break free from the pressure to conform as 'real lads'. Some need to find themselves in other ways than as noisy, aggressive, sport-loving 'warriors'. That Flint is presented as a caring, empathetic and inventive believer in magic is enormously helpful. 

'I'm not sure I'm going to make a very good warrior though. Too much - '  (Flint) looked at Blu, searching for the right word, '- gentleness.'
'I don't think you have to fight with weapons to be a warrior,' Eska whispered. 'You can fight with love and tears and inventions instead.' 

There are different ways of being a rebel and, if our society is to become a better place for everyone, we need to learn to respect them all. Of course I know that there are some sections of our society who understand this already. But, sadly, there are also all too many who do not. A book like this can help, perhaps more than laws or lectures. Flint is is just as important a role model to find in mainstream fiction as are Eska and Blue. We owe Abi Elphinstone enormous respect and gratitude for putting all three in there. 

'If hope was a song it would sound just like this.'

The magic of 'the wild'

Perhaps because of her personal experience, through her upbringing and later travels, this author is also enormously responsive to landscape. Through her, her characters show the same sensitivity to place and to the abundance of nature it supports. In Sky Song, close relationships with animals figure strongly and are most tellingly and touchingly portrayed. 

'I don't belong to a tribe - I don't really know where I fit in exactly - but if my tribe ends up just being you and me, Balapan, that would be enough.' (Eska to her eagle)

Of course, such human/animal closeness is not uncommon in children's fiction, but Abi Elphinstone goes further. It is the sense of her protagonists' empathy with nature as a whole, with 'the wild', which is so beautifully captured.

'As Flint glanced at Eska he felt a strange tingling fill his body. She was surrounded by the wild - her tribe - and for a moment it felt like the animals were singing just for her.'

Even the 'magic of Erkenwald', forgotten by so many but kept alive by Flint and a few others, is the magic of nature, of the earth itself. 

'Flint still trusted Erkenwald's magic . . . because his mind was attuned to the things most people missed - river stones that shone in the dark, sunbeams tucked behind trees, coils of mist hovering above puddles.'

In their wonderful book of art and poetry, The Lost Words (see my post from October '17) Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane conjure 'spells' to put young readers more in touch with the natural world. Here, albeit through a different genre, Abi Elphinstone does very much the same. And although the location of her tale is probably not that of most of her  readers, sensitivity to nature is transferable. Through this strong and moving story I believe many children will become more sympathetic to the whole notion of 'the wild', whether it is far across the world or in their own backyard. And in fact both are vital. 

A door into fantasy

In an earlier post, I welcomed The Dreamsnatcher trilogy as 'entry level' fantasy for young readers. I do not see this as a pejorative description in any way. Quite the reverse. High fantasy abounds for somewhat older readers, (YA and beyond) but it is always good to have books that introduce such stories to children in an accessible and exciting way. Recently these seem to have been rather thin on the ground, here at least, if less so in The States. Fantasy is an important genre. Just as much as 'real life' books, fantasies help us discover more about who we are; about what other people do, think and feel; about the world in which we live.  It is not just 'pretending', it is imagining. Like much of poetry, fairy tale and fantasy explore life through images, through symbol and metaphor; and, at its best, it can plumb deeper than perceived 'reality'. It resonates, sometimes unconsciously, with the depths of what we human beings are and always have been. It points to the universal in all of us. And Sky Song is an even richer imaginative fantasy than Abi Elphinstone's earlier books. It resonates in exactly this way. It is replete with many of the classic tropes of fantasy: the rescued prisoner; the divided kingdom; the wise magician who shape-shifts; the wicked queen or witch who steals voices (identities, souls, daemons?); the warrior who scorns magic; the hero journeying to complete the quest that will end evil. It is not necessary for a young reader to understand all or even any of these, just to get to know them is enough. A book like this will help children remember and internalise these archetypes, so that they will later be able to appreciate classics like Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising and new wonders such as Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage. It is a magical doorway into a magical world in more ways than one. 

Language that speaks - and teaches

There is one further sensitivity in Sky Song  that I think important to mention, and that is Abi Elphinstone's profound sensitivity to written language. It is not that her usage is 'fancy', quite the reverse. It is communicative without being ostentatious, descriptive without being florid. It clearly moves the story, builds the characters, creates and releases tension as appropriate for such an adventure. But it is just the sort of writing that familiarises  children with the power and potency of  the written word. And it does not always need cumbersome disection by a teacher, or even conscious awareness on the part of the reader, for such quality language use to be absorbed. The young are sensitised to the apt choice of word, the nice turn of phrase, the elegant balance of a sentence by encountering these things frequently in their reading. Writing is, at heart, learned from reading, and the simple but telling use of language is best learned from the models unobtrusively provided by skilled authors such as this.

A wonderful example is the passage about flying the 'Woodbird' on page 243.  

Want the good news or the good news?

Sky Song is a hugely engaging story beautifully told, and the many sensitivities enmeshed in its telling make it a major addition to the canon of contemporary children's fiction. Wrapped within its fantasy is a book of tremendous heart.  No. Not just heart, humanity. 

I have picked up from Twitter than Abi Elphinstone has been commissioned by her publisher Simon & Schuster to write a new fantasy series, which she is currently calling The Unmapped Chronicles. This is brilliant news.  I will await it eagerly. I also know that huge numbers of other readers will be doing the same. Which is equally excellent. 

One final thought. As someone who values and treasures books in the long term I think it is sad that often these days  UK publishers do not produce a hardback edition alongside the more ephemeral paperback. Having said that, this edition of Sky Song is one of the best designed and presented children's paperbacks I have come across in a good while. It too will help sensitise children, this time to both the look and the hand-feel of beautiful books. Perhaps we will soon get a US-published hardback to go alongside it. I do hope so. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

York: Book 1. The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

'It was hard to sketch in the dark, but he did it anyway, quick lines that limned his thoughts.' Jamie, p 388. 

I ❤️ (New) York*

I love a big , thick book that looks like it's going to keep me engrossed for hours. I love even more when it has 'Book 1' on its cover. I love a beautiful, intriguing jacket. I even love US editions with those crazy deckle edges that we never see on UK publications.

I love dry American humour and droll repartee. I love books that burst with original imagination and invention. I love authors who take a regular genre and transform it into something fresh and sparkling. I love characters that leap straight off the page and into your affections. I love books that entertain but also make you think, ones that don't go where you think they're going. I especially love truly inclusive books that unobtrusively reinforce the unique value of every individual. I love a strange, enigmatic world of fantasy that bides so close to our own that its presence limnes our lives, like a sketch drawn in the dark. 
In short, I love York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby. It has all of these things. In spades. (Are you getting the idea?) 

A mystery tradition

In its early stages,  this book has the feel of a US kids' mystery story, much in the well-loved tradition of The Westing Game and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Basically, three kids try to solve an old cypher and find a treasure that will prevent their beloved apartment building home from being destroyed by an unscrupulous developer. Yet from the outset this novel has two outstanding features that lift it head and shoulders above just another fathom-the-clues story and render it a very fine book indeed in its own right. 

New York, not New York

One is the delightful amount of creative invention that has gone into building the book's world, or more specifically its city. This is a New York which has many reference points to the real location, but is embellished with many creations that are part steampunk, part Sci-fi, part fantasy. These are a supposed legacy from Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr, genius inventors and developers of the city from the 19th Century, as well as the instigators of the titular cypher. Their amazing additions include the 'Underway', a weird railway, that runs not only underground, but often emerges on fantastic raised trackways which loop and twist spectacularly around the city's skyscrapers. The children's home building, also a Morningstarrs original, has an escalator that moves horizontally and well as vertically and takes irregular, erratic routes between floors. And then the streets are kept clean by 'rollers', mechanical creatures that emerge from traps in the roadway, gather the trash and roll it away, much in the manner of scarab beetles. And on top of all this, protagonists Tess and Theo (who are themselves named after the Morningstarr twins) have an odd, giant lynx-cat pet, who also plays a prominent role in the story. 

The continual, often almost casual, introduction of these fantastic creations is endlessly intriguing, and a triumph of  invention by Laura Ruby. Equally enthralling is the way that  the otherwise very realistic, contemporary characters, living (to them) very real city lives,  take completely for granted what are (to us) mind-boggling aspects of their milieu. 

What characters!

And that thought nicely introduces the other great delight of this book. Its young characters constitute just about the strongest, liveliest, most entertaining and engaging portraits of American kids that I remember encountering since I delighted in the books of Betsy Byars a good few years ago. Their banter is a frequent joy and sometimes laugh-aloud hilarious. They are also very distinct and 'real' as personalities; it is made easy for us as readers to identify with them, to care about what happens to them. Theo is a boy who, in our world, could very well end up diagnosed as 'on the autistic spectrum'. His twin, Tess, becomes so obsessed with totally speculative risks that she could almost be called 'paranoid'. Their friend, Jamie, living with his Grandmother, has to cope without  parents, his mother dead and his father long-term absent. 

But this is, thankfully, not a book that labels children. Rather it shows them as being the totally credible and worthy heroes of a story, each accepted, each with his or her very valuable contribution to make; each, in their particular way loving and deservedly loved. 

And then there is young Cricket. Well, I think I'd better leave you to meet her for yourself. Enjoy! I know you will. 

Many of the adult characters are drawn with equal richness and wonderfully represent a society of different beliefs  and ethnicities. This is a book that, without being about diversity issues, reinforces and celebrates inclusion, the fact that it is  good to be different. Few messages are more important to put before our children. To have them presented, as they are here, with quiet conviction, and with tolerance and acceptance as simply part of the way things are, is wonderfully welcome. 

As befits an exciting children's adventure, though,  it does a pretty good line in villains, and in character shocks too. 

The mystery of the mystery

But it gradually becomes apparent that this is not all there is to York. Not by a long way. A book that starts out feeling like one thing shifts intosomething quite other, something far more complex. Mystery is layered on mystery, enigma on enigma. And it is through the puzzle, through the cipher, that the mysteries of the book become deeper and stranger, even as does the city, the world in which everything happens. More and more disturbs the children, and the reader too: the almost inhuman presence of the 'Guildmen' on the Underway, the terrifying behaviour of the trains when the children ride a prescribed sequence of line, a machine that seems organically to metamorph into something quite other. Then there is the pervasive presence of the deeply enigmatic, long dead (?) heiress of the Morningstarrs. All becomes darker. 

Our young trio start by supposing they are solving clues, following a trail, but soon come to think that the solutions they unearth are, in Tess's words, 'way too adorable'  Clues and solutions seem to fall into place too neatly, too easily, almost of their own accord. But then that's the point. What is happening to the children becomes more the mystery than the mystery itself. Theo questions: 'Has the treasure been waiting there for us to discover? Or are we somehow creating the puzzle ourselves, building it out of the choices we make?' But then are they really their own choices? Is their unfolding journey a fiendishly clever legacy from the past or something even more disturbing? It is all deliciously, thrillingly intriguing.


And yet, through all this of this Laura Ruby's story remains poignantly human. When the residents of 354 W. 73rd. come to the point of actually having to move out of their homes it is near heartbreaking. 'More than that, what about fairness? What about justice? What about right and wrong? What about Grandpa? What about us?' (Tess, p 414)

York has many other layers of fascination and illumination too. Despite all the sci-fi fantasy embellishments, it somehow still comes across as a love song to New York, and a plea for recognition of its heritage, for the contribution of all those from the past who have made it what it is. 'Maybe saving their own homes wasn't the point anymore. Maybe the point was to save a piece of history,'  says Jamie on page 386. There are important aspects of the story that leads us all, perhaps, to reflect on our homes and what they meant to us, wherever we live. 

And the climax of the book is truly devastating. It is not at all what either characters or reader expected. But no more of that. 

And now . . . 

If this sequence continues as strongly as it has started, then it could well turn out to be one of our finest and most important works of children's speculative fiction. 

Book 2, please. Soon. Bring it on. 'All that opens is not a door.'

For non-US readers ONLY ☠️

Of course this book comes from America, so it's written in American and we Brits have to get past a few weird words now and then. Any language that consistently misses the 's' off 'maths' and then goes and sticks a totally redundant one on the end of 'Lego' has to take a bit of getting used to. But its mostly not that hard, honestly. Probably even less so for children brought up on a media diet that includes numerous US TV shows and movies. And the payoff is well worth any effort. It is a big book inside as well as out, a truly fine read - and a hugely entertaining one. In any case it is good to get a feel of lives that are at the same time so like and so different from our own. And in fairness calling Lego bricks 'Legos' is at least shorter. (Although just calling them 'Lego' is shorter still.)

*I love the old one as well, which is close to where I live - but that's (literally) a different story. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Polar Bear Explorers' Club by Alex Bell

Let it snow

It has taken a couple of months for me to get around to reading this one, but at least it is still seasonal. It  is also one of the most delightfully enchanting books for the younger end of the MG range that I have come across in quite a while. I am even tempted to call it a 'magic fantasy'; it is most certainly fanciful and does involve some magic too. However, it contains a whole sled full of other things as well. 

Not as we snow it

The book's core scenario involves polar exploration during a pseudo-historical period which, in its 'gentlemen's club' ethos at least, most closely resembles the Edwardian era. However the  'Icelands' to which the expedition goes adventuring are not at all as we know them. They are apparently inhabited not only by polar bears and penguins (reasonably predictable, if geographically impossible), and sledge-pulling wolves (credible if unusual) but also yetis (found in folklore at least) and then creatures such as malevolent frost fairies and aggressive cabbages (totally fanciful). The story also involves, amongst many other disparate elements, a somewhat ineffectual young magican, a boy who can speak to wolves, an incorporate shadow animal, living miniature dinosaurs and a snow queen's palace. It even features unicorns whose favourite diet appears to be iced gem biscuits - particularly the pink ones. In short the imaginative invention here is whimsical to say the least, occasionally even 'twee'. (Pink iced gems indeed!)

In fact, such an eclectic mix of ingredients could, and probably should, stretch credibility beyond even a willing suspension of disbelief. However, in this instance, it works delightfully. And it does so for one simple reason. The clever author never even attempts to explain or justify this bizarre world; her characters just accept it all as a matter of course, and consequently so do we as readers. 

The storyline is brimful of exciting action which, like a young readers' version of Indiana Jones, propels the reader from one cliffhanging thrill to the next. Yet this is not, for me, the main thing that makes the book such a fine and worthwhile one. It is rather its wonderful cast of young protagonists  (and one older one too) who are the making of it. Their rich characters and developing relationships just leap off the page. They are not only touching and heartwarming but also embody profound and important messages for life. 

Snow persons

Its four lead children constitute the beating the heart of this book. The tale may have elements of fairy story, but its main character, feisty young Stella, is most certainly not going to turn into any sort of fairy tale princess. Her determination to prove herself in a world dominated by male chauvinism sets a glowing example at the same time as it raises hackles that such thinking should exist in the first place. 

Her friend Beanie clearly has personality traits which today would be identified as placing him 'on the autistic spectrum'. It is, however,  to the author's credit that he is never restrictively labelled. Although it is made clear that he has suffeed bullying from other children as a result of his behaviours, the attitude consistently and strongly promoted through the book is very much that is 'good to be different'. Beanie comes to be accepted and valued by his fellow explorers precisely for who he is, and this provides another wonderful model for young readers. 

Wolf-whisperer, Shay, is the most overtly caring of the four, as might possibly be expected from one so close to animals. However, Ethan, the final member of the little group, is far from being an easy person to get along with. But here again it is the way the others come to understand why he is as he is, and to accept him for who he is, that carries such an important message. 

And then there is Felix, Stella's beloved adopted father. In his wisdom and kindness, he is the adult largely responsible for inculcating attitudes of caring inclusivity in the next generation. Our world needs more like him. 

The ice(ing) on the cake

Alex Bell's book is an example of what I would call 'Enid Blyton for the 21st Century'. It is far better written than its populist predecessor and much more imaginative. But it has that same feeling of  thrilling adventure wrapped in a cosy blanket of easy, escapist reading. It focuses on a group of children with whom readers can readily identify and on the forging of friendship through shared experience.In Alex Bell's book, however, this is underpinned by mutual understanding of what each of them has been through, and consequently acceptance of who they are. What they learn about valuing difference, rather than fearing or despising it, appreciating the contribution that each individual can make, provides  a wonderful model for today's young readers. The Polar Bear Explorer's Club is about friendship in its fullest and most glorious sense.  It is an excellent example of how fantasy stories can help children learn about important things in their own lives just as powerfully as more 'realistic', issues-based stories. 

Had I read this book before a Christmas, rather than after, there is a very good chance I would have included it with my 'Books of the Year' (see post from Dec). I think we need more high quality fantasy stories for this age group to balance the plethora of zany comedy that can  rather dominate the market, in the UK at least.  Combining important messages with exciting  action and engaging protagonists, this would make an excellent read-aloud for teachers of younger KS2, as well as being highly recommendable to children directly. Its subtle promotion of humane and inclusive attitudes is particularly welcome, as is its strong support for 'rebel girls'.

The beautifully produced book book is very considerably enhanced by Tomislav Tomic's outstanding double-spread, greyscale illustrations. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017


Over Christmas and New Year I joined in with the online book group set up by Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird. Together with thousands of others, I re-read Susan Cooper's modern classic fantasy The Dark Is Rising, starting on Midwinter's Eve, the day the story begins. 

If interested, you will find the comments I posted, as I read each chapter, on Twitter @GordonAskew and many really inspiring responses to the book under #TheDarkIsReading and #TheArtIsRising. 

Now, back to my search for contemporary 'magic fiction' for children. Meanwhile, all the very best for 2018. 

The Rise of Wolves by Kerr Thomson

A second story of Nin

Beyond the ones I have already written about, I have recently struggled to find any really exciting new children's fantasy stories. Indeed I thought one or two strongly promoted ones were somewhat disappointing. Hopefully, I have just been unlucky in my reading choices and will come cross something recommendable soon. 

Meanwhile here is a book outside the remit of 'magic fantasy' that I very much enjoyed.  

This is the author's second children's book. His first, The Sound of Whales, from 2015, deservedly won the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition, and is itself very well worth seeking out.  Both are set on a small Scottish island, which I found an attraction in itself. As a countryside fanatic, I am always up for a remote, natural setting. The island of 'Nin', supposedly close to Skye, is itself fictional, but the author's knowledge of this region is clearly so intimate, that his portrait is totally convincing in both topography and community. 

Themes galore 

Kerr Thomson does pile an enormous number of elements and themes into his book. There are realistic issues of life on a small northern island, as well as family concerns around age and illness, a 'special needs'  condition and its consequences and friendship issues, on more than one level. There are also very important and moving concerns about wild places, as well as about the importance of 'dark sky' locations. There are animals (not least wolves of course) and issues of  possible 're-wildng'. There are problems from media intrusion and the consequences of contemporary technology. There are environmental/political issues and questions of what protest action may or may not be appropriate. And then there is a conflict between personal bravery and crazy risk-taking. 

But also action aplenty

Yet somehow, almost miraculously, this author succeeds in weaving all of these elements into a coherent story. And not only a coherent one, but a grippingly exciting one too. This is a real page-turner of a book, with each unexpected development leaving the reader (or this one, at very least) desperate to know what happens next. Even though some of the situations and incidents may, in themselves, stretch credibility a little, in the context of the story they are not only totally believable but completely gripping. 

More please

Beyond the location itself, Kerr Thomson subtly links this second Nin book to his first by having an important character from that one put in a 'cameo' appearance in this. I love that. It really does make the two separate (and very different) stories feel like they both belong to the same place and time. It also gives me the feeling that there may be more tales of Nin's young inhabitants yet to be told. I really do hope so. 

A gift for young readers . . . and teachers

The central characters of the story all show considerable sensitivity towards wildlife and the natural environment and the exposure of young readers to attitudes of this kind is keenly to be sought. 

With believable, likeable protagonists and strong relationships,  a combination of engaging action and important topical themes, this book is warmly recommended. It is informed and caring as well as giving rich insight into an environment and lifestyle that few children will experience directly. It, and its predecessor, would make most valuable additions to the repetoir of upper KS2 (MG) teachers.