Tag Archives: classic children’s books

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Dragonfly Pool’

Ah, yes. Another classic from Eva Ibbotson.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

This was a delicious book, one which I couldn’t help reading whenever I got the chance, and one I looked forward to coming back to in the quiet of evening. It’s so well written; the skill with language here is remarkable, the sentences perfectly cut and rhythmically perfect, complete in every detail. As well as that, it takes as its setting a very serious and painful era of human history and makes it into something beautiful, and full of hope, and I love it for that reason alone.

The Dragonfly Pool is the story of Tally (full name: Talitha, named for her great-grandmother, a woman of such fortitude that she used to physically remove the socks from the tramps on the London underground and wash and dry them before returning them), her family, and her life at school, all set against the opening days of the Second World War. Tally’s father is Dr Hamilton, a man more interested in the salvation of his patients than in earning money, so they are well-respected and deeply loved by their neighbours and friends, but quite poor – not that this bothers Tally in the least (at least, not in terms of acquisitiveness). She also lives with her father’s two elderly aunts who have raised her since infancy, as her mother died when Tally was only a few days old. When the war opens, all the adults in Tally’s life realise that they will have to send her away from London in case she is injured in the fighting, and the story begins by taking us through the sorrow felt by all of the people Tally knows as they think about losing her, and how much they will miss her – all before Tally herself has been told that she must go away. I loved this strange, oblique and moving way of showing the reader how much Tally means to everyone around her, and how much she has brought to her small corner of the world.

Tally is offered a scholarship to a ‘progressive’ boarding school in Devon called Delderton, and at first she is hugely resistant to the idea that she might like and enjoy it there. She knows she will miss her family cruelly, as well as the city she has grown up in and loves, but she submits to her father’s wishes and allows herself to be taken away on a train full of strange, alternative-seeming children, all of whom are fellow students at the school. As soon as she arrives, though, she is struck by Delderton’s beauty and its liberated teaching methods, designed to bring out each student’s individuality and potential, and while it takes her some time to get on board with it all, she soon finds herself warming to her new life.

While at school she meets many friends, including a girl named Julia with whom she goes into a nearby town one day to watch a film. The film, Tally thinks, isn’t up to much, but the newsreel beforehand – which shows a clip from a country called Bergania, a tiny European nation which is bravely standing up to Hitler and his advancing army – catches her attention. When, a few weeks later, a chance emerges for Tally and her schoolmates to travel to Bergania on a cultural exchange, she works hard to convince her headmaster of the merits of the trip, and so they set off. Little do they know that their presence in Bergania at this particular juncture in that country’s history will end up changing the course of that history, as well as Tally’s life and the lives of everyone she knows.

The book’s setting is so unusual – not many children’s books set during WWII are this beautiful, this positive, this hopeful. Bergania may not be ‘real’, but its spirit is; every Allied nation which stood against the encroaching Nazis is reflected in Ibbotson’s depiction. I adored the way Ibbotson paints the German people, too, and how she takes several opportunities to make it clear that ‘German’ does not equal ‘Nazi’, and that the average German person was not necessarily a facet of the evil of their ruling party. She shows the suffering of German children alongside that of Berganian ones, and British ones, and children of all nationalities, and she shows with great skill the power of unity and the ability of friendship and fellow-feeling to overcome all obstacles. She also takes the idea of royalty, in the person of Karil (the crown prince of Bergania), and shows how when these constructs of status are stripped away all that is left behind are flawed, insecure and frightened human beings, children – like Karil – who need help and a loving family and who, finally, eventually, receive what they are looking for. She shows the power of a good teacher, and how one invested and interested adult at a crucial point in a child’s life can do so much good, and she explores the importance of being oneself, and allowing one’s individuality to shine through.

All this, and a cracking story, too? Well. It is Eva Ibbotson, after all.

The only tiny thing which bugged me (and this happened with Journey to the River Sea, too), was that Tally was a little too good and perfect for my liking. Maia, in Journey to the River Sea, was just the same: absolutely ideal in every way. I kept hoping Maia would throw a hissy fit, and in this book I kept willing Tally to lose her temper or say the wrong thing to the wrong person and have to try to make amends for it later – but that’s such a small quibble in such an accomplished book. If you haven’t yet made room for Ibbotson in your life, you really should – and you can’t go wrong if you start with The Dragonfly Pool. It’s fast become one of my all-time favourite reads.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Anne of Green Gables’

So, yes. This book is probably older than everyone who has ever read this blog, if their ages were all added together. It’s a classic; it’s a book nearly everyone reads at some point in their childhood; it’s so much a part of culture that it’s sort of lost, almost, diffused so fully that the story itself trickles away under the wider literary tapestry.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.

Image: amazon.com

Image: amazon.com

I recently answered some questions about myself for the Greenhouse Literary Agency website, and during the course of that interview I realised something. I wrote a book at about the age of twenty or twenty-one (which was, and is, execrable dross) but I always thought of it as having been heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. However, I realised as I was thinking about it for the Greenhouse interview that actually, L.M. Montgomery had a lot more to do with my flowery, ever-so-dramatical turns of phrase than Enid had. I read Anne of Green Gables as a little’un, in bits and pieces, whenever I could get it out of the library; I had largely forgotten it, but the language and the drama and the sensibility seems to have stuck with me, somewhere, because it sure as heck came out in my first attempts to write.

The book concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of Anne Shirley, an imaginative and talkative red-headed orphan who arrives at the farm of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthberts are a brother and sister, both unmarried, who have long lived a quiet and uneventful life marked by piety and hard work. They send away to an ‘asylum’ – an orphanage – looking for a boy of about eleven to put to work on the farm in order to help Matthew; instead, they are sent Anne.

At first, they want to return her. The child’s wild imagination, ceaseless chatter and over-dramatic notions are a stark contrast to the Cuthberts’ controlled existence, but as first Matthew, and then (very gradually) his sister, begin to warm to Anne, she begins to settle into their small family and soon becomes an inextricable part of it. The book follows Anne from eleven to sixteen, from her arrival at Green Gables to her finishing her schooling, and we watch her grow from a flibbertigibbet into a young woman, one who is still imaginative and tender-hearted, but less prone to flights of giddiness. We are introduced to her ‘bosom friend’ Diana, and her classmates, and a boy who might be classed as her ‘frenemy’, Gilbert Blythe, who kicks off their relationship on the wrong foot by insulting Anne’s hair – a crime which she finds it very hard to forgive, but who becomes one of the most important people in her life from that point on.

The book is characterised by its tendency to tell Anne’s story not so much as a taut, controlled plot but as a series of vignettes, a ‘one thing happening after another’ style which isn’t so much in favour nowadays, but which speaks to its own time quite clearly. We watch as Anne learns, the hard way, how to make cakes and do the household chores which Marilla sets her, making a series of increasingly disastrous mistakes (though, as Anne herself points out, she never makes the same mistake twice!) My favourite episode was one in which Diana, then Anne’s newly-acquired bosom friend, comes over for the girls’ first grown-up tea, for which they are not being supervised. Marilla has told Anne she may serve her guest some raspberry cordial, and tells her where it is in the cupboard – but, unfortunately, Anne chooses the wrong bottle and serves Diana currant wine instead, leading to intoxication and a massive misunderstanding between Anne and Diana’s mother. It shouldn’t be funny to laugh at the idea of a child being so drunk she can barely walk across the field to her own house, but somehow the way it’s described here had me creased over with laughter.

As the book comes to an end, and Anne takes her final school examinations with the view to becoming a teacher herself, the story begins to pick up pace and some true conflict rears its head in terms of choices that have to be made, friendships which must change, illnesses which begin to claim their price on the people Anne loves, and homes which must be left behind. I must admit I read the latter chapters with tears in my eyes, perhaps because I’m a sentimental old sod and the style this book is written in played a disconsolate tune on my over-developed heart strings, but it is true that the closing of the story, after watching Anne’s progress, is emotional.

Anne of Green Gables rambles and meanders, and it’s full of pages of Anne’s chattering descriptions of everyone and everything she sees and thinks and hears and feels, but for all that it’s charming and beautiful. Anne is a character who will delight and sweep away even the most cynical of readers, and her relationship with the Cuthberts is deeply touching. I loved Anne for her brains and her courage, her distinct inability to put up with nonsense, her plain common sense (despite all the mistakes!) and her absolute loyalty and love, no matter what challenges come her way. It’s a shame there’s so much ‘ginger-ism’ here (as Anne continually goes on about how sore a trial it is to be red-headed; when I was a child, I prayed to be allowed to have red hair! Different strokes, I guess), but even that – of course – seems to work out all right in the end.

If, for some reason, you haven’t read this book already, I’d recommend it. If it’s a childhood favourite you haven’t revisited in a while, then dig it out. It’s a sweet, charming, guileless tale which, I think, is valuable in this mad, sad old world. I’m certainly glad I paid another visit to Green Gables – it’s just as pretty now as it was twenty-five years ago.

Saturday Book Review – ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

There’s a reason I’m choosing to review Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle on this particular day. It has nothing to do with a new release, or a new edition, or anything like that – this book was first published in the mid 1980s, and it has since been made into an animé and all manner of fan-art and such – but because I’m meeting someone very important later who admitted to me a few weeks ago that they had never read it.

I was like: ‘Come again?’

They’ve never read the story of Howell Jenkins Pendragon, and of the young-old Sophie, and her body-swapping sisters Lettie and Martha, and the seven-league boots, and the Witch of the Waste?

‘Ridiculous,’ I said. ‘We’re fixing that, asap.’

But in the meantime, I’m writing a review in order to whet this person’s appetite to finally read this masterpiece of children’s literature (I’m sure you’ve all read it, of course, so you’ll just have to bear with me. Can you stand it?)

Diana Wynne Jones’ work falls into a couple of camps, for me. I either love her books with a shattering passion, pressing them into the hands of passersby, weeping about them in my private moments, and all that sort of fangirl-y stuff, or I’m left going ‘meh’. The Chrestomanci series, about the wizards of Caprona, for instance, delights most people but leaves me utterly unmoved. Eight Days of Luke is a book I thought I’d love, given that its central character is – whoops! I nearly gave it away! – but I didn’t think much of it. I read The Merlin Conspiracy recently and enjoyed the story, but holy heck it dragged on far too long and didn’t need all the pages upon pages of exposition and description.

Then there are books like Enchanted Glass, and Fire and Hemlock, and A Tale of Time City, and The Power of Three, and Howl’s Moving Castle. These are the books I dream about. These are the types of books I aspire to create. These books are, for me, examples of masterful literature which just happens to be written for young readers. It’s funny how an author I love so much divides me so completely, but there you have it.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of Sophie Hatter and her sisters Lettie (the pretty one, in the middle, destined never to amount to much) and Martha (the youngest, destined for an easy life and a good marriage). Sophie, as the eldest, knows she is destined for a hard-scrabble life where she must set forth and try to make her fortune. The girls and their parents live in the land of Ingary, you see, where magic is real and fairytales are a way of life, and these roles for the sisters seem entirely natural. When their father dies, the girls are apprenticed – Sophie stays at home and learns to be a milliner, Lettie is sent to the local pastry shop, and Martha to a witch to learn her trade. They all do well; Sophie begins, gently, to weave spells into the hats she makes, and Martha and Lettie discover how a little magic can go a long way.

And then the wizard Howl, in his tall black castle which never stays still, comes to town.

Howl is reputed to eat the hearts of young girls, and his power is said to be vast. His castle is as frightening as he, even though nobody seems to know what he looks like or who he is. While he is in town, Sophie meets with the Witch of the Waste, who has taken umbrage at Sophie’s attempts to work magic, and she is placed under a spell which changes her appearance utterly – and part of the spell is that she can’t tell anyone she’s under it. In desperation, she sets out to try to seek her fortune and find a solution to her problem and – of course – she encounters Howl’s castle. Because the spell has changed Sophie into a 90-year-old woman, she looks up at this place, which had frightened her so much as a younger woman, and thinks ‘Heck. What’s the worst this whipper-snapper can do to me?’ and decides to go up and let herself in. Plus, she figures Howl is the only person she knows of whose magic is equal to the Witch of the Waste’s, and maybe he can set her right once again.

Thus begins an adventure which is so charming, so clever, and so downright funny that I can’t recommend it highly enough. Like all DWJ books the plot gets a bit twisty and you need to keep your head straight to figure everything out (she’s the queen of making tiny references to stuff early in a story which turn out to be massively significant at the end, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be flicking back and forth here to check you’ve got the right end of the stick!), but I just love this book. I love Howl and Sophie, and I love how Sophie’s perspective on the world changes when the spell makes her old, and I love her bravery and resourcefulness and determination. I adore Howl, too. DWJ once gave an interview in which she said girls all over the world had contacted her after this book was published wondering if they could marry Howl, which will tell you all you need to know about him. It’s a brilliant book, definitely one of my favourites, and if you haven’t read it (not looking at anyone in particular…) then sort it out, sharpish.

Image: thebooksmugglers.com

Image: thebooksmugglers.com



Book Review Saturday – ‘Journey to the River Sea’

Oh, I wish I hadn’t left it so long to start reading Eva Ibbotson.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

I’d wanted to read some Ibbotson for ages, but this is the first one I have managed to get my hands on. It won’t, I’m sure, be the last.

Journey to the River Sea tells the story of Maia Fielding, an orphaned girl whose quiet, boring life in a genteel London boarding school is brought to an end when, one day, word arrives from her aunt and uncle in South America. They want to adopt her, and – apparently – give her the home she has been lacking since the accident which claimed her parents’ lives. Immediately, Maia dreams of her joyful reunion with her family, while the girls in her class waste no time telling her all about the horrible exotic diseases she is likely to contract in the rainforest.

A governess – the utterly fabulous Miss Minton – is quickly appointed to accompany Maia on the long and perilous journey, and, full of hope, they set off.

On the way, Maia meets many new and interesting people, including Clovis, a young boy of her own age who performs with an acting troupe. They have a booking in a town not far from where Maia will be living, and she makes a promise to come and see him perform. By the time they arrive, Maia and Miss Minton are bedraggled and exhausted, but amazed by the beauty of the landscape all around them.

Imagine their horror, then, when they arrive at the Carters’ (Maia’s relatives), to find them assiduously murdering every piece of exotic wildlife they possibly can, treating their Indian servants dreadfully and, in every respect, attempting to create the perfect ‘English’ life amid the rainforest instead of embracing their new life with gusto. Maia begins to understand that the perfect life she has dreamed of with her aunt, uncle and (utterly, brilliantly vile) twin cousins may not be everything she has hoped for.

Meanwhile, two strange black-clad investigators arrive from England in search of a long-lost heir to a fortune and a plush country estate in the ‘old country’. They think he is lost in the rainforest, and their instructions are to bring him back at all costs. But that’s until he meets up with Maia, and between them the children cook up a plot almost as dastardly as anything the investigators could have come up with…

I loved this book for many reasons. In approximate order of preference, these are: Miss Minton, Maia, the setting, the Carters and their stupidity/greed/vulgarity/general horribleness, and the fact that the book is rich with plot and subplot, all of which makes for a layered reading experience. Of course, the writing and dialogue and general characterisation is all spot-on, too; this is a quality piece of storytelling. The only tiny thing that irked me was that Maia is a bit too perfect, too universally loved (except by the dreadful Carters, but that’s how we know how evil they are) and too idealised, but I loved her, too. I adored her gentleness, her sense of justice, her concern and compassion for others, her instinctive drive to respect her environment and the other people who live in it, and her wide-eyed admiration for the new landscape in which she finds herself. I also loved her hope – she never gives up hoping for a better future, and that was beautiful. It would have been nice to see her throwing the odd tantrum, though, just to balance things up.

As for Miss Minton – well. I want to be her when I grow up. There’s a scene near the end of the book when she eventually, after resisting for ages (because PROPRIETY and STANDARDS, and all that), removes her corset and allows herself to breathe properly in the hot, humid jungle, and I felt like cheering. She’s loving, kind, brave, utterly devoted to Maia, intelligent, resourceful and unflappable – exactly the kind of person I am. In my imagination.

I also loved Clovis. If ever there was a character whose cheeks I wanted to squeeze, it’s him. I loved his struggles with his changing body and voice which may spell the end of his career as a cherubic little boy on stage, and the gradual unfolding of his ‘origin story’, which was very touching and, I’m sure, quite realistic too. I enjoyed Maia’s relationship with Finn, and I also found much to delve into in Ibbotson’s treatment of the Carters and how they have abused the workers in their rubber plantation and their short-sighted, destructive approach to harvesting the jungle’s resources. There are plenty of ‘lessons’ here, which don’t feel like lessons; plenty of quiet laments for the passing away of the beauty of the natural world, which sat well, if uncomfortably, with me.

in short, if you’re a human being, you need to read this book. It’s a deserved classic, and I wish I could read it again for the first time.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Giver’

The Giver is a book I should have read years ago.

Image: thingsideembloggable.blogspot.com

Image: thingsideembloggable.blogspot.com

I wish I’d had this book as a younger person. Reading it as an adult is, I’m sure, better than nothing – but reading it as a teen (which I was in 1993, when it was first published) would have been fantastic.

But then, everything happens as it must.

The Giver is a masterclass in world-building. As we read the book, realities about the world that Lowry creates come effortlessly (on our part, at least) to the fore. She expertly paints a world which is recognisable, but very different from ours – and the means by which she gradually reveals it are magnificent. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers (though I’m sure a lot of you will have read this book already!), but suffice it to say that I was impressed.

The novel tells the story of Jonas, who is preparing to ‘become a Twelve’, which means he will no longer be considered a child in his community but will be bestowed with the societal role he will bear for the rest of his adult life. He will enter training, he will socialise for the most part with his fellow trainees, and the gradual process of splitting away from his ‘family’ will begin. He lives with his parents and his younger sister Lily, who is about to become an Eight. She, too, is facing her own milestones of development – her ‘comfort object’ (a stuffed elephant) will be removed when she becomes an Eight, and she will be given – for the first time in her life – a jacket with small pockets to symbolise her growing maturity and the fact that she is now trusted to look after her own small trinkets. Nobody has ‘birthdays’; a ceremony held every December marks a child’s changing from a Three to a Four, or a Seven to an Eight or, most significantly, an Eleven to a Twelve.

Jonas’ community knows no pain, nor hunger, nor suffering, nor strife. Everyone has a role, to which they are suited. Everyone serves. Everyone is exactly the same. Everyone takes pills from the onset of adolescence – including Jonas, early in the book – to counteract what is referred to as Stirrings, and which can be understood as nascent hints of sexuality; I preferred to think of the pills as emotional anaesthetics.

The community, which initially seemed such a Utopia, slowly reveals its darker face.

Image: 7bbs.edublog.org

The Giver meets the Receiver. Image: 7bbs.edublog.org

During the ceremony in which Jonas becomes a Twelve, the leader of the community calls each child in turn and gives them the role they will fulfil for the rest of their lives. When she comes to Jonas, she skips him – and the disconcerting effect is felt by everyone. At the ceremony’s end, the leader brings Jonas before his people and tells him that he has been designated as the new Receiver of Memory, a role which has remained empty since a failed successor was appointed ten years before. Nobody wants to discuss this failure: it seems to cause great pain and discomfort, and the topic is avoided. Jonas is afraid, and unsure of what is facing him. All the other children have had experience of the roles they will now be fulfilling, and they don’t have to deal with the unknown as he must.

He reports for duty and finds the current Receiver of Memory – an aged man, working alone, with shelves filled with books and the ability to switch off the surveillance which all other citizens are subject to – and he begins to understand the scope of the task facing him. Now that Jonas has become the new Receiver of Memory, the old Receiver becomes the Giver – and giving memories is exactly what he does.

Jonas gradually learns, with the help of the Giver and his own natural abilities, that all is not well in his world. He begins to see and feel and think things which are unacceptable, and the inner struggle this creates is expertly expressed. Jonas begins to see everyone – his parents included, most particularly his father – in a strange and terrifying new light, and the truths behind his life, and that of his community, which have never been faced up to before, begin to torment him.

I have rarely read a book which deals with huge universal themes (morality, good and evil, authority structures and power) as expertly as it does with the quieter, more personal themes of growing up; certainly, I don’t think I’ve read a better one than The Giver. It’s really hard to review it without giving away all the community’s secrets, and without spoiling the gradual way in which Lowry builds not only her world but also Jonas’ growing knowledge of it, but all I can say is that it is reminiscent of the learning process itself, the gradual changing from ignorance to knowledge. Some of it happens in chunks, and more of it happens gradually, just as it is for Jonas in this story. The book’s conclusion was, I felt, perfect – though my frustration at its ambiguity was tempered when I learned that sequels exist. However, even as it stands, I think The Giver is a monumental work. I can understand why it creates such controversy, and why it has been challenged and banned in schools; because I understand it, however, does not mean that I agree.

The Giver is a book that made me think. That is what the best literature is supposed to do. Anything less – anything which coddles us into believing our own perfect little Utopia is eternal, never-changing, safe and unassailable – is what needs to be challenged, to my mind.

I’m grateful for The Giver. It will live beside Ursula le Guin and Madeleine l’Engle on my bookshelves, and I hope I will always remember its message.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Marianne Dreams’

You might remember this high-octane drama from a couple of weeks ago, where I enlisted the help of all y’all all over the Internet to help me track down a book I’d read and loved as a tiny person, but whose title I couldn’t remember. I had no idea of the author’s name, either. All I could remember was a mysterious drawing of a house, with a person inside one of the upstairs windows, and a malevolent ring of standing stones outside, keeping the prisoner captive.

Just like this, in fact! This is a still from the 1990 movie 'Paperhouse,' based on the book 'Marianne Dreams.' Next on my list of things to track down. Image: landofcerptsandhoney.blogspot.com

Just like this, in fact! This is a still from the 1990 movie ‘Paperhouse,’ based on the book ‘Marianne Dreams.’ Next on my list of things to track down.
Image: landofcerptsandhoney.blogspot.com

Well, in case you missed it, the sorry saga had a happy resolution. I found the book, and immediately whisked off an email to my ex-colleagues in my favourite bookshop, and a few days later it plopped through my letterbox.

I think I lasted about two hours before I started doing that whole ‘new book smell!’ thing.

You know the one I mean. Image: thesmellofbooks.com

You know the one I mean.
Image: thesmellofbooks.com

After that, it was only another couple of hours before I had it digested.

So. Was it as good as I’d remembered?

Well. The short answer is ‘no’. That’s not to say it isn’t a fabulous book – because it is, absolutely. I still love it as much as I ever did, because the feeling it gave me as a child is still there, crackling away at the base of my skull. The terror it inspired in my eight-year-old self will never leave, and that, of course, is a brilliant thing. Reading it as an adult does let me see it in a different light, of course, one which points up all the things that could now be seen as faults and flaws – the gaps in the story, the fact that all the characters sound the same, the repetition, the telling and showing and then telling a bit more – but the best thing about finding it again is this: I can still understand, very clearly, why this book stuck with me for the best part of thirty years. I am so glad I found it again, and that I can put it up with my other favourites, the books which shaped the person I am today.

Straight away, we are introduced to Marianne, who starts to feel really unwell on her long-awaited tenth birthday. Her temperature spikes, her appetite disappears, and her worried mother summons the doctor. Her birthday dinner is thrown away uneaten, and the celebrations stop.

Marianne is quite seriously ill.

Confined to bed for weeks on end, unable to even cross the room to pick up a book to read, she grows more and more irritable and frustrated. Catherine Storr, the author, conveys Marianne’s pain very effectively, and we really feel for this small girl, cooped up indoors with bright summer weather streaming in her windows. She gets used to doing things from bed, which includes helping her mother sort through her great-grandmother’s old antique workbox, in which, one day, she finds a pencil. It’s not a particularly beautiful or well-made pencil; it simply looks friendly, and easy to draw with, and helpful. This is the pencil, Marianne thinks, which will make my visions come truthfully out of my head, through my fingers and onto the page.

And so she draws.

The first thing she draws – for it is always the first thing she draws – is a house. It is, she thinks, as unsatisfactory as ever. Lopsided, windows misaligned, out of proportion. But she gives it some trailing smoke from the chimney, adds a fence and some standing stones, some tall whispery grass, and some large flowers.

When Marianne dreams that night, she is standing in a wide open field full of swishing, long grass, and a house – a strangely familiar house – stands before her, surrounded by a fence and a jumble of standing stones.  She goes through the gate and up the garden path, and right up to the the front door of the house – but it has no knocker or bell, and she feels desperately sure that she must get inside. Something about the wide prairie landscape all around her makes her afraid. But her small knuckles get bruised against the wood of the door, and there’s nobody inside the house to let her in. Put someone in the house, a whishing, mysterious voice tells her.

Back in her own world the following day, Marianne makes a few adjustments to the house. She adds a face at the upstairs window, and she places a knocker and letterbox on the front door. Her great-grandmother’s pencil draws well – and, as she learns, it cannot be erased.

In her next dream, Marianne returns to the house. She notices a small pale face in the window upstairs, and when she knocks a boy opens the window. He is Mark, who is trapped inside, unable to walk. ‘I can’t get downstairs,’ he tells her. ‘There’s no staircase in this house.’

So, the next day, Marianne adds one. Eventually, she manages to get inside the house, and every time she dreams she and Mark try to figure out where they are, and why he’s trapped. Every day in her ‘real’ life, Marianne draws the things Mark needs – a bed, some food, a bicycle to help his polio-wizened legs to strengthen – and every night they plot their escape.

Then, one day, in a fit of irritation at Mark, Marianne adds eyes – narrowed, peering, cruel eyes – to the stones outside the house, and then the trouble really starts.

There are some genuinely chilling moments here, particularly in relation to the spying stones and the voices the children hear, warning them that they must escape and that they’re being pursued; I can totally see my tiny self reading with trembling hands as the children’s attempts to get away from the house are described. Marianne’s ‘double life’, and the fact that Mark exists in her ‘real’ world, too, mean that the book is interestingly layered and textured; the realities of polio, and the horrors of that disease and the effects it had on the children who suffered from it, are sobering. I loved the childlike logic that dictates Marianne’s choices of what to draw next, and their rather ingenious plan of escape, and I loved the horror that still fizzes through the pages.

The fact that everyone sounds like a middle-aged businessman is a bit of a disappointment, but that’s to be expected from a book first published in 1958, I suppose. There’s lots of ‘my dear girl,’ ‘awfully sorry,’ ‘frightfully kind,’ and that sort of thing.

In short, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that this book sounds a little dated, I would say track down a copy and give it a go. It’s unlike any other children’s book I’ve ever read, and – if for nothing else but the sheer imagination needed to dream it up (no pun intended) – it’s worth a try.

Still from 'Escape into Night', a TV miniseries adaptation of the book from 1972, showing Marianne (Vikki Chambers) and Mark (Steven Jones) inside the upstairs room of the house. Image: werewolf.co.nz

Still from ‘Escape into Night’, a TV miniseries adaptation of the book from 1972, showing Marianne (Vikki Chambers) and Mark (Steven Jones) inside the upstairs room of the house.
Image: werewolf.co.nz

Book Review Saturday – ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Okay, so. Yes, I’m aware this book is now over fifty years old. I’m aware that, probably, everyone in the world has read it. I’m aware it’s a deserved classic.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

I’m aware – you may not be aware of this, though – that I own no fewer than three different editions of this book, such is the overwhelming love I have for it.

So, the question you’re no doubt asking is: Why, o Why, are you doing a review of this book today?

Well, this is the reason.

I learned during the week that this book has been turned into a graphic novel – an award-winning graphic novel, at that – and my book antennae immediately twinged into action. Another volume to track down and add to my collection (or assimilate into my book-Borg, if you like), and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. So, this week it is on the review hotseat, for which I make no apologies. I’d like to think that someone, somewhere – perhaps even a reader of this very blog! – has never come across this book, and maybe my words will convince them of their folly.

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ tells the story of Meg Murry, a girl who is the child of gifted scientists but who feels, in her own heart, that she is inadequate. She is the oldest in her family, and the only girl – her twin brothers (Sandy and Dennys) are athletic and confident and her adored ‘baby’ brother (Charles Wallace) is supremely gifted, but appears ‘weird’ to the rest of the world because he speaks in full sentences, like an adult. Meg, however, knows that he can read her mind, and they have a deep and inexplicable connection – and, also, the most moving and believable love I’ve ever read between siblings, which becomes the driving narrative in the novel. One ‘dark and stormy night’ (the clichéd opening line is deliberate) Meg discovers Charles Wallace having milk and bread-and-jam with Mrs Whatsit, a strange old lady who is, she says, their new neighbour. In the course of conversation, she says: There is such a thing as a tesseract.

Mrs. Murry, the children’s mother, immediately starts to worry. Her husband has disappeared as the story opens, and the last thing he was working on before he vanished was – the tesseract. A complex scientific/mathematical concept (and one I fully admit I didn’t understand at all as a child reader, not that it mattered in the slightest), the tesseract is used in this book to mean something which allowed people to move through space and time, much as one can fold several layers of cloth over one another and pass a needle through them all simultaneously. Mr. Murry was employed by the government to do research into the tesseract, and has not been seen since.

Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s schoolfriend Calvin O’Keefe then set off on a quest to find Meg’s father. They enlist the help of Mrs Whatsit, and her two mysterious ‘friends’, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. In the course of their quest they are transported to other planets (including the home planet of the three ‘Mrs W’s’, where they meet them in their natural shape, and not the human forms they take while on earth), and they are shown a huge, universe-devouring blackness, which is threatening the future of the earth and all the other worlds.

They end up on Camazotz, a planet which has many earthlike features, but which has fallen completely under the power of this nihilistic darkness, and is ruled by a gigantic disembodied brain known as IT. This brain pulses to a particular beat, and the entire planet operates to this same beat – people’s footsteps, the rhythm with which children throw balls during playtime, the opening and closing of doors – and, as a child, the concept terrified me. It’s a clever way of using the ‘unheimlich’ – that which is familiar, and yet unfamiliar, and hence terrifying – to excellent effect. Mr Murry is being held captive on this planet, and Charles Wallace – due to his brilliance, and his telepathic abilities – is able to find him, but by doing so he puts himself at enormous risk. Mr Murry tries to tesser away from the planet with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace – but Charles Wallace gets left behind. The only person who can go back to save him is Meg, because she has the one thing IT does not have, the one weapon which can overpower it and reclaim her brother, and so she sets off alone to bring him home.

Image: garrettsbookblog.wordpress.com

Image: garrettsbookblog.wordpress.com

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ fascinated me as a child. I loved the familial connections, the bravery of Calvin O’Keefe, the complex portrayal of Meg’s parents, particularly her father – it was the first time I’d ever read about a parent who ‘fails’, and who doesn’t know the answers to everything – and, of course, I loved Meg herself, a girl who puts her brother above everything else. I loved the three Mrs Ws, and their clear, easy ways of explaining huge concepts, and the horror of the world-ending nothingness that threatened the existence of the universe was extremely real, to me. That concept has also been used in ‘The Never-Ending Story,’ of course, but I think it’s even more emotive in this story than in that other towering classic of children’s literature.

Madeleine l’Engle went on to write four other books in this same fictive universe, featuring the Murry and O’Keefe families, and I have also read those – but, sadly, not with the same pure and unsullied love as I have for ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ The later books grow a little too obsessed with religion and morality – there are tones of this in ‘Wrinkle’, too, but they are so quietly present that they’re hard to spot – and I found the sequels overly preachy and not at all in the same league as the earlier book. However, ‘Wrinkle’ stands alone as a prime example of everything that is brilliant in literature, let alone children’s literature, and should be read by all people, everywhere.

It’s just that good.

If you haven’t read it, sort it out. If you have, re-read it. I know I’m about to.

A Golden Age?

Here’s a question. Do you think children’s books these days are better than they used to be?

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Recently, I was looking through one of my bookshelves, just browsing – as you do – through some reading memories. I came upon a book I owned as an eleven-year-old, and I remembered loving it passionately, thinking of it for a long time as one of my favourite books. It’s an Irish book – Irish author, Irish publisher – and uses Irish mythology as the basis for its plot. It reimagines the story of the fairy woman Niamh Cinn-Óir (Niamh of the Golden Hair), and her human husband Oisín, whom she takes away to Tír Na n-Óg, the Land of Youth. It has beautiful illustrations, and an amazingly designed cover, and the sight of it brought back a lot of good memories. Best of all, the author of the book is still writing – he has published a prodigious amount of stories for children over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, most recently a fantastically imagined series about witchcraft and alchemy which I really enjoy – and so I grabbed it up and immediately started re-reading it, perhaps in an attempt to relive some of my childhood love for it.

Except – well. It wasn’t as good, not nearly as good, as I remembered.

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question - just in case! Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question – just in case!
Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

I do realise that many years have passed and lots of water has flowed under the bridge of my youth, and all that – but I’m the sort of person for whom that sort of thing doesn’t matter. I love children’s books, and I’d like to think I always will, even when my eyesight’s failing so badly that I need to get the Large Print editions of my favourite stories. I loved this story as a little girl, and I could see why – it had all the things I adored at the time, and which I’m still partial to now. Mythology, love, adventure, horses, monsters, and a brave little boy who faces his fears. So why didn’t I love it any more?

It was because of how the book was written, I think.

Reading this book reminded me of the stereotypical ‘bad’ essay: ‘And then this happened, and then that happened, and then, and then, and then…’ – it was, pretty much, a list of things happening, without any tension or subplots or dynamism. There was no characterisation – the brave little boy was brave at the beginning of the story, and he was brave at the end. Niamh and Oisín were unchanging throughout. Oisín, at one point, takes his leave of Niamh and she fears she’ll never see him again, but there is no emotion in their goodbye. I wasn’t expecting a lingering kissing scene, or anything of that ilk, but something would have been good. Children’s books are emotional, and one of the most significant things in a child’s life is learning about what it means to say goodbye – so this emotionless, businesslike farewell was puzzling to me. There is an encounter with a terrifying monster near the end of the book – or, at least, a monster who would be terrifying, if the author had allowed any sort of tension to creep into the story. The whole thing is told like a medieval chronicle. It’s essentially a list of things, a shopping list of children’s fantasy literature essentials all piled into one book.

I’m not trying to say that the person who wrote this book is not talented – his list of writing accomplishments is mighty, and I admire him very much for what he has brought to children’s literature – but what I mean is, perhaps the requirements for a good, gripping children’s book have changed radically since the days in which this one was published. What made a magical children’s story then seems to have morphed into a different beast, these days.

I’m reading a children’s book at the moment, Sarah Prineas’ ‘The Magic Thief.’ I adore her use of dialogue, her creation of interesting and three-dimensional characters, and the ways in which things like letters between the players in the story are interspersed with the narrative to create all the things I love in a book – intrigue, suspense, and interest.

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

I am not yet finished the book, but I’m hopeful that these things will be maintained throughout, and that I’ll be left breathless with admiration and thirsty for more by the end of the story. Importantly, I feel that ‘The Magic Thief’ is the sort of book I’ll come back to in five, ten, twenty years’ time and still enjoy, much the same way as I still enjoy the books of Alan Garner, which I first read when I was eight years old. Those stories have the same power over my mind now as they did when I was a mere slip of a girl. However, a lot of the books I loved as a kid have slipped beneath the murk of memory, at this stage. I have a feeling a lot of them were written like this story of Niamh and her Oisín – paint-by-numbers type tales which don’t weave the same sort of spell over a reader once childhood is over.

‘The Magic Thief’ is a good book, not just a good children’s book. I have also been lucky enough to read another good children’s book in recent weeks, which I’ll be reviewing next Saturday. Rich, and detailed, and complex, and interesting, these books couldn’t be more different from my childhood favourite. I hesitate to say that the simplicity inherent in the story of Niamh and Oisín was common to all books of that time, because of course one cannot draw a conclusion like that based on a single example – and, of course, there are good children’s books from generations back which are now deserved classics. But still, I wonder whether children’s books have become better over the past twenty years or so, in terms of the reading challenge they offer to children and the richness and skill of their storytelling. Perhaps it’s that readers have become more demanding, and perhaps it’s also true that there has been an explosion of interest in children’s books, and in publishing for young people, and – as in every walk of life – competition can raise standards.

If so, it’s a great time to be a reader.