October 2005 Archives

The Fairy Tales

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Jan Pienkowski (translated by David Walser)
Oct 2005

This is a sumptuous season for fairy tales. Lauren Child�s covetable version of The Princess and the Pea is the sort of book all real princesses will want to hoard beneath their pillows. There is the much less crafted, but fun, Mixed Up Fairy Tales, from Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt, which lets children play around with all the familiar components - like the old game of Tops and Tails � so Goldilocks can be bossed around by two horrid stepsisters, then move in with seven dwarfs before being woken by a band of forty thieves.

But even amongst all this splendour, there is one new collection of fairy tales which has the quality of an heirloom, the kind of book you might buy for a child now, but sense that in thirty years it will be on a shelf, its vividness undimmed, for some other child to rediscover. Jan Pienkowski, (he of Meg, Mog � check out page 15 of The Fairy Tales - and Owl fame), has gathered together the most popular tales of the brothers Grimm and illustrated them with such clarity and such novelty of vision it really is like new lamps for old.

All the favourites are here, Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, although I�m pretty sure this is the first time Sleeping Beauty has been depicted straight off the delivery bed.

I have been reviewing children�s books for some three years now, and the one lack in the market has been a collection of fairy tales to treasure. There are plenty of Disney-fied versions, and plenty of mediocre ones with pictures as flat as their narration. More often than not these books are labelled A Treasury.

Well let us now hail true treasure. In black and white silhouettes, on the thickest of white paper edged in silver, Pienkowski has reworked the oldest genre in the world with the most ancient of skills: real magic.

Zip's Apollo

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Philip Ridley
Oct 2005

Is the landscape of fairytales crumbling? Does its populace of familiar, universal figureheads - Kings, Queens, youngest sons - lose emotional impetus in modern urban environments? Should either statement contain even a vestige of truth, remedy can doubtless be sought in the modern urban fairytales of Philip Ridley...

"Zip's Apollo" gives near kaleidoscopic vision of an urban environment and its emblems - houses, streets, supermarkets and most importantly for this novel... trolleys! As with Ridley's last book, "Mighty Fizz Chilla", this new novel marks a departure from his earlier work by juxtaposing the urban with the rural and the protagonist's present with his past.

Zip Jingle has grown up in the forest with his family. His recent move with his mum and little brother to Yet To Be Named Street in New Town, where even the trees and grass are plastic where everything is uniform and seemingly sterile, comes as a real culture-shock. The thrill and tingle of life seems gone from the lives of the Jingles until Zip and his baby-brother Newt bring home a shopping trolley from the supermarket. When the two boys name the trolley Apollo it begins to communicate with them through thoughts, feelings and speech, helping the Jingle family to learn to see the magic in life once more and gradually come to terms with a change and a loss that has affected them all.

An impressive tale encompassing love, loss, change, safety, care, protection and a coming to terms with one's past. "Zip's Apollo" contains one of the most beautiful, heartening and life-affirming speeches to be found in children's literature. A must read!

Mister Monday

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Garth Nix ill. by Tim Stevens
Jan 2004
�He couldn�t believe he was in this situation. He was supposed to be some sort of hero, going up against Mister Monday, and here he was without any pants on, worrying about being bitten somewhere very unpleasant by Nithling Snakes. Surely no real hero would end up in this predicament.�

Arthur Penhaligon is a rather ordinary boy; much too ordinary to be any sort of hero. He has just moved to a new town and the first day at his new school is not going well. He has asthma, he can�t tell the ultra-cool kids from their opposites, and the PE teacher is making him go on a cross country run. When he collapses in front of everyone, surely things can�t get any worse?

Well actually, they can. As Arthur lies dying in the park, he finds himself in possession of a minute hand from a clock, and a peculiar notebook, thrust on him by Mister Monday who expects to retrieve them as soon as he dies. Unexpectedly he lives and becomes the target of sinister men in bowler hats while around him a plague erupts and threatens the population. Arthur is forced reluctantly into the role of hero as he enters the House and an alternative world. Here he is dependent on a scrap of Will which disguises itself as a frog, and an Ink-Filler Sixth Class called Suzy Turquoise Blue if he is to survive, find a cure for the plague and return to his own world and family.

Readers who are familiar with Nix�s Sabriel trilogy should not expect a re-run in this first part of The Keys to the Kingdom series. Unlike Sabriel and Lirael, Arthur comes from a world which is essentially our world. The fantasy world of Mister Monday is not the same as the Old Kingdom of Abhorsen. The good news is that if you did not enjoy Sabriel, it is still worth giving Mister Monday a go. On the other hand, if you loved Sabriel and are hoping for more of the same, you may initially feel disappointed. But �different� is not the same as �bad�. There is a wry humour to the book, an active imagination and at its heart an uncertain, vulnerable hero who resoundingly proves himself up to his task. Well worth the read, and with the next two volumes in the series already published, if you get hooked you can move straight on to Grim Tuesday.


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Cat Weatherill
Oct 2005
Barkbelly is not like other boys: he was hatched from a wooden egg and he�s literally tough as teak. Brought up by humans in a village far from his kin, he flees his childhood home after an unfortunate accident ends in the death of a young boy.

He then embarks � no pun intended � on a series of adventures that bring him into contact with the circus, the urban jungle, pirates, slave traders and ultimately to Ashenpeake, the island home of his people.

Cat Weatherill�s tale of Barkbelly�s search for his roots addresses some fairly challenging themes: loss, betrayal and the true meaning of love. Ultimately, however, the action rolls on so fast that most will be swept along for the ride.

There�s a slight sense that Barkbelly is a series of fantastical vignettes populated with wild and wonderful characters rather than a coherent whole. However, the real issue if you�re using the book as a bedtime story may be persuading your kids to wait till tomorrow for the next instalment.

I, Coriander

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Sally Gardner
Oct 2005
Not since I feverishly immersed myself in the fantasy adventures of E. Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge over twenty years ago have I been so utterly swept away with the fairies. As an adult I�ve enjoyed many �magical realism� stories, and have at times revisited various interpretations of the traditional fairy tales, but Sally Gardner�s I, Coriander refreshed my imagination and enthusiasm for all things magical beyond any of these.

Part fairytale, part historical snapshot, it seamlessly weaves two sharply contrasting worlds � the oppressive, controlling and threatening real world of 1650s pre-Restoration London and a dreamlike fairyland � both seen through the eyes of our spirited heroine, Coriander. All the essential fairytale ingredients are here - a Wicked Stepmother, a Handsome Prince, Magic, Hardship and a Happy Ending - but there is also much originality and freshness about the author�s approach to the genre. Without the use of her paintbrush, Gardner expertly evokes through graceful yet unfussy prose a vivid, theatrical backdrop in which the reader feels almost part of the scenery. Her characters are equally well decorated, each with their own quirky back-story, and with a role to play in the advancement of the storyline.

Coriander�s transition from na�ve and rather spoiled child to world-wise young woman is no picnic. She swings between heartbreak and exhilaration during an emotional and physical journey that sees the death of her mother, the prolonged exile of her father and exposure to brutal cruelty, as well as the forging of new friendships and the first flutters of romantic love. The impressively paced narrative comes to a satisfying conclusion without indulging in too many clich�s and an uplifting ending suggests the beginnings of further adventures. Whether or not there is a sequel, I am content to entertain many more magical possibilities for the inhabitants of this beautifully imagined enchanted world.

The Sea of Trolls

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Nancy Farmer
Simon and Schuster
April 2005 (paperback ed.)
A rare thing in the current children�s market: a title that walks partly in the historical footsteps of Rosemary Sutcliff, Cynthia Harnett, Geoffrey Trease et al, and stands with the best of them. The Sea of Trolls is seemingly the story of an epic quest, steeped in Norse mythology. Jack, an eleven-year-old Saxon peasant, helping his family eke out a bitter living on their farmstead on the chill north-east British coast, is chosen by the village �bard� (the Celts would have named him druid) to learn the secrets and uses of the Life Force. Yet he has only just begun his studies when Viking beserkers descend on the region and carry him and his sister back to their own lands as slaves. Here Jack enters a world that he never dreamed really existed, a world of trolls and half-trolls, sea-serpents and enchantment. With the little he has already learned of the Life Force, Jack convinces his new owner, the larger-than-life Olaf One-Brow, that he may have a use. His baby sister, Lucy, has been given to the half-troll Queen Frith, however, and Jack�s inexpert use of the Force (yes, the Force is with him) leads to her losing her famous silky hair and her human shape. To save Lucy from the dire consequences, Jack must journey into the heart of troll country to Mimir�s Well, at the place where the world tree Yggdrassil pierces Middle Earth. With him go Olaf One-Brow and Thorgil, a self-hating young girl bent on glorious death.

This may all sound Tolkienesque rather than historical: indeed, Amanda Craig compares The Sea of Trolls to The Hobbit, although the description of the Life Force and the way it is used (and the opening of the book, where fog is spun to confound the attackers) seem also to touch the world of Ursula LeGuin�s excellent Earthsea books. Nevertheless, the tale is told in a much more down-to-earth manner than either Tolkien or LeGuin, and what especially delights is how the author gets under the skin of these people. Whether dealing with the once-conquering Saxons, now on the wane, or the rank, muscular, ruthless, lovable Vikings, Farmer�s book goes beyond meticulous research and shows real empathy with how life�s realities and the world of the unseen meshed together to make a life theatre for these people.

The Sea of Trolls is action-filled, funny, sad, touching and vibrant. It sizzles with the advice Jack receives from the Queen Troll: �To ignore joy while it lasts, in favour of lamenting one�s fate, is a great crime.�

Chasing Vermeer

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Blue Baillet ill. by Brett Helquist
The Chicken House
Oct 2005
What an excellent concoction this is! Especially recommended for that group of children referred to by the rather unpleasant phrase 'gifted and talented'. It's a book for the thinking reader, for the reader who likes puzzles and mysteries. It's also a book that will make teachers who slavishly follow schemes of work think carefully about becoming more like Ms Hussey, the novel's wonderfully spur-of-the-moment teacher.

The book uses pentominoes (a set of 12 tessellating shapes each comprising five squares) as a model for the way apparently unconnected events can be made to interlock and lead to the solution of a mystery. The central relationship between Petra and Calder is somewhat serious and geeky but works well and the moody black-and-white fullpage illustrations by Brett Helquist make a huge contribution to the novel's atmosphere.

Duckie's Ducklings - A one to ten counting book

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Frances Barry
Walker Books
Feb 2005
They say never judge a book by its cover. But it�s hard not to with this one, which stands out from the crowd with its unusual rounded edges.

This tactile style continues within with collages made from cut and torn paper. The fuzzy edged ducklings look soft enough to stroke!

The story is simplicity itself. It's time for a swim, but Duckie can't find her brood anywhere. As she searches through the garden, cutaway pages reveal the missing ducklings appearing, one by one, behind her. Such pantomime humour is sure to delight the very young.

Duckie�s ducklings are bright and bold and stand neatly in single file, making them easy to count. More clear and colourful objects are waiting to be counted on every page � three butterflies fluttering through the roses, four dandelions growing by the swing, five caterpillars feasting in the cabbage patch � which make this a counting book worth returning to again and again.