Wild magic waiting

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.

A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.

I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.

While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.

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A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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Innocent and heartless

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

Peter Pan by J M Barrie,
illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)

Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.

I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.

I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.

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Back home to me

Whooper Swan: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Swan Song by Gill Lewis.
Barrington Stoke 2021

Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.

Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.

Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.

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Some stories are true

A Lion in the Meadow
by Margaret Mahy,
pictures by Jenny Williams.
Picture Puffins 1972 (1969).

“That is how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true, and some aren’t…”

Read and reread, its covers mended with yellowing sticky tape, our family’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s classic has survived nearly half a century and has already been read to the children of the child it was first bought for. And the reason I think it has survived is that it doesn’t only work on very many levels but has also been served well by Jenny Williams’ luminous illustrations.

It begins with a boy running in from a field made savannah-like by grasses as tall as his head. “Mother,” he tells her, “there is a lion in the meadow,” but she doesn’t believe him. “Nonsense, little boy,” she replies. From this point we go on to what constitutes truth and what make-believe, who takes charge of storytelling and when does the storytelling stop, if at all.

It has the quality of classic fairytales, full of archetypal figures and incidents, layered by repeated phrases amid mild suspense but at the same time leaving space for one’s imagination to expand into. Pictures work hand in hand with text while leaving us free to interpret what we’re being told and what we’re seeing.

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A thimble for a kiss

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc,
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)

Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.

Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.

I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.

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Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

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A wanting, a yearning

Lark by Anthony McGowan.
The Truth of Things 4,
Barrington Stoke 2020 (2019)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a stroll, a laugh.

A lark.

Going for a walk on the Yorkshire moors when you’re underprepared is never a good idea. Especially when snow is on the way,and you’ve set off later than you should have. And when you’re responsible for your brother who has learning difficulties.

Teenager Nicky and his older brother are filling in time before their mother flies in for a visit with the boys and their father, from whom she’s divorced. As a way to distract them from excitement mixed in with some anxiety, their father suggests a little expedition on a walk he used to do as a lad.

But Nicky is inexperienced and underestimates the dangers involved; it’s a lot of responsibility to load onto his shoulders. It’s all very well to buoy up Kenny with stories he has thought up — until they find themselves embroiled in a real-life story which mayn’t have a happy ending.

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A clowder of cats

Back cover illustration by Fritz Wegner

Carter is a Painter’s Cat
by Carolyn Sloan,
with pictures by Fritz Wegner.
Longman Young Books 1971

A book bought to read with our first child (and, in due course, subsequent children) has remained a firm favourite, at least with me, for nearly fifty years. The irreverent text by British author Carolyn Sloan and equally irreverent illustrations by Fritz Wegner are a perfect marriage, quirky and deeply satisfying in a way that’s not easy to put one’s finger on.

But I shall try, so — deep breath — here goes.

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A light in the darkness

Sophia Jansson with Signe Hammarsten (circa 1968 image: Margareta Strömstedt)

Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)

Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?

I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.

While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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Open and shut case?

L D Lapinski:
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020

Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:

Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.

This is the travel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?

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Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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Pretending to be grown-up

Eleanor Fitzsimons:
The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit
Duckworth 2019

There is only one way [to understand children]: to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child. […] There is no other way.

Daisy Nesbit, Edith Bland and Mrs Tommy Tucker: just three of the many sides to one extraordinary character. One a fearful yet imaginative child, deprived of a father at an early age, shifting from pillar to post, to and fro across the English Channel; the second a dedicated socialist married to a prodigious womaniser, soon to become a successful writer of children’s fiction and friend to established and aspiring literati; the last a widow, remarrying for love but plagued by health issues, finally buried in a Kentish churchyard on Romney Marsh.

Edith Nesbit’s singular life — spanning over six decades, encompassing the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and witnessing momentous movements and events — is fully documented in this new Nesbit biography, the second in as many years, complete with references, a detailed index and a selection of some dozen images.

Exceedingly well researched, The Life and Loves of E Nesbit largely lets contemporary documents speak for themselves so that the reader may hear authentic voices and individual opinions, both so important in gauging the impact this woman had on those who met her, knew her, and read her.

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