Review: ‘Boy, Everywhere’ by A.M. Dassu

Cover art by Daby Zainab Faidhi

Until I read Boy, Everywhere, I never knew that children’s voices were right there, back in the origins of the conflict of Syria. In 2011, seeing uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, fourteen-year-old Mouawiya Syasneh and his friends wrote ‘Your Turn Next, Doctor’ on the wall of their school in (in reference to President Bashar al-Assad’s former career in ophthalmology). Detainment of the teenagers (for over a month) along with their abuse by police triggered protests which, in turn, brought the full force of Assad’s regime down upon his people. ‘So a war began and millions of people became homeless all around the world because some kids wrote some bad stuff about the government,’ summarises Sami, A.M. Dassu’s protagonist. ‘Insane.’

Sami is not much younger than Syasneh; he only learns about the graffiti tale and the history of the war, from his Mama, when the family are already fleeing the country. He has grown used to the conflict, he says: to electricity blackouts, an army checkpoint outside his school, to stories about friends of friends getting killed or injured. Yet he has also been relatively untouched by the war, even knowing that his surgeon father has been looking after the wounded. Sami’s story begins in a bubble of comfort and normality – wealth, in fact: maids, drivers, PlayStations, tablets. A reader like me, for whom the conflict is safely ‘elsewhere’, has an unnerving experience in those opening chapters, waiting for the blithe, likeable young protagonist to feel the jolt of remote matter hitting home. Unnerving, not only for what we know will follow for Sami, but what we recognise in his complacency.

It takes a few pages for the novel to turn nightmarish. Violence erupts close to home, and impacts brutally on Sami’s family. Then, his parents are making plans, and events move entirely out of his control, sometimes beyond his understanding. Why are the family selling their car, in anxious haste? Why can’t Sami tell his friends what they’re doing? Why are they planning to set out to sea in a fishing boat, when the whole family know the risks? Can anything ever be done for his sister – or the friend he makes on their journey – or any of them? Dassu does a great job of taking us through the experience of countless desperate refugees, but she deserves more praise for making Sami’s situation feel particular to him: his guilt, his anger, his fear.

In particular, this is a novel about Sami’s efforts to remain true to himself while his world is in disarray: to maintain his sense of morality and civilisation whilst slipping between the boundaries of society. It would be easy to make this the story of someone forced into passivity and victimhood, particularly as the novel progresses and becomes, if anything, even darker (despite following the legal process of claiming asylum to the letter, Sami and his family do not find peace and security on their arrival to Manchester). Sami finds himself in opposition to his family, as much as he is to those who are hostile toward him. His story becomes an internalised one, his actions increasingly hard to predict. Is he going to do the right thing – and what, precisely, would that look like?

I’d have to go to Turkey. That was where we’d flown to before getting into Europe. I went back to Google and searched for a map of Turkey. I memorised the five major cities, went back to the Manchester Airport website, and typed them in. Finally! There was a flight from Terminal 1 to Antalya in the evening. The flight took four hours and forty minutes. I can survive that in a luggage hold, I told myself. I had to.

               This is a thought-provoking and heart-breaking read at times; for young readers learning about the experience of refugees, it will be eye-opening, while for readers like me who should know more about these experiences, it’s a spur towards learning, and doing, more. It’s also a gripping novel, one that I couldn’t resist returning to for just one more chapter – and then just one more. It’s a story about trauma and disassociation, but in small, powerful ways, it’s about connection: how strangers can support one another, how seemingly remote experiences are part of the same story, how family can be tested, and endure. Never lapsing into sentiment or hollow documentary, this story is alive and unpredictable, embodying all the optimism and pain of a child’s voice speaking in the midst of conflict.

Boy, Everywhere is published by Old Barn Books. You can buy it from Waterstones here, from here, or support your local independent. Despite my first assumptions on seeing the front cover, I wouldn’t recommend it to readers younger than twelve. For younger readers interested in the experience of refugees, there’s a great list here put together by BookTrust. Meanwhile, you can directly nudge things in a better direction via this organisation:

#SA4QE2021 The Trokeville Way, by Russell Hoban

Cover art by Patrick Benson

At one point near the end of The Trokeville Way, a character brings a book of Lafcadio Hearn’s ghost stories to the protagonist in his hospital bed. She inscribes it to him with the words: Strange stories for strange Nick. You can’t blame me for taking that personally (a feeling not diluted by the fact that Trokeville’s Nick is three months off thirteen years old, exactly the age I was when Jonatha Cape originally published this novel, back in 1996). Russell Hoban is not just a strange writer I like, not even a writer whose strangeness speaks to me, but a writer whose strangeness speaks to a strangeness in me. This is a dreamlike novel, about a lonely landscape with the gathering twilight that precedes a storm, a feeling of repressed violence and the beckoning lights of a town just over the horizon. If it feels like familiar territory, that’s probably because it’s the sort of terrain explored in the majority of Hoban’s novels, but it also stirs a strange sense of recognition in me…

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Sir Edward BurneJones

Strange! I’ve seen that place before… It’s a re-reading for me, maybe ten years after the first time. For some reason, I didn’t remember that the cover is misleading. Beautiful haunting work from Patrick Benson, of course, but not quite right for this story: it implies something in the line of Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, a spooky, slightly magic story for kids. The opening chapter suggests much the same, with almost-teenager Nick losing his fight with a school bully, and then buying a strange pile of oddments from the mysterious ex-conjuror Moe Nagic on his walk home. The word ‘bastard’ glints warningly in that first chapter, and as the novel progresses, there are more and more jarring notes, ‘shit’ and ‘wanker’ and so on. As the pages turn, the book seems to shift in our hands, turning from Middle-Grade to Young Adult: provisional terms that weren’t really in use in 1996. Interestingly, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights came out the year before, and he seems to do something similar, with the tone of his trilogy mirroring its heroes blurring into adolescence, only Hoban does it more quickly and therefore more unnervingly.

Of course, it wouldn’t do for a Hoban novel to give us what we expected on the first page. You hand over your ticket at the door, descend down the escalator, and after that the Tube map is only of ostensible use. You get the strangest feeling – Strange! – that the author himself didn’t quite know where the little bridge – I’m sorry, brudge – in Moe Nagic’s mysterious puzzle – that is, juzzle – was going to lead him and his protagonist. At times, the book reads to me like a first draft, frustrating in places but rich with authentic, deeply felt mystery. If Woolf or Burroughs wrote a teen novel, it would take a similar approach. In the strange world of the juzzle, Nick not only confronts his school bully again and again, but talks with his parents about their own secret frustrations, none of which become any clearer, even when he’s back in the ‘real’ world. The world of his parents’ interior lives feels eternally over the next horizon, like Trokeville, just as the power of burgeoning sexuality is always elsewhere: a troke, halfway between a trick and a stroke.

Then there is the terror that lies in wait throughout the novel: ‘There’s no magic, but there’s Moe Nagic,’ says the conjuror at the start of the novel, his career of illusions thrown away, his marriage in disarray. (Moe specifically pins his age as being 47, which by my amateur sleuthing puts him at just the age of Russell Hoban, when he found he was incapable of writing a sequel to his first big hit – The Mouse and his Child – and wrote his first novel for adults, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, 1972). “Do you want there to be magic?” a character asks Nick at one point, and he tells her he does – and what could be more frightening than finding magic and losing it? Moe’s ex-wife is described as magical to more than one character, but she’s looking for magic of her own. The year after Trokeville, Harry Potter’s ersatz variety of wizardry first arrived, and for my money, the magic in children’s literature has overall been more programmatic and functional ever since. Nonetheless, Hoban’s kind of magic is not quite like anyone else’s either.

Italian Scene: A Bridge among Hills, with a Distant Town c.1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner and Thomas Girtin 1775-1851, 1775-1802 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Or maybe that’s not quite true either. The strangeness speaking to strangeness that I mentioned at the start of this strange book review is a trope of Hoban’s writing: from the Vermeer painting that haunts his Medusa Frequency and beyond, to bats on Chinese pottery, a hippogriff in Angelica Lost and Found, and even the sound of approaching trains at Ealing Broadway station. All these seem to speak of the same lonely spaces, the yearning, terror and beauty: in this novel it’s in a Grace Jones song, a painting by Burne Jones and a watercolour by Thomas Girtin. All these different people – and the painter of Nick’s brudge juzzle – somehow connected with this other level of reality, acknowledged it, made works of art with it; making it part of our world, so that our experience is deepened, enriched, sadder without ever quite being explicable. you’re almost thirteen, nick. nou’re old enough to understand what i’m going to tell you, Nick’s mind tells him frankly, at one point. there are no separate things. I’m almost thirty-seven, and I’m only just beginning to get it.

Strange, that.

I wrote about The Trokeville Way today because it’s Russell Hoban’s birthday, and fans of his will be toasting him and recommending him all around the world. Hoban’s most famous children’s book, The Mouse and his Child, is certainly not one to be missed, but he also wrote a huge body of picturebooks which are pretty much all essential too. My favourite is possibly The Twenty Elephant Restaurant, but The Marzipan Pig is stunningly poetic, while the Frances books are witty and wise. That’s truly just scratching the surface. If you like the sound of The Trokeville Way (which is not print), some of its themes are explored in The Medusa Frequency, and some in his YA graphic novel with Alexis Deacon, Soonchild. If you’ve not read any, I think my all-time favourite is Turtle Diary – and after that, there’s always more to discover.

Meanwhile, Grace Jones’ version of Libertango is here.

Review: ‘Amari and the Night Brothers’, by B.B. Alston

The latest President of the United States was only just sworn in this week, but I was delighted to see him make a cameo appearance in the pages of this new kids’ book; a headline in ‘Rumours & Whispers’ magazine reading, “Newly elected US President faints at first Supernatural Affairs briefing”. Perhaps that means Amari and the Night Brothers is taking place now, in January 2021, the very month it’s being published. It really wouldn’t come as a surprise: this is a good old-fashioned slice of escapism, but it also feels decidedly contemporary.

In that case, somewhere out in the Rosewood Projects, Amari lives an unassuming life with her nursing assistant mother, and Quinton, the older brother she hero-worships. Except when the novel begins, Quinton’s already been missing for six months – perhaps because of some mysterious business he’s been involved with – and Amari is probably the only person who still believes he’s alive. She’s getting bullied at school for being a Scholarship kid with a difficult home life. But one day she gets an invitation – to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs…

Unlike Joe Biden, Amari doesn’t faint on discovering the strange things going on behind the scenes of the modern world. She doesn’t really have time to: it feels like a fresh invention arrives on nearly every page. It’s not exactly a new trope in town, the secret ‘World Around the Corner’ (to borrow the title of Maurice Gee’s wonderful novel of faery folk in modern New Zealand), but it’s just great fun to see B.B. Alston relishing the imaginative possibilities, with throwaway references to man-eating stalactites, person-sized trenchcoat-wearing ants, carnivorous thunderclouds and the International Railways of Atlantis.

Amari needs to learn about this world fast, because she’s trying to rescue her brother, and to do that she must become a Secret Agent for the Bureau and she’s competing against the children of ‘Legacy families’, wealthy, well-versed in the supernatural, and arrogantly entitled. Amari finds herself back in the situation she experienced at high school: stigmatised and bullied for being working-class, a ghetto kid. Not only that, but the supernatural world has its own analogue for the racial prejudice that Amari has spent her life dealing with. I won’t spoil the details of that, but it’s one reason Amari feels like more than just another ‘kid becomes magical apprentice’ novel.

Illustration by Godwin Akpan

Alston doesn’t just deploy a metaphor or two in treating this theme: he makes those difficult experiences instrumental to Amari’s character, self-deprecating and wary at first, becoming increasingly determined, confident and daring. Throughout the novel, characters try telling Amari she doesn’t belong in this realm of privilege and power, but she grows increasingly resolute. At other times – still no spoilers – she is offered power of a sort, with certain moral compromises which she refuses to make. One glorious moment has a character look deep into Amari’s ancestry, finding some who were enslaved and others who fought for universal freedoms. The emotional temperature of the book feels very contemporary: like Amari’s aura, which her best friend can innately read, it lights up the book in myriad colours.

Interestingly, I found the novel’s climax a tiny bit underwhelming – perhaps because it’s clear this is the first in a series, with more confrontations with the Night Brothers (and who knows what else) to follow – but the culmination of the book, and of Amari’s journey toward her destiny, was really exciting. The energy of Alston’s novel is really in the interactions of its characters, deftly portrayed. The secrets Amari keeps; the friends she encourages; the kids who bully her and how she responds; the Bureau agents who doubt her and those that believe in her; everything about her Mama (more of her in the next book, please). This is a big-screen, 3D, popcorn-munching romp of a novel, painted deliberately on an international canvas, but what really sets it apart are the small, closely observed gestures of its characters, and the vibrant details that build its world. It’s going to be an utter delight for readers this year, and I can’t wait to see what happens to Amari next…

Amari and the Night Brothers is out this week in hardback from Egmont: you can order it from Waterstones here, or buy it from your local independent. The World Around the Corner is out of print at the moment, but second-hand copies are out there to be had…

Review: The Hungry Ghost, by H.S. Norup

With this novel, we’re in Singapore in July, the season of the hungry ghost: a time of remembrance, burnt offerings, and maybe a little danger. It may not, in fact, be the best idea for young Freja to follow the girl in white who appears in her father’s garden, and who runs so quickly and silently to the wild grove a few streets away: a wild grove that turns out to be Bukit Brown, a vast, disused and overgrown cemetery.

But Freja has no desire to stay at home in safety with her stepmother, Clementine, who seems to do nothing all day but post on social media. Freja misses her Dad, always on another business trip, and her Mum, in therapy back in Denmark, and she has an inclination toward wild places and dangerous adventures. Perhaps her adventure with the hungry ghost will turn out to be dangerous – it could even be frightening – but all the same, perhaps it’s not actually a bad idea. Perhaps it will even turn out to be essential.

Ghost stories have been essential for me, at least, ever since I was nine, and enjoyed a shivery summer reading The Magnet Book of Strange Tales. I can’t help feeling that there’s something of a resonance between that genre and children’s fiction: I suppose, to some extent, both of them bracket life, the start and the finish. Children’s fantasy often tells stories, like the conventional ghost story, using the rulebooks of ancient cultures and customs, as if the modern way of living was just rushed bit of improvisation, which the next generation are free to discard where appropriate. Watch closely, they both say, there is something else going on behind the scenes that even adult authority can’t control; and yet however bad it gets, both kinds of writing generally agree that where there’s life, there’s hope.

Ghost stories, too, are often about unfinished business, and that’s what children have always had to deal with: the unfinished stories of those who preceded them. (How often are child protagonists trying to sympathise with, or make reparations on behalf of the dead?) The eponymous hungry ghost, in South Asian lore, isn’t craving something creepy: they want remembrance or atonement. But what does this one need? It takes a lot of experimentation from Freja to find out, and others repeatedly warn her she’s doing it wrong: whether mystically or in terms of real, physical danger, she gets close to death more than once in the novel. There’s a threatening mood for much of H.S. Norup’s novel, enhanced by claustrophobic cloudy skies and rainy nights.

An image of Bukit Brown, by David Pierson for the LA Times

The rich, authentic folkloric encounters she experiences – even a realm of mystic balance, beyond space and time – make The Hungry Ghost sometimes feel like a cousin of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the difference being, there’s no universal enemy to overcome here, and no inheritance of wise wizards to belong to. Her quest is her own, albeit made on the behalf of another. Why has it fallen to Freja, so far from home, to unpick the mystery? At times, the novel is like a cultural initiation for this ‘ang mo’, the European child crossing boundaries in many senses (and wonderfully, the novel is full of people whose cultural backgrounds are complex and multiple – this is a truly international novel).

This isn’t a spooky tale dressed up in an othered culture: it’s rooted in that context, and its lore of Hell Gods, pontianaks and unhappy spirits are shown as enduringly relevant to the living. It strikes a clear emotional note throughout, and its final chapters, as the last pieces of mystery unlock, are delicately handled portraits of grief. (There is one potentially upsetting moment that means I would only recommend this to ten-year-olds at the youngest, although of course it always depends on the reader.) This is one novel that gives the lie to any claim that ‘issues novels’ and ‘novels of the imagination’ are in any kind of hierarchy, or even a binary: the wide-open terrain of the children’s novel allows ‘issues’ to be explored with whatever storytelling device is most effective, and most powerful.

Freja’s difficult relationship with her parents and guardians is initially background to her adventure with ghosts, becoming another element in the drama – how can she keep her cemetery visits secret from them…? In the conclusion of the novel, though, we see that this hasn’t just been about our responsibility to the dead, but to the living as well: to see each other fully, to speak openly, and to look out for one another. Atmospheric, eerie and read-past-bedtime gripping, what ultimately makes Norup’s novel so good is its attention to the human world. Nothing is incidental to its story, from the scary ghosts to the helpful new friend; in fact, as the story makes clear, the more we try to leave out a bit of the story, the more it haunts us. Hungry ghosts everywhere will agree on this.

You can order The Hungry Ghost, published by Pushkin Children’s, from Waterstones here, or support your local independent bookshop. I’d also like to recommend a novel I loved last summer, but didn’t have the energy to write about at the time: When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Brahmachari, another children’s ghost story of sorts, but not at all scary, and this time driven by an amazing, politically charged story about migrant experience and disinheritance.

Book review: The Valley of Lost Secrets, by Lesley Parr

Covert art by David Dean

Here’s a new release I’d be talking about if I was able to do my bookseller thing at the moment: in fact, I snagged a proof before going on furlough because it’s the Waterstones kids’ Book of the Month for January. It’s a debut novel from Lesley Parr, but told with quiet confidence, combining page-turning mystery with tender human drama. Twelve-year-old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are evacuated to the Welsh mining village of Llanbryn at the start of the Second World War. Why are there whispers in the village about the couple they’re billeted with? And what has happened to Duff, Jimmy’s only friend from home?

At the heart of the novel’s mystery is an image potent enough to be macabre: a lone skull in the hollow beneath a tree. Does the quiet village harbor a murderer? Could it be, as I imagined (given my taste in children’s fiction) an accidental bit of archaeology? But whilst uncovered bones will snare readers’ attention, the tone of the novel is far from gratuitous, moving to a bittersweet redemption that I liked a great deal. The consequences reach into the village community, recalling, in fact, last year’s When Life Gives You Mangoes. Perhaps that’s a marker of contemporary children’s fiction that it explores the fault-lines left by secrets buried by adults, as much as the adventures of children, finding and mending them.

Resolution is needed by those children too. Children’s fiction seems to have an affinity for stories of evacuation; after all, half its stories begin with a separation from parents and being thrown into a new landscape. There is something distinct about World War II evacuation’s necessity and inexorability that gives an extra, strange charge: most famously in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but in Carrie’s War and Goodnight Mr Tom too. Most recently, David Montgomery sent an evacuee on a quest back to London with his Midnight Guardians, connecting national angst symbolically with folkloric magic, dark as midwinter.

Parr’s story focuses on her young protagonists’ adjustment to a new life far from home. Perhaps that will speak to young readers, currently adjusting to a national ‘new normal’ that has adults feeling anything but. Young Ronnie, trusting and friendly, is open to the transition; Jimmy bitterly resents it, refusing to call their billeting with Mr and Mrs Thomas ‘home’. At one point, Ronnie’s wish to see fox cubs in the springtime touches a raw nerve in the older boy: “Don’t you know its wicked to want a war to keep happening just so you can see a flaming baby fox?’ Such bitterness is out of character for Jimmy, who spends the book protecting his younger brother, but that’s part of its force. Flaming evacuation, he thinks later, Flaming Wales. Making me say things I’d never normally say. Making me change.

The opportunity for change is relished by Florence, a girl from Jimmy’s old neighbourhood, belonging the notorious Campbell family (no relation) with their reputation for violence and petty crime. In another country, another world, Florence takes the chance to invent a new identity. Jimmy is disorientated by this at first; especially since his best friend also seems to have changed in this new setting, and not for the better. Bit by bit, and entirely naturally, Jimmy falls in with Florence and they solve the mystery of the skull together.

Interestingly, Parr gives the whole mystery to the evacuees, keeping the village children of Llanbryn, both friends and bullies, at a remove. This is a story about the contribution of outsiders to a community. It concludes, not on a return to London, but with a feeling of belonging in a place that previously felt, and regarded them as, alien. Jimmy, Ronnie and Florence have been inducted into the history of the place, and the community has widened to include them: though the setting seems distant in history, this emphasis of Parr’s makes her novel all the more timely for readers of 2021. Touching and entertaining, this book is not one to be kept secret!

You can order a copy of The Valley of Lost Secrets from Waterstones here, or of course support your local independent bookshop. Meanwhile, Nina Bawden’s exquisite novel Carrie’s War is available as a free audiobook from the BBC, here.

Now you see it… In praise of Betsy Byars

Betsy Byars in 1971

So many children’s novels are about time, and the impermanence of things, the way that an entire world can slip away as we grow away from childhood toward maturity. How often do adults in children’s fiction seem to be calling from the far bank of a swift river, never to be crossed again? I’ve seen critics attribute the abundance of time-slips in the Sixties to expressions of wartime trauma, and a similar schism seems to have opened up this year: days blurring, months stretching, deadlines sprawling ever onward. For some, it seems, this has been a time of return to childhood reading, or for children to suddenly adopt some of the soberness of adult life. Given time to reflect on time, it can seem a flimsy and unreliable concept to just about anyone.

               I found myself thinking about this, reading Betsy Byars this week, her Newbery medal-winner The Summer of the Swans (1970) and less well-known The House of Wings (1972). Born in 1928, Byars is one of the defining authors of post-war children’s fiction and it feels a little like her death, in February of 2020, has been overlooked. Popular and prolific, her novels shaped the modern, real-world, child-centred genre that American writers particularly excel at. “When you write about what you know,” she once said, “you are writing with authority. The two words go together – author – authority, and what that means is that when you write with authority, you give your reader the feeling, ‘This author knows what he, or she, is talking about’” ( Her memoir, The Moon and Me (1991), describes how she would wait to write about a subject until she had experienced it first-hand. When she describes birds in House of Wings, her powers of observation are evident – not just for how they behave, but for how humans respond to them:

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

The owl made a faint hissing sound, like steam escaping. Then he swooped down into the tub and pounced on the grasshopper with both feet. His talons curled around the grasshopper, and he put it in his mouth.

               The owl’s mouth seemed enormous when he opened it and Sammy stood silently watching him eat. When the owl finished he flew back to the shower pipe and turned his head to Sammy.

               Sammy was standing there with his mouth hanging open. He was thinking that this house had everything – geese, a parrot in the kitchen, a crane, and an owl in the bathroom.

               Then suddenly Sammy noticed how intently the owl was staring at him. He took a step backward. He said quickly, ‘That was the only one I could find.’ He backed out into the hall and went quietly down the stairs.

Like the owl, Byars does not blink, and she encourages us to watch closely as well. Perfectly balanced with this clear prose are things unsaid, or said indirectly. Sammy first discovers the owl the night that he arrives, when he is woken by the voice of his mother, urging her husband to shut the bird in the closet. ‘Sammy could hear his father’s feet on the floor. Then his mother snapped angrily, “Now it’s loose again and it’s going to be bothering us all night. You know how owls are.”’

There’s something funny in that moment, or perhaps it’s just the reader taking pleasure in wildness in an unexpected place, but when his mom says, ‘You know how owls are,’ we have to wonder – does she? Perhaps she does: it’s a hint from Byars that Sammy’s grandfather has been letting things like this happen for a long time, but we only get that hint. Things have emphatically run to wild extremes in the ten years since Sammy’s grandmother died. All Sammy and his grandfather really talk about are birds, watching and caring for them and wishing they could defy death: Sammy’s grandmother goes unmentioned, but the significance of her not being there can be read throughout.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

I remember her novels seeming terribly grown up when I was a boy. For a long time, I felt I had to save The TV Kid (1976) and The Cartoonist (1978), each of them character studies really, for when I’d outgrown fantasies and comedies and wild schemes. Then one day, I found I’d passed them. Only a couple of years ago, when I finally read The Eighteenth Emergency and The Midnight Fox (both still in print here in the UK) did I recognise the scale of her power.

You think you know the story of Fox, and maybe you do – the story of a child’s connection with a lone wild creature feels inextricable from the fabric of children’s literature. In recent years, Sara Pennypacker’s Pax (2016), even Anthony McGowan’s Truth of Things sequence (2013-19), have retold it with a similar lack of romance or ornate language, but Byars’ book impressed me for the little surprises along the way, talking wryly about human interaction with one another as much as the eponymous fox. The Emergency is harder to pigeonhole. It’s funny, but its conclusion has a bitter honesty to it that is still a little startling. Byars unerringly captures real dialogue on the page, not just between individuals, but the reckoning within a character as they reconcile themselves to difficult truths.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

               A Byars novel is brief (even a slowcoach like me can finish it in a couple of hours) and strictly speaking, they narrate only a fingernail paring of time: a girl’s younger brother goes missing overnight, looking for swans, but is found next day; a boy is abandoned at his grandfather’s house out in the country, and the two get to know one another as they rescue a wounded crane. Now and then, her characters stop and feel time hanging on them, waiting to spring forward. Sara in Summer of the Swans is entering adolescence, and pictures herself poised on a flight of steps that will take her up to the sky. Sammy, in House of Wings, has felt the world spin slower and faster, but it stops altogether when he’s trying to catch a frog, like a Bash­ō haiku. Tom is haunted by ‘the high, clear bark of the midnight fox’, so much he returns to that moment at the start and finish of telling his story. Small details flicker almost too momentarily for the young protagonists to catch, or perhaps it’s their ephemerality they have to notice: when they do, their whole perspective on the world shifts.

               Byars encourages us to notice the freighted meaning of the smallest detail, in the shortest space of time. She is one of those children’s writers I wish were published for adult readers now: perhaps child characters, however closely observed, will always be critically disregarded, as if having outgrown that point of view we no longer need to understand it. At one point in House of Wings, Sammy goes indoors for cornmeal for the crane, and coming out, feels instantly that something is changed. There is a frantic feeling to him trying to find what he has missed – what could he possibly have missed – in such a short space of time: ‘He was prepared to shake the answer out of his grandfather if necessary’. If children’s literature has moments of insight offered by writers like Byars, we shouldn’t miss out on it, whatever our age. It won’t even take very long for us to catch up, but we have to keep watch carefully when we do.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

You can order The Midnight Fox from Waterstones here, and The Eighteenth Emergency here, or of course ask your local independent!

I’m ducking back under the ivy, sweeping the linoleum clean, huffing the dust off the radiators and attempting a return to this impossible old library. Hopefully more reviews in the new year, so long as they’re of use!

In the meantime, very best wishes to any library-user, bookshop-browser, blurb-ogler, picturebook-leafer and to everyone who makes books too. Let’s make 2022 as good as it can be, and for the rest of the time, lose ourselves in a good story.

TrooFriend, by Kirsty Applebaum

You know it’s not going to end well. When the latest Mark IV TrooFriend leaves the factory floor, destined to join a new family, there are campaigners picketing outside and bad stories on the news. Even the sales pitch has a disquieting undertone from the very first chapter: your child ‘no longer needs to play with other children, who might bully or harm or lie or covet or steal or envy’. Like the best science-fiction ideas, this simple idea suggests a transformed world: lonely, chilly, half-dead. There’s an air of Frankenstein about the whole thing: would you be happy to have a human-shaped automaton in suspended animation in your bedroom overnight? Would you kill time with a creature twelve times as strong as a human being, one that is relaying all your activities to your parents in a recorded feed? And if your parents thought it was a good idea, would you feel unsettled? Unsafe?

Is somebody getting thrown in the river by their new best friend?

Kirsty Applebaum’s dystopia The Middler was a dark tale told with exceptional style: its village sealed off in a future war was a little cosy and a little confined, its secrets all ravelled up out of its protagonist’s sight so that we advanced with her, day by day, into the unknown. Now it was sweet, now it was strange, near the end it was thoroughly nightmarish, but that narrator’s unselfconscious voice drew it all together into one utterly convincing whole.

Applebaum’s new novel, TrooFriend, also makes subtle play with its narrative voice. Where we might expect to see events from the perspective of the TrooFriend’s recipient, Sarah, we get it instead from Ivy the android itself. Unworldly, innocent, programmed to please, she pieces Sarah’s world together for the reader: not just the wider world where androids are so ubiquitous that schools have Bring Your Tech to School Days, but the seemingly less important details of playground jealousy and disconnected parents.

‘I have connection,’ Ivy observes, every time she boots up at the start of another chapter. But it is the reader who connects the pieces and sees the picture entire, including the things Ivy fails to notice: the dangerous implications of those TrooFriend bad news stories, the subtext of her inventors’ bland statements to the press, and Ivy’s own inexplicable behaviour when she thinks she cannot be seen.

Ivy is compelled to be true, but in the course of her programming, a stranger, more dangerous truth wil be revealed.

Applebaum’s novel has real bite. Sarah, its human protagonist, is not a cherubic, eternally likeable child, and she makes some terrible mistakes in the course of the novel, which come with real consequences. But then, she’s the child of a strange age – “Get with it, Dad,” she says in an early chapter, rolling her eyes. “This is the twenty-first century. Privacy is dead” – and would far rather have a dog than an android. The sharp end of Applebaum’s novel – like Mary Shelley’s, perhaps – is directed at the parents of this brave new world, or at least, the ones who shirk their responsibility toward the beings they create.

But this is also a novel about the responsibilities that friends have to one another, which are perhaps all the more vital given the capacity for parents to muck everything up. Friendship is at the heart of so many children’s novels, perhaps because it is one of the most powerful abilities children possess: think of Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, where Sara loses everything but her friends, or The Borrowers, where a friendship destroys Arrietty’s world, but ultimately saves her too. Robots are so often substitutes for workers, but here they’re being made to stand in for something frightening and beautiful: other people.

Does it have to be a nightmare? Can something redemptive come out of it? I’m so pleased that novels of this philosophical richness are still being published for children, and that they are being written by novelists as skilful and wise as Kirsty Applebaum.

The Middler and TrooFriend are both published by Nosy Crow. While you’re isolating in your own dystopian adventure, you can purchase a copy from the publisher’s website, from good old Waterstones online, or (if you’re very lucky) your local bookseller. Just don’t buy from a robot: you don’t want the world that comes with that.

Ordinary Jack, by Helen Cresswell

There probably should have been a rule about people like Helen Cresswell. In the golden days of children’s literature, she was responsible for some of its most memorable titles: Lizzie Dripping, A Gift from Winklesea, and the Bagthorpe saga, of which Ordinary Jack is the first title. She was a strong, if mostly unacknowledged, influence on children’s television, making beloved adaptations of Five Children & It and The Demon Headmaster, and authoring The Secret World of Polly Flint and Moondial. (I’m pretty sure Moondial was a formative TV experience: the very thought of a National Trust property sends shivers down my spine to this day.)

Thankfully, there is no legal prohibition (not even a by-law) against a writer producing a string of classics like this. Without being ubiquitous (no single writer could be said to dominate these decades, thank goodness), Cresswell’s work seems to typify that era: intelligent stories with big ideas and a dreamlike atmosphere in which anything might happen. She never actually won the Carnegie award, but was a runner-up with four wonderful, distinctly different novels: the historical, culinary, family comedy The Piemakers; the sweetly melancholic time-slip fantasy (with, again, a family at its heart) Up the Pier; the poetic, elusive The Nightwatchmen; the funny and unpredictable The Bongleweed. Her own favourite was seemingly The Winter of the Birds, which is almost woozily surreal, and perhaps the least categorizable of the lot – and there are lots. She was prolific, but outside her series, no two books are quite the same.

So, she had an intuitive understanding of children’s writing – and perhaps that is the source of Ordinary Jack’s power. It’s about being ordinary, when your brothers and sisters are each the hero of their own children’s novel. Each of the Bagthorpe children has a shining destiny, a huge intellect or a will to succeed; Jack Bagthorpe dreams of somehow gaining the same immortality, but dreams are really all they are. He’s falling asleep on the family lawn at the outset of the novel, worn out from being beaten at swimming lengths by his little sister. His companion is the similarly hopeless Zero, a dog with low self-esteem who can’t even fetch a stick, named unforgivingly by Jack’s father (a novelist and BBC scriptwriter – hmm).

So of course, we’re rooting for Jack from the very start (even before we read that he calls Zero ‘Nero’ when they are alone together, ‘so as to give him a bit of dignity in the eyes of others, and as Zero hardly ever came when he was called anyway, it didn’t make much difference’). But how can a boy win, when he’s in a novel about how sickening it is to be an over-achiever? Cresswell doesn’t even make the Bagthorpe family – among whom ‘Strings to Bows were thick on the ground’ – as awful as she might have done. They’re fond of Jack, in their own way. There’s not even a moral high ground to be taken, or – Mr Bagthorpe aside – a villain to be dealt with

His Uncle Parker (whose only personal claim to fame is his propensity to drive like a maniac) has a scheme. Ostensibly, Jack will rend the veil between this reality and the next – but (as he himself realises, just in time) the aim is really something simpler: a satirical blast, a low raspberry of tricksterish subversion. In this, perhaps, the book becomes more closely aligned than ever to the spirit of children’s literature.

It’s a deliciously funny comic novel, with echoes of Edith Nesbit (I’ve always loved that Nesbit’s children get in dreadful trouble when they wish themselves to be more like the Edwardian ideal of childhood), or perhaps stylistically, Richmal Crompton: “The day seemed off to a good start, as so often the really bad days do”. There are several wonderful set pieces when an upper middle-class household tips suddenly over into chaos, hysteria and fiery explosions. The ending, though perfectly arising out of the narrative, is sublimely bonkers. You feel that a child who read Ordinary Jack would carry with them a certain immunity to self-seriousness and intimidating pretentiousness.

My only question is: where can we possibly go from here? But knowing Cresswell’s genius as a storyteller, I also have utter faith that Absolute Zero and successive instalments of the Bagthorpe saga will have plenty of surprises in store. Despite their overtone of cosy stability, Cresswell’s novels suggest that we should always expect the unexpected, and as often as not, to expect it of ourselves.

Although much of her output is now out of print (you will have to comb second-hand book merchants for Up the Pier and The Piemakers, for instance) (and you should), there are some major works by Helen Cresswell available here and now from high street bookshops. Lizzie Dripping, a wonderfully peculiar series of stories, is published by Oxford University Press; super-spooky drama Moondial is published with a beautiful new cover by Faber Children’s Classics; and – yes! – HarperCollins have begun to reissue the Bagthorpe saga, with Ordinary Jack and Absolute Zero. You can order them from Waterstones here, or ask your local independent book magician to conjure them up for you. They don’t write them quite like this any more, and they have a distinctly dry wit and idiosyncratic air; I suspect, though, that they could offer a less cartoonish further step for a Walliams fan. Certainly, anyone who has once enjoyed the tales of William Brown will recognise something of their immortal hero in the well-meant misadventures of Jack and his jumbly canine pal.

Asha and the Spirit Bird, by Jasbinder Bilan

‘You have to believe in things if you want them to happen.’ Jasbinder Bilan’s debut novel is a ceaselessly optimistic book. We begin in desperate circumstances: Asha’s father has left their village in the Himalayan foothills to work in the distant city of Zandapur, but he hasn’t written for weeks. Asha’s Ma has had to give away the tractor, the only source of income for the family. If no money arrives from Asha’s Pa in short order, they’ll have to sell the farm and start a new life in England. Something must be done; Asha can’t imagine leaving their home.

Neither will the reader. The world depicted by Bilan is technicolor-lush, crowded with sensory delight:

Glossy black-winged rosefinches, with their blushed underbellies, chatter and dive out from between the branches, chasing each other, dripping from rain from the leaves, like holy water.

It’s a rain-drenched, wind-swept landscape, with all the vivid of first person, present tense narrative from Asha. It’s also a place richly imbued with personal meaning: from Asha’s family history (and family mystery too!), to elements of Hindu legend, to something in-between – the reincarnation of Asha’s nanijee as a majestic lamagaia bird. Or is it?

Inspired by her love for the farm, by her belief in family and her faith in the spirit bird, Asha sets out on a seemingly impossible quest to reach her father and discover the truth. Will her best friend, Jeevan, believe in it too? What, if anything, will she find at the end of her epic trek? Can she survive among wolf packs, snowfall, the unscrupulous men and women of Zandapur itself?

It’s no spoiler to say that – after a great deal of drama and adventure, not to mention a beautifully evocative description of a mountain temple — everything ultimate turns out well for our heroes. There is a pervasive charm to the novel (to call it sweet would make it sound sickly, which Bilan resists), at times leaning toward naivety, but this mode doesn’t prevent the children from straying into several desperate situations. However, hope and belief always lead them toward safety before too long. Not in a Pollyannaish way either, but with furious determination (perhaps more reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables). ‘Listen to me,’ she says, in probably their darkest hour. ‘If we all act together, we can be strong – think about your ancestors, call on their spirits to help you.’

It’s no wonder at all that Bilan’s novel has won the Costa children’s category this year. Young readers are faced with an increasingly screened off, hostile culture, that is frightened of the future and riven with tensions. They need Asha’s belief in the future and the past, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of staring down tigers by firelight in a snow-bound forest; moreover, they need novels with the vibrancy and warmth of Bilan’s. This was clearly a very personal novel for her to write – and it will be exciting to see what she gives us in years to come…

Asha and the Spirit Bird is published by Chicken House Books, and you can purchase it via their website, through Waterstones, or at your local independent bookshop (use it or lose it). Jasbinder Bilan’s author website is here.

Brilligreat: Mr O’Regan’s Reading Record

The past two days this week, I’ve been taking refuge in nostalgia by posting transcripts of my Year 5 Reading Record. Is it purely nostalgia? It’s also a window onto how children respond to books, or how some children might respond, or on how one reader might respond to their own history read back to them. My continuities, tastes, false memories, excursions, sidesteps, ambitions…

It’s a bit too early in the day for me to tackle these ideas so completely, so let’s just go back to 1993-4, to Mr O’Regan’s classroom in Goodrich Road, and peer over young Nick’s shoulder…

The steps up the chimney (part 1 of the magicians house)
William Corbett
Red Fox
Wednesday 8th September
Friday 10th September
Absolutley great! It was funny, scarey and mysterious. All of it was thrown into an excellent plot. The plot is too long to explain now, but it concerns three children William, Mary and Alice, as well as Stephen Tyler, the magician. 10/10

[I do actually have this on my shelf to re-read. I’m intrigued by the author, William Corlett, and I also have his overtly gay novel Now and Then on my shelf to read (for the first time). Could I possibly have been responding to something queer about the text…? Surely that’s unlikely.]

Finn Family Moomintroll
Tove Jansoon
Puffin Books
Friday 10th September
Tuesday 14th September
Very good. I liked it, partly because of the humor, partly because of the adventure. The pictures were good too. It was about the adventures of Moomintroll, Moominmamma, Moominpapa, Snufkin, Sniff, and some snorks. 8/10

[And twenty-five years later, I have Letters to Tove on my shelf to re-read. Entirely coincidentally, another queer author.]

The door in the tree Part 2 [of the Magician’s House]
William Corbett
Red Fox
Tuesday 14th
Sunday 19th
Really good! The second one in the series but it was not as the first. Again, about three children, William, Mary and Alice. This time there were also Meg Lewis and some badgers. Good. 10/10

The tunnel behind the waterfall Part 3 [of the Magician’s House]
William Corbett
Red Fox
Monday 20th Sep
Sunday 26th
The 3rd exiting part in this amazing quartet, and every bit as good as the 1st and 2nd! In this, two people descended from Morden want to start a funfair in Golden Valley, so William, Mary and Alice have to stop them. They succeed but will Stephen Tyler keep going? Find out in… 10/10

The bridge in the clouds. Being the concluding part of The magicians house quartet.
William Corlett
Red Fox
Monday 27th September
Wednesday 6th October
Excellent!!! A great [underlined three times] book to end a great [underlined twice] series. [Spoiler space spoiler space spoiler space argh] Stephen Tyler dies. The children find true gold. Cinnabar dies. Alice befriends a rat. Morden is defeated. Excellent – great – wonderfull – terrific…. magic!!! 10/10

[To celebrate the last book, I finally spelled William’s name right. I really did like this series, didn’t I?]

Midnight is a place
Joan Aiken
Pat Marriot
Wednesday 6th October
Wednesday 20th October
Very good I liked its’ realisticness. Set in Victorian Times, its about a boy called Lucas and his french friend Anna-Marie. They live with Lucas’ guardian Sir Randolph. There is a fire and Sir Randolph is killed leaving the kids to fend for themselves. 8/10

[Sadly, this is the only Joan Aiken of my childhood. I went from here to The Whispering Mountain and just couldn’t get into it. But I’ve made up for that now – it’s never too late.]

Harriet the spy
Louise Fitzhugh
Wednesday 20th October
Saturday 23rd October
Great! I really liked it. It was funny, exciting, fast moving and full of suspense. The plot was really good. A girl called Harriet who spys on every-body and writes her finds in a secret note-book. Good and bad, nice and spiteful, it all goes down in the notebook. So imagine the riot when her class-mates find the book and read it. 10/10

[Mortified at my use of the phrase ‘imagine the riot’ – all the same, Harriet the Spy is a glorious novel; I remember reading it under the duvet with a torch when I had to know what happened next. Third queer author in two months, by the way.]

The bumper book of Ghost stories!
Pamela Oldfield
David Senior
HarperCollins publishes
Monday 1st November
Tuesday 2nd November
Absolutely great! Even this book took a short time to read (2 days) it was wonderfully well written. Stories about pictures, bonfires, shop window dummies alive and more. Very good. 8/10

[This reflects a summer of reading ghost stories – particularly The Obstinate Ghost by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, and The Magnet Book of Strange Tales, edited by Jean Russell. Summer reading doesn’t have a place in the Reading Record, sadly. The Reading Record also fails to record that I used to sneak into the deserted school library at playtime to read Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book (which was in the Reference library and not to be borrowed) to make the back of my scalp tingle.]

The lost prince
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Friday 5th November
[A suspiciously wavy line where the ‘finishing’ date should go]
I didn’t really like this because it was quite boring. Because I didn’t enjoy it, it dragged on and by the time I got to chaper 25 it was the 7th Dec and we had to take our books back. The story concerns two boys, going about the world to give the sign that a lost prince has been found. Not very good. 5/10

[My keen, 36-year-old eyes have spotted that THE HOBBIT has been written and incompletely rubbed out underneath this entry. Not sure what happened there.]

Charles Dickens
The Book Society
John Leech
9.12.93 – 20.12.93
What words can describe this classic? It’s great, marvelous, excellent, perfect, faboulous, mega-tastic, all rolled into one. The tale of spitefull Ebenezer Scrooge who changes his ways after being visited by 3 spirits is a classic. A work of art by the brilliant Charles Dickens. 5000000000/5000000000

[A bit hyperbolic, but if you can’t go OTT about Dickens, who can you? Enjoy this high point, because hereafter my reading tastes will plummet like nobody’s business. But first…]

The Complete Borrowers! 5 books in 1.
Mary Norton
Diana Stanley / Paula Bates
5th January 1994
27th January 1994
Despite the length of the book (5 books in 1) I enjoyed it. I have seen the TV series and that was great. 19/20

[I love this then; I love it still.]

Thanks for the sardine!
Laura Beaumont
[Drawing of fish with speech bubble: “What a clever girl! She did the pictures too!” Never let it be said I was a very old-fashioned child, quite sexist and exceedingly fey.]
Red Fox [Drawing of fox with speech bubble: “I’m flattered!”]
27.1.94 [Drawing of fish with speech bubble: “that was quick”]
Despite the fact I finished it very quickly I enjoyed this book a lot and thought it was very funny. It was about Aggie and her two useless aunties. They are so useless that she takes them to ‘Aunt Augustas’ Academy for advanced auntiness’. Very funny but too short. 16/20

Only you can save mankind (if not you who else?)
Terry Pratchettt
[Drawing of book-worm with speech bubble: “I’m a bookworm. There weren’t any pictures.”]
Corgi Books [Drawing of the Queen with speech bubble: “I love Corgis”]
Brilliant. I really enjoyed reading the story about how Johnny (Rubber) Maxwell journeys into gamespace to save the alien enemies of his Computer game. Very funny and utterly brill. In 1 word, Brilligreat! 20/20

[I’m still trying to bring this word into the vernacular.]

Prester John
John Buchan [Drawing of horse with speech bubble: “Sounds exciting! Neigh!”]
No illustrations [Drawing of bookworm with speech bubble: “Oh dear!”]
A really good, well written book about a man who goes out to work on an island. Little does he know that a nightmare from the past is going too. 16/20

[No memory of this at all. Not a sausage.]

The Doctor Who quiz book
Lucy M. Boston
Peter Boston
Puffin [Drawing of Puffin]
[Erm, someone’s eye has left the ball re: author and illustrator]
I love Doctor Who so I enjoyed reading this quiz book 18/20

[I “enjoyed reading this quiz book”? When has anyone enjoyed reading a quiz book? Apart from that, it looks as if it took me a fortnight to get through it. Maybe I just didn’t want to admit to reading The Children of Green Knowe?]

Melissa Michaels
A very boring attempt at humorous sci-fi. It was about a girl in a spacecraft trying to smuggle [and that review ends there – obviously wasn’t very into it] 7/20 [and drawing of sad face]

[I don’t actually think I finished this at all.]

Journey through Oz (The wizard of Oz + The land of oz)
Lyam Frank Baum
T.W.O.Oz: William Wallace Denslow T.M.L.O.Oz: John Rea Neil
Derrydale books
Very good. I really enjoyed these modern fairytales. The first one was made into a famous film. 20/20

[A rather coy review of my favourite books of all time.]

The seeds of time
John Wyndham
There isn’t [an illustrator]. The cover was done by Mark Salwowski
Penguin Books [Drawing of Penguin, looks like mallard]
Reasantly I have become very interested in S.F. I got this book for my birthday and really liked it. Some stories were slightly over the top (one showed a travveler rowing through lava on Mars). 16/20

[‘Reasently’ I had got myself heavily into Doctor Who. I don’t know why ‘… And The Abominable Snowmen’, ‘… And The Auton Invasion’ or the avalanche of related reading doesn’t get recorded here. I took this as my cue to read lots of sci-fi, but it didn’t really work for me. And just to prove it, here’s the final entry.]

The Tripods trilogy
John Christopher

[Something melancholy about an unfinished Reading Record. My reading went seriously wonky at secondary school, but it’s all lost to the mists of time. What reading experiences, in the vein of Corlett and Fitzhugh, did I miss out on – and what have I forgotten? As a bookseller, it was always the strangest time to recommend titles for.

Perhaps we have to accept that in times of upheaval and transition, everything that we need and love is liable to fall out of our grasp – and I’m talking about our sense of self, I suppose, because reading is that invisible, intimate negotiation of selfhood and otherness that can be let go without anyone noticing for a while. But once you’ve missed it and noticed its absence, if you can remember what you once loved – even if it’s just adventuring into the unknown – you can keep moving toward that, and find it again.

Yes, that’s what I think.]