The Ghost Drum, by Susan Price

Reading ‘The Ghost Drum’ this week, with a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan

I try to strike a balance on here between reviewing new children’s fiction and older books. So often the debut writers get the glory while the backlist is left on the back burner, and that’s hardly sustainable. There’s certainly something wrong with a world where a novel like The Ghost Drum – which was not only critically acclaimed but Carnegie-winning, a novel that bewitches and delights and disturbs, and what’s more, stimulates curiosity within the heart to read and hear more of its kind – is allowed to go out of print.

I’ve had it on my shelf a little while, but reading Koshka’s Tales last week had whetted my appetite for tales of Czars, Czaritsas and Czareviches, not to mention houses on chicken legs (and, indeed, cat legs), and all their magical intrigues – and at this time of year, how tempting to read about a country where “all the winter is one long night, and all that night long the sky-stars glisten in their darkness, and the snow-stars glitter in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight”.

In the opening chapter, a baby is rescued from a life of servitude by a witch who lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, but the name ‘Baba Yaga’ is not deployed by Price. Instead, the witch is more likely to called a shaman, and – as in last year’s smash hit, The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson – she is one of a wide community. There is evidently a weight of reading and research behind this novel, but it is like the driving power behind a storm coming in from the east: invisible and compelling, it sweeps us up in a cloud of telling detail.

An image by Ivan Bilibin from The Tsar of Saltan (1905), which Price has cited as an influence (see link at bottom of blog)

I suppose we should be wary of novels that seem so effortlessly to evoke another culture – but then, that’s part of this novel’s effect, in playing so overtly with motifs of Eastern European fairy tale, to make us conscious that the motifs are those of successive tellers, each telling (even the first) being the product of a particular culture. It’s an intelligent novel as well as entertaining, and a couple of times, passing comment on events, the storyteller bares a set of sharp teeth. (It is, after all, the same black cat chained to an oak tree that we heard from last week.)

I must say, Jackanory missed a trick in not televising this story back in 1987. I think Helen Mirren would have had a blast telling this one: its icily despotic villains, moral and ingenious heroes, the totally convincing people caught in-between, and the stirring theme of human capacity to transcend oppression.  Perhaps it’s not too late for Radio 4 to produce a version (has there even been a novel for children on Book at Bedtime)? And indeed, it might be more suitable reading after the watershed as it proceeds – the deceptive lightness of the storytelling does not preclude some bloody violence and ghostly moments.

I’m very excited to have happened across a sequel at the start of this month. There’s nothing unsatisfying about a short novel when it has the richness of The Ghost Drum, but it’s like the song the witch sings to her apprentice here, which gives the girl all she needs in one year to grow to a young woman of twenty. Afterwards, it’s necessary for her to feast on black bread, herrings, long-stored oranges and more, the table so crammed tat the cups are balanced over the edge. Any reader of The Ghost Drum will finish with the same ravenous appetite for more of the kind.

A new edition, now available – with three sequels!

I began this blog by saying that The Ghost Drum and its sequels were not currently available – but in preparation for this blog piece, I discovered that is not quite true. The books are currently being self-published, both as paperbacks and e-books, so you have no excuse not to read them. On the other hand, come on Faber, get your act together! Meanwhile, Susan Price’s author website looks like a real treasure trove. Let’s both discover it this week: https://www.susanpriceauthor.com

Koshka's Tales, by James Mayhew

Let’s do the seeming impossible and get this imaginary library back on the road (as it were).

When Old Father Frost is doing the rounds and days are short, it’s always a good idea to have some folk or fairy tales laid by for nourishment. In their deceptively compact dimensions is compressed all the necessities of a culture: hope, love, strangeness, good humour, and the triumph of good over wickedness. Winter is a particularly good time for a Russian folk tale: in Koshka’s Tales, written and illustrated by James Mayhew, you will shiver at an encounter the Snowmaiden, blink at the Firebird’s gleaming light, and if you get a whiff of the panful of sauce bubbling in that cottage, deep in the forest, beware – that sauce is meant for you.

I’m always pleased when I see energy deployed in bringing these stories to younger readers. They are every child’s inheritance, and reading them aloud is a tried and trusted method of bringing reader and listener into the same, shared space of the story. I love the versions of (some of) these stories by Arthur Ransome, and Mayhew’s versions have the same spirit, whilst moving slightly faster.

Moreover, Mayhew’s illustrations are irresistible to the eye, full of lustre, movement and evocative detail (harpies painted on a crib, Russian script on St Nicolai’s halo, exquisite patterning on the gown of the Princess of Inexhaustible Loneliness, bones knotted in the hair of Baba Yaga). They have a Chagallesque quality, suggesting not only these stories’ folk context but also their fable-ousness and sense of flight, and they carry us through these stories like the rushing waters of the Volkhov (a character in these stories itself).

There is theatre in these stories – people you will want to boo and hiss, or cheer and applaud. It wasn’t till I reached the end of the book that I realised how fully appropriate this book was for Mayhew (originally published in 1993, now back and looking gorgeous in a new edition from Graffeg). His name is synonymous now with the bestselling Katie and Ella Bella Ballerina books, inviting children to explore the worlds of painters or composers, but he is also well known as a concert presenter, bringing to life the images of Rimsky-Korsakov or Saint-Saens live on his easel. Some of these stories have become ballets and operas, but they are also filled with music, dance and song.

But who is Koshka? Drawn from a Pushkin poem (presumably lured by Mayhew with the promise of fresh fish) this charming black cat is woven cleverly into a wider frame of a story about lovers, mothers and fathers, some very bad aunts and storytelling itself, giving the whole collection a satisfying unity. I loved the constant references to stories as inherently magical and powerful, full of rare secrets that you would be justified in sailing “beyond thrice-nine realms and over the seven seas” in search of. Thankfully, readers and listeners (and lovers of illustration) only need open this magic box to be immediately transported.

If you weren’t given a copy for Christmas (thanks, Mum) you can get yourself a copy of Koshka’s Tales through Graffeg’s website, via Waterstones or via your local bookshop (use them or lose them!).

What other collections of folk or fairy tales for children should I know about?

The House with the Clock in its Walls, by John Bellairs

I’ve been trying to keep this blog focused primarily on new kids’ books, and this is a golden oldie (though not so old as it might first appear). That said, too few people know about John Bellairs and now is a great time to unearth him: not just because his work is ideal for Halloween season, either. I’ll explain later.

I discovered Bellairs a decade ago, and in a curious fashion. No, not by nudging open a mysterious door behind a green baize curtain at Dulwich Library, or by stumbling upon an arcane ceremony in my next-door neighbour’s back garden when they thought I was away, and not even whilst browsing the bookshelves of a mysterious red-haired bachelor uncle whom I had hitherto known only as the black sheep of the Campbell family.

None of the above would be outside the bounds of possibilities for a Bellairs adventure. But I came to those adventures circuitously, at least partly via the work of the master himself, Edward Gorey, whose unmistakable North American gothic stylings jacket almost all Bellairs’ novels. In a stylistic coup de grace almost unthinkable today, Gorey’s unique artwork alerts us to the playfulness of Bellairs’ work, and perhaps of all spooky work for children: two worlds which should not overlap, the innocence of childhood and the forbidden knowledge of gothic fiction, suggestively interwoven through deadpan pastiche. In The House with the Clock in its Walls and its many sequels,Bellairs welcomes younger readers into the world of necromancy, of the Hand of Glory, of vengeful spirits and otherworldly evil, but he does so with enough rhetorical sleight-of-hand for us to know that the safety barriers are still up: you cannot walk off the edge of the cliff.

So Lewis Barnavelt, our young hero (ten years old with “a moony fat face with shiny cheeks” who arrives at his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, heaving a suitcase weighed down by books) finds himself stealing into the cemetery after dark on Halloween night, and to impress a new friend, unwittingly releases someone dangerous from their tomb. This someone manifests for much of the novel as two glinting circles of light: catch sight of them in your headlights, or in the house across the road, and you know you’re in trouble. Bellairs pays homage in this novel – and others – to the work of MR James (in this one, it’s particularly the great ghost story Count Magnus) with use of the telling detail. But whereas James’ archaeologists isolate themselves from humanity, Lewis lives in the very bosom of friendliness and eccentricity: Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour Mrs Zimmerman.

Together, these three are among my favourite characters in children’s fiction – they stay up late, eating cookies, trading friendly insults (‘Weird Beard!’ ‘Fatso!’) and playing poker. But why, Lewis wonders, do they play with a pack of cards marked:

CAPHARNAUM COUNTY

MAGICIAN’S SOCIETY

The uncanny glare, they explain, is that of the spectacles worn by a dastardly somebody in life. In the hands of these three unlikely heroes, the disconcerting details of a Jamesian plot become the clue to a mystery that is solveable and therefore not invincible. Eccentricity is power in Bellairs’ fiction. ‘Our game is wild swoops, sudden inexplicable discoveries, cloudy thinking,’ says Uncle Jonathan at one point. ‘So we’d better play our way if we expect to win.’

I said that I discovered these books circuitously: it was in the corner of a photo of writer and illustrator Joel Stewart on his blog, many years ago. And such things are worlds away from the Lewis Barnavelt novels, which, though published in the 1970s and onwards, are set in a richly evoked late 1940s setting. It’s a stroke of genius (and not unlike the Stranger Things  gambit, 40 years early): shifting the action safely into a never-quite-was world where magic never-quite-wasn’t, and simultaneously drawing us ever closer into all the sensuous and fascinating detail of that world, from old-time slang to Welch’s Fudge Bars.

And why is now a good time to discover John Bellairs? Well, after years of me foisting old paperbacks on friends, Andersen Press have reissued not only The House with a Clock in its Walls in the UK but also its two sequels, The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, The Witch and the Ring (with Nathan Collins boldly stepping into the giant shoes of Edward Gorey. Sometimes things come back from the dark and mysterious past with good reason: so, enjoy.

The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong

I saved this to talk about in ‘back to school’ season, all full of anticipation for what we’re going to learn this time, watching out for good teachers and good ways of learning. But I read it back in summer, wandering around in the almost dreamlike peace of Amsterdam with Jon.

I wanted to read some Dutch authors while I was there – I would have taken Lampie and the Children of the Sea by Annet Schaap if I’d looked closer at her name – and this one has been waiting to be read for quite a while. The great Frank Cottrell Boyce mentioned it (possibly on Desert Island Discs) as a favourite of his, and an unconscious influence, he explained, on his wonderful novel of juvenile art theft in North Wales, Framed.

Well, DeJong’s 1954 novel for children made a perfect counterpoint to The Evenings by Gerard Reve, a sort of Catcher in the Rye novel of teenage alienation and morbid humour (a great scene being the narrator trading gruesome urban myths with an old university friend). The protagonist of The Evenings is a young man, caught in a state of adolescence, living at home with his parents in mutual contempt (or perhaps just incomprehension). Looking forward to nothing but sleep, he spends most of his time willing the long hours to pass.

Illustration by the legendary Maurice Sendak

The Wheel on the School, by contrast, becomes increasingly urgent. Halfway through, you could mistake it for a bucolic amble through rural nostalgia, but in the last third there is shouting, running, bravery, a race in time to save two lives. It is about children galvanised into responsibility, even into taking charge and forcing change sometimes. It’s about a renewed connection between children and their elders and their own youth, between a village’s past, present and future – and if it’s about anything, it’s about storks.

Lina is the one who first introduces the idea, raising her hand during a maths lesson to interrupt it with her (entirely unsolicited) essay on storks. She explains what a stork looks like, that they bestow good luck on the houses they nest on, and that they no longer next in the little coastal village of Shora. Where have they gone, these exotic creatures, and why won’t they come back?

As far as it is from my experience – perhaps from anyone’s experience in the book’s lifetime (DeJong, an emigrant to America, was recalling the Holland of his childhood in the 1910s) – this eccentric situation speaks with a strange resonance to our historical moment: when artists are striving to call back the lost words from children’s experience of wildness, and children’s voices are raised against climate change inertia.

Lina’s school only has one teacher (in fact, it only has six children) but he is happy to drop the maths lesson and send his students out into the village, the dike, the neighbouring farms, to think, or rather, wonder about the question. ‘Will you wonder and wonder why? […] For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.’

And so the search begins for an answer, for a project, for an adventure: apparently small in scale, but transforming everyone it touches, awakening memories and unknown strengths within them. It could easily be a sentimental, naïve novel, but perhaps the thing that really distinguishes it is that unquantifiable wildness of the birds. They are alien, unknowable, not conventionally beautiful; they cannot be bought, manufactured, captured. When we draw nearest to them, we find they are far from tame.

A touch of Edward Ardizzone in Sendak here

DeJong won the glittering Newbery medal for writing this book, but less than a decade before it he was struggling to write at all (reading between the lines, I think he was shaken up by wartime and military service). He was encouraged to keep at it by, among others, children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom. In summer 1947, she wrote to him and said, ‘It is absolutely unnecessary for you to be discouraged. I admit it is a bad time for you in your writing life, but it won’t last forever. You know and I know that you can write and feel and think better books than any of the poor bloodless competition and you must remember that and get back to work and sooner or later it will once more come out right and warm a good DeJong.’ (Qtd. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus.)

It’s a good letter. Fascinating to think, too, of DeJong as a man who knew he was missing something unique, faintly dangerous, beautiful in an unconventional way, that could not be bought or captured for him. Perhaps he felt it could come back to him if he made conditions right for nesting, that if he wondered and wondered why, he could make something begin to happen…

The Wheel on the School is not currently in print in the UK, but The Evenings was recently reprinted by Pushkin Press in a very nice edition: buy it from Waterstones or your local independent.

To Night Owl From Dogfish, by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer

From: Bett Devlin

To: Avery Bloom

Subject: you don’t know me

but I’m writing to you anyway. […] I found your address online. You have a strange name. I never met anyone called Avery. But that made it easier to find you. So thank you for having that name.

If you are the kind of reader to be immediately seduced by a narrator’s voice; the kind of reader who thrives on dialogue and has little time for descriptions of how the weather looked as Character A walked to the station as they contemplated Character B’s look over breakfast that morning; if you love to read someone’s email over their shoulder on the train: epistolary novels will probably be up your street. They are all voice, and they are voice in full flight, tangling, clashing and dancing with another voice (or two, or three –in this book at least). The voices of To Night Owl From Dogfish zing at one another across the miles: Bett in California (“If I could be any animal I’dchoose a dogfish. I love dogs + I love to swim. A dogfish is a SHARK. Noteveryone knows this”) and Avery in New York City (“I guess if I could be any animal it would be a night owl. I do a lot of reading at night when I’m supposed to be asleep but that’s not the worst thing in the world”).

They have been brought together by an emergency. Bett and Avery are twelve-year-olds who each live with their single Dads, each in their own idyllic world, private world. But their Dads are no longer single. As Bett explains to Avery, having broken into her father’s email, “Your dad + my dad met 3 months ago in Chicago at a building expo [and] THEY ARE NOW A COUPLE.” To add insult to injury, the girls find they are being sent to the same ‘Summer Programme for Inquisitive Teens‘N’ Tweens’ to encourage them to form a sisterly bond.

Mutually furious at the whole idea, the two girls plot to disrupt things and keep the two men apart: “How do two people even have a relationship when they live 3,000 miles apart? Doesn’t that mean it’s all in their heads? How do we get it out of their heads?” And of course, whilst collaborating on this project, they must be scrupulously careful not to become friends themselves.

A novel in email sounds slow and pensive, but they can be action movies in real time. Every revelation, every rebuke, every bright idea, every gap between one reply and another is like the electrical energy built up by a whirling, complex friction generator: electromagnetic energy, in fact, ever drawing you back for just one more page. Then there are the conversations we don’t see, or the secrets the girls don’t have access to, and Wolitzer and Goldberg Sloan take full advantage of the form to hide increasingly big twists in plain sight.

I picked up my copy on a whim,one Saturday in Oxford. I had finished it by Sunday evening. Not only that, I was desperate to read it aloud to my partner – till I was halfway through, thatis. By then, I knew I mustn’t spoil his experience of reading it for himself. I don’t want to spoil it for you either. (And now that I’m writing these shorter reviews, I don’t have room to talk about what it means to me to see a middle-gradenovel with this storyline, and handled with such exuberance and charm.) This book is a sheer delight. Read it.

The Last Zoo, by Sam Gayton

For too long, reviews on this blog have been, well, too long: self-indulgent, off-putting screeds that do little to actually promote the book they’re describing. With a good book there’s always a lot to talk about, but the irony is, the more I tell you now, the fewer surprises you get later. Sam Gayton’s latest middle-grade novel, The Last Zoo, is definitely a reading experience all the better for exploring, disorientatedly, with minimal spoilers.

               From the first page, you’re at sea in all sorts of ways: aboard a zoo, miles out from the mainland, on our world but after a great cataclysm. Let’s just say they call ours the i-era, a time of people taking photos of their lunch, who were complacent about the powerful technology they used every day. But this disaster isn’t the only thing separating our world from that of the zoo. After the cataclysm came a huge and wonderfully bizarre solution, and with it, a turning from reason toward imagination and all the possibilities of impossibility.

               Have you ever wondered what unicorn poo smells like?

               The enclosure we’re on in the first, dream-filled chapter of this surreal tale – and it is one of several, each with their own impossible occupants – is overseen by a young keeper called Pia. She’s a self-proclaimed klutz, whose friends and fellow keepers call ‘Catastro-P’, and from the very start, something’s gone wrong on her watch. Pia is responsible – she may even be to blame – and the more she tries to put things right, the wronger they get.

               Pia is an endlessly endearing character: I found myself picturing her as a Jamie Hewlett cartoon character, as she worries and wonders her way through increasingly unpredictable events. Each chapter yields a new puzzle piece and a new set of questions, leaving the reader to find connections between huge sci-fi and fantasy concepts. It shares some of the feel of Philip Reeve’s Railhead, and also some of the spirit of Pokemon and Minecraft (which gets a name-check, though these post-internet kids don’t get the reference).

               I don’t mean that as a slight, either: it shares those franchises’ themes of collaboration, world-building and the joy of creativity. Typical of Gayton’s linguistic conjuring is the name given to this impossible breed of creatures: a voilá, the voilá, some voilá (as in One of Our Voilá is Missing!). It captures the thrill of invention (literary, scientific, societal) as a conjuring trick that dazzles, but also – as the novel goes on to explore – has the potential to confuse our understanding of the world.

               A couple of character moments didn’t quite work for me, but that’s in part due to the frenetic pace and wild inventiveness. This is a novel of ideas, and not just noisy, apocalyptic, winged ideas either. There are all sorts of beautiful, disquieting ideas here: the whisper you can’t distinguish from your own internal monologue, the beings which can only be apprehended by the emotions they inspire, the question of humanity as ‘problem’ and how it can be dealt with. If you know someone who’s going to love the His Dark Materials when they’re ready for it, The Last Zoo would be a great place to take them first.

The Last Zoo is published by Anderson Press. You can order it from Waterstones here, or go and ask that nice person at the independent bookshop round the corner. This post is illustrated with the work of Leonora Carrington.

The Boxer, by Nikesh Shukla

This was a purchase from my first visit to Round Table Books in Brixton, South London. Hot off the press in June this year, its fresh, powerful cover design called me to the shelf.  Now, we all know it’s a bold, heroic deed to open an independent bookshop, and a new children’s bookshop is even more worth celebrating. But this place, nestled in Brixton Village’s covered market, among bars, boutiques and cafes, is extra special. An avowedly inclusive enterprise, it specialises in books with black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonists. It would be better to say, it champions them: when I visited, on the hottest day of the year, the bookseller’s wide-ranging knowledge was impressive; her enthusiasm for titles new and established spread to me like wildfire. This place may be new, but it has a true, blazing bookshop spirit.

There’s a wealth of great titles for them to offer, too. Alongside Shukla, there were British and American names, and a South African title published by Pushkin: from the anarchic fun of Little Omar’s adventures (by Zanib Mian) to the new Carnegie winner, YA verse novel The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. These are books of now – while I read about a Far Right march in The Boxer, Tommy Robinson supporters raged and ranted on my Twitter feed – for obvious reasons. It also creates an air of excitement, this showcase of contemporary talent.

Hard for me to believe that Acevedo is the first person of colour to win the Carnegie, but then, I’ve spent my life not noticing the ethnicity of children’s book characters, simply because I always saw myself reflected back. There have always been exceptions – I was sending Malorie Blackman fan letters when I was ten – but perhaps the success of a few names helped me imagine that things were more balanced – certainly more than the meagre 4% of published children’s books that feature BAME characters. Change has begun, but it’s slow, and everyone involved in children’s reading needs to help propel things forward.

Shukla’s first YA novel, Run, Riot, demonstrated what readers have been missing out on all this time. Primarily a real-time, cat-and-mouse thriller in a Bristol tower-block, it’s also a blast of accusation against the politicians, businessmen and law-enforcers managing social housing for their own ends. Shukla didn’t have to remove his characters to a fantasy world or dystopian future: all the elements of compelling drama, from despicable villains to an intricate setting to the call of home and family, relate intrinsically to one another in this place and time. It’s also, appropriately for YA, a novel about the power of young people in a climate of cynical corruption. The scandal of Grenfell Tower shadows the whole novel, but in fiction the material of our lives can be worked into tales of catharsis and hope.

The Boxer alters the focus from a group of friends to just one young man, and the story it tells is one of isolation and learning to ‘take up space’. To a great extent, it’s a quieter novel than its predecessor: no helicopters hovering overhead, no murders in the underpass or political conspiracies. The acute moments of drama in this novel happen on lonely station platforms – where Sunny is targeted, abused and assaulted by racist thugs – and in quiet streets, family dinners, hospice waiting rooms. And the boxing gym, of course – but at times, that’s the safest place for Sunny, where he spars with his trainer, or new friend Keir. Some of the most disturbing scenes are those when we see Sunny internalising the hatred of that initial assault; for all that Sunny has friends who love him, this is a dark, psychological novel.

Brilliant momentum is achieved by weaving his journey to self-empowerment with the ten bouts of a life-changing boxing match. Shukla matches a sober realist style with stylish cinematic switches of narrative, and each of his YA novels is a compulsive read. This weaving in time reflects The Boxer’s interest in its protagonist’s headspace: we can see how the narrative of Sunny’s training repeats itself in microcosm as an exchange of feints, footwork, and sucker-punches in his match with Keir; likewise, the dynamic of that final fight runs through the grain of the whole novel. It makes for an exciting and satisfying whole.

The Boxer is not the first YA novel to show a young male protagonist discovering his identity through competitive sport. I found the subject matter of The Boxer the most interesting of the genre: this is not just a novel about building self-respect, but about understanding confrontation, and belief in transformation. Shukla sensitively but directly engages with the current climate of hate in the UK: here, the novel reaches its most frightening but also, surprisingly, some of its most poignant moments. Like Run, Riot, little needs to be contrived to produce a narrative of brilliant drama, and as a result it is absolutely convincing.

I have one fault with the novel, and it’s one I feel a bit stingy about. After all, it is brilliant of Shukla to make Sunny a young gay man, and one for whom sexuality is just a facet of his life, not another battle to overcome. Sunny’s parents and friends hardly mention it – and this feels like a revelation for YA. Shukla even implies that Sunny’s sexuality is tacitly accepted by his sparring partner, Keir, but this feels disingenuous to me. Even in these more enlightened times, there’s no way the novel’s themes of male friendship, shame and hatred would not be in some way inflected with Sunny’s queerness. It almost feels as if a further subplot has been lifted out of the book to clarify the narrative, but if so it endures as a notable absence: at most, a lost opportunity. Or maybe I missed something; after all, Shukla references Thomas Page McBee’s memoir of boxing and transgender identity, Amateur, in his acknowledgements.

But perhaps Sunny’s story is simply not finished yet. There are subtle links back to characters in Run, Riot; perhaps Shukla is going to return to this community to tell its stories in further novels. I certainly hope Shukla will continue to produce YA: his balance of thrills and quiet human stories, sprawling riots and intense intimacy, contemporary violence and nigh-on mythic redemption are precisely what we all need right now.