Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien

There’s something about little people in children’s literature, and it’s not hard to see why: who better for your audience to identify with than characters who are close to the ground, living in a world made to others’ measurements, seeing ordinary things close to, with all the additional beauty and terror that viewpoint offers? Mrs Frisby – who is a mouse, not to mention a single mum – is one of these, and the Rats of NIMH are the same yet different again, though Mrs Frisby doesn’t know that when she sets out to ask their help.

Animals, specifically, are a big part of the children’s literature scene. Where would we all be without Mole and Rattie, Peter, Paddington or the Cowardly Lion? But these are metaphorical characters really, human beings in a sort of costume. Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 novel – a gift to me from a friend – is much more about what it means to be an animal, to be without civilisation or society, always hustling and bustling for food and survival. It’s not Tarka the Otter, either, a novel so immersed in naturalistic behaviour that the human language often feels too restrictive for its broiling, bestial otter energy.

O’Brien gives his animals enough language to comment on their condition, their sense of difference. As one character tells Mrs Frisby whilst outlining his mad, revolutionary plan, even a rat race mentality isn’t a rat race at all: we borrow the name to describe or disguise the truth, that “[it’s] a People Race, and no sensible rats would ever do anything so foolish.”

And we know, he tells her, that there are rat-like creatures who evolved out of the primordial landscape; they just didn’t go as far as the monkeys did. What does it mean when you realise that human dominance over the rest of nature is essentially an accident of history, and actually freighted with politics? And what if something should tip the balance the other way somehow, or at least make things more complicated than they appear? Perhaps, like the stories of the perpetually emigrating Borrowers or the Mouse and his Child seeking to become self-winding, a story of little people ends up transcending metaphor and becoming a story about the big things: who we are, what we stand for, and what we could do if we tried.

The animal world is a nervous, suspicious one, but in the course of her adventure, Mrs Frisby frequently oversteps its boundaries, uncovering surprising alliances and friendships as she goes. One of the recurring lines of the novel is, “But they [the birds, the rats, the cats, the mice] have never been friends of ours…!” By the close of the novel, when the words are in the mouths of Mrs Frisby’s children, they are almost absurd. Whether or not O’Brien was fully conscious of it (given that his depiction of gender roles reads as peculiarly conservative nowadays) the subtext of the novel is profound. Meanwhile, every human character we meet is either fatuous or somewhat sinister. In the closing chapters, they can’t see the wood for the trees – nor what miraculous thing is escaping into the wood for safety.

It’s intriguing to see the liberties taken by Don Bluth’s company when they adapted the novel for the big screen (whilst acknowledging the ambition of the project). As if O’Brien’s collision of Watership Down, Island of Dr Moreau and The Wombles was not enough, Bluth gives Mrs Frisby an amulet with strange powers, with which she ultimately saves the day. This, Bluth says, “is just a way of letting the audience know that Mrs Frisby has found ‘Courage of the Heart’.” Perhaps this is a reasonable concession to show the resolve she possesses by the end of her tale, and give her a hero moment the novel never quite grants her.

Nonetheless, I think I prefer the novel’s approach: quieter, less mystical, less grandiose. A novel of small but major acts of bravery, modest but enduring triumphs, a plan in execution without any guarantee of success. A novel which divides its heroism between one person who has grown too determined to be afraid, and a community which has grown too wise to overlook the individual.

This novel is – hallelujah – still in print, published with an eyecatching cover by Puffin Books (and I’ve just noticed – you can see the rosebush, look!). Buy it from your local independent, or order up a copy from Waterstones, or buy a secondhand cover like the one above (cover art by Jill Bennett). It would make an ideal bedtime read – it starts with the sweetness of a mouse in need but decidedly grows teeth by the middle part – or an independent read for a thoughtful middle-grader.

Gloves Off, by Louisa Reid

i am no more than my size, and that size makes

me nothing and too much.

a paradox.

At the beginning of this verse novel, we meet Lily on her sixteenth birthday, picking herself off the floor after a bruising physical assault. At school, she is routinely humiliated for her size: meanwhile, her mother, Bernadette, ‘does not leave the house at all.

she taught me all about her shame

and left me alone with mine.

Both mother and daughter know she only has to get through one last year, and then she can leave the school behind. But is that the only way to be free? Isn’t there an alternative?

I’m somewhat surprised that, in less than twelve months of this blog, Gloves Off is the second novel about boxing that I’ve reviewed (the first, by Nikesh Shukla, is discussed here) and the third novel about sport. It’s the fourth, if you include my mention of Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. For a long time – right up into my late teens, if not longer – I saw myself firmly in the bookish camp (not to mention, the camp and bookish). I not only felt excluded from sporting activity, but bored by it and contemptuous of its participants. For many years, I would never have considered those two worlds becoming one, but what we’ve seen is the last year is a huge trend for sport-themed novels in children’s and YA fiction, including the Carnegie shortlist.

Moreover, I’ve enjoyed these novels. They are tales of self-determination and self-respect, but they are not bland tales of elite performance. Shukla’s novel puts the fighting spirit of his protagonist in a context of Far-Right violence and the psychology of victimisation: it’s as much about understanding the nature of confrontation as it is about physical change. Gloves Off is about feeling trapped by hatred internalised as self-loathing. I was reminded of the girls voted ugliest girls in school, in Clementine Beauvais’ joyful road-trip novel Piglettes, but Lily and her mother’s situation is past the point of escapism. In a world of men who enjoy their vulnerability, Lily must mine her strength and self-possessio out of herself.

This is a novel about ‘the business’ of becoming a young woman, as Lily sees it:

the work of growing up, of creating

yourself, the hatching and flourishing of


butterfly bright,

dragonfly gold.

It is also about love, which binds people in ways both destructive and empowering. Reid’s novel is less plotty than Shukla’s, but there is knotted complexity to the watchful, difficult, heartfelt mother-daughter relationship she depicts here, made vivid through the careful balance between their voices. Poetry, ostensibly a slow and meditative form, makes narrative as propulsive and immersive as a movie composed of headcam shots. Perhaps that’s why it has found a home in the field of Young Adult writing. You experience this novel intensely and intimately with its protagonists, and the sparing shifts between their voices make this in part an account of women studying one another for signs of hope, danger, and beauty.

I think this is why Tamsin Rosewell (bookseller extraordinaire of Kenilworth Books) recommended Gloves Off to me as a book with potential to cross audiences. Like the boxing gym, which Reid presents as a more liberating space than school, the verse of this novel is a space in which the voices of different generations and perspectives interact and combine. That is also, I think, a definition of great children’s literature – which bodes well for new publisher, Guppy Books, for whom this was a first and thrilling publication.

Gloves Off is currently available in hardback: Guppy Books publish it in paperback this March. You can order it from the publishers website and check out their upcoming titles; buy it from Waterstones via this link; or ask for it at your local independent bookshop (use ’em or lose ’em).

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:

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?