Review: ‘Dragon Skin’, by Karen Foxlee

How was she going to know what to do with magic?

She was just a girl from Chimbu Street.

She knew nothing.

Nothing at all about magic. And she was pretty sure magic wasn’t meant to be arrowroot biscuit mushed up in water or dragon vomit in your bed. Not tears on her dirty face or the sorrowful taste of song, that she couldn’t know but somehow knew, sliding off her tongue.

Surely it wasn’t.

Stay calm, Pip, said Mika in her head.

We’re with Pip in a town in rural Australia, where she lives with her Mum and step-dad Matt. Pip’s home is a landscape of identical mining company houses, thrumming with air-conditioner noise and the sound of road trains coming in on the highway – but three streets away is the wild world of the creek, where she used to spend long hours in conversation with her friend Mika. Now she goes there to be alone – but is she, really? Something glints as the light fades, and Pip must make sense of it as best she can.

Fantasy dominates the children’s section, but books like Dragon Skin are rare. The story of finding a magical creature and becoming its carer is the stuff of younger fiction, whether that’s Andy Shepherd’s lightly comic Boy Who Grew Dragons series, or the fifty year-old A Gift from Winkelsea by beloved author Helen Cresswell. Foxlee’s novel is suited to an older child, maybe even someone making that tricky shift into teenage years (not unlike Pip’s method of entering her secret cave, hanging by your fingers and stretching with your feet) when nothing seems right, least of all the books you’re given to read. It’s as much a novel about ‘what to do’ with magic, as an exploration of loss and the difficulty of change.

Cover illustration by Gareth Lloyd

There’s a particularly big change needed in Pip’s life, which Foxlee develops gradually throughout the novel, from the slam of a screen-door – Pip and her mother flinching at it – through glimpses of Matt’s bullying behaviour, till the overt use of the words ‘domestic abuse’ as the novel enters its final flight. And this is certainly a novel that clears the ground and takes to the sky, without ever shrugging off that weight. It’s a delicately freighted construction, underpinned by utterly credible characters, and buoyed with real magic.

I found it reminiscent of another Cresswell novel, The Night-Watchmen from 1969: a mysterious story that is typical of the era of Penelope Farmer, William Mayne and Catherine Storr, in which a lonely boy, recuperating from illness, becomes aware of a deeper significance to the two strangers’ coded chat about ‘night-work’ and the dreaded ‘green-eyes’. Without ruining things by asking too many questions, he longs to go deeper into their world. Cresswell’s fantasy plays with a sense of trespassing on deeper knowledge – what are all those grown-ups talking about all day? – and though different in many respects, Dragon Skin applies an otherworldly atmosphere with the same subtlety to its depiction of childhood, unfathomable to adults. Her friendship with the since-disappeared Mika is full of conversations using the language of folk tale and science-fiction to broach difficult subjects. At dinner with a schoolfriend’s parents, Pip feels the words play date hanging ‘between them at the table like a tacky helium balloon’, and remembers being in the cave, singing to the dragon, tears on her face, and ‘the way the mouth of the cave held them…’ Foxlee evokes child experience perfectly and unsentimentally as full of strangeness, pain and insight; contrasted with adult incomprehension and conservatism (including bleak glimpses of parents scrolling the internet), her child characters have a viewpoint that is able to pierce right through things.

Cover design by Victo Ngal

My first Karen Foxlee novel, Lenny’s Book of Everything, makes similar contrasts, or rather, co-ordinations and orchestrations of worlds. At one point in that novel – in which Lenny’s little brother Davey, through a medical condition, upsets all sorts of models of how children should look and behave – Lenny has an awkward conversation with a grandparent. ‘How are you doing?’ asks Nanny Flora, and Lenny thinks: She doesn’t know me. Perhaps she doesn’t want to know, and can’t be told, about Lenny’s fears, imaginings, secret sadnesses. The orthodoxy is that grown-ups – or most of us – can’t be made to feel uncomfortable, or challenged. Dragon Skin, though, is a hopeful novel. It crosses that impossible gap between worlds that children’s literature promises to bridge but cannot always manage.

I hope you’ll give it a try – I’ve done my best not to spoil the story – and I’d love your thoughts if you’ve read it already (it came out from Pushkin Children’s last autumn).

I wanted to get back to blogging and talking about my favourite books, if only to keep a record of what I loved and why. More and more I notice how my memory blurs away the individual details of things, like waves on a beach. I hate falling back on generalities like “it’s great/lovely/brilliant/fantastic”.

I feel like we often all prey to those generalities when discussing children’s literature, particularly on social media, cover quotes and blurbs.  The other day, I saw title’s illustrations described as ‘stunning’ (by the publisher, on the book jacket), and I thought it was so wrong: those pictures are beautiful, but do they ‘stun’? Do they even try to? If anything, their sketchy, smudgy quality invites us to look closer. Social media, like cover quotes and blurbs, as well as my own declining mental capacity, under-sells children’s literature, shying from its possibility – perhaps because they unsettle our own, grown-up sense of the world.

Certainly, books with the nuance and power of Dragon Skin deserve better than that.

Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee (9781782692997) is published by Pushkin Children’s, priced £8.99. You can order it from Waterstones here, or your preferred independent bookshop. Pushkin also publish Lenny’s Book of Everything, but you’ll have to go searching second-hand highways and byways for The Night-Watchmen by Helen Cresswell. Good luck!

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