Interview: SF Said on ‘Tyger’

NC Welcome, reader, to the world of Tyger: the wondrous new novel from one of my favourite writers, SF Said. I was fortunate enough to meet SF briefly on a very special tour of Alderley Edge, led by Alan Garner, who wrote about and infused that corner of the world with his own conception of myth and magic. SF has done something like that with Tyger’s immersive London setting – the earthly and unearthly worlds intermingling fantastically in ways that illuminate the themes of the novel, its characters and their adventure. As others have noticed, it’s an overtly Blakean book from the title in, but in so many way it’s also distinctly Saidean.

So when SF agreed to an interview on this blog, I thought we should meet here, in Tyger territory. We’re standing in a ruined building in central London. It’s nearly midwinter, and the place is in almost total darkness, but we can make out the shape of something – a tree growing wild, reaching up through the collapsed roof. Something is waiting and watching in the dark. SF, without giving away too much of the story, the world beyond this ruin is not quite ours, is it?

SF           The world of Tyger is definitely not our world!  The story is set in London, in the present day, but in a strange alternate world where history has gone very differently.  In this world, the British Empire has never ended, slavery has never been abolished, and huge numbers of animals have been hunted to extinction.  And it’s in this world, in a rubbish dump in London, that a boy called Adam finds the incredible, impossible tyger.

The roots of Tyger go very deep for me.  But perhaps the biggest inspirations were Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses: those amazing stories that take us to other worlds with alternate histories.  So Tyger is my attempt to write one of those.

As with Said’s other novels, Dave McKean’s evocative illustrations are key to the reader’s experience.

NC          I believe you’ve been growing this story for a long time – is that right? Did it begin with a concept, or with evocative images like the one above? Or something else?

SF           Yes, it took me 9 years to write this book!  While I was writing my last book, Phoenix, I had an idea for a book called Tyger.  It was always called Tyger, and there was always a being called a tyger at the heart of it.  I could see this tyger; I could even hear its voice.  But what was it? 

To try to understand my idea, I went back to William Blake’s poem The Tyger, which I’d read at school when I was a child.  In some ways, I think that childhood reading was the true beginning of Tyger, and the story was growing inside me for almost half a century.

Blake’s The Tyger from his Songs of Experience

NC          Look, SF – there’s a boy in here with us, peering into the darkness. It’s Adam Alhambra, on his way to make deliveries for his family business. He’s crucial to the novel too – how did his character click into focus for you?

SF           In some ways, Adam is a lot like me.  He’s a Muslim boy whose family came originally from the Middle East, although he’s always lived in London and thinks of himself as a Londoner.  All of that is exactly like me. 

On the other hand, Adam lives in a world where children like him aren’t allowed to have dreams or ambitions; he isn’t even allowed to go to school.  He just has to work incredibly hard every day to help his family survive.  That’s nothing like my own experience at all.  But I do know what it’s like to have a dream that people around you believe is impossible, because no-one in my family had ever written a book before. 

NC          Yes, Adam’s not a writer but he does have a particular talent which becomes key to his self-understanding. Until the events of the novel, his life is one of othering and intolerance in this version of London. Did some of that stem from your experience?

SF           Many of the things that people say to Adam as he goes about the world are things that people have said to me, or to members of my family.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked: “Where are you from?  No, where are you really from?”  

Dave McKean’s cover to SF Said’s debut novel, Varjak Paw

When I started writing Varjak Paw in 1997, I couldn’t imagine a publisher wanting a book about a Muslim boy, so I wrote a story about a kitten with Mesopotamian ancestors instead – Mesopotamia being the ancient name of the country we now call Iraq, where some of my own ancestors came from.  It’s only in the last few years that children’s publishing has opened up to the point where I felt I could write about a character like Adam, so I think things are definitely changing for the better.

NC          And of course once it begins to happen, it seems mad that we went for so long without that dimension to children’s books. Tyger also grapples directly with the violence done in the name of Empire. There’s more than one slightly startling moment in the book – one scene, for example, of people caged in a sinister menagerie – that underscore such monstrousness, without making it unsuitable for young readers. Did you ever consider downplaying those darker aspects of the novel?

SF           I thought very long and hard about every single thing that’s in the book.  Over the 9 years of its writing, and the endless drafts it went through, there was a lot of trial and error, and lots of helpful feedback from many test readers.  What remains at the end of that process is only what felt absolutely essential to tell the story: no more, no less. 

Michael Heslop’s cover to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

It’s true that Tyger deals with some difficult things.  But when I was a child, my favourite books were the ones that took me seriously as a reader; the books that were honest, and didn’t try to soften or simplify the truth.  So that’s the kind of book I always want to write myself.

NC          Wait a minute – there’s someone else here, beside ourselves, watching Adam. They’re wearing a hood so I can’t see their face. And now they’re slipping away into the snow – let’s follow them, SF. Goodness, it’s cold – why did you set the book at this time of year?

SF           I love a good Midwinter tale!  Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising was a big inspiration for me.  And I remember when we did that walk with Alan Garner around Alderley Edge, he told us some very interesting things about boundaries, both spatial and temporal.  Midwinter Night is the time between the end of one year and the beginning of the next: a time between times.  That’s the time I can most easily imagine crossing the boundaries of reality, and going into other worlds.

NC          Yes – the crossroads of one realm and another. Oh, that figure has just hurried into a shop on Charing Cross Road. The sign reads Solomon True & Company – Booksellers & Printers. There are shelves of books and papers, from ceiling to floor, lit flickeringly by a glowing log fire. It feels like we’re somewhere civilised. Do you ever write in libraries, surrounded by books like this?

McKean’s illustration of Adan’s first trip to Solomon True’s bookshop hints toward the novel’s varied influences.
The paperback edition of David Olusoga’s groundbreaking work

I used to write in libraries all the time.  I found it very inspiring to work surrounded by all those books.  So for its first 7 years, Tyger was written in the public libraries of Haringey, and I’m eternally grateful to them and their brilliant staff.  Then there was the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, so I went back to writing at home, which is where I finished the book.  But I will always love libraries.

SF           I’m so glad you liked the bookshop!  It felt vital to have some warm and welcoming spaces in that dark and dangerous world, so Solomon’s bookshop, the Underground Library and the new school all matter hugely to me.  As do the heroic booksellers, librarians and teachers we meet inside them!

NC          I can never resist a good browse when I’m in a bookshop. Look, the poetry section – there’s lots of Blake here. How much of what you read influenced the writing of Tyger?

An illustration by Henry Moore to Jacquetta Hawkes’ A Land

SF           In the course of writing Tyger, I read everything Blake ever wrote.  I really recommend William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, which gave me a way of looking at his pictures at the same time as reading his words – an experience beyond cinematic in its intensity. 

I read lots of other things too.  I’ve already mentioned His Dark Materials and Noughts & Crosses, as well as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.  Then there was Ursula Le Guin, and re-readings of childhood favourites like The Little Prince and Watership Down.  There were even a few grown-up books!  David Olusoga’s Black and British was important to me, as was Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.  His writing led me to Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land, which I think is one of the all-time greats.  Apparently Alan Garner is a fan of hers as well!

NC          I love A Land too. It’s an amazing tribute to the power of the imagination. Garner did his own imagination-archaeology in his books, travelling impossibly far below the earth’s surface and past those boundaries you mentioned. Having met you through our shared love of his work, I have to ask if he’s influenced your own writing – apart from long processes of creation!

SF           I think of Alan Garner as the patron saint of slow writers.  It can take him a decade to produce a book, but when he does, it’s absolutely extraordinary and unique; something no-one else could have written.

NC          The book of his that Tyger most brings to mind is Elidor (one of my favourites, by the way), with that sense of a fabulous beast in a dark, urban environment (Manchester, instead of London) and a quest involving a mysterious other world joined strangely with ours. The two books are so different but they seem to share a feeling of transcendence, as well as being brilliant page-turners.

SF           I read and re-read all his books in the course of writing Tyger, and they all influenced me in one way or another – not least by showing that there are no limits to what children’s literature can do.  I love Elidor, as you do, and it’s definitely in the DNA of Tyger, though The Stone Book Quartet is the one I feel most consciously indebted to.

NC          Hang on – there’s a poster coming off the printer over there. The type reads:



Another dynamic McKean illustration – but who is hunting the Tyger and why?

There’s an illustration of a snarling beast, with blood dripping from its teeth. Was it a deliberate choice for images to play such a big role in the novel, and how did Dave McKean’s artwork influence that?

SF           As a reader myself, I love illustration, and I want all my books to be heavily illustrated.  I’m incredibly lucky to work with Dave McKean, my favourite artist.  His artwork is such an integral part of the Varjak Paw books and Phoenix.  But I think what he’s done in Tyger is even more magnificent, opening onto dimensions that words alone could not evoke, and it’s going to delight and amaze readers of all ages.

NC          This image on this poster here is quite unlike the Tyger that we meet in the book. Do you have a particular affinity for cats, whether big or (like Varjak Paw) smaller?

SF           Of course!  If I could be anything at all, I’d much rather be a cat than a human!

NC          Speaking of Varjak, I feel like there are echoes of ‘the Way’ that he learns, in the skills that Adam and his friends must master. Lucky, the protagonist of Phoenix, also explores his relation to reality in somewhat mystic style. Do you think Varjak, Adam and Lucky belong to the same universe somehow?

SF           I always seem to write stories about powerless characters who discover that they have great powers inside them, and must learn how to use those powers.  It’s something that happens in all my books, whether they’re about cats or humans or aliens.  I don’t know why I keep doing this; it’s not deliberate.  With each book, I just write the book I most want to read myself – and it just so happens that this is something I always want to see in a book!

Another magical McKean illustration – but where is this, and how does it become part of Adam and Zadie’s adventure? Read Tyger to find out!

NC          Listen – I can hear angry shouting in the streets outside the shop…! I think it’s time we left the wild, dark world of Tyger for the relative safety of our own world. But I will say this – there’s a real optimism in the conclusion of the novel. What inspires that hope in you?

SF           Thank you, Nick.  Our own world seems to be getting darker and scarier all the time, but young readers give me a lot of hope for the future.  So do all the adults who work so hard to help kids discover books: teachers, librarians, booksellers, and all the adults who love children’s literature for its own sake. 

I always feel inspired when I’m talking with people who share my belief that children’s books are the most important books of all.  That belief is the reason why I do what I do.  It’s why I spend years and years of my life trying to make each book the very best it can be.  Because children’s books are too important to give it anything less than your absolute best!

Huge thanks to SF for his responses to my questions, and thanks to Dave McKean and David Fickling Books for allowing me to use his dazzling illustrations here too. As this post goes live, Tyger is only lately published, so you can still get yourself a copy of the beautiful hardback edition with McKean’s bewitching dust-jacket and the embossed cover beneath. You can order copies from Waterstones here, or from your favourite independent bookshop. Tamsin Rosewell will interview SF about his work for The Blake Society on Wednesday October 19th – you can register to watch via Zoom here.

The Importance of Being Raymond

Briggs in 1978, via Getty Images

I miss Raymond Briggs. That’s a bit strange for me, because I didn’t know him personally, and that sort of loss doesn’t usually get to me. But for some reason, I can’t quite get past it.

            I’ve been seeking out interviews with him and reading works of his I never had before, as well as rereading ones I did. In contrast to the commentary on the death of the Queen, I didn’t feel as if I was mourning a grandad, but perhaps that we’d all lost a major dignitary. Certainly, a link to another era. I even found myself making a pilgrimage to the South Downs, searching out one of the villages he called home. I scrambled through briars and down nearly vertical chalk paths, wondering why I was doing this and whether I would ever admit to having done it. Perhaps I just wanted to be reassured of his unreachability, particularly from curious weirdos like me. I was satisfied to find what I think was his house, nondescript and out of the way, with the notice ATTENTION – ELECTRIC FENCE – BEWARE OF THE DOG – ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

            Perhaps I also wanted a glimpse of the landscape he loved. I took a pew in a church so silent it might almost have survived the events of When the Wind Blows.

The King goes to answer the door in The Princess & the Pea, in The Fairy Tale Treasury, 1972

            Having returned to blogging, I want to try and say something about Briggs. Particularly as, somewhat grumpily, I have taken against so many of the tributes I read that simplified his work or his personality. As for the Instagram post I stumbled on: “the Snowman will be crying icicles … in Paradise [with] Ethel and Ernest you can rest in peace and talk about the glorious weather…” In point of fact, besides being fictional, the Snowman  is dead and gone, as are Ethel, Ernest and Briggs himself – if that’s too bluntly put, we need to find another way to talk about that loss. He’s certainly tried to do it often enough over the years.

            Perhaps instead of what’s gone, I should try to talk about what he’s left us.

            Before anything else, there is the sheer artistry of his drawing: extraordinary skill (observation, communication, modulation) employed by a mind that is alive, dynamic, precise. Briggs’s visual style is as unmistakable as a parent’s handwriting, but he can variously work with warmth or coolness, the richness of fine art or the neat thrust of a newspaper cartoon. For years I’ve wondered about the many styles he uses in the Fairy Tale Treasury (edited by Virginia Haviland). He could and did do it all. Nicolette Jones’s monograph suggests this deliberately illustrated (as it were) the variety of origins and tones of the tales: comic, mystic, operatic, and more. Whether he’s writing what Andrew Male on the Backlisted podcast called “the children’s Anatomy of Melancholy” (Fungus) or an exercise in memoir and social history (Ethel & Ernest), he is always exact and specific in his approach. Whatever the dominant note, there’s always the possibility of comedy or poignancy.

Boy to Man, 1992

            It might have been better for his reputation if he had never written for the young: it confuses the critics, who think it means his work is simple. In fact, the scope of children’s literature has been broadened by his picture books, even challenged by them. He has left a series of stories that go against the grain, particularly in depicting its protagonists.

They are not in the conventional way heroic. They witness or endure things. In The Man, a boy is visited by a Borrower-like figure who demands to be clothed and fed (“Ugh! Brown bread! Gives me the trots!”) and even to listen to the Morning Service on Radio 4. Suddenly the boy has responsibility towards something he doesn’t understand or even entirely like – like Father Christmas’s duties, perhaps, or Jim’s preparations for fallout – and the book is about that experience, not whether he succeeds or learns something about himself.

            In fact, he loses his temper with the Man more than once: like other Briggs characters (not least the Man himself, and the boy’s parents) he is vocal about the things that offend them. It’s what makes them human. One of the most poignant aspects for me of When the Wind Blows is how the old married couple bicker as they hide together from their impending doom. Briggs himself had a reputation for being disagreeable, like his incarnation of Father Christmas – a persona cultivated by a private, slightly shy man, according to Jones. What I hear, in interviews with Briggs as well as his characters, is frankness. There is no stifling concern to be polite at the expense of being honest. Then there are certain things in his books – such as goodbyes –that go beyond words. They happen, but to describe or discuss them would be to attempt some reconciliation or consolation.

Looking after an unexpected guest, with help from Briggs’s father

This is not to say that his books are nihilistic. The Man concludes with a letter addressed to the boy: TIME TO MOOV ON – THANKS FOR PUTTING UP WITH ME – SORY I STAYED TO LONG – 3 DAYS IS OUR ROOL – YOU WER MOR KIND TO ME THAN ANNY WON ELS IN THE HOLE OF MY LIFE. This kindness runs throughout Briggs’s books: even that grumpy bachelor Father Christmas cares for his animals. Far from a dragging a popular figure down to earth, this proto-graphic novel is now recognised as an affectionate tribute to his father. If it is a ‘tell-all’ account of a somewhat unknowable, it’s very much from the perspective of a son. The Man and The Bear, on the other hand,read to me like reflections on the role of a parent or carer.

People are difficult to live with, these stories seem to say, particularly if we take them as they really are (whereas children’s books are so often concerned with the idealised version). Yet we are driven to care for them by some urge, some responsibility, perhaps by a conscious rejection of hatred. The characters in When the Wind Blows are infuriating: nonetheless, the book strives to elicit sympathy for them, and even to speak in defence of them. The real target of the book’s attack, the powers responsible, are given the silent treatment (perhaps why this book haunts contemporary readers as much as ever).

Up above the Downs, 1978

            Then there’s The Snowman. I’m nearly as old as that cartoon, so I’ve lived through the avalanches of merchandise, theatre adaptations and (shudder) a sequel. It’s as hard for me as anybody to look past that and see the purity of that figure, who flies because – how could we all have missed this – that’s what snow does. Created by the nameless boy on what might as well be a blank page (looking a bit like a child’s drawing), and who delights in his brief life. If other books have traces of autobiography, this feels to me to be about the transcendental nature of artistic creation. Fancy words, though, for something so deliberately silent and irreducible.

            After all of that, what can I really say about Raymond Briggs?

            Perhaps the only thing to say is I hope you read him now, or re-read him, or look again at his illustrations. I hope his many students at Brighton College of Art, and those readers who love his work and are artists themselves, follow him in making work that is true to themselves, wherever that takes them.

It’s because he was prepared to put so much of himself into his work that, in the best and most enduring way, he is still with us.

Besides reading as much of Briggs’s work as you can, I highly recommend Nicolette Jones’s insightful monograph, Raymond Briggs, published by Thames & Hudson. You can hear the excellent Backlisted episode on Fungus the Bogeyman here. Briggs is one of those rare people interviewed twice by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, first in 1983 with Roy Plomley and again in 2005 with Sue Lawley, and both interviews and charming and insightful in different ways. The Snowman film will celebrate its 40th anniversary this December.

Interview: James Dixon and Tamsin Rosewell on ‘The Billow Maiden’

Hello, James and Tamsin. Since we’re separated in space and time, I thought I’d bring us together here in the midst of the novel’s action.

It’s late at night, and we’re standing on a pebbly beach with the moonlight radiating through falling rain. The air is also misted with sea spray, and we’re looking across to a lighthouse, where a mysterious figure stands at a window overlooking the waves. I’ve just seen two girls come running towards the lighthouse with a dog.

James, where are we and why is your novel set here?

James             This stretch of coast is fictional. However, it is very much intended to belong on the Scottish coast, east or west, on a fictionalised gestalt of the very beautiful islands this country boasts.

There is more than Scotland in the coast, however. I grew up going on holiday to Cornwall every year. My brother and I would spend hours exploring the caves along the Cornish coast – it’s dark, mysterious, and very much mythical. A combination of Arthurian legend and smuggling mythos makes it perfect for a young boy’s imagination!

Nick                And why did you combine the two real places in a fictional one?

James             Partly because of the above – these scenes are so ingrained in my own memories that I couldn’t wait to bring them to the pages of my novel. Much of the novel also revolves around environmental concerns. I wanted somewhere that was immediately, tangibly, almost overwhelmingly attached to nature. Salt-stained cliffs battered every day by the sea’s fury seems a good place to start.

Nick                The description of ‘billow maiden’ doesn’t come from Scottish mythology, is that right? Where did you find it and what led you to use it?

James             I benefitted from some of the most extraordinary luck whilst writing The Billow Maiden. I originally called the novel ‘The Rising Tide’. The idea was that nature was rising to reassert itself following the abuse it suffered from some of the island’s inhabitants (or mankind more broadly).

I wanted a selkie, as they exist somewhere between world of natural myth and of humankind, being able to transform between being sea dwelling faeries and taking on the appearance of women.

Then, whilst researching selkies and similar snatches of folklore, I came across the billow maidens. They are sort of Norse mythology’s answer to selkies, mermaids, sirens, and the like. There are nine of them, all daughters of the sea, and they are all named for some aspect of the sea. One of them was named Hefring for the rising tide. Hefring immediately became my selkie-like being and I changed the book’s title accordingly.

Nick                 The folkloric element in the book seems to be in balance with a much more real-world storyline involving Ailsa, one of the girls who just ran past. How did you come to put those elements together?

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

James             This is what folklore and fairy tales are all about. They aren’t fantasy or speculative – it isn’t about creating new worlds for new adventures. It’s about exploring and describing human nature. These stories are about who and what we are. As such, they are as relevant to today’s world as they have ever been. We can still see ourselves, our own strengths and weaknesses, reflected in them.

It’s part of folklore’s enduring appeal.

However, yes, there was a process of interweaving the mystical with the humdrum. This was easily done through spatial scene setting. Essentially, and very simply, when Ailsa is in the cave or lighthouse, she is in Hefring’s world. When not, she isn’t. And then these worlds eventually collide.

Obviously, I use rain and storms as a metaphor for Hefring’s growing presence in Ailsa’s world – this intrudes on the island, wearing it down, causing it to flood and so forth. I also very purposefully linked Hefring with Ailsa’s mum and her own illness and frailty, creating a duality that Ailsa must learn to navigate.

In this way, the folklore and the real world begin apart yet linked, then slowly move together until they fully and viscerally overlap.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                The air around us is filled with a strange sort of song, which seems to emanate from that lighthouse. What inspired that for you, and how did you go about capturing it?

James             As above, I looked into various selkie-style myths. Most canons and mythos have their own take on them. That song is very much a siren song, taken from Greek mythology. Hefring uses it in part to lure the girls to her whenever she needs them.

However, it is far more of a dialogue in this setting. It is a song sung between Hefring and the world, showing her at peace with nature. The stronger she gets, the stronger her song becomes, the closer she grows to the natural world of her home environment.

Nick                The novel seems to have a hopeful quality despite its various dark moments. Did you want that for readers?

James             I never look to be purposefully hopeful. Previous works of mine haven’t been, though they were aimed at adult audiences so this perhaps easier to forgive. I wanted to show nature’s rage and the effect of our ruination of and increasing separateness from the natural world. I also wanted to show the true face of depression and negativity.

However, as Tamsin has pointed out, The Billow Maiden is a story of dualities. Ailsa’s mum’s illness isn’t based on depression; it’s based on bipolar, from which I suffer. Bipolar by its very definition is a state of duality. These dualities show up throughout the story: Ailsa and Camilla; Hefring and Ailsa’s mum; nature and man; sea and land; fair weather and storms. Add despair and hope to this. I didn’t try to do this. Rather, it naturally arose from the book’s own nature.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                Tamsin, your cover feels quite unlike other children’s book covers of today – painterly, intricate and atmospheric. How did the concept develop?

Tamsin            The whole concept and finish of the cover image has its origins in the book – I know that sounds obvious, but I think that one of the reasons the book looks different and (I hope) stands out on Middle Grade shelves is because it deliberately doesn’t follow a publishing trend of what an MG book ‘should’ look like. The first thing I did was speak to James. As a bookseller the thing I hear most often from authors is that they are quietly unhappy with their book cover – they’ll never say so publicly of course, they’ll support the book and acknowledge their illustrator. But because I’ve heard that so many times over the last 15 years, it was really important to me that I created something that James liked and felt connected to.

We have a ‘tradition’ in publishing that authors and illustrators don’t meet and talk; the publisher controls that. I suspect that is the origin of this disconnect between what an author sees as imagery for their book, and a publisher’s desire to make it ‘fit’ into a trend or a particular place in the market. I think it says a lot about Bella Pearson and Guppy Books, they James and I were put in contact pretty much immediately! When so many publishers, even smaller ones, are stuck in a rut feeling the need to stick to their own outdated ‘traditions’, Guppy feels intelligent, fresh and modern in its approach to publishing. 

Brian Wildsmith’s cover to Roger Lancelyn Green’s book of Norse myth

Nick                So how did you approach that collaboration?

Tamsin           James and I had long email conversations and I asked him, for example, about the imagery of Norse Mythology. Each generation has its own access to the Norse – for my son’s generation it is Marvel and Loki; for my generation it was Roger Lancelyn Green and the work of illustrators like Victor Ambrus and Chris Achilleos – there is a lot to choose from! James talked a lot about Arthur Rackham’s images of the Norse; those detailed ink and watercolour images. He was keen to have Rackham and his contemporaries, the work of the Glasgow School: Margaret Macdonald and Jessie M King for example, visually referenced. We talked too about atmosphere and energy – we could have chosen for it to look slightly menacing, or spooky, or even like a sort of Tintin adventure. James talked to me about the energy of the storms, and said ‘something like the power and churning waves of Turner – but for children’. If you’re the illustrator of a book, information like that is incredibly helpful!

Also, I read the book! Again, I know that sounds really obvious, but I hear from fellow illustrators that they’re given an extract, some character guidelines an indication of what the publisher has in mind, and half a dozen other book covers that they want it to look like. Why does anyone assume that if a book ‘looks like’ lots of other books, that it will help sales? It doesn’t at all, it just confuses customers and exasperates booksellers!

Jessie M. King’s Little Mermaid, 1923

Nick                I have to agree, there’s a great homogeneity in book covers – and sometimes, I think, underestimation of their young readers. The Billow Maiden has a richness and complexity that I can imagine children poring over.

Tamsin            The whole structure of the cover, spine and back cover of the book is based around the duality which runs through the novel: two girls, two ravens, two keys, two locks, the old way and the new way, the land and the sea, day and night, illness and health. The duality is even reflected in the images inside the book – for example, on the opening page, I even painted the publisher’s logo (a little Guppy fish) twice, not just once. But I needed to have read the book to have seen that powerful element of it. You don’t get that from an extract.

Nick                One of the immediate things you notice as a reader is that it’s not digitally produced, it has all the texture of a physical painting.

I’ve nothing at all against digital cover art, except that there is an awful lot of it, which can make a children’s section of a bookshop feel like a monoculture.  The bookseller in me would love to see designers really start to explore what a book cover, spine and back cover can be. Working traditionally also means that I have a physical object, in this case a 90cm x 60cm canvas – and we’ve really used that canvas to support the book. It’s been travelling round the country visiting Waterstones and Blackwell’s stores from Canterbury to Edinburgh. When it comes back to me, it will be going to schools to allow students to see the image close up and think about the importance of design in the book industry. We’ve turned the older way of doing things to our, and I hope to the bookshops’, advantage.

Margaret Macdonald, The White Rose and the Red Rose, 1902

Nick                The book is also filled with wonderfully evocative undersea images. Did you draw them from an aquarium or elsewhere?

I live in landlocked Warwickshire, about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in any direction! So popping down to the beach and collecting seaweed and shells wasn’t an option. I know its not as evocative, but I did manage to get to London Aquarium where I ignored all the glamourous glowing jellyfish and zombie-eyed sharks, in order to look closely at the various types of seaweed and how they tangle themselves together, and into each other. There was also an element of research – my fishing boat silhouettes are pulling up nets bursting with Atlantic Cod – one of the main species fished there, and over which many corporate vs local battles have been fought. It is a tiny detail, but I wanted to get it right – I could have just painted generic fish I suppose, but that wouldn’t have served James work so well!

Nick This is your first published illustration work, I think – how was the experience?

Tamsin               It is! I loved working with designer, Ness Wood and I learned so much from her too, I was totally open at the start and basically told her that I knew nothing at all about design, so asked, and took, her advice at all times! It seems that having been a bookseller for 15 years, I actually knew more than I thought I did – when you’ve seen and worked with that many book covers, you know what catches the eye – and also what happens to a book when the cover doesn’t quite work for it. Then there was the matter of the book’s spine – as a bookseller I also understand how important a distinctive spine is. If you’re lucky, for the first few months your book will be face up on a table or in a window display in a bookshop, but after that it will be on a shelf, in a bookshop or a library, with only the spine visible. The spine of The Billow Maiden was constructed very carefully to represent the cover and back cover of the book – you need a bookseller or librarian to be able to lay their hands on it immediately, even if it has got itself into the wrong space on a shelf.

Nick                So do you have more illustration work on the way?

Tamsin           I’ve done a double book cover for Berlie Doherty’s new novel, The Haunted Hills, which is out from Uclan in early October. When I say double cover, I mean that the image extends from the inside from cover, to the front cover, spine, back cover and then the inside back cover too – there are three canvases for this book. Berlie is one of the great writers of our time, she’s won the Carnegie TWICE!! It was a huge honour and a total joy to work on The Haunted Hills with her, publisher Hazel from Uclan and designer Becky Chilcott too. Having a cover that uses all that space, opens out into one continuous landscape and represents that past as well as the present, is what I mean by exploring what a book cover can be.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                And James, do you have another project underway?

James             Always! I am just in the process of finishing my next middle grade novel. My agent has a rough copy at the moment and I’ll be spending the next little while finishing it off with her input. I’m also about two-thirds through the first draft of a book aimed at adult readers, a gothic horror detective story with plenty of parallels to The Billow Maiden.

Nick                Sounds marvellous! Now, let’s get out of this bad weather – I think it’s time for some tea and chocolate brownies!

Tamsin           I did actually draw some chocolate brownie silhouettes for the inside of the book, but they did just look a bit silly! We didn’t use those images. Still, it was a great excuse to bake loads of chocolate brownies so I could do some proper artistic ‘observation’…

A big thank you to James and Tamsin for their time (and to Tamsin for supplying the images that illustrate this blog piece). The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell (9781913101725) is published by Guppy Books, priced £7.99. You can order it from Waterstones here, or your favourite independent bookshop. It’s a perfect mix of atmosphere, character and ancient magic – enjoy as summer slips away, envisioning the surge of stormy waves on the coast, and a strange aura of ancient song…

An image from The Little Mermaid illustrated by Jessie M. King, an inspiration for Tamsin’s illustrations

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!

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.