Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Trotting ponies, swooping dragons

Like many other pre-teen girls, I was obsessed with pony books, and the idea of riding. I grew up near riding stables, and later my more enterprising younger sisters got free lessons in return for mucking out and other chores, but by that time I had become more interested in other things. However, I read a great many pony books between the ages of 9 and 11, and I particularly liked Follyfoot and other Monica Dickens pony books about the farm and ponies. I recently re-read it, and while I found some of the snobbery a little hard to take (the nouveau riche plumbers' wife with gnomes in her front garden and secretaries from London who don't know how to look after ponies are disapproved of; the poor-but-natural rider Toby is semi-adopted as One Of Us) the unabashed physicality and resourcefulness of the girl characters is celebrated; something they have in common with boarding school stories. I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Follyfoot, and had people tweeting me the theme tune to the TV series, which I remember only vaguely- we couldn't get ITV on our telly until a new mast was built in the mid 70s- but I am determined to find a copy of it!


I was reminded of pony books by reading a couple of books about dragons: Lucinda Hare's Dragonsdome Chronicles, The Dragon Whisperer and Flight to Dragon Isle. The story of Quenelda, illegitimate daughter of Earl Rufus DeWinter of the Stealth Dragon Services and an unknown mother, it combines the best elements of pony stories (the close relationship between child and animal, the power that relationship confers and the feeling of freedom and speed that riding invokes) alongside magic and an epic battle between the Seven Seas Kingdom and the Goblin Hordes. It reminded me strongly of both JRR Tolkein's The Hobbit and Harry Potter, with the themes of a timid outsider (Root Oakley, Quenelda's squire and friend, is a gnome who is terrified of dragons) overcoming his fears and showing heroism, and a slightly arrogant protagonist learning patience and tolerance through a less able friend. There is a terrible betrayal from a character whose arrogance has led him to pursue personal power, corrupting him. The physical hard work of looking after animals and the commitment needed to do so properly is demonstrated through the contrast of Quenelda with her vain and selfish half brother, Darcy, who is nearly killed through his unwillingness to listen to the Dragonmaster. Although the setting is in the fantasy Seven Seas Kingdom, the use of Scottish phrases such as "haar" for a sea fog, and the descriptions of the the Sorcerer's Glen remind me strongly of Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe.

Image: Lawrence Warren from

At Haringey Children's Literature Festival I met author and storyteller Margaret Bateson-Hill, author of some gorgeous picture books and of Dragon Racer and Dragon Racer- Legacy of Fire.

Joanna Morris is an ordinary school girl from Brixton, South London, who is waiting for her brother opposite Lambeth Town Hall when she notices a small silver dragon crawling down the outside of the building. Excalibur has been bred by the Brixton Dragon Caves to race and compete against the rival Brighton Pavillion Dragon Caves, owned by the sinister Marcus King, who will stop at nothing- even genetic mutations- to win. Like Quenelda, Joanna has a powerful connection with the mischievous XL, and they must train hard and overcome adversity in pursuit of compete. It's a great, exciting read, but for me lacked the intrigue of The Dragon Whisperer; perhaps the modern day setting means that it inevitably misses the epic sweep?

I would recommend all these books for confident readers of 8+. I know that Zoe from Playing By The Book's 6 year old loved having The Dragon Whisperer read to her, to the extent that she is considering dressing up as Quenelda for Children's Book Week!

Friday 16 September 2011

Scary Fairies and Borrowers

 Just before I went on holiday I made my second-ever solo cinema visit to see Studio Ghibli's adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, Arrietty. Watch the trailer here. It is a beautifully animated film, which takes its time telling the story and lacks the manipulative cuteness and knowingness of recent US animation such as Hop. The film tells the story of the book fairly closely, although it is updated; the book, published in 1952, opens with an old lady telling a little girl a story from her childhood, which we can assume was pre- World War 1. In Arrietty, the story is set in contemporary Japan. A boy, Sho (he is unnamed in the book) comes to live with his aunt. He sees a cat chasing something; he investigates and catches a glimpse of a tiny girl collecting leaves. This works well in the context of the film, as it demonstrates Arrietty's adventurous nature without having to tell us about it. The characters are essentially the same: the Borrowers, Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock, the great aunt, the cook and the boy, although in the book the great aunt is a very elderly lady who spends most of her time in bed, enjoying glasses of Fine Old Pale Madeira. It is down to her befuddled state that Pod is able to borrow from her.

The terrible tedium of Arrietty's life before she meets the Boy is shown rather comically, I felt, in her excitement at washing day when she can go and hang the washing out by the grating. Her mother Homily in the film is more comical and loveable than the fretful, nagging and fearful character she is in the book. Arrietty's shock at the discovery that, instead of the rare creatures she assumes, "human beans" are in fact numerous and Borrowers are rare is shown in a powerful and affecting moment of stillness.

A big difference (and this is inevitable) is the lack of the framing device of the old woman narrating the tale to the little girl, and an unreliable narrator telling us about that: we are told very firmly that the little girl is not the "me" sitting and listening to the story, and this emphasises the uncertainty at the end of the book, when Mrs May isn't certain that her brother hasn't been making up the story all along (we're told he is very imaginative), since the handwriting in Arrietty's Book of Memoranda is so similar to his.


Michelle Harrison's The Thirteen Treasures reminds me strongly of The Borrowers, although the relationship between fairies and Tanya is not the generally benignly symbiotic one between the Clock family and the Human Beans; these fairies are malevolent, jealous and threatening. Like the Boy in The Borrowers, Tanya is sent to live with an elderly relative (this time her distant and seemingly unloving grandmother) in a remote country house. Tanya has a secret: she can see fairies. And they can see her. They torment and threaten her, and she is blamed for the damage they do to her possessions and house. Her mother can't cope any longer, so she is taken to live with her grandmother in Elvesden House in Essex. However, there is also a secret connected to this house, involving the mysterious disappearance of a young girl many years before, and if Tanya and Fabian, the caretaker's son, don't solve the mystery, there is a danger that history may repeat itself.

I would recommend the film to 6 year olds+; it isn't scary, but it may not hold the attention of younger children. I would suggest reading The Borrowers to 7+. It isn't a long book by modern standards but the narrative is quite complex; advanced readers 8+ should love reading it themselves. The Thirteen Treasures is a fantastic book for confident readers of 9+.