Saturdays Again

I have been writing my fingers off for hours, dear Readers, but I’m so pepped up on adrenaline left over from my dissertation that I decided I’d have a chat with you this morning!

First things first, my thanks to those of you who wrote to me about my brainstorming post: the Changeling and I are having an absolute ball and I look forward to trying out some of your suggestions once we’re settled in our new place and have, you know, bookcases again. In the meantime we’re making do with those books which aren’t yet packed: she reads This Is Not My Hat to me, and I read The Little Bookroom to her (my sneaky way of getting some Eleanor Farjeon into my life after all). It’s so wonderful to share the reading: I’d anticipated that it would be fun, but I had no idea it would feel so special.

What this means, though, is that most of what I read with the Changeling right now is pretty repetitive– mostly books I’ve already written about here, or ones like This Is Not My Hat, which are already pretty well-known. (You know it, right? It’s a fun one. Highly recommended, especially when read aloud by a charming Changeling of your own.) I’m looking forward to sharing more picture books with you soon, but right now, as we prepare to move, well… how about some more Saturday books?

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The first book I want to share is not new, but is new to me. Somehow I grew up without reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I can still see the exact place on my mother’s bookshelf where this book sat: I remember the spine and everything. And it has “witch” in the title, and that’s a word which would have attracted my notice, and, basically, I cannot explain what ridiculous turn of events prevented me from reading a book that was right there and did everything it could to attract me. I just don’t know.

Then the owner of The Children’s Book Shop mentioned it to me and my mind flew right back to that spot on my mother’s shelves, and next thing I knew I was wandering along beside the Changeling over Passover with the book in my pocket, ready to read it while she played at the park.

Fellow readers, this is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager or pre-teen, so if you have a pre-teen or teenager in your life, do try to ensure that a copy is hanging around where they might see it.

This is not a “suspense!” type of book so I’m not worried about spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of book where the how it happens supersedes the what happens. So, be warned, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to discover the what happens without having the least detail spoiled: I am planning to spoil some bits of the plot below. For you, I’ll just say that this book is about home and belonging and how you get there. For the rest of you, let’s dive in a bit more deeply.

Ready? OK.

Kit Tyler is a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in her literate, wealthy grandfather’s home in Barbados in the late seventeenth century. When her beloved grandfather dies, circumstances force her to rush without any warning to her aunt’s home in a Puritan settlement in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Think of it as a change in hue– and, indeed, Elizabeth George Speare certainly emphasizes that sensory experience: Barbados is bright, it is warm, it is jewel tones; Wethersfield is dark, it is cold, it is all natural hues. Barbados is silk, Wethersfield is wool.

Which is better?

This is a question Kit has to answer for herself. In Wethersfield, she has, initially, enormous difficulty fitting in. Her impulsive, independent nature, nurtured by her highly educated grandfather who taught her to read literature, is utterly out of place in stern Wethersfield where the highest virtue is obedience and the only book to read is the Bible. Kit gradually fits herself in, but she just can’t get the hang of obedience in the face of what she considers the right thing to do: befriending a taboo Quaker woman and teaching a neglected child to read. This brings her into high trouble… and, ultimately, out of it. Rather than squashing herself to fit in, she learns to absorb the virtues of Wethersfield and the beauty of Barbados in equal parts, and, thus, makes two homes for herself without in any fashion compromising her own identity.

Get why I wanted this when I was sixteen? I’ll bet you do! Let’s make a pact to keep this available to every sixteen-year-old child who may need its lessons: Don’t change who you are, but also don’t dismiss every new experience out of hand. Adaptability, I think in hindsight, is the key to adolescence, and that’s what Kit Tyler has to teach us.

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The next book I want to tell you about is a debut novel, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by one insanely talented Jessica Townsend. (Hey, Jessica? All of those expletives I muttered as I read your basically-perfect first novel? Please don’t take them personally! You’re amazing, and I’m just a tad bit jealous of your extraordinary level of skill for a first novel!!!)

Nevermoor is as different from The Witch of Blackbird Pond as you can get– at first glance, at least. Blackbird Pond is history and realism, Nevermoor is fantasy and whimsy. Blackbird Pond is stern and ruthlessly structured, Nevermoor is giddy and sprawling. Blackbird Pond is short, Nevermoor is nearly twice as long.

And yet…

Nevermoor may be fantasy, full of magic and fun, whimsical and sprawling in nature, and quite long, but let’s talk about that a little. A book like Blackbird Pond wears its heart and structure on its sleeve; Nevermoor? Not so much. So I want to posit that it is, despite being a whimsical fantasy novel– realistic! It is also masterfully structured in its own sense, following a very careful narrative arc. Finally, it may be longer than Blackbird Pond— I mean, it is, that’s not up for debate, the page count is 480 while Blackbird Pond is 249– but it doesn’t feel long. It’s still pretty tight (there’s that structure at work) and I’d be hard pressed to point to a chapter or other section and say, “Cut this.”

I’m going on about this for two reasons: I’m frankly fed up with reading opinion pieces or otherwise talking to folks about a fantasy novel (or sci fi, horror, or other genre) and having them sort of pat them on the head: “Yes, I’m sure it was entertaining and good… for a fantasy novel.” Hear me now, loud and clear: FANTASY DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT GOOD. This here? It’s a first novel by a skilled novelist who, I’ll bet you anything, is just going to get better at her craft, and she knows what she’s doing. It’s good stuff, and deserves the accolades it got from Publisher’s Weekly and lots of other notable places. So, even though it’s apples to oranges, yes, I’m comparing it to Blackbird Pond. And I mean it, too.

Oh– the second reason I’m talking about structure, voice, length, etc? Unlike in the case of Blackbird Pond, I’m really leery of spoiling the plot for you.

So, then, let’s talk about the elements that go to make Nevermoor, in its own way, quite as skilled as a classic like Blackbird Pond. (Note: I said skilled, not “as good as” or “you’re wrong if you don’t like it” or anything else implying a moral issue here: just that it’s well-structured and should be up for as much serious discussion as a realist classic of children’s lit. Your personal taste is your own, however, and up to you.)

I started by talking about realism. You may think that, because Nevermoor is fantasy, that it’s not grounded in realistic characteristics of life lived: Kit Tyler faced real life issues in Barbados which caused her to make her way to Connecticut, where she faced more realistic life issues. What about Morrigan, the female protagonist of Nevermoor? She was born at a cursed time and is therefore believed to carry a curse by her community and her family. Not so realistic. Except–

Well, remember that Kit Tyler is earmarked as “different” with her bright clothing, swimming skills, and impulsive nature? She’s marked out and doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to handle that situation. Morrigan is marked out, can have no friends (she’s cursed) or place in her community (that curse again) and doesn’t even fit in with her own family (her father resents her curse for making life difficult for him, for example). Until, that is, she makes her own big trip to a place where– well I won’t give away the plot, but, trust me, there’s something very real and human about her seeking her own tribe, as it were, and slowly finding people and creatures who seem to understand her– as well as discovering that nowhere and no one is perfect.

Thus much for “realism” and “fantasy,” but I think we need to talk a bit about structure and length now.

On the one hand, I’ve noticed books creeping longer in length over the past while– I’m not going to call out ones that felt long to me, but I think it’s generally the case that the books which have survived to be classics (Blackbird Pond, Alan Garner, The Perilous Gard, I could go on) dwell in the area of 250 pages, give or take. More recent books, especially perhaps fantasy?, are creeping up towards 450 pages. Think of the Harry Potter books, which started fairly short and crept up towards– what was Order of the Phoenix? Over 500 pages? And maybe that one was a bit longer than necessary? It’s hard for me to say anything negative about those books, though– they were so formative for me and I remember the thrilling wait for each one as it emerged from J. K. Rowling’s brain into my hands in book form… I feel a bit sorry for the Changeling, who will get to plow through them all straight away without waiting in line at midnight for each book to come out!

My point is: I think longer books are becoming more acceptable in MG fiction, and I don’t know that this is entirely a bad thing. On the one hand, oh, those deliciously concise books where every word is weighed in the balance and only placed if truly necessary! On the other hand– Cat Valente, anyone? The Glass Town Game was pretty damned good, with its long sentences, plot rising like dough in a warm spot in your kitchen, and generally fabulous characters. So, I’d say it all comes down to the skill of the author (and the keen eye and ear of the editors)– is this a book which can comfortably occupy 400+ pages, or is it better pared down a little? Is this a style which would work better in a concise format or with rolling, delicious prose? That is, I trust Cat Valente to use every page well, but other authors work better in a tight, succinct format (I can’t imagine Alan Garner writing a longer text, for example: he’s so good at keeping it trimmed down and elegant).

I’ll admit: the length of Nevermoor did truly give me pause initially, not because I’m afraid of long books (one of my all-time favourites being Tom Jones, so, you know, I’m used to lengthy reads), but because of my Saturday constraints. I didn’t want to embark on a long read, get totally hooked, and have to either: a) sneakily read it during the week when I should be working, or b) actually have to wait a week to find out what the [expletive] HAPPENS!!! (Yeah, I was one of the kids who got the latest Harry Potter book at midnight and started reading it while walking home from the bookstore. Instant gratification takes too long.)

I’m so glad I fell down hard and read this anyway. It turns out to be a great balance of suspense and well-crafted writing which it was a pleasure to savour. I read it all over two Saturdays and enjoyed the week-long break in between. I simply thought about Morrigan Crow on occasion, wondering, “What will happen next?” and “I wonder if Plot Point X is going to come back?” I was into it, but it wasn’t torture to be made to wait a while. It was like eating half a slice of a really good pie, and then being called to a conversation with a charming friend before you can finish– you really want the rest of that pie, but no one’s life is in danger if you wait to get back to it. Maybe I’d have felt differently ten years ago, but speaking from the ripe old age of 31*, I enjoyed the slight suspense without being totally immersed in concerns for Morrigan. Frankly, I think this had a lot to do with character design: I trusted Morrigan to get through anything.

So, folks, there you go. Two splendid books, both well-written, both with engaging characters and lessons about persistence and adaptability, both carrying you along with a narrative which was imaginative while at the same time being grounded in excellent characters with real-life applications. And both being exactly the length that was right for them.

*This reminds me that I never shared my wonderful birthday gifts from my charming husband. I suspect you’d enjoy them, but that will have to wait until we move.

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Eleanor Farjeon

Dear Readers:

I’m going to be in and out even more erratically than usual up until the end of August, which is when my dissertation writing has to be finished. You’ll find me here when one or more of three things occurs (I’m a Celticist; we work by threes):

a) I stumble across something I just have to share with you;

b) I have a question or a job for you;

c) I need to stretch my writing muscles before going back to my meat and potatoes writing.

Today? Well, there’s a bit of all three at work here I suppose! a) I want to draw your attention back to an author I’ve written about before (although never entirely to my own satisfaction– I just don’t seem to be able to capture her brilliance as well as I’d like); b) I have a job for you; c) I’m working towards a deadline and my words aren’t flowing as well as I’d like, so I thought a brief post here might get those muscles moving.

So. Eleanor Farjeon.

She’s come to mind, I know, because I’ve had the delight of reading a few stories from The Little Bookroom to the Changeling lately. I thought she was too young for them still, but, to my utter surprise and joy, she doesn’t seem to have noticed she’s too young for them, and has asked me to read them to her again and again. And dear God above, these are stories meant to be read aloud! They sing and dance on the tongue! I’m in heaven.

But the thing about Eleanor Farjeon is that she’s addictive; now that I’ve been reading her stories to my Changeling, I’m absolutely craving Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. Usually early spring is all about The Secret Garden for me, and I save Martin Pippin for the fall, but, well, a) The Secret Garden is in a box somewhere; and b) see above re: addiction to Eleanor Farjeon.

But I can’t read Martin Pippin yet– not until Saturday roles around, at the very least, and, I suspect… maybe not even then. I’m just working towards deadlines now. Which is where b) comes into the picture: Dear Book-Lovers, will you do me the very great kindness of somehow procuring some Eleanor Farjeon, especially Martin Pippin, and giving it a read? She’s undervalued, under-read, underappreciated, and one of the finest writers who has ever trod this beautiful, complicated, messy planet of ours, and she deserves to have more readers. I can’t take the time right now, but maybe you can. Check your libraries, or AbeBooks, or wherever you like, and delight yourself with her exquisite words. Then come back here and tell me your thoughts: either in the comments, or just write to me! deborah@childrensbookroom.com

Let’s celebrate Eleanor Farjeon and let’s read good stories. Your comments will give me a smile while I write, and you’ll be keeping Eleanor Farjeon’s name alive. So: Go forth and read while I sit here and write!

(And wish me luck with this deadline!)

Early reading brainstorming!

Hi, folks! Two posts so close together? What miracle is this???

Here’s the terrifying truth: the Changeling, my darling little baby girl, is heading rapidly towards age 5 and with equal rapidity towards reading on her own. Right now I can’t tell exactly how well she’s reading as opposed to how much she has memorized, but, well, she can decipher my handwriting with disturbing ease, so I’m forced to conclude that she really can read pretty well by now. This means that some old favourites, such as her old beaten up, chewed on Sandra Boynton board books, have resurfaced since she enjoys reading the simple text.

But both she and I would prefer a bit more variety and, shall we say, complexity in the story and characters. Once again, some old favourites come to our rescue: Swap!, for example, is as engaging as it ever was, but the simplicity of the text makes it perfect for the Changeling to read aloud at bedtimes. Where the Wild Things Are is another beloved book enjoying a renaissance, and, of course, there’s the simple process of reading anything at all aloud and allowing the Changeling to burst in with whichever words she can read on the page– Shirley Hughes is brilliant for that since her stories are engaging but her diction isn’t particularly complex. Or Frog and Toad, with its wonderful characters and pared down text.

But, frankly, I could use more books. I’m getting a little bored.

(Don’t tell my husband I said that. He might blow a gasket and/or point to all of the boxes in the basement waiting for our move.)

I want more books, though: I want ones with simple text, beautiful pictures, and mind-blowing stories and characters. I want new books which the Changeling hasn’t already memorized. I want good rhythm to it (whether or not it’s poetry it should be beautiful to read aloud) and I want a certain level of sophistication to the design.

Also, cats and ballet are good. The Changeling goes for anything to do with cats and ballet these days.

So I turn to you, oh Internet and Blog Readers! What books did you read with your little ones when they were starting to explore literature on their own terms?

And another, related, question: When did you start reading beyond picture books with your children? I’m dying to introduce the Changeling to Eleanor Farjeon and Arthur Rackham and Joseph Jacobs and Andrew Lang, but I also don’t want to start before she’s ready and bore her or, worse, turn her off. (When can I read her The Cat Who Walked by Himself?)

So, please, tell us your stories! What did your kids love to read on their own? What did you love to read to them, and when? If you’d prefer to email me rather than comment here, my email address is deborah@childrensbookroom.com. Tell me what books to buy! I’m ready and waiting.

More Saturday Books

I wrote a while ago about Saturdays and what they mean for me. And what they mean (in part!) is getting to read light fiction, mostly MG novels. (I mean, I can’t take notes or write on Shabbat so reading academic stuff in a useful fashion isn’t really possible.)

Do you know what? I’m going to be up front about this: I often go around feeling like a failure, and my reading is part of this. I could do more academic reading. I could read “better” books. I’ve never in my life read anything by V. S. Naipaul– how can I be considered literate and intelligent if I’ve never read V. S. Naipaul, I ask myself. Am I just lazy? Unintelligent? In short, I never think I’m doing enough and I’m consistently ashamed of myself for this. (I’ve spoken to other grad students, so I know I’m not alone in this.)

So, along come these Saturdays, designated as days for rest reading , and my husband is reading Proust and I read MG fiction. Well, my self-esteem takes a real hit: I’m not reading academic prose because my memory’s gone down the drain since I had the Changeling, and I’m not reading V. S. Naipaul because apparently I’m convinced that I’m stupid, so what am I reading?

Let’s get to a place of no shame, an answer which gets to the heart of things. That answer? I’m reading some damned fine fiction which shines a light on some of the most important questions we, as humans, face, if I do say so myself (read that in a defiant tone of voice). And I think it’s worth sharing with you. Please read on to find some intelligent, thoughtful, fun reads which, well, are really damned good, no matter which age they’re aimed at.

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Let’s start with Hilary McKay. Saffy’s Angel and its sequels came as something of a revelation to me. I hadn’t really thought about what we might call “family stories” in a long time– I remember enjoying stories such as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, but most of the MG fiction I’ve been reading in the past several years has come from different angles: adventure stories, Gothic horror, tales of mystery and magic… not the plain old down-to-earth story of a family going about its business.

But to call the Cassons in Saffy’s Angel “plain old” and “down-to-earth” is to wildly misrepresent them. Who are the Cassons? The Cassons are an eccentric, artistic, and slightly loopy family living a short train ride from London. In fact, Bill Casson, husband and father of the family, spends much of his time in his London studio apartment, where he creates Real Art. He is very proud of his Art, particularly as compared with his wife Eve’s paintings, which he considers “not exactly Art.” Oddly, despite this infuriating attitude, Bill Casson manages to have some endearing characteristics (he is, ultimately, devoted to his family), and, refreshingly, he is challenged by his own children (both in terms of his art and his way of participating in the family), and, of course, by the flow of the narrative.

While the parents are fully fleshed characters in their own rights (a nice contrast to how often parents are pretty one-dimensional in “family books”), the real emphasis of the books, however, is on the children. The first book, Saffy’s Angel, opens with Saffy (Saffron) Casson discovering that she was adopted. Eve Casson is not her mother, but her aunt, and her mother, Linda, had died when little Saffy was only three years old, and since then she was raised by Eve and Bill along with their own children. I won’t spoil the plot, which extends throughout the series, but you can imagine the fallout: Saffy begins to question her place in the family and in the world she’s always known. Along the way she makes friends with spunky Sarah, and finds her “siblings” warmer and more caring than she had, perhaps, suspected. Her development through the book, and, in fact, the series, is realistic without being dark and gritty, and consistently intelligent and believable.

Perhaps Hilary McKay’s strongest skill (and she is immensely skillful) is in creating a whole cast of strong, realistic, flawed but lovable characters. As the series progresses, these characters grow; little details from Saffy’s Angel onward are brought forward, developed, and given whole new roles to play. For example, Rose Casson holds a fairly mid-level role in Saffy’s Angel, but little hints of who she is are planted in that book: her artistic skills, her unconventional ways of seeing the world, her distrust of her father– all of these elements are small points in Saffy’s Angel, but are picked up on in the later books and brought to full fruition. And she’s not the only one. In short, we really get the sense that Hilary McKay knows these characters, and her deft handling of them gives the full series a strong sense of cohesion– it grows and fleshes itself out without ever feeling disjointed. (A skill I strongly envy as I begin to think about how to bring my dissertation to a cohesive whole!)

To sum up: this is a family story, but not your run-of-the-mill Happy Family story. Everyone is explored fully. Each character is created in full detail and each detail matters. And while the stories don’t play down the more complicated aspects of messy family relationships, ultimately it comes back to a place of warmth, love, and mutual respect.

Next up? The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.

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Dear readers, this is yet another family-based set of novels, perhaps more reminiscent of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit than of Sydney Taylor– or maybe the comparison I’m looking for is to Louisa May Alcott. What I want you to expect is the feeling of children comfortably settled in a warm, loving home, but getting up to well-meaning antics as they go along.

The Penderwicks are each very distinctive, and all very lovable: they have a remarkable sense of family pride and honour, and they all have strong, loving bonds as a family. And yet they’re not faultless, not infallible, and not so prissy they’re boring or insufferable to read. Let me introduce you to them:

  • The father, Martin Penderwick, is a loving, caring, but slightly absentminded father. He’s a botanist with a tendency to slip into Latin at odd moments. (I love that about him.)
  • The eldest sister, Rosalind, is serious-minded and very reliable and maternal. After the death of her mother, Rosalind stepped up, and is, if anything, too reliable and caring; she has a tendency to put others ahead of her own needs.
  • Skye Penderwick: the only Penderwick girl to inherit her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes, she’s also brainy, good at math and science and facts. She also has a temper to be reckoned with.
  •  Jane Penderwick is as dreamy as Skye is down-to-earth. A writer, she fills notebook after notebook with the exploits of Sabrina Starr. She’s as messy as Skye is neat.
  • Batty: the littlest Penderwick, born as her mother was dying of cancer, she’s shy and retiring, but don’t let yourself think that’s because there’s nothing much going on. Batty has a very firm sense of justice and would do anything for those she loves, animal or human.

Also of importance is Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwick girls’ close friend and a fantastic musician.

I’m deliberately not saying much about what happens because the characters grow as time goes by and I don’t want to spoil any events for you, but expect adventure (the kids meet a bull at one point which leads to– wait, I won’t tell you that), and hominess (baking figures largely in these books), and sisters sticking up for each other against any external forces. Any more details I give you will spoil the books for you, so for once I’m asking you to take it on trust: just go and read, OK?

Warning: when I read the last book, The Penderwicks in Spring, I actually got sniffly more than once. (OK, full confession: I outright cried. Full and complete confession: It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep until I finished reading and I was sobbing over a book aimed at kids less than half my age because MG fiction is the best and I am not even remotely ashamed.) These books may be gentle family stories, but they are not messing with reality: remember, the girls’ mother was dying of cancer as Batty was born, an event which isn’t romanticized; it’s horrible. Expect your emotions to go through the wringer, expect to be called on to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. There are no clear, easy answers, and even an adult would be challenged by some of the situations which arise in these novels (I mean… I am an adult, and I find them challenging to read), but, at the same time, this is, unequivocally, a book for children, so these highly emotional and complicated events are being gently introduced at a level children should be able to understand. It’s a fine balance, and Jeanne Birdsall handles it deftly.

I encourage you to read the whole series, and if there are any children of the right age for it in your life, share it with them! You might be surprised at the conversations that will result from reading it together. I can’t wait until the Changeling is of an age for these books, because I fully propose reading them aloud together. OK, confession: I tried reading a few passages aloud, just for the hell of it, and it reads as beautifully as the Moomin books.

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Lastly, I want to tell you about a new-to-me-but-not-so-new book, The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I bought this because I went to the Children’s Book Shop and asked Terri, the owner, about a different book (which shall remain nameless). Because she’s wonderful and knows my taste, she told me to skip that book and asked if I’d read this instead. I hadn’t, somehow, and was immediately intrigued by her description and the excellent flap copy. Note to publishers: good flap copy matters! Note to everyone: support good independent bookstores! Look, Amazon can’t tell you: “This one is over-hyped and not your style; read this instead.” Terri can.

Folks, this is possibly one of the best books I’ve read, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a book I return to again and again in years to come. The action is set during the waning period of Mary Tudor’s reign, shortly before Elizabeth comes to the throne. The paranoid Queen Mary has Elizabeth effectively under house arrest at Hatfield. Alicia, one of the ladies of Elizabeth’s court, writes innocently, incautiously, and, frankly, stupidly to the queen to protest her treatment of Elizabeth. The queen lashes out against Elizabeth and her ladies: she orders Alicia to be brought to her own court and has Alicia’s sister, Kate, sent to the Perilous Gard, out in Derbyshire, under the guard of Sir Geoffrey Heron.

The Perilous Gard turns out to be a rich and fine enough hall, and Kate Sutton seems to be in a good enough position, all things considered– until mysteries start to pop up all over the place. Who is the woman she spied on the road? Who is the young man in green lurking by the window? Why does Sir Geoffrey disappear for such long periods of time, leaving the running of the manor to his steward? Kate being who she is, she’s unable to leave the mystery alone– especially when she hears the story of Sir Geoffrey’s daughter’s disappearance. Following along the story with the headstrong, intelligent Kate, who has nerves of steel, common sense, and a ready sense of humour, you will also find the mysteries intriguing. Rational Kate pulls apart the myth of magic and finds that, from beginning to end, her own nerves and her own mind, are more than a match for– well, I won’t tell you that bit. Read the book and find out for yourself!

One last word, this one on style: I don’t know why it is, but I’ve lately been thinking about book length. It seems to me, unless I’m totally generalizing and making things up, that MG and YA books are getting longer. When I think about, for example, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, they wasted no words; something I fully and completely admire in them. (Now, Little Women is a long book, so, well, make of that what you will– I’m probably generalizing. It’s not like long= bad.) The Perilous Gard is fairly short. It’s also packed with action. It’s also full of intelligent, thoughtful characters (Kate being one) who make you think along with them. You don’t need more space to make a book more complex or intelligent; you need to be able to write the right length for the right book, and I suspect that practice and editorial help are of assistance. Anyway, I just find this book succinct and clipped clean and perfect, so in style, plot, and character, this is a truly perfect book.

(There’s another book along those lines I want to tell you about, but I’ve already written too much– there’s a smidgen of delicious hypocrisy for you!– so I’ll wait for another day to talk about… well, we’ll save that, won’t we?)

So there you are! Two series, one stand-alone book, all succinct, gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. Happy reading, and tell me what you think if you do read one of these, OK? I’d love to hear your thoughts.