BOOKS THAT HAUNT A CHILD FOREVER
Bertrand Russell said, ‘There are only two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; two, that you can boast about it.’
Children, of course, rarely read a book for any other reason than enjoyment. And there really should be no other reason to read.
“I’ve had my copy of this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year –
Philippa Pierce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden
Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe
Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse
Ursula le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea
Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life.
There are, of course, others.
These, however, are my magic seven, the ones I have returned to so many times
their flimsy paperbacks are falling to pieces in my hands.
What all these books have in common is a sense of wonder and mystery,
a feeling that adventure and magic is lurking just around the corner.
They are also silver-tongued.
The writing is vivid and supple and lucent.
The characters are alive, dancing and joking and fighting and fearing
and losing and sorrowing and prevailing at sometimes a great cost.
Lucy Boston once wrote: “
I believe children, even the youngest, love good language, and that they see, feel, understand
and communicate more, not less, than grownups.
Therefore I never write down to them, but try to evoke that new brilliant awareness that is the world.’
Every book I have ever written is in homage to these writers – among others –
and these books – among others.
Yet it is the Gypsy books – the series that has driven me and my family close
to madness these past eighteen months – that I hope will come to haunt its readers
in the way that Walter de la Mare’s book haunted Susan Cooper,
and Susan Cooper’s books haunted me.
The Gypsy Crown is the first in a series of six books that follow the adventures of
two thirteen-year old Romany children, Luka and Emilia, as they set out on
a perilous adventure to find six lucky charms that will, they hope, help them
save their families from the gallows.
The books take place in the last three weeks of Cromwell’s life, in August 1658,
and move very quickly, each book taking place over a matter of two or three days.
In each book there is a challenge to be met and a price to be paid,
before Luka and Emilia can win the lucky charm.
They get tangled up with Royalist spies, smugglers,
highwaymen, witches, and impoverished aristocrats.
Every step of the way, they must out-run and out-wit
a vindictive thief-taker called Coldham.
On this journey, they go to real places, like Amberley Castle in Sussex
or the Mermaid Inn in Rye, and meet real people,
like the Countess of Dysart who was a double agent
for the exiled King Charles II.
We have a map in each book that shows the journey Luka and Emilia take,
and at the back we have a section entitled ‘The Facts Behind the Fiction’,
crammed full of all sorts of fascinating information about the Rom
and the seventeenth century, including a recipe for baked hedgehog
and an explanation for why Cromwell banned Christmas.
The books are full of suspense, surprise, adventure and, I hope, humour.
They can be read by children who love fantasy,
and those who like to know about real things and true things.
The last chapter of the first book is called ‘Magic or Not?’
and this is a question that is asked throughout the whole series.
Emilia believes fervently that the charms she is collecting are magic.
Luka, however, is a matter-of-fact boy who thinks their success
is due to their own wit and cleverness. Readers can choose whom to believe.
I’m a passionate advocate of books which empower children -
books which teach children they have the chance to choose
what they become, and that their choice can change the world.
In fantasy books, hobbits can become heroes, ugly ducklings can become swans,
and Romany children – universally believed to be thieves and tricksters –
can change not only their own fortune, but the whole course of history.
Jane Yolen – another favourite writer of mine! – said:
“A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book
cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult.
What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child
that has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums,
or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known?”
My Chain of Charms series are the first books I know of that feature the Rom –
one of the most mysterious and maligned races of people in the world –
as heroes, not just as highly-coloured background props.
In a speech I gave recently I found myself saying,
‘I love writing for this age group – for children between 8 & 13.
It was the age in which I first really discovered books and reading.
It was the age in which I laid down my idea of the world and how it works.
The books I read then are the books which I have carried with me all my life.
At this age, I can still hope to surprise and enchant my readers.
I can still hope to save them.’
Until I said this, I did not know that was what I longed for.
Yet I do.
To haunt my readers with beauty, to astonish them with the strange and the miraculous,
to help them realise they have the power to change the world.
This is what I, as a writer, deeply hope I might someday, somehow, catch and pass on.
Kate Forsyth’s books are bestsellers round the world, having been translated into German, Russian, Italian and Japanese, as well as sold in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Canada. To research her Chain of Charms series, she took her three children – all aged under eight – round south-east England, travelling in her footsteps of her Romany children. She still re-reads the most loved books of her childhood – sometimes to her children.
(This article was first published in Magpies in 2004)