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BOOK REVIEW: The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

Friday, February 02, 2018


The Blurb for Book One (from Goodreads):

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.


My Thoughts:

The five books in ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ are among my most treasured books from my childhood. I have the old Puffin paperbacks, which cost my aunt $2.75 each when she bought them for my 11th birthday. I have read them so many times they are battered and creased and faded. I read them again this Christmas as part of an international reading challenge initiated on Twitter by British authors Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird. Thousands of readers joined in to read The Dark is Rising, Book 2 in the series, which takes place between Midwinter Eve (20th December) and Twelfth Night (5th January). Some read it in one big gulp (like me) and others read each chapter on the date that corresponded with events in the book (i.e 1-2 chapters a day). Readers shared their memories of the book, discussed the meaning of symbols and events, created original art, found kindred spirits. It was absolutely wonderful.

I went on to read all five books in the series:

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the series, and was written by Susan Cooper in response to a publishing content organised to honour the memory of Edith Nesbit, one of the great Golden Age children’s writers. She did not finish the manuscript in time to enter, and the book was subsequently turned down by more than twenty publishers, before being accepted by Jonathan Cape and published in 1965. 

It tells the story of Simon, Jane and Barney who go to Cornwall on a holiday with their family and end up being caught up in a quest to find the lost Holy Grail. Drawing on Arthurian mythology but set in contemporary times, the book introduces the children’s Great-Uncle Merry, a professor at Oxford who ends up revealing mysterious powers. The book is more like an old-fashioned mystery than a traditional fantasy, except with eerie unsettling moments of darkness and magic, particularly towards the end. 

The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was published in 1973. It tells the story of Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son, who turns 11 on Midwinter Eve, and finds his safe and comfortable world threatened by strange and eerie events. For Will is, he discovers, an Old One, destined to fight on behalf of the Light against the ancient and malevolent forces of the Dark. Merriman Lyon – the character of Great-Uncle Merry – returns as the Oldest of the Old Ones, and becomes Will’s guardian and mentor. Will needs to find Six Signs if he is to defeat the forces of darkness this midwinter and help fulfil a mysterious prophecy:

“When the Dark comes rising six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; Water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”

Of all the books in the series, The Dark is Rising is my favourite, perhaps because it was the first I ever read, perhaps because of the vividness of the setting (a small snow-bound English village that seems outwardly normal but is still shadowed with magic, menace and danger), perhaps because I loved the idea of an ordinary boy who finds himself the carrier of an extraordinary destiny. The book as a ALA Newbery Honor Book in 1974, and is often named on lists of the best books for children ever published.

Greenwitch, the third in the series, brings Simon, Jane and Barney back to the little Cornish village where they had discovered the lost Holy Grail. Jane watches an ancient ritualised offering to the sea and makes a wish that then helps the Light unlock the secrets of the Grail. Greenwitch is the favourite of many female readers of this series, because the key protagonist is a girl and she triumphs not because of any battle of strength, but because she is compassionate and empathetic. 

The Grey King, the fourth book, returns to the point-of-view of Will. He wakes after a long and terrible illness with no memory of his role as an Old One and at risk from the forces of the Dark who seek to strike him own while he is vulnerable. Sent to Wales to recuperate, Will meets an albino teenager called Bran who has a strange dog like a wolf. Guided only by snatches of memory, Will and Bran must find the golden harp that will waken the Sleepers under the hill. This is my favourite second of the series, again because of the setting – the wild mountains and moors of Wales is brought so wonderfully to life – and also because of the sense of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Grey King won the 1976 Newbery Medal. 

Silver on the Tree is the final book in the series, and brings Will and Bran together with Simon, Jane and Barney and their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They are searching for a magical crystal sword which will enable them to cut the mystical mistletoe, the ‘silver on the tree’, in the final battle against the Dark. Drawing on Welsh mythology and stories of a drowned land, the suspense is heightened by the presence of a hidden enemy, someone who is trusted but betrays them in the end. 

It was truly wonderful to re-read this series, which had such a powerful shaping force upon my imagination as a child. And a great deal of the pleasure came from sharing it with like-minded people. The twitter book club set up by Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird intends to choose other great works of fantastical literature to read over the year. I’ll can’t wait to be a part of it.

If you love children's literature, you might also be interested in my review of Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken. 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 


SPOTLIGHT: Books That Haunt a Child Forever

Saturday, January 06, 2018

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. 

Books give us entertainment and escape, refreshment and relaxation, and even, perhaps, wisdom. 
The best of them also bewitch us, giving us some sense of beauty and astonishment that stays with us all of our lives.

One of my favourite writers, Susan Cooper, wrote about one of her favourite writers, Walter de la Mare: 
“I’ve had my copy of this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year – 
sometimes for solace, sometimes for sunlight, always with an emotion that I have never quite been able to define. 
Come Hither is my talisman, my haunting: a distillation of the mysterious quality that sings out of all the books 
to which I've responded most deeply all my life - 
and that I deeply hope as a writer I might someday, somehow, be able to catch.”

That quote says exactly what I feel most passionately about books and about my writing. I too want to write books that become talismans, 
to write books that have that “mysterious quality that sings”.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising is a book that has haunted me all my life. 



So too:

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. 

They sing.


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.’



Me too!

Every book I have ever written is in homage to these writers – among others – 

and these books – among others. 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.


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?” 



In a speech I gave recently, I said, 'I love writing for children aged about eleven or twelve.

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.






(This longer version of this article was first published in Magpies in 2004)

SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 


The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.


I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 



The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 


The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 


Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.
 

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 


As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.



In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.


As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:


A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here




 
I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.


The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.


One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!




Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 


And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.

 


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



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