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SPOTLIGHT: Books That Haunt a Child Forever

Wednesday, June 01, 2016


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. 

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)

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