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BOOK REVIEW: TWO FEARSOME FAIRY TALES FROM FRANCE retold by Adele Geras and illustrated by Fiona McDonald

Friday, February 26, 2016

Christmas Press has been quietly producing a range of exquisite fairy tale retellings with gorgeous illustrations for the last couple of years. This beautiful edition has the Jerusalem-born author Adele Geras retelling ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘Bluebeard’ with illustrations by Fiona McDonald (who also illustrated my own contribution to the series TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND). 


Two magical, scary classic fairy tales from France, Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard, elegantly retold by Adele Geras and lavishly illustrated by Fiona McDonald. For older readers.


The stories are simply and elegantly retold, and are carefully pitched to appeal to a younger reading age – no need to fear for a sensitive child’s sensibilities here! 

So far the series has included tales retold by Sophie Masson, Ursula Dubosarky, and me, with one coming soon from Duncan Ball. Other titles are in the pipeline. 

Together they will build to a library of some of the world’s most beloved fairy tales, with stories from Russia, Japan, Ancient Greece, Rome, and Ireland , as well as Scotland and France. 

A perfect gift for any fairy-tale-loving child!


You may also enjoy my blog on Neil Gaiman's wonderful retelling of Sleeping Beauty, THE SLEEPER & THE SPINDLE

REVIEW: Pull Out All the Stops by Geraldine McCaughrean

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pull Out All the Stops
by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Blurb:

There isn't much drama in Olive Town. The highlight of Cissy Sissney's days are the letters from her old schoolteacher, Miss Loucien, describing her adventures on board an old showboat with the Bright Lights Theatre Company. If only life were full of such adventure for Cissy too. 

But then diphtheria breaks out in Olive town, a silo crushes Cissy's home and Miss May March agrees to take Cissy and classmates, Kookie and Tibbie, to stay with Miss Loucien until Olive town is safe again. The ramshackle crew on board the Sunshine Queen sail along the 'shoals and shimmer of the Numchuck River,' performing plays for the towns scattered along the shore. Cissy and her friends have a whole host of adventures beating hustlers at their own game, catching criminals, and embarking on a daring rescue mission. They must use all their wits to survive. 

As their journey along the river comes to an end, Cissy must put in one last performance and this time the stakes are higher than mere applause. The award-winning author, Geraldine McCaughrean, captures the spirit of adventure and the power of imagination in this rip-roaring read.

What I Thought:

Geraldine McCaughrean is one of Great Britain’s most celebrated children’s authors. She is probably best-known for Peter Pan in Scarlet, the brilliant “official” sequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous story of the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up. I love her work, and am trying to slowly read my way through all 150 of her books. This one is a rambunctious adventure story set in a steamboat on the Missouri River. It features a cast of lovable, oddball characters, a lot of slapstick humour, a dash of poignancy, and a whole lot of heart. 


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. 


THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST: Book 1 launched!

Monday, September 01, 2014

I am very excited to announce that Book 1 of THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST is being launched today

Four unlikely heroes 
Four mysterious gifts 
Four impossible tasks 
Five thrilling books

‘Tell your lord to beware,’ the wild man said, gripping Tom’s arm with a dirty hand. ‘The wolves smell danger in the wind.’

The Impossible Quest is set in the faraway land of Wolfhaven. It tells the story of four friends who are forced into undertaking an impossible quest to try and awaken the legendary sleeping warriors of the past.

Tom is the son of the castle cook, trained to scrub pots, not fight. Lady Elanor is the daughter of the Lord of Wolfhaven. She has been protected all her life and is not equipped for a dangerous journey through the wilderness. Sebastian is a squire who dreams of being a knight, but has a tendency to fall over his own feet. Quinn, an orphan, is apprenticed to the Grand Teller, and likes to think she knows everything.

Wolfhaven Castle has been attacked by deadly enemies, and the lord and his people have been forced into slavery. An ancient prophecy says that four sleeping warriors are hidden deep beneath the castle and that, with the help of a spell, they can be awoken to fight for Wolfhaven. The only problem is, the spell calls for seemingly impossible ingredients:

When the wolf lies down with the wolfhound 
And the stones of the castle sing, 
The sleeping heroes shall wake for the crown 
And the bells of victory ring. 
Griffin feather and unicorn’s horn, 
Sea-serpent scale and dragon’s tooth. 
Bring them together at first light of dawn, 
And you shall see this spell’s truth.

Hunted by sinister bog-men, led by a knight with a helmet of boar tusks, Tom, Elanor, Sebastian and Quinn have only the last gifts of the Grand Teller to help them – an old flute that makes no sound, a wooden pendant of a dragon curled around amber, a moonstone ring, and a wooden talisman of an old man’s face with a beard of oak leaves.

Together they must learn about courage, compassion, and trust, if they are to survive and succeed in their impossible quest.

Watch the cool THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST trailer or go THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST website to read a sample chapter! 


SPOTLIGHT: Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Yesterday would have been the 80th birthday of the great children's writer, Diana Wynne Jones, if she had lived to see it. 

When I heard - three years and five months ago - that Diana Wynne Jones had died, I grieved as deeply as if I had known her. Part of my sorrow came from the thought that there would be no more Diana Wynne Jones books ... no more funny, wise, magical stories that never fail to enchant and surprise.

I was 11 years old when I read Charmed Life, which has remained my favourite book of hers ever since. It was published in 1977, and was commended for a Carnegie Award and won both the Guardian Award and the Preis der Leseratten in Germany.

The hero of Charmed Life is a boy called Cat Chant. Her and his sister Gwendolen are sent to stay at Chrestomanci Castle after their parents are drowned in a steamboat accident. The castle is the home of the Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter with nine lives whose job is to manage and control the use of magic in all the many worlds. 

Cat thinks he is a very ordinary sort of boy, but his sister Gwendolen is a talented witch. However, as the story progresses we learn that Cat is indeed a very special boy, with strong magical powers of his own which his sister has been using for her own gain.   

Diana Wynne Jones has gone on to write a number of other books about Cat, the Chrestomanci and the castle, all of them with her own particular brand of warmth, charm, wit and unpredictability. 

Diana Wynne Jones wrote: ‘Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solution unrealistically high – in the same way that folktales tend to be about kings and queens – but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs. The blueprint should, I think, be an experience in all the meanings of that word, and the better to make it so, I would want it to draw on the deeper resonances we all ought to have in the other side of our minds.’

(I originally wrote this blog post for Michael Pryor's wonderful blog Narrative Transport - check it out there, or read this brief review of one of my favourite SWJ's books Cart & Cwidder)


INTERVIEW: Karen Foxlee author of Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy

Friday, August 01, 2014

Please welcome Karen Foxlee to the blog as she answers a few quick questions:

Tell me about your new book:

My new book is called OPHELIA AND THE MARVELLOUS BOY and it’s about a little girl named Ophelia who only believes in things that can be proven by science.  She’s mourning the loss of her mother when she stumbles upon a magical boy locked away in a museum, kept prisoner by an evil Snow Queen. 

Everything she believes is challenged as she goes on a tremendous journey to rescue the boy and save the world. 

What was the first flash of inspiration for it?
I was having a lot of trouble writing my second novel (which would ultimately become THE MIDNIGHT DRESS) so I gave up and decided to explore other things.  I wanted to write something that made me happy – something for me alone!  In short I needed to rediscover what I loved about writing.  

I was lying on my sofa thinking about something I once saw in a museum many years ago.  It was somewhere in Eastern Europe although the friend I was travelling with and I still fight over which city it was. In this museum I peeked through a door which had been left slightly ajar into a room that wasn’t meant to be on display.  It was a very cluttered storeroom but in that storeroom there was a glass coffin and in that coffin there was a skeleton with a crown on its head.  I’m not kidding. A man came along and shooed us away.  Lying on my sofa it made me think of all the amazing things that might be hidden away in such places.  The story kind of grew from there. 

What do you love most in the world?
I love my little girl Alice.  I love when she explains the world to me.  The world would be a much better place if Alice ruled it.

What do you fear most in the world?
I get really scared that compassion is leaching out of the world. I think compassion is a taught thing and maybe people aren’t being taught it anymore. OR maybe it’s empathy.   My mother always said imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.  It was drummed into us. That’s my whine.   On a very personal level I’m 43 and I still have a terrible fear of the dark. You’d think I would have got over it by now. 

What are your 5 favourite childhood books?
 My overall 5 favourite? I could be here forever so I’m just going to list the first that come to mind.  
I loved:

1. Sinuhe the Egyptain (by Mika Walteri) which I read and read the summer I was twelve.  It’s a rollicking adventure about Sinuhe, the physician to the Pharaoh. I’m not even sure it was a children’s book.  There was war and friendship and love and betrayal.  And there was this beautiful woman Nefernefernefer – who wore hardly any clothes.  Scandalous!

2. The Magic Wishing Chair (by Enid Blyton).  My sister and I used to laugh and laugh at the antics of that chair.  Actually – most stuff by Enid Blyton.  I was kind of raised on those stories. And they were the first kind of stories I tried to emulate when writing as a child. 

3. The Doll’s House (Rumer Godden) – oh so beautiful.  Plain good little Tottie and the deliciously evil Marchpane. 

4. The Princess and the Goblin (George MacDonald).  I loved, loved, loved this as a child.  The adventures of lonely Princess Irene and of course, the lovely Curdie, a little miner boy, who I think was my first literary crush.  He was so simple and kind and brave! 

5. Andersen’s Fairy tales – in particular The  little Mermaid and The Snow Queen which were read to us again and again by our mum.  We used to weep over the ending of The little Mermaid – literally, a big huddle of weeping children and our mum. It was so….good for us.  
What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?

Again the first five that come to mind.  They all affected me in different ways  
1. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
2. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson 
3. Northern Lights –  Phillip Pullman 
4. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood 
5. Close Range – Annie E Proulx 

Wow, all female bar one. And all American except one.  Oh no! Now I want to do a list of Australian favourites….. 

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
 The complete Red Dwarf series of books.  Lots and lots of books about saints (it seems I collect them). 

The complete set of crumbling and decaying Merit Students Encyclopaedia which was our childhood encyclopaedia and which featured prominently in my first novel The Anatomy of Wings.  Lots of books on sewing.  I can’t sew.  Never sew.  But I love looking at books about sewing.  They are just so mysterious.  

How would you describe perfect happiness?
I would say lunch at my mum’s house on a sunny day.  All of us together.  My siblings, our kids.  Everyone eating and talking and laughing.  The shrieking, wild, sugar-fuelled galumphing of cousins. I think that happiness comes from feeling like I belong there.  We all belong.   

(PS: A note from Kate: I am psychic! When I reviewed Karen's book Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy I said that it reminded me of George Macdonald! 

BOOK REVIEW: Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Monday, July 28, 2014

Title: Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Age Group & Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth
Source of Book: I bought in London & lugged it all the way home 

The Blurb:

Eleven-year-old Ophelia might not be brave, but she certainly is curious. Her family are still reeling from her mother's death, and in a bid to cheer everyone up, her father has taken a job at a fantastically enormous and gothic museum in a city where it never stops snowing. Ophelia can't wait to explore - and she quickly discovers an impossibility. In a forgotten room, down a very dark corridor, she finds a boy, who says he's been imprisoned for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen who has a clock that is ticking down towards the end of the world. 

A sensible girl like Ophelia doesn't quite believe him, of course, but there's no denying he needs her help. There are many other, darker, impossibilities in this museum too. Ghosts, wolves, Misery Birds, magical swords - and even fabled Snow Queens - will all do their very best to stop Ophelia and hurt her family. She will have to garner all her courage, strength and cleverness if she is to rescue this most Marvellous Boy - and maybe even save the world in the process.

What I Thought: 

I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. 

I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. 

Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. I especially loved the deceptive simplicity of Karen's writing and the vividness of the world that she creates - it has that delicious edge of creepiness whetted upon a fairy-tale-like beauty and strangeness. One of the best children's fantasy novels I've read in a while - I'm very eager to see what Karen does next.  


BOOK LIST: The most gorgeous fairy tale books in the world

Friday, May 02, 2014

I was asked by a fan to post a blog about my favourite fairy tale picture books absolute ages ago, but I’ve been so busy I simply haven’t had time. 

I thought I’d celebrate the launch of my own fairy tale picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND by doing it now!

I'd love to add to my collection so if you know any other utterly gorgeous illustrated fairy tales, please tell me in the comments so I can add them to my collection. 

Here are my favourites (in no particular order):

This is the most beautiful version of 'The Singing, Springing Lark', the Grimm Brothers' variant of 'Beauty & the Beast'(here titled 'The Lady & the Lion')  - the illustrations are utterly exqusite!

Paul Zelinsky's gorgeous 'Rapunzel' which sets the story in the Italian Renaissance which is, of corue, what I did to in my historical novel BITTER GREENS

More by Paul Zelinsky, one of my favourite children's illustrators - this is a brilliant rendition of 'Rumpelstiltskin'

Paul Zelinsky's 'Hansel & Gretel' - doesn't the witch's cottage look delicious?

My absolute favourite fairy tale artists is K. Y. Craft - I'd give almost anything to have her illustrate one of my books. They are so gorgeous, intricate, mysterious and magical! This one is 'Twelve Dancing Princesses', which is also one of my favourite fairy tales 

A swoon-worthy 'Cinderella' from K.Y. Craft

'Sleeping Beauty'from K. Y. Craft

A lovely version of the 'Tam Lin' ballad, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft - I also have versions of this story by Susan Cooper and Jane Yolen 

This exquisite retelling of 'Persephone' is retold by Sally Pomme Clayton and illustrated by Virginia Lee 

My favourite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, 'The Snow Queen' is illustrated here by Vladyslav Yerko in a mesmerisingly beautiful edition 

Oscar Wild's fairy tale 'The Happy Prince' is illustrated beautifully by Jane Ray

Finally, this utterly beautiful version of 'Wild Swans', retold by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert 


SPOTLIGHT: Two Selkie Tales from Scotland

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Today is Launch Day for my new picture book, TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, gorgeously illustrated by Fiona McDonald.

To celebrate, I’m devoting the blog to Selkie and other fairy tales for the next few days. Enjoy!

The Story Behind the Story of TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND ...

My grandmother’s grandmother was Scottish. 

Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and she grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Her home was edged on all sides by the waters of rivers and firths leading out to the sea. 

Ellen’s mother was called Margaret McPhee, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the McPhee clan was descended from Selkies. The name McPhee is derived from an older version of the name MacDuffie, which comes from the Gaelic term MacDubhSithe, meaning ‘son of the dark fairy’. Family legend says that the first McPhee took a Selkie as a bride! 

Ellen emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and, apart from some books and clothes and a sprig of heather, she brought a head stuffed full of old tales. She told these stories to her daughter Jinny, who told them to her daughters, Clarice, Gwen and Marjory (nicknamed Joy), and they – my great-aunts and grandmother - told them to me. 

I always loved the tales of selkies, who were seals in the water and humans upon the land. It seemed the best of both worlds. People drowned if they sank beneath the waves, and mermaids could only flop about helplessly on land. Selkies, however, could plunge through the fathomless deeps, and then shed their sealskin and run and dance on the shore. I loved wondering if I had Selkie blood in me, and if one day I’d find the way to transform into a seal. 

Like many Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ is full of love and loss, magic and mystery. A Selkie woman is seen dancing on the shore. A man steals her sealskin and hides it from her and so she is trapped in human form. 

Though the Selkie bride pines for the sea and her own kind, the man marries her and they have children. Eventually, the Selkie bride finds her sealskin – often with the help of one for her children – and so she returns to the sea, leaving her human family bereft. In many tales, her descendants are seers and singers, poets and players. Often they have webbed hands and feet, or may have been born with a caul of skin over their heads. If so, their families hide or destroy their caul so that they will not run away to the sea. I always loved that story, and wished that I had been born with Selkie blood so that I could swim through the waves with all the sleek grace of a seal, but still dance in the moonlight whenever I wanted. 

A lesser known tale is ‘The Seal-Hunter and the Selkie’. A man who makes his living by slaughtering seals finds himself transformed into a Selkie for a night, and charged with the task of saving the life of one he has injured. He is overcome by remorse and promises to never kill a seal again. This was always one of my favourite tales, for I’ve never liked the idea of killing such beautiful creatures. It was also, I thought, more joyful and hopeful than many of the Selkie tales, which are often tragic, and so was a bright counterpoint to the melancholy feel of ‘The Selkie Bride’. 

I loved retelling these two old tales, and tried to recapture some of the lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts’ voices in the story’s cadences and rhythm.  They are stories I will love to tell aloud.

All the illustrations above are by Fiona McDonald for the book - here's the link to her blog.

Want more Selkies? Check out this blog I wrote last year ...

SPOTLIGHT: Frances Hodgson Burnett author of The Secret Garden

Monday, November 25, 2013

“Everything's a story. You are a story - I am a story.” 
Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

Today (24 November) is both my mother’s birthday and the birthday of one of my all-time favourite children’s authors - Frances Hodgson Burnett.

She was born on this day in 1849, in Cheetham, near Manchester in the UK. Her father died when she was only three and after struggling along for some time, her poverty-stricken mother emigrated to the US when Frances was 16, settling in Tennessee. Frances began writing and publishing stories at the age of 19 to help earn money for her family. 

She became friends with a lame boy called Swan Burnett who lived across the street and introduced him to all the books she most loved. Soon she was earning enough money from her writing to move her family into a bigger house and to travel to Europe.  She returned to the US to marry her childhood sweetheart, Swan Burnett, and then they lived in Paris for a few years (lucky thing!) She had two sons, Lionel and Vivian. 

Her first novel ‘That Lass o' Lowries’ was published in the UK and UK in 1877 and she went on to write several more novels for adults. After meeting Louis May Alcott, she decided to try her hand at writing for children and ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ was published in 1886 (people mock her for this book today, but it was hugely popular at the time and prompted a fashion for little boys to wear velvet suits with lace collars and long hair, which is how she liked to dress her own sons).

The character of Little Lord Fauntleroy is thought to be modelled on her younger son Vivian, pictured left

Life was not all sweet, however. Frances’s marriage was in trouble, and then her eldest son contracted tuberculosis. His death plunged her into depression, but she continued to write, publishing numerous books for adults with titles like A Lady of Quality (1896) and The Making of a Marchioness (1901). Her eventual divorce from her husband caused a scandal. 

At this time she turned away from her traditional faith in the Church of England to embrace Spiritualism. She lived separately from her husband and became involved with a handsome younger man who had ambitions as an actor. 

In 1905 she published ‘A Little Princess’, which I absolutely adored as a child and read many times. A few of my favourite quotes:

“Whatever comes," she said, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” 

“How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.” 

“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that--warm things, kind things, sweet things--help and comfort and laughter--and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.” 

From 1898 to 1907, Frances lived in England at Great Maytham, an old country house which had been damaged by fire and let half in ruins  . One day, aided by a robin, she found the old walled garden dating from 1721 sadly overgrown and neglected. She had the garden restored, planting hundreds of roses, set up a table and chair in the gazebo, and - dressed always in a white dress and large hat - wrote a number of books in her secret garden’s peace and tranquillity.  

Her younger lover Stephen Townsend came to live with her there, scandalising the vicar, and so in February 1900 she married him. The marriage was very unhappy and Frances suffered depression and illness. Two years later, she divorced him.

Frances was inspired to write her most famous book ‘The Secret Garden’ by her own discovery of the forgotten garden at Great Maytham, though much of it as written at another grand country manor house, Buile Hill Park.

The book’s working title was ‘Mistress Mary’, referring to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. It was first serialised in The American Magazine from autumn 1910, then published in the summer of 1911 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York, and by Heinemann in London. The 1911 edition was illustrated by M.B.Kork. 

It is one of my own all-time favourite books. I have read it many hundreds of times, including to my own children. I think my own love of flower, plants and gardens (especially secret gardens) was inspired by this book. I particularly love the sense of joyousness in the book, and the feeling that magic and miracles can happen if you just believe hard enough. 

Some favourite quotes: 

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone's eyes.” 
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us” 
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden


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