It isn’t often that one reads a children’s book that begins with a dwarf losing his virginity to a witch; still less often that it should continue to include incest and rape, stopping just short of bestiality with a magic bear. Well, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is that book. It is set in a rather twee, countrified magical world, where Liga is our long-suffering heroine. Repeatedly abused by her father, after an abortion she hides her next pregnancy from him. Her father dies (phew!) but it’s not looking good for Liga: she is then ravished by a group of town boys. Help is at hand, however. A mysterious ‘moon-child’ intervenes and makes Liga a private heaven where all the people she hated have disappeared, and only kind people remain. Liga brings up her two children in bliss.
Unfortunately, the dwarf and said magic bears manage to break through into Liga’s heaven. Her world turns out not to be real – the kindly population is hollow: when Liga offers herself to a young man she sees the sky behind his eyes. Her paradise is at risk: her daughters discover the other, real world, and Liga must learn to give up her heaven. Underneath all this is an involving, if protracted, fable about the loss of innocence and the need to face up to the horrors of everyday life. Go deeper still, and you’ll find Hardy, Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell – authors who love putting their heroines through the mill in order to find redemption. This supposedly original mishmash is actually a competent pastiche of a good old-fashioned Victorian novel. Adventurous teenagers, if they can cope with ‘Goodwifes’ and ‘womanwards’ and unconvincing rural dialect, may love it.
Chris Priestley has produced another volume of soul-harrowing ghost stories: Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth. Here are the familiar agents of the other side: demonic fairies, a child-collecting puppet show, a homicidal plant, and a creature from the dawn of time with a tail and two rows of teeth. All the tales are icily controlled and related by unpleasant Edwardian children (although of course one ends up loving their snootinesses – how could you not love a child who says, ‘I am quite well, thank you, if a trifle bored’?), and all tap into the deep well of fear that lurks within us all. There is one story, about a governess and a wild gypsy boy who may or may not be a ghost, that ranks with M R James in its horror-inducing ability. The governess is blameless; the haunting purposeless; and in this way the random and terrifying nature of death is made apparent. This volume is for anyone (grown-up or child) who loves being scared on a winter’s night.
From demons to dragons, or perhaps not: Philip Reeve’s No Such Thing as Dragons is a thoughtful and well-written story concerning the theme of legend. Brock is a valiant dragon-hunter – or so he likes to portray himself. In reality, he goes where there are rumours of dragons, rides off saying he’s about to kill them, and comes back with a crocodile’s head he has ready in his pack. I rather liked Brock: he hated the violence of the crusades, and so abandoned his lands and his family for a life of wandering. He takes with him a mute boy, unable to give away his secrets. All seems to be going well – until they stumble upon a beast, winged and lizardish, that is bent upon their destruction. Is it a dragon? Who knows, but they still have to kill it, stay alive, and placate the not-so-dumb villagers below. Older children will enjoy the exploration of fantasy, and the mute boy is a courageous, effective foil to Brock.
This Christmas brings two excellent picture books for younger children. Designer Jim Downer lived in the same house as Ted Hughes, and gave him a story called Timmy the Tug. Hughes promised to tidy up the verse for him. The result languished in a filing cabinet for decades – and now appears in a beautiful hardback edition. The drawings are extraordinarily bold and striking, all fierce lines and primary colours, angular and daring. Hughes’s verse, curiously, seems slightly stilted – perhaps because of lack of polish – but it still bursts with energy, and the story, about a little boat left to fend for itself which, through determination, triumphs and rescues another, will resonate with and thrill little boys and girls who have a fondness for the ocean wave.
Jeanette Winterson’s picture book The Lion, the Unicorn and Me is a perfect Christmas gift about the strength and joy that stem from humility. Winterson retells the nativity story from the point of view of the donkey (the ‘me’ of the title). An angel calls all the beasts together and asks them who should bear the Saviour: ‘If He is to be King of the World, He should be carried by the King of the Beasts,’ says the Lion. ‘If He is to be the Mystery of the World, He should be carried by the most mysterious of us all,’ says the Unicorn. The donkey says, ‘Well, if He is to bear the burdens of the world, He had better be carried by me.’
As well as gold-leaf illustrations, there are lots of rhymes and enjoyable words for a child to read out, and the book captures exquisitely the mystery and awe of the birth of Christ.
More convincing is Jeanette Winterson’s Battle of the Sun. Jack Snap is a brave, thoughtful twelve-year-old who lives in seventeenth-century London. Traitors’ heads are impaled on spikes, the wharves bustle with spice and commerce. On his way home one day Jack is kidnapped by the Magus and taken to the Dark House (which has a dragon in the moat and a phoenix in the attic), where he is set to work. The ‘Opus’ in question is that old chestnut, turning lead into gold – except that this Magus has far bigger things in sight than a few ingots. He wants to turn all of London into gold, and Jack must stop him. He’s determined, and not even a frightening half-man half-woman creature, nor yet a dragon, can stop him. There are some magical tropes in this book: Jack must release a Sunken King, who lives in a tank and has ‘underwater caves of eyes that held in them deep secrets of treasures and gold and lost ships’. A boy turns into a sunflower; a strange robotic knight is summoned. Jack is an archetypal folkloric hero with added sensitivity, and his journey is not just a physical but also a psychological one. Winterson is a writer of great strength and beauty, and has created an alchemical mixture of wonders that will delight and challenge any child over the age of ten.