Four new books for young readers - review by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

Lights, Camera, Magic

Four new books for young readers


The late Kate Saunders’s children’s books are characterised by warmth, humour and charm. Her posthumously published A Drop of Golden Sun (Faber & Faber 336pp £7.99) displays all these qualities and more. The title is slightly misleading, as the novel is only tangentially connected to The Sound of Music. Set in 1973, it tells the story of the film production of a similar (fictional) musical about four French children whose father, a widowed scientist, is being threatened by the Nazis in occupied France. A singing governess arrives and the children manage to convince the stubborn father to fall in love with her and to escape over the mountains at night. What’s more, there’s not a yodelling goatherd in sight.

Saunders herself was an actress and her own experience in front of the camera is evident. The protagonist is gentle Jenny, whose mother is a dentist and whose father died when she was three years old. Torn out of her comfortable suburban existence, she’s thrust into the world of cinema. Of course, it’s not as glamorous as it seems: the other child actors, bar one, are all equally bewildered; only little Belinda is a proper stage-school brat who tries to steal the show at every turn. Saunders documents the vicissitudes of the production, while also considering the complexities of German actors playing Nazis (the French scientist is played by a British-Austrian Jew, many of whose family died in the Holocaust). The Second World War is a recent and painful memory, yet Saunders shows that artistic endeavour can be a salve and that fantasy and reality can merge in unusual ways. Saunders was a lively, intelligent and thought-provoking author. A Drop of Golden Sun is a shining testament to her talent. Children of ten and up will enjoy its loving hopefulness.

The hero of Pádraig Kenny’s Stitch (Walker Books 208pp £7.99) is also an immensely hopeful person – if he can be called a person at all. As in Nicholas Bowling’s recent The Undying of Obedience Wellrest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides the Promethean spark here. Young Stitch has been created by Professor Hardacre from a variety of different body parts and lives happily enough in a remote castle – until, that is, the professor dies (something Stitch, who is immune to pain and death, cannot understand) and his fanatical nephew sweeps in to continue his experiments. Shelley’s influence is evident in a scene in which Stitch befriends a blind man, and there are also nods to cinematic adaptations of Frankenstein, such as torch-bearing mobs and hunchbacked assistants, although the one here is not called Igor but Alice.

‘Where is his voice? Where is his mind? Where are his ideas and thoughts? Where are his dreams?’ wonders Stitch after the death of Professor Hardacre, and there are many such musings throughout, as Kenny considers what knowledge is, how we acquire it and what the limits of scientific inquiry are. Stitch’s optimism is contrasted with the hidebound attitudes of the villagers, who take against his appearance. Yet Stitch manages, through heroic actions, to show that it’s his inner goodness that matters. Those of eight and up will enjoy Stitch, and they may also be prompted to try its progenitor.

Sylvia Bishop’s On Silver Tides (Andersen Press 320pp £8.99) refashions familiar folklore. It’s the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution is well underway. England is home to a race of ‘silvermen’ who can breathe underwater. Although culturally resembling ‘landmen’, they live on boats and generally keep themselves to themselves. Kelda, a young silverman, witnesses her baby sister Isla being thrown into the river. It turns out she can’t breathe underwater, a bad omen which means her death is decreed. The siblings, now outcasts and scapegoats, embark on a race to safety through a properly magical world, where kelpies and vast wyrms populate the deeps and plants have minds of their own.

Bishop’s writing is elegant and witty: Kelda’s brother Firth, for example, is described as someone who ‘always looked as though he was fighting a great spiritual war against all the faceless forces of evil’. It’s a pleasure, too, to read a book in which the waterways of the United Kingdom are given their due – the names of the Nene, the Soar, the Trent and the Wey have an incantatory magic of their own. Richly imagined and written with authority, On Silver Tides will delight and thrill readers of twelve and up, while also gently demonstrating that societies work best when they don’t exclude.

Some good news: Faber & Faber are reprinting a number of past Carnegie Medal winners, including Susan Price’s 1987 Ghost Drum (Faber & Faber 176pp £8.99), an extraordinary, glittering fable about witches, princes and power, set in a distant, snowbound kingdom ruled by a despot and narrated by a cat who’s tied up with a golden chain. Price’s young heroine, Chingis, the daughter of a slave, becomes a shaman. Czarevitch Safa, the son of Czar Guidon, has been imprisoned in a tower for his entire childhood on the orders of his father and is nearing

Chingis, in a passage vibrating with emotional intensity, rescues Safa and makes him her apprentice. When Guidon dies, his murderous sister Margaretta seizes the throne and, with the help of an evil wizard, seeks to destroy Chingis. Together, Safa and Chingis must fight tyranny. Price weaves in elements of Slavic folklore, like the Baba Yaga’s hut, which stalks through the pages on chicken legs, and the Ghost Drum itself, which Chingis uses to practise magic. Once more, we wonder how we know things and whether reality itself is merely a dream.

Price was twenty-seven when she wrote this bewitching, uncompromising work. Sentimentality is entirely absent, and the oppressive regime is cold, violent and harsh. Ghost Drum has earned its place in the canon, and I hope its radiant beauty and the fierce love of freedom that pours off its pages will be absorbed by a new readership. Children of eleven and up will be gripped by its strange spells and shadows.

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