To readers who aren’t that keen on dark fantasy: please come back next week to Sally Gardner – who isn’t entirely without shadows, but is perhaps more sun-dappled especially in her books for younger readers than the prolific, voraciously well-read and boundlessly imaginative Neil Gaiman. To readers who enjoy being spellbound, spooked and periodically somewhat scared: trust me, you’re in the very best of hands.
Way back before I had children myself, I picked up an imported picture book in an art bookshop with the irresistible title, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. The story is just as good as the title (unless you’re a Dad – although Dads take heart, the story dad is eventually rescued and appreciated) and beautifully complemented by Dave McKean’s textured illustrations with their mix of line art, typography, photography and montage. For a while, when the children were small, it was the-story-they-had-to-hear-every-night – and those have to be truly special to earn a lasting place on the bookshelf, as The Day… has. I can still happily quote passages by heart.
The Wolves in the Walls brings Gaiman and McKean together again, but is a scarier proposition. Lucy hears the noises coming from the walls of her old house, but none of her family will believe in the wolves – until the wolves burst out one night, forcing the family into the cold garden. Brave Lucy persuades the family back into the house, at first into the now-empty walls from where they watch the wolves scoffing their food, wearing their clothes and watching their TV. Ultimately the family turn the tables on the wolves, and all seems well… until Lucy hears a noise from the walls like an elephant trying not to sneeze…
Lucy and Coraline (not Caroline, Coraline) definitely share DNA. Come to think of it, Coraline owes something to the angry little boy who inspired The Day… and to every child who’s ever found their parents too busy, too boring, too much given to saying no to fluorescent gloves and frog wellies. Moving with her parents into a new (old) house one summer, Coraline is left pretty much to her own devices. She visits the eccentric elderly actresses in the flat downstairs, and the even more peculiar old man in the attic flat, and locates the well in the garden into which she’s been warned not to fall. Then she finds the door which is mostly bricked-up but sometimes leads to a flat in which her Other Mother and Other Father with the shiny button eyes are always there to cook delicious meals for her, play games with her and fill her new bedroom with toys that have a life of their own. Other-Mother wants Coraline to stay for ever, and back in the real world, Coraline’s parents seem to have disappeared; but Coraline is smarter and feistier and more resourceful than Other-Mother gave her credit for, and is determined to rescue her parents and Other-Mother’s previous victims in a fierce battle of wills and wits.
Coraline also made a brilliantly imagined and equally unsettling movie: if ratings had degrees, for me it’s definitely an upper-end PG, but well worth seeing if you’re less easily frightened and have a firm faith in happy endings.
Helena in Mirrormask might be Lucy and Coraline’s older cousin: the one whose parents ran away to the circus, and who is now herself as trapped in the spangles and sawdust as anyone ever was in boring everyday life. In a terrible confrontation with her mother, Helena says the unsayable, “I wish you were dead!” Hours later, her mother collapses and is rushed to hospital. All performances are cancelled and Helena is parked with her Nan in a crumbling modernist apartment block, drawing obsessively and guiltily dreaming.
Mirrormask was originally a short story which became a film, directed by Dave McKean, of wonderfully beautiful weirdness: Helena and her irrepressible new friend Valentine skate through the air on library books to a near-deserted city, where fish flock at head height and rainbow-winged sphinxes trade riddles. Helena has a clear mission to save the Queen of Light, who looks a lot like her mother; but the Queen of Darkness is missing a daughter, and Helena soon has a good idea where that daughter might be – and she seems in no hurry to return. Once the Queen of Darkness’ daughter starts tearing down Helena’s drawings, time is running out for Helena to find the fabled Mirrormask, wake the Queen of Light, make it back into her own world and – she hopes – by some magical equivalence, heal her own mother.
Another short story – or short book – which became something more substantial is the lovely (and not-too-scary) Odd and the Frost Giants, originally written as a £1 World Book Day title and one of the best and most satisfying of those, then given full illustrated-hardback treatment. It begins, compellingly: “There was a boy whose name was Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual in that, not in that time or place. Odd means the tip of a blade, and it was a lucky name.” Odd isn’t lucky, though: his Viking father dies unheroically, and his mother remarries; he tries to fell a tree with his father’s axe, and is crippled; his new stepfather resents and bullies Odd, who runs away. Taking refuge in his father’s old hut, he is visited by a fox, a bear and a one-eyed eagle: the Norse gods Loki, Thor and Odin, ignominiously transformed into animals and unable to reclaim their home Asgard from the marauding Frost Giants. How can a crippled human boy hope to help the gods? By thinking and remembering, listening and understanding in this wonderful, deceptively plainly-told, thoughtful and wise fable.
Odd and the Frost Giants’ “proper book” treatment was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Graveyard Book, unprecedented winner of both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals, the highest honours for a children’s book in the US and UK respectively. It begins nightmarishly with a cool description of an assassin working his way through a sleeping household, only to be thwarted when he reaches the nursery at the top of the house and finds the cot empty. The infant who should be there has clambered free, down the stairs and into the street, toddling uphill to the graveyard – where a community of ghosts enthusiastically adopts the now-orphan, named Nobody or Bod for short. Bod has the kindly seventeenth-century Owenses for parents, mysterious Silas (who can come and go between the worlds of living and dead) as a guardian, stern Miss Lupescu as a governess – and brief, disconcerting encounters with the living world when he befriends the little girl Scarlett, tangles with a crooked antique dealer and goes for a short while to a regular school where he unexpectedly breaks the hold of the class bullies. All the while, he is in danger from the sinister figure and organisation that killed the rest of his family; and the graveyard won’t protect him forever. An inspired combination of myth, convention and brilliantly-realised, ringing-true-in-every-detail imagination.
There’s a particularly good website for Gaiman’s younger readers, www.mousecircus.com, well stocked with not just book and author information but also video clips, podcasts, downloads and games. (No performing mice as yet, but I do hope that they are at least rehearsing.)