Sally Gardner at her brilliant best is a this-is-how author: this is how to write books of real quality and heart for near-beginner readers; this is how to write a gem of a historical fantasy; this is how to write a truly gripping and heartbreaking dystopia, the ugliness of the imagined world offset by a controlled blazing brilliance of style.
The Magical Children series of six books aren’t the very shortest and simplest of books for beginner readers, but to my mind they’re some of the very best. So many publishers now have an eye to the beginner reader market that the bookshops and libraries are well stocked with highly-illustrated, formulaically-written character- or concept-driven series fiction. Mostly this ranges from the sparkier-than-it-might-be to the outright-dire, combining lazy writing with lifeless artwork in a way that’s frankly neglectful of those readers who most need encouragement and incentive. The Magical Children are among the honourable exceptions, six stories which bring together (mostly) everyday families with extraordinary events and talents, all warmly described in a narrative that’s accessible and readable and full of life. They are books that my children (one of whom reading chapter books for the first time) clamoured and fought to read and re-read through one whole summer holiday… thank goodness there were as many as six. There are CD versions available too, nicely read by Emilia Fox and others.
I would like to tell you more about the recently-published Operation Bunny, first in a new series for slightly more established readers, but I have to admit that the junior reviewing team abstracted and successfully squirrelled it away when I had only read the first few pages. They were a promising start, with an appealing girl heroine, some ghastly foster parents and an eccentric elderly neighbour leaving a curious legacy – but about the Fairy Detective Agency and Fidget, the talking cat, I regret I’m as much in the dark as you. (Girls, can I please have my copy back?)
Instead, there are Gardner’s acclaimed books for older readers, with I, Coriander one of my favourite (older) children’s books of all time. Historical fiction has its fashions in children’s books as in adults’ (if more noticeably related to the National Curriculum). You’ll find ten togaed Romans to every Greek, ten oddly bloodless tales of knights and pages for every murkier, grittier look at the Dark Ages, and ten roistering Tudors for every reflective glance at the frightened, frowning, self-questioning time of the Civil War and Commonwealth that forms the backdrop to I, Coriander. Heroine Coriander Hobie has the clear, pitch-perfect voice that the very different Standish Treadwell does in Maggot Moon, conjuring up the bright and dark, the cadences and telling detail of seventeenth-century London, interwoven with the fairy tale of Coriander’s beloved father and mother and the subsequent nightmare of her hypocrite stepmother and the brutal charlatan preacher Arise Fell. Rightly acclaimed and Smarties-prize-winning, I, Coriander is a children’s classic of our time.
The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade are set in another time of turmoil, the Paris of the French Revolution, with a collection of characters who all have some mystery about them: magician’s assistant Yann and his mentor Têtu, unloved aristocrat’s daughter Sido and the ruthless Count Kalliovski, to whom so many of Paris’ grand families owe more than they can ever hope to repay. Why does Kalliovski take such a keen interest in the girl Sido when her own shallow, spendthrift father can’t bear the sight of her? Why does one rash word of recognition see Yann’s master dying in a stage “accident”, Têtu shot and left for dead, and Yann fleeing for his life to England? Meanwhile Sido’s father the Marquis courts his own ruin by commissioning elaborate gardens, staging extravagant parties and refusing to recognise the political climate or listen to his horrified daughter and lawyer until the mob has breached the walls of his domain and both he and Sido are also in danger of their lives. Who will save them now – and at what price? Two more terrific, atmospheric reads; if for me they don’t quite match the brilliant originality and consummate craft of I, Coriander, it is hard to see what can.
…unless it is Maggot Moon, highly recommended but for at least 13+ I would say: this is alternative history at its bleakest. Dystopia is an ongoing young-adult-fiction trend with time-specific spikes: we’re less afraid of nuclear Armageddon and its aftermath these days, but alive to the sinister possibilities of bio-determinism or reality TV. I’ve heard it argued, persuasively enough, that dystopias speak to teens because so many teens feel awkward in their world, half-willing its destruction and half-desperate for the chance to prove themselves more than ordinary. Odd as it may sound, there can be both bad dystopia and good dystopia: bad dystopia is not much more than meretricious, exploitative and underwritten sci-fi, but good dystopia has a genuine message: lose your freedoms and you lose your integrity (Anne Fine’s Road of Bones); courage and family stand for far more than tyranny in the guise of entertainment (Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy); never give in to the pressure of appearances (Scott Westerfield’s Uglies quartet).
Maggot Moon brings together, improbably and brilliantly, a stack of what-ifs – what would Britain look like if we had lost the Second World War? (To whom isn’t exactly clear: the victors combine some of the chief horrors of both Nazi and Soviet regimes.) What if there were to be a Moon landing, of great strategic importance but scientifically impossible? What if a bullied, dyslexic boy could prove to be a David with the power to bring down the state’s Goliath? Standish Treadwell’s life is characterised by fear, brutality and brief flashes of friendship and humanity – only to be obliterated by fear and brutality once again. When his parents are disappeared, he is raised by his indomitable grandfather. For a short while, Standish and Gramps have new neighbours and Standish has a friend and protector at school… before Hector’s family, too, are disappeared. Far more worrying is the voiceless astronaut who appears inexplicably in the old air-raid shelter – and who knows why the wall behind Standish’s house is growing higher and higher. It’s a horribly plausible alternative reality that would be too grim to bear if it weren’t for the free-wheeling of Standish’s imagination and the spare, glittering, magpie-eyed spring of the writing.
Find more about Sally and her books at www.sallygardner.net