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‘This is all the land of Blarnia,’ said the Faun. ‘From the traffic light in the western woods to the great castle of Cair Amel on the eastern sea, bordered on the south by Oz, on the west by Middle Earth, and on the north by Made-upistan.’

‘I – I got in through the wardrobe,’ said Loo.

Mr Dumbness looked at her in disbelief. ‘You got here through a wardrobe?’ he asked. ‘What are you, high?’

The explanatory title to this book is ‘The Lying Bitch in the Wardrobe’. This is all you need to know about it before diving in.

The plot of this novel is startlingly familiar to that of some obscure book published some seventy years ago by a little-known hermit called Jack Lewis. The afterword by author Michael Gerber expresses mystification at his having being plagiarised years before his own birth. It would seem the publishing industry is even stranger than anyone suspected.

Four children are sold by their parents to a crotchety old professor, who needs subjects for his invasive medical experiments.  Pete, Sue, Loo and Ed Perversie were told by this was to protect them from the ‘invisi-bombing of London’. Of the four children, only Ed has the common sense to realize this is a colossal fib. He despairs that he has been laboured with three such idiotic siblings. Pete is a hyperactive thug suffering from ADD, whose solution to every problem is to try and dig a hole. Sue is marginally more intelligent, but insists on thinking the best of everyone. Loo is determinedly suicidal and bears a suspicious resemblance to a neighbour who lived down the street from the family home.  One afternoon, while hiding from the demented professor who now legally owns them, the younger sister discovers a magic wardrobe (as well as a looking glass, a deep hole and a tesseract). Loo is transported to the weird world of Blarnia and meets the conniving Faun Mr Dumbness. In typical fashion she ignores every sign that he intends to feed her to the Wide Witch.

When Ed follows his sister he discovers strange and very adult feelings towards the ruling monarch of Blarnia, a compulsive eater obsessed with trying the delicacy known as ‘Son of Atom and Daughter of Steve’. Precocious to a fault, Ed fails to recognize the danger posed to his own life by the Wide Witch and agrees to bring the other Perversie children to her castle. On their travels across the winter wonderland the kids encounter other exotic creatures, such as a pair of lesbian beavers, a gin-loving Father Xmas and the cat-messiah Asthma, whose carpentry skills leave a little to be desired.

This very special book comes with an extra feature, called CensorVision, which spares readers from any offensive ideas and/or words. Also most of the characters have already read ahead to the end of the novel, just so they know how to move the plot along when required. Which is a good thing too, as the land of Blarnia is teeming with unnecessary plot devices and thinly disguised allegorical characters, not to mention a long suffering messiah, who wonders if his believers will ever understand his simple message that ‘Killing People is Bad!’

Unfortunately the relentless mockery of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe feels like shooting fish in a barrel. There have, after all, been many other piss-takes of C.S. Lewis’ rigidly allegorical Christian fantasy, including the cartoon South Park. What I love is the idea that Edward is actually the voice of reason. Throw in some amusing authorial asides and the laziness of this parody itself becomes the chief joke of the book.

It makes me wonder what a more ambitious take on the material might have been like. What if Jadis was in fact a democracy and climate change activist, attempting to enlighten the pagan people of Narnia to the realities of science. They insist on worshipping a lion, who can allegedly talk, although all he ever seems to do is eat people. Then four agent provocateurs from a foreign land agitate the natives into a frenzy of mob violence and establish a horrific fundamentalist junta.

Comedy!

Dr Lanselius was the consul of all the witch-clans at Trollesund, in the far north. Lyra remembered her visit to his house, and the secret she’d overheard – the secret which had had such momentous consequences. She would have trusted Dr Lanselius; but could she trust what someone else claimed on his behalf?

One of my favourite book series from the last decade, not just in children’s fiction – but fiction period, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A story about two children from different worlds, threatened by a vast authoritarian conspiracy designed to exploit innocence, it managed to be thematically powerful and dense with literary references. Pullman takes his series title and many of his themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He caught the notice of the liberal press (and the ire of religious groups and concerned parents) by launching a broadside against C.S. Lewisthe Chronicles of Narnia and its overt religious allegory. His Dark Materials, by contrast, offered a fantasy universe that was inhabited by angelic beings and daemons, while at the same time subscribing to scientific theories of quantum reality and evolution.

Heady stuff for a kid’s book. Yet if there’s a consistent theme throughout my positive reviews of children’s books, it is authors who do not condescend to their readers. Philip Pullman certainly does not talk down to children. Even in Lyra’s Oxford, a short post-script to the trilogy, has a brief introduction by the author where he wonders if the past is conditioned by future events, hinting that this volume throws some of the events of the previous books into relief.

It is two years after the events of The Amber Spyglass and Lyra has returned to Jordan College Oxford. Pullman includes postcards, maps and journal extracts supposedly recovered from this world contained within the book to give a greater level detail. The story itself is quite slim, a taste of what is to come with Pullman’s upcoming second series The Book of Dust.

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon encounter a witch’s daemon under attack from a flock of starlings. Rescuing it, the grateful familiar informs Lyra that he is searching for an alchemist who lives somewhere in the Jericho district of Oxford. The witch has sent him to ask this man for an elixir that will cure a mysterious ailment ravaging the witches who live in the north. Lyra agrees to help and hides the witch’s daemon in her room until nightfall.

What Lyra does not realize is that events from her adventures in the north and her conflict with the General Oblation Board have come back to haunt her.

At times I suspect that the religious controversy over Pullman’s writing obscured a well-told story. Wisely for this book he has chosen to return to the setting of Northern Lights, which transformed the familiar surroundings of Oxford into a steam punk fantasy of his devising. Will, the other protagonist of His Dark Materials, is once again absent.

This is a great reminder of what made Pullman’s books so appealing in the first place. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.

They all left their umbrellas and raincoats behind, and went up into the Land of Enchantments. It wasn’t a twilight land like the Land of Secrets; it was a land of strange colours and lights and shadows. Everything shone and shimmered and moved. Nothing stayed the same for more than a moment. It was beautiful and strange.

Enid Blyton was an indelible part of childhood for decades, but I wonder how her books compete with today’s Rowlings and Dragon Ball Zs and Nintendo DSs. I also wonder if she actually liked kids, as some of the troubles she visits on her characters for such dreadful crimes as being talkative, or curious seem extreme. Of course these books were written during the era where children were to be seen and not heard. Which despite the ambient prudery, has always given the Faraway Tree books a special place in my heart. This Blyton series always seemed more unfettered and wild to me, compared to the adventures of various numerically aligned gangs of whippersnappers that she trotted out.

The Folk of the Faraway Tree is the third in the series. As such Joe, Beth and Frannie have already discovered the magical tree that lead up into the clouds, inhabited by many strange characters. There’s their friend Moon-Face, whom as the illustrations depict has a very big face, just like a moon. The fairy Silky, who is more sensible than her lunar companion. Saucepan, who walks around clanging and banging, as he has tied many pots and pans to himself. He is quite deaf as a result. The Angry Pixie, who is well named and Dame Washalot, who does just that. At the top of the tree is a ladder leading into the clouds, where visitors find a strange series of lands that rotate every once and a while. The children visit the different lands with their friends from the tree and have many adventures.

One day Joe, Beth and Frannie are told by their mother that Curious Connie is coming to stay with them. They are not very happy at the news, as they think the little girl is far too spoilt and always asking annoying questions. Determined not to let her have her way during her visit, the children decide to bring her up the Faraway Tree, which should give her a good shock and stop her nonsense. Sadly after Connie arrives only to be greeted by the sight of Moonface walking down up to the door of their house with an invitation to tea, she happens upon a neat solution to her dilemma. She refuses to believe he exists.

Even after she climbs the Faraway Tree and has a series of unfortunate encounters with the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and Little Miss Muffet’s spider, she still will not accept the evidence of her own eyes. It is all far too silly. She also makes a firm enemy in Saucepan, whose deafness has a habit of clearing up when he is being insulted by obnoxious little girls. The children are further dismayed when they lose Connie in one of the lands above the Faraway Tree after she runs away in a fit of pique. When they follow, they discover the lands have already revolved and there is no sign of their trying charge. They will need all the help they can get, including some magic beans, giant-repellant and a tricky spell that keeps trying to escape them on its little red legs.

When I spoke to my local librarian about taking this book out, her face lit up with fond memories. The Faraway Tree series can still be admired for their wild imagination and cute adventures with a strange menagerie of trolls, pixies, giants and well-known figures from childhood rhymes.

There is also a very moral element to the proceedings, with Jack, Beth and Frannie always asking permission from their bemused mother to climb the Faraway Tree and only after doing their chores. Connie is shown to be spoiled and self-centred. Her various travails in the lands above the clouds serve to teach her a series of lessons in how to behave. This is reminiscent for me of Eustace in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is transformed from a selfish brat into yet another paragon of catholic virtue by the book’s conclusion.

With rich wordplay, some lovely illustrations and a cruel sense of humour, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed atop the Faraway Tree.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

Right, I’ve decided to try a themed week for the blog.

So from August 9th I will be hosting a Children’s Literature Week on ‘A Book A Day..’ choosing a selection of titles written for younger readers.

I have yet to read anything by Australian author Garth Nix, so I will include him on the list.

Also Damsel by Susan E. Connolly, a wonderful debut by a talented, young Irish writer.

Suggestions for further titles would be welcome. I have already read so much Tolkien, Pullman and Lewis I’ve got fauns and elves coming out of my ears. So I’m looking for something I have not yet encountered, preferably books set in the ‘real world’.

Let the experiment begin!

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

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