After a brief time of hibernation with the many amazing books we were gifted for Christmas, we are delighted to bring to you our first literature review of this shiny New Year and this particular one is something of a mould-breaker seeing as we’re reviewing just two books this month: both novels. But it is this idea of mould-breaking and the theme of acceptance that we wanted to explore and what better way than through the beautifully woven tapestry that is the much talked-about Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song and Ross Welford’s utterly beguiling The 1000 Year Old Boy? In terms of parallels (beyond being released with days of each other and both boasting stunning covers of a greeny-blue hue), we have distrust, entrapment, very strong male and female characters in each with no overt sense of gender-bias – always something to be applauded – but we also have acceptance and not just of one-another: acceptance, too, of that which we cannot change and of sacrifices that must be made in order to progress and live the best life possible; and so there are also themes of loss and grief. These are increasingly relevant themes to explore with children, we feel. Indeed, earlier this month, in much-celebrated author Kate DiCamillo’s letter on Matt de la Pena’s ‘importance of including the darker sides of life in stories for children’ article, quoted her childhood best friend’s response to the question in reference to Charlotte’s Web, ‘What was it that made you read and reread that book?’:
‘I kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently or thought that it would turn out differently, but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently. I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but when I read it again, it was all so beautiful. And I found out that I could bear it. That was what the story told me. That was what I needed to hear. That I could bear it somehow.’
This resonated with us as we all have books from our own childhood that –for whatever reason – taught us that we would be okay; that we were okay and that life can be hard but we are not alone and we will bear the difficulties.
(Simon & Schuster UK, 4th January 2018)
As other critics have said, this is indeed a story that is, at least on the surface, about belonging but we feel the themes run deeper than that. We feel that it is more about a sense of ‘otherness’ and acceptance. Eska is under the spell of The Ice Queen – a powerful force who has created distrust, bred hatred and is keeping the girl entrapped in a bewitched orb as if a ballerina in a music box, unable to move it seems unless the key is turned. But why the interest in Eska and for what gain does the Ice Queen keep her there? Flint is on an unending quest to find his Ma – taken, like most of the other tribes-people, for her voice on which the Ice Queen plans to feed in order to gain enough strength to rule over all of Erkenwald. The slightly reckless boy is one of the last people of Erkenwald, it would seem, to still believe in the power of magic and, disobeying his older brother who has become the tribe leader, one night he breeches the palace’s security and instead of rescuing his parents, finds himself face to face with Eska and becomes her reluctant rescuer. He is not best-pleased about the perceived burden that is having this stranger who will undoubtedly not be accepted by his own tribe but his fox-cub-pet, Pebble, thinks otherwise and makes it clear that Eska is to accompany them. But, actually, Eska needs no real rescuing for she has the heart and courage of a lion, it would seem and teaches Flint a thing or two.
Acceptance as a theme is so cleverly depicted through how Eska is the one with the open heart and mind: upon arriving at Deeproots, Flint’s home, Eska instantly accepts his younger sister Blu when many others do not: Flint reddened… he felt Eska’s eyes on him and he wondered whether she could see that Blu was different from everyone else in the tribe, that her eyes were smaller and sloping, like almonds, and that her words came out all jumbled …But when he glanced at Eska he saw that she wasn’t frowning. She wasn’t raising her eyebrows in disgust either, like some people did when they spoke to Blu.’
And it is this tackling of ‘otherness’ that we find the most powerful, most relevant in this day and age. This theme is further explored through the fact that Erkenwald’s tribes see each other as the enemy due to the metaphorical divide that The Ice Queen creates: her motto? Divide and Conquer. And, not that we would want to get political, but we can’t help but think that there are scary parallels to be drawn between this and a certain current world leader such is the hatred and distrust being bred in some parts of our world right now.
Really, at its heart, there is much in this beautifully crafted novel that is about what it is to feel like an outsider; about the courage it takes to be a lone voice against others. And in the words of Eska at a pivotal point in the story where not for the last time it appears that all is lost, she comforts Flint with the words, tears are just a warm-up for courage. Never a truer word was spoken, we think.
And, as a final thought on what is surely to be one of the most significant pieces of children’s literature this year, when one reads the author’s acknowledgements, it makes elements of the storyline all the more poignant. Knowing the heartbreak that the author experienced in the journey to parenthood, spending 3 months in hospital prior to the thankfully safe arrival of her baby and making her edits all the while, one cannot help but feel a little of that loss of hope and then the sense of renewed hope pouring out onto the pages. A must-read for any 9-11 year old and would work equally as well for whole-class literacy teaching through the text as it would for the teaching of a reading comprehension sequence.
(Harper Collins Children’s Books, 11th January 2018)
Not your average story-line this but so unutterably clever that it will spell-bind 10+ year olds. The story is told through the eyes of Aidan and Alfie - two boys who are seemingly of similar ages: one whose world has been turned upside down by the sudden house- move forced upon his family by an unfortunate set of circumstances; one who appears very different indeed with a twang to his Georgie accent that Aidan cannot quite place. But the steady, sparky old-before-her-time character that we were instantly drawn to is in the petite form that is Roxy Minto. It is Roxy who has spotted Alfie and his mother who somehow seem stuck in the past, living in an ancient-looking house in a part of the forest that is hidden from the rest of society. But when tragedy strikes, Alfie needs Roxy and Aiden’s help. Grieving the loss of his mother – something that he feels is his fault – the children help patch up his badly-burned arm, in an act of great tenderness, Aiden bathes Alfie, they feed him and provide him with a secret refuge. There are echoes of Skellig here as the children conceal and care for this strange being. But when Aiden’s younger sister Libby stumbles upon Alfie, his cover is blown and he is taken to a children’s home, having evaded ‘detection’ by anyone in an official capacity since… forever. He’s orphaned, has no obvious relatives and is only 11 years old… except he is not: he’s actually roughly 1011 years old, hails from Anglo-Saxon times and has lived through Viking invasions, two world wars and the 60’s yet hasn’t physically aged one bit.
The sense of betrayal that Alfie feels, suspecting Roxy and Alfie of breaking his trust and telling the police where he was hiding, is palpable and he seems utterly alone. But the children know his secret and, for the first time in hundreds of years, Alfie’s existence as a ‘Neverdead’ is acknowledged and accepted. But this business of eternal youth is tiring (and it is agelessness we are talking here; not immortality) and hiding is causing great weariness. And then there’s Aiden’s uncle Jasper, bearing the same odd-looking parallel scars on his upper arm as Alfie, and there appears to be a flicker of recognition between the two. Could he really be another Neverdead? And could they have met before? The memory of his bearded face leveling with mine on the creaking cargo boat all those years ago kept coming back and it scared me. Fear had replaced grief – and it was about to get worse.
But Alfie is nothing if not full of courage and knows he must set out on a quest to retrieve the last remaining ‘life-pearl’ that, once administered, will be the antidote to the first one that Alfie and his mother administered all those years ago and will restart the aging process: I just want to grow up, to be a man. I long to be in a hurry to do something before time runs out…to have friends like Aiden and Roxy, who will not look at me strangely, and then turn away from me when I fail to age like them.
Set in the present day with evocative flash-backs into many periods in history from the last 1000 years, this extremely clever and, at times delightfully hilarious (especially the bit about the school-trip), novel demonstrates the capacity that human-beings and, in particular, children have to accept and embrace difference. And we might have felt just a little tearful upon finishing reading this book: a highly satisfying and, at times, touching read.
Posted in: Literature Review