Books for young readers

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras has been praised for bringing the “Edwardian age deliciously to life”, but even if you don’t give a damn for Edward or his age, you should read this book. Geras has captured the child’s eye-view of life as a time of vulnerability and miracles with remarkable accuracy, and the utterly convincing voice of the young narrator is nothing  short of magical.

Apricots at Midnight is the story of Aunt Pinny’s girlhood, encapsulated in the patches on her quilt. Aunt Pinny (that’s Penelope Sophia Pintle to you and me) was born in London back in 1904, and began to make the quilt when she was “old enough to hold a needle”, at about five or six.  Sixty-odd years later,  the quilt is now on the guest bed where young Laura sleeps when staying with her aunt while her parents are abroad. Pinny tells the child bedtime stories about the history of the quilt’s patches, and so we hear about Pinny’s mother getting delayed while picking her up from school, about a visit to a cousin in the country, about a meeting with an army Major. All ordinary stories, sans flash-bangs of plot twists and revelations, but so saturated with quiet beauty that you’ll close this book with an ache in your heart for what it means to be very young.  Get this for the sensitive/odd/bookish child in your life–she will hold it close and cherish it for ever and ever.

Oh, and do check out Geras’s website–what an interesting person she is! And she’s written over ninety books for children, teens and adults. Ninety. Ninety. Ninety.

Note:  The book seems to be out of print (WHY?), but you should move heaven and earth to find it. I picked mine up at my library’s bi-annual used book sale, and my heartfelt thanks to the DeRuyter/Diletti family (who wrote their name on the first page) for kindly donating their copy.


When I heard about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s children’s fantasy The Conch Bearer (2003), I was quite thrilled.  PoC characters! Indian setting! By an award-winning writer! Divakaruni has won the Pushcart Prize and the Pen Oakland award (amongst others) for her adult fictions, and while I’ve sometimes found myself at odds with her prose and her positions, I have complete faith in her storytelling abilities.

Twelve-year-old Anand works at a tea-stall in modern-day Calcutta, earning a few miserable rupees each day for his mother and younger sister. His father has gone missing in Dubai, and it’s fallen to Anand to support his family.  One day, Anand meets the mysterious grey-bearded Abadhyatta who tells him about a special valley in the Himalayas that houses a brotherhood of wizard healers, who take care of a magic conch. The conch,  stolen by its former Keeper Surabhanu has recently been retrieved, and now must be returned to the valley.  Abadhyatta asks Anand to accompany him on the journey home, as the conch seems to have a special affinity for him. Joining them is a young girl, Nisha.

But the conch has an energy that alerts Surabhanu of its presence when used.  And careful, merely saying the evil one’s name out loud attracts the finger of his attention that periodically sweeps across the city. The conch has a mind of its own and carries its own dangers within–for instance, when Anand holds it, he feels a moment of terrible rage when Abadhyatta takes it back. And when Abhyadatta  goes missing in the early part of their adventure, danger dogs the children along the way. There’s the ape Grishan who speaks half-human language wants the treasure for his master. There’s a mountain rains down boulders and doesn’t let them pass. The only source of help for Anand and Nisha  is a squirrel-like creature Nisha befriends.

Let me get it out of the way–Divakaruni is treading very familiar ground (much of it of the Middle Earth strata) in this book, and the plot feels very derivative at times. The big question: do the India elements juice up the story enough to make it seem fresh?

Divakaruni’s writing is very fluid, and all the technical aspects of the novel are top-notch, but I’d guess that this book will not hold adults who’ve read their  reasonable share of fantasy. As someone who’s had a surfeit of hero-coming-of-age-during-a-quest narratives, the book was too thin to tip me into praise. But The Conch Bearer was written for children, and I think ten-year-olds will, for the most part, dive in eagerly.

What I did find fascinating was the way Divakaruni roots her story in Indian myths–there are some clever intersections that I wish she’d explored in more detail. The squirrel-as-helper, for instance, is a well-loved character in the Ramayana, and I’ve always loved how this myth demonstrates that the humblest of animals deserves compassion and respect. The magic conch itself is said to trace its origins back to the Mahabharata. Divakaruni writes that the Aswini Kumars, physicians to the gods, gave the conch to their sons Nakul and Sahadev, the youngest of the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata. When the two brothers used the conch to bring back the dead at the Battle of Kurukshetra, the conch was taken away from them as punishment. Divakaruni has tapped into an immensely rich seam here, and how I wish she had done more with it.

Note: The Conch Bearer is the first part of a trilogy, but works just fine as a stand-alone novel.

Goodbye, Eva Ibbotson

I read my first ever Eva Ibbotson  at at age nine or whereabouts, when I found Which Witch in my school library. The chronicle of Arriman the Awful’s  quest for a sufficiently wicked witch mate had every ingredient necessary to enchant a nine-year-old. There was a romance which acknowledged how vomit-inducing romance can seem to young readers, evil magic that wasn’t evil enough to satisfy the mighty wizard Arriman but plenty fun for this age group, a nice  secretary with a little tail, a heroic worm named Rover, and at least fifteen other secondary characters strong enough to command their own novels. Oh, and writing that begged to be read out loud. The ghost who wanders,  moaning with misery, striking his forehead with a plashing noise! Arriman, Loather of Light and Blighter of the Beautiful! Belladonna the good witch whose nose turns up at the end, making a resting place for tired ladybirds!

My library had only one Ibbotson, and I never found any others in Indian bookstores. Then high school and exams and misplaced priorities intruded, and I forgot all about Ibbotson till 2002, when a browse in a charity shop in England left me wobble-kneed with remembered happiness–and trepidation. Would Which Witch hold up to re-reading?

book cover of   Which Witch?   by  Eva Ibbotson

It did, and as with all of her other kidlit, still does. Ibbotson’s ten wondrous books for children include The Secret of Platform 13, which anticipated J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 and three-quarters by several years, Journey to the River Sea, a non-fantasy set in Brazil, and The Island of the Aunts, about an island inhabited by mermaids, selkies, and other magical creatures. Ibbotson never Disneyfied her stories–people die, adults are frequently cruel because they know they can get away with it, and authorities and institutions often harm those they are supposed to protect. The edge in her fantasies comes from reality, thus allowing adult readers to appreciate not just her inventiveness but her insight.

And now that I have a child of my own, I’m doubly grateful that Ibbotson’s young protagonists behave like real children. Her  creations are mulish and impetuous and sometimes downright naughty. They often have fierce (and sometimes misguided) loyalties, which leaves them terribly vulnerable to manipulation. The “good” children are fun and nice and hard-working, but never sweet. The disagreeable ones are lazy and selfish due to overindulgent parenting.  There are no bad seeds amongst  Ibbotson’s children, just improperly sown ones.

Another distinct thread in Ibbotson’s work is a horror of those who set great store by wealth or power. Her villains’ lust for riches leads to a gradual erosion of scruple, culminating in their indifference to human life. In The Island of the Aunts, Mr. Sprott’s love for money has twisted his perceptions till he “felt mistreated. If the aunts had sold him the Island as he wanted, he wouldn’t have to drown them now, and the children too. It was their own fault, really.” I should add that Ibbotson was careful to make the distinction between greed and ambition in her novels; children of course have always known the difference.

A similar pattern plays out in Ibbotson’s five romances, where true love’s triumph is hindered by secondary characters motivated by self-centeredness and greed.  Some of these romances seem even more fantastical than Ibbotson’s kidlit, featuring as they do wholesome heroines who are good and brave and eager to serve without reward, and heroes whose sole faults are misplaced jealousy and an excess of chivalry.  But the prose is remarkable, always  respecting the reader’s intelligence, and if the books sometimes feel like variations of the same novel, I’m mostly fine with it.

Ibbotson drew heavily on her Austrian background for her romances–A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift are both set against the Nazi take-over of the region, while Magic Flutes revolves around the opera houses of Vienna (and Viennese pastry gets its due share of the spotlight too). Despite their fairly complex plots, these romances were recently reissued as YA novels, presumably due to the lack of explicit sex scenes.   Consider yourselves warned–some of the YA imprints have different titles; forehead plashing may be occasioned after spending $ 9.99 on The Reluctant Heiress (2009) only to find that it’s Magic Flutes (1982).

The romances are fine in their own way, but it is the children’s books I come back to, over and over again, and I now wait for my son to discover Ibbotson in his turn. You never say good-bye to a beloved writer’s work, only au revoir.

Eva Ibbotson died on October 20, 2010, aged 85.


From the Guardian obituary: Eva Ibbotson, who has died peacefully at home aged 85, entranced her readers with stories which, though robust in substance, appeared to be effortlessly spun in the finest thread from an endless source of imagination. Descriptively vivid, richly inventive and shot through with perfectly timed wit, they charmed adults and children alike. She was best known for Journey to the River Sea, which won a Smarties prize and was runner-up for the 2001 Guardian children’s fiction prize, but she also won awards for other children’s books including The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) and The Star of Kazan (2004), and the Romantic Novelists’ Association award for her adult novel Magic Flutes (1982).

Multicultural kidlit goodness

One of my better parenting duties is choosing books for my three-year-old, but it’s often hard to locate  multicultural books which, in the words of Ig Nobel, “make you laugh and then make you think.” (Note the order!)  Enter Saffron Tree, a site featuring all sorts of multicultural books for kids. Their festival  Crocus, running from Oct 23rd to 30th, has games and themed book reviews and other cool stuff.  The site is based in India, but they review books from Everywhere.

Paper Tigers is another fantastic resource for those of us trying to avoid Disney in our homes. A website that “embraces multicultural books from or about anywhere in the world”, Paper Tigers is focusing on India for the months of October and November, with author interviews, reviews, essays,  and links galore.  Have you ever wondered why there are so few humorous multicultural books? Here’s what Uma Krishnaswami has to say in her thoughtful essay “Returning to Essential Questions“.

“Gifted writers Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith posed [the above] question at the Reading the World conference in San Francisco in 2004. They presented compelling evidence to support their position. Moreover, they forced me to look at my own work, to think about what I had loved to read as a child and to ask myself why I wasn’t writing that kind of book. Had I come to a point in my writing life where I was in danger of being too earnest? Of taking myself too seriously? Why was I even writing in the first place? Where was the joy?

It was time to return to those essential questions.”

Link via Crazy Quilts

I meant to post both these links earlier, but as always, life gets in the way of blogging.

Good books for middling days

What do you read when you’re unwell? I mostly read literature featuring dragons and witches and OTT villains and guaranteed happy endings. When a virus laid me low recently, I read an assortment of books aimed at 11-year-olds, two of which were good enough to make me glad I’d been sick. Almost.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart: This one is an old-fashioned children-on-an-adventure narrative, and it’s smashing. Four children possessing extra-ordinary skills (note: not super-powers) save us all from becoming mindless sheep (or are they too late already?) Anyway. Rennie is clever and brave,  Sticky is a bookish genius, Kate is strong and acrobatic, and Constance is contrary–a quality I haven’t appreciated as I ought till I read this book. The four must outwit a super-dastardly villain without further delay.

TMBS works as well as it does because the protagonists’ youth is critical to the plot–these children  aren’t  doing the CIA’s job, but theirs. And they have been chosen for their specific gifts, which makes the set-up a lot more convincing than, say, a Famous Five adventure where the characters rely mostly on Britishness and inquisitiveness to see them through. Also, I particularly liked that Stewart features many PoC characters without making a big deal of it. Sticky is brown-skinned, Rhonda Kazembe (a former child prodigy) is Zambian, and Rennie’s tutor Miss Perumal is from India, but you get the feeling that really, race does not matter in this universe; what’s important is the other race– to stop television turning us all into idiots. You can see why this book appeals to me…

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz: A well-written tale about a young girl’s involvement with Spiritualists in the early twentieth century. Maud, the least well-behaved child at the orphanage, would seem to have the least chances for adoption. But the charming Hyacinthe Hawthorne whisks her away from her miserable existence, plies her with ice-cream and Dickens novels and  new clothes, and convinces her to join the family business–faking spiritual encounters. For Hyacinthe and her two sisters are con artists who have embarked on their most promising  swindle yet–comforting a grieving mother with messages from her drowned daughter, and they need Maud to impersonate the dead girl. Maud must reconcile her desire to be loved by her adoptive family with her conscience, which proves a hardier organ than one might have initially suspected.

Many books of this ilk feature pedestrian prose that bows to King Plot, but Schlitz’s writing is never merely serviceable; she actively crafts her sentences to build up the atmosphere. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, there are many moments of genuine suspense and chills, mostly notably in young Maud’s terrible need to belong, and the consequent pressure to please all-powerful adult authority.  The recommended reading age is  Grade 4 to 8, but I’d place it at the highest end of the spectrum.

Read! Enjoy!