Children’s Fantasy: Eight of the Best – Part One
I do not write for children, but entirely for myself. Yet I do write for some children, and have done so from the beginning.
This wonderful, contradictory statement comes from Alan Garner, who merits a place – at least in my mind – at the high table of children’s fantasy literature. Garner continues:
Only recently have I come to realise that, when writing for myself, I am still writing for children; or, rather, for adolescents. By adolescence I mean an arbitrary age of somewhere between ten and eighteen. This group of people is the most important of all, and it makes the best audience. Few adults read with a comparable involvement.
Which is why children’s literature is so varied and vibrant a genre. And it’s why the best books transcend the label to embody the quintessential aspects of storytelling that appeal to the human spirit. When we think of children’s fantasy, we tend to picture Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien and, more recently, Rowling. Great names certainly, but we rarely stop to appreciate just how profound an influence such fantasy – branded for children – has had and is having on the genre as a whole.
The books that follow have withstood the test of time to become classics or classics in the making. Some I read as a child. Most I read as an adult or young adult, which only goes to show that their authors have created something timeless. Writing for young people can be harder than writing for adults. Children are less forgiving, sometimes more discerning and their ability to imagine is free from the inhibitions we naturally inherit as we grow.
I’d like to begin with a light discussion of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, whose first books were published in the 1960s, and follow through to authors still establishing themselves in the genre. To spice things up a bit, I also asked my bookseller colleagues at Waterstones to contribute, and you’ll find their recommendations in Part Two of this article.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
These novels are part of a trilogy that Garner completed with Boneland, a frankly bizarre novel for adults, published fifty years later. I read the earlier two around age fourteen and they had a profound influence on both my imagination and my desire to write fantasy.
Like Susan Cooper, myth – and the Arthurian myth in particular – plays a huge role in Garner’s depiction of Alderley Edge. Both authors draw on the history of real locations; local legend and landscape are integral to their stories. Garner grew up in this part of Cheshire and his familiarity and love for the land imbues his writing with a powerful sense of place. He uses the Hero Under the Hill motif to create Fundindelve, a magical set of caverns guarded by Merlin-like Cadellin. Within sleep one hundred and forty knights and their white steeds, until the time of Albion’s greatest need calls them to fight again.
Into this hidden world stumble siblings Colin and Susan, who must find and return the Weirdstone before evil triumphs. Tolkien’s influence is hugely apparent, as is Norse mythology, and the text is replete with wonderful names like Grimnir, the Svartmoot, Durathror and the lios-alfar. One passage reads:
There you see Arthog and Slinkveal, lords of the svart-alfar. Slinkveal is cunning past the thoughts of men, but Arthog it is who speaks, and carries out his brother’s word; and his heart is blacker than his hide.
Garner injects a real sense of menace into his writing. Heads frequently roll, bodies are run through and blood is spilt. The children are not exempt from suffering physical as well as psychological pain and their bravery in the face of evil is more impressive for it. One thing that really scared me in The Moon of Gomrath was the Brollachan, a body-snatcher that drives Susan’s soul out, causing her to flee across the stars to ride with the Shining Ones:
The Brollachan thrust her from the one level of the world that men are born to, down into the darkness and unformed life that is called Abred by wizards. From there she was lifted to the Threshold of the Summer Stars, as far beyond this world of yours as Abred is below: and few have ever gone so far, fewer still returned, and none at all unchanged.
Why you should read it:
Garner will not disappoint. These books are enriched by a deep, beautiful interweaving of myth, place and quest narrative. It is passages like those above and their utter seriousness that fired my young imagination. Full of strange, Tolkien-esque creatures good and bad, Garner’s stories are propelled by a palpable need to be told. By contrast, Susan Cooper’s storytelling does not share this gravitas, or – as I like to conceive it – the cold side of epic. Her prowess lies in power of observation and well-paced plot, so without further ado, let’s move on to:
The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.
These books are hypnotic, so much so that I actually found myself dreaming about them. One fact I deeply regret is not reading The Dark Is Rising Sequence as a child. In the days before Young Adult fiction, I recall picking up a volume and throwing it down in disgust after only a few pages, deeming it in my superior teenage wisdom too childish. It has taken me a decade to return to these books. If I had discovered them at protagonist Will’s age (he’s eleven), they would likely have blown my mind. Cooper excels at capturing mood. Take some examples from the first book in the sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone:
The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside.
In these few words, she captures that peculiar kind of depression one feels at being cooped up on a rainy day. And this scene in the attic of the Grey House evokes the childhood delight of finding old, wonderful (and often forbidden) treasures hidden by people long dead:
For half an hour they poked about in a happy dusty dream, through the junk and broken furniture and ornaments. It was like reading the story of somebody’s life, Jane thought, as she gazed at the tiny matchstick masts of the ship sailing motionless forever in the green glass bottle.
Perhaps it’s the period feel of Over Sea, Under Stone that alienated my teenage self, or the distinct lack of flashy magic. That latter reason is probably why so many people start with Cooper’s second book, The Dark Is Rising, which shares the title of the series and seems today to be the only one still in physical print. Admittedly that novel bears the more overt hallmarks of fantasy: its protagonist discovers magical powers, hunts ancient artefacts and pits himself against the Dark.
Cooper adds Arthurian myth to this traditional formula to create a story with a solid historical core. Whereas Great Uncle Merry’s true identity is only hinted at in Over Sea, Under Stone, it appears far more obvious in The Dark Is Rising. This is accompanied by a greater urgency. The children in Over Sea, Under Stone, while being entrusted with an important quest, are not treated to the same level of information as is Will, who is one of fantasy’s chosen. Yet Cooper highlights the fact that the Light is just as indifferent to the plight of the individual as the Dark. John Rowlands dubs the Old Ones ‘fanatics’ and accuses them of being concerned only with ‘the absolute good, ahead of all else’. Will responds that ‘there is only the destiny…We are here simply to save the world from the Dark’.
Why you should read it:
The Dark Is Rising Sequence is a classic of children’s literature, as well as a classic of the fantasy genre. The first book was published in 1965 and while that does result in some old-fashioned turns of phrase and behaviour, the story itself embodies the timeless adventure found in daydreams and lazy Sunday afternoons. The first book is a triumphant blend of Arthurian myth, Cornish history and Blyton escapade. And the second begins a titanic battle between the good old fantasy forces of Light and Dark told in a faintly elegiac and accessible prose.
The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
I’ve read two trilogies in the long-running Edge Chronicles: the Twig Trilogy beginning with Beyond the Deepwoods and the Quint (Twig’s father) Trilogy beginning with The Curse of the Gloamglozer. Both are spectacular works of imaginative fantasy, enriched by artwork from the wonderful Chris Riddell, and are exciting and heart-breaking in equal measure. If you like the sound of sky pirates in ships buoyed by floating rocks, you’ll find that they are only the beginning. The world of the Edge is replete with bizarre creatures – banderbears, spindlebugs, cloddertrogs and cloudeaters to name a few – and settings, not least of all the fearsome Deepwoods where Twig’s story begins. I’ve never encountered quite so many diverse races, all of them fully fleshed and explored in detail.
Traditional swash-buckling adventure combined with dark tests of nerve creates books unafraid to shock or scare. Speaking of the curious, sparkling glisters in The Curse of the Gloamglozer, Maris says:
There are many tales…Some say they are the lost souls of those academics who died away from Sanctaphrax, far from the white ravens who would have picked their bones clean and sent their souls soaring up to open sky… Some say they are Deepwoods demons…nameless ones, from the darkest reaches of the forest. Others, that they are the spirits of the stonecomb itself…
Why you should read it:
The Edge Chronicles are still being written, so you have plenty to explore. As is the case with the other books I’ve mentioned so far, these stories stand outside the recent gender argument surrounding ‘books for boys, books for girls’. They are for the adventurer in everyone, a heady whirl of excitement, danger, companionship, exploration and growth to be enjoyed whatever your age. If you don’t fall in love with Twig, you certainly will with Quint, and I challenge you not to be intrigued by the mysterious Stone Pilot. One word of warning before you begin: do not expect happy endings.
Next time we will take a look at five more amazing authors as well as some suggestions from my colleagues at Waterstones.