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Treasure Islands: a guide to Scottish fiction
for young readers aged 10–14 is published by ASLS to help
teachers, parents and general readers find quality works of fiction. We are
well aware that our selection is far from comprehensive, and we intend to
expand on it on this website. If you have favourite Scottish novels or
collections of stories which you would like to recommend to young readers, we
shall be delighted to consider adding them to our selection. Please send your
suggestions, ideally using the format of the current entries, to
How to use this guide
The entry for each text outlines the setting of the story, its plot and main
characters. It says something about themes and offers an appreciative comment; it
also suggests the age range within which the work is most likely to be of interest,
and its level of reading demand for that range. The compiling group is convinced
that all of the chosen works are worth introducing to young readers. We emphasise
however that each entry is a statement by one member of the group, and not a
consensus verdict by committee. Personal differences in attitude and style are
therefore to be expected.
For convenience of reference we have arranged our notes into categories according to
our judgements of the type of text. We are well aware that it is not possible to do
this with much precision since category names are largely arbitrary and tend
moreover to overlap. One novel can be a historical horror story, another a humorous
fantasy, and yet another an animal story about a hunted outsider. Nonetheless we
have thought it helpful on balance to arrange our notes in the following groupings:
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Supernatural and Horror
We have also supplied some keywords as a quick summary for each text. We have made very
rough-and-ready suggestions about the likely interest and age range of each work
within the years 10–14. Again we do this tentatively in the knowledge that it is
rash to generalise about the types of texts likely to be psychologically best
suited to any stage of development.
As further guidance, we have identified for each age range 3 broad reading levels
suggesting linguistic demand:
- texts which in their language are likely to be immediately accessible to
readers in the indicated age range,
- those which are likely to be reasonably straightforward for readers in
- those which are likely to be more demanding for readers in that range.
These levels are the most problematic of our codings. Experienced teachers are wary of
such indicators for they know that if young people alight upon a text dealing with
something that interests them, they are willing to persevere at a level that
stretches and extends their reading skills. We recognise also that skilled reading
aloud can make difficult texts more accessible to insecure readers.
The publication details in each note are, we believe, accurate. Wherever possible
these include the date of the first edition and the ISBN of the most recent edition,
whether that is currently in print or not.
the Wars of
|THE BLACK ARROW
Robert Louis Stevenson
Cassell, 1888 (op); 1st World Library, 2004, ISBN: 1595405119
Stevenson, who famously tended to deprecate his own work, underestimated
the quality of The Black Arrow when he dismissed it as
‘tushery’ and a ‘pot boiler’. Set among the woodlands
and shores of fifteenth century Suffolk, this action-crammed tale of revenge
describes the escapades of young Richard Shelton as he experiences the vicious
anarchy of the Wars of the Roses. As in Treasure Island and
Kidnapped, the hero learns to his cost the moral ambiguities of the
colourful adults with whom he has to deal. The ward of a treacherous local
magnate, Dick finds that his developing macho attitudes are challenged by the
clinging companionship of a lad whom he regards half affectionately as a
‘milksop’. When he eventually discovers that this wimp is a girl,
Joanna, in disguise, romance develops. Seeing her dressed as a woman, he is
‘instantly taken with a feeling of diffidence’ and for the first
time perceives her to be in some way superior to himself.
This is the most bloody and
violent of Stevenson’s stories for young readers. Dick himself has
already acquired bad habits of casual killing, and the arrival of his namesake,
the youthful Richard, Duke of Gloucester, strikingly evokes a pathologically
murderous warlord in the ascendancy. The climactic battle for Shoreby is a
chilling Brueghelesque panorama of carnage – in the snow, at sea, in
moonlight, on the streets and in the woods. As love for Joanna begins to shift
Dick’s values, he remorsefully quits the pitiless male disciplines of
war, and in the end, implausibly perhaps, they ‘dwelt apart from alarms
in the green forest where their love began’.
This novel certainly presents
challenges to today’s young reader – its contrived archaism of
dialogue, the complexities of the plot, and the shifting ambivalences of the
main protagonists. But it remains well worth reading both in its own right and
as a companion piece to Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Dick’s harrowing encounter with the hooded leper bears comparison, for
example, with the episodes involving blind Pew and the Mull catechist in these
Brockhampton Press, 1959 (op); White Lion Publishers, 1977, ISBN: 0856862428 (op)
A great wee adventure story for 11- to 13-year-olds, Border Riding is
set in the wild and empty spaces of the Border countryside between Hawick and
Jedburgh in Scotland and Hexham in England.
Fiona MacBride has journeyed
from her Hebridean island home to visit Ken Rutherford and his family on their
farm in the south of Scotland. Ken is horse mad and has recently received a
new horse, Demon. Desperate to show Fiona his home terrain, he can’t
wait to be up in the saddle and off to introduce her to the hills and moors of
the Border landscape. Fiona, worried about the inadequacy of her riding
skills, is rather concerned by Ken’s enthusiasm, but determined to
follow as best she can. She is soon enjoying the wide open spaces of the
hills, managing well on the more sedate pony, Walter Scott.
The day before the Common Riding
begins calmly with fair weather and a good itinerary but, as with all great
adventures, ‘things do not go according to plan’. Mist descends
and despite all Ken’s endeavours and knowledge of the hills the pair are
lost and spend the night outdoors. They are awakened by unusual sheep
activity. Ken soon realises they are witnessing the work of sheep stealers,
modern day border reivers ...
Tranter brings together all the
elements of a very exciting adventure – mystery, danger, traditions,
tension and heroism.
Contributed by Lorna M J Kerr
Floris Books, 2005, ISBN: 0863155316
Here we have villainy and sleuthing rampant in the douce environs of
Comely Bank, Orchard Brae and Stockbridge. This is deepest Rebus territory,
but Mike Nicholson does not offer young readers an exploration of the heart of
Edinburgh’s darkness. On the contrary, the story is a daft, high spirited
romp involving Fergus and Murdo, two inquisitive youngsters whose friendship is
triggered during the school holidays when they are confronted by an eerie
coincidence. It turns out that their flashy hi-tech watches both start to run
backwards at exactly the same spot, a manhole cover in Comely Bank Avenue. They
are also confronted with a simultaneous but apparently separate enigma in the
disappearance of several local pet cats. These two strands of mystery are
skilfully kept apart and run parallel, allowing suspense to build. What could
the malfunctioning watches possibly have to do with the disappearing cats?
The two boy detectives conduct
their quest with all the routines of formal police procedures: they establish
their ‘incident room’ in Murdo’s father’s caravan,
collating evidence, tailing suspects and staking out premises.
Murdo is an intense, geeky lad
much given to enthusiastic fact-finding and cataloguing, whereas Fergus is
cooler, and shrewdly observant. Despite these differences in temperament they
share a quirky sense of humour and work well together in their gumshoe
investigations. Across the generations there also develops an alliance of age
and youth as they enlist the help of frail but feisty Jessie Jenkins, an
elderly widow who practises karati, can abseil, and is an expert silver
surfer. Keeping an eye on their puzzling behaviour are suspicious parents, an
irate neighbour, a supercilious teenage sister and a tolerant community police
The felony which they finally
hunt down is satisfyingly bizarre, far-fetched but neatly worked out. Their
criminal mastermind turns out to be a demented fishmonger who schemes to
dominate the market for catfood, and for that purpose keeps 500 doped cats
experimentally penned underground in old, forgotten vaults under Raeburn Place.
Catscape is a light, entertaining read which purveys improbable mischief
in everyday surroundings. There is a frisson or two of danger but no real harm
is done, even to the cats, and the villains eventually have their collars
fingered by the police. This sprightly yarn which may well inspire some young
readers to contrive a short crime mystery for their own home patch.
DICK RODNEY, or, THE ADVENTURES OF AN ETON BOY
Routledge, 1863 (op); George Routledge and Sons, ‘new edition’ no date, (1870?) (op)
This novel’s theme is the Victorian equivalent of ‘gap
year’ adventuring. The year is 1861. Dick Rodney, the narrator, reveals
himself as a callow youth very conscious of being a recent alumnus of Eton
College. When he finds himself accidentally adrift off the Devon coast on a
foundering schooner, he is rescued by an outward bound brig the Eugenie,
but there is no avoiding a lengthy voyage to Cuba and Capetown. This trading
enterprise succumbs to many hazards and disasters, and when Dick miraculously
survives and returns home ‘tempered by a year of adversity’, he
soberly resolves to take his father’s advice and pursue further study at
The story is an archetypal
boy’s nautical yarn with no significant female presence. It strings
together a sequence of gaudy incidents: a tornado, fire at sea, mutiny,
murder, shipwreck, survival on a remote island, and fabled treasure. There is
narrative pace, though with occasional doldrums, and some fine description of
exotic settings. Character tends to stereotyping but the melodramatic Hispanic
villain, El Cubano, is a genuinely fearsome creation who by farfetched
coincidences manages to haunt Dick throughout the voyage. The culminating
chase on Tenerife that leads to his execution by garrotting is thoroughly
gruesome. One protagonist, Mark Hislop, the Scottish mate of the Eugenie,
is nicely individualised. He proves to be a highly competent and reliable
seaman. A devout Christian, he is also an autodidact who bores his mates with
his encyclopaedic knowledge but also uses it to save their lives.
assumption of the global potency of “the The great scarlet ensign of
‘Old England’ ... floating from the gaff peak of an English
man-of-war” reads oddly today but the novel may still attract confident
young readers interested in stories of the sea.
ORDERS TO POACH
Collins, 1942 (op); Fidra Books 2006, ISBN: 0955191025
In the range of Scottish fiction for young readers, this recently
reprinted novel is probably unique. It was concocted in 1940 by a teenager of
aristocratic background to amuse her younger sisters when they were living on
their own, in effect as evacuees, at Inverewe in Wester Ross. Within the genre
of the Highland holiday adventure it is highly distinctive not only in its
setting and subject matter but also in the assumptions made by its young
Set in the 1930s the fictional
location of Carrick is very clearly based on the deer forests of the remote
Letterewe wilderness. The four Stewarts and their two friends are a pack of
upper-class youngsters come north for the summer to their familiar haunts on
the ancestral estate. Unfortunately their father, an impoverished army officer
serving abroad, has had to let his ground to a comically obnoxious tenant, Mr
Drake, an industrialist who refuses to permit the fishing and stalking required
to keep the sporting property in good condition. In circumstances recalling
Buchan’s John Macnab Stewart has however encouraged his family to
carry out clandestine poaching for salmon and stags under the noses of
Drake’s imported guards.
Ninian Stewart, a newly fledged
Old Etonian, is a sensible, confident lad who acts in loco parentis in
maintaining discipline in the group. His seventeen-year-old sister Fiona, a
debutante fresh from her triumphant London season, is a crack shot obsessed by
an urge to stalk red deer. Their friend Hugh from a neighbouring estate is an
officer cadet at Sandhurst. Cousin Sandy an orphan from Skye, and two younger
twins complete the raiding party.
Carrying out their father’s
wishes, the kilted poachers range freely in a series of hide-and-seek hunting
forays, sometimes living rough in a wet, hilly terrain. They have boat-handling
skills, can use rods and rifles, and are all enthusiastic and expert killers
of salmon, sea trout and stags. They gralloch deer without flinching.
The dialogue carries odd traces
of Ransome, Blyton and early Mitford. Without any real adolescent angst, there
is nonetheless effective treatment of the interplay of youthful personalities
in their various exploits.
Autobiographical elements are
only partly digested in this quite lengthy story. The author seems to share
her characters’ upper-class code of values in an unproblematic way.
Although, significantly, the Stewarts can speak Gaelic, an innocent condescension
colours the descriptions of domestic staff, ghillies and local crofters. The
novel’s striking virtue, which makes it well worth attempting, is its
graphic representation of extreme outward-bound high jinks in the
STRANGER ON THE RIVER
Kailyards Press, 1999 (op); Glowworm Books, 2002, ISBN: 1871512816
This lively, clearly told adventure story offers an original mix of
attractions. It focuses on a group of youngsters who attend primary school in
Glenmellish, a small lochside town which has many similarities to Inveraray
in Argyll. Val, an enterprising 11-year-old, joins with her classmates in
foiling a plot by a ruthless gang to poison the Mellish river and poach its
salmon. These experiences lead to a maturing friendship with the slow-learning
son of an unemployed ghillie.
The narrative neatly
incorporates environmental issues. Val’s parents who are regarded as
‘white settlers’ are striving to establish an organic fish farm
on the loch. Themes that emerge include the ecology of the river, the
symbolism of the life cycle of the salmon and the role of the foreign absentee
owner of the Glenmellish estate. While the colourful community of local
characters such as the police constable, the teacher and the game keeper
recalls the cast of a TV soap, there are other intriguing echoes, ranging from
Hedderwick’s Katie Morag to Gunn’s Highland River.
Assorted pet and working dogs romp, sniff and bay their way through the
escapade helping to trap the poachers. The leaders of the gang, who are both
English, are satisfactorily villainous stereotypes, one being a Cockney thug,
and the other a Cruella de Ville-ish harridan. At the climax of events the
mysterious Arab laird, ‘the Sheikh’, materialises out of the skies
in his helicopter bringing a pledge of future prosperity for Glenmellish.
Sue Gerber’s vivid line
drawings interpret the text very attentively.
|THE SINGING FOREST
H Mortimer Batten
Blackwood, 1955 (op); Puffin, 1958, ISBN: 0140301143 (op)
This novel explores a potent theme of animal fiction – the fate of
a young creature in distress reared domestically by humans until the call of
the wild asserts itself. (See also Michael Morpurgo’s The Last Wolf
and Dick King-Smith’s The Water Horse.)
The writer, a practical
naturalist with firsthand experience of the world of Highland stalking, traces
the life cycle of a red deer pet-named Corrie, from its rescue by the laird
as a tiny calf, to its heroic maturity as a fourteen-pointer stag and
subsequent decline into old age. The vividly detailed episodes include
encounters with early predators, forest fire, rutting, commercial poachers
with sten guns, severe winter blizzards and starvation.
The setting is a deer forest
somewhere in the eastern Grampians with its castle and attached village –
a secluded territory into which the concerns of the larger post-war world of
the 1940s seldom intrude. In the structure of the novel there is a contrast
between the paternal community of an old-fashioned sporting estate and the
harsh natural history of a herd of deer within its rough bounds.
The relationships of the laird
and his family with the estate workers and cottagers are sentimentalised but
their ambivalence towards the deer is nicely treated. They conserve, love and
admire the beasts but ultimately they kill them for their sport, and they
adhere to the stern selective code of stalking which culls the weak and
elderly so that the quality of the herd may be maintained. Such moral dilemmas
of ‘country sports’ are still likely to interest some young readers
Any author who has chosen to
empathise with the personality of a wild creature faces the final challenge
of how to round off the animal’s life. Readers who are moved by what
happens to Corrie in the end, might compare Batten’s approach with that
of David Stephen in String Lug the Fox (1950) and also Henry Williamson’s
classic resolution in Tarka the Otter (1927).
THE WATER HORSE
Viking, 1990, (op); Puffin, 1992, ISBN: 0140342842 (op)
Starting on the shores of Moidart in 1930 this captivating short novel for
younger readers traces the first three years in the life of a sea creature
who is fated to mature into the Loch Ness Monster.
After a ferocious storm Kirstie
and her young brother Angus find in a rock pool a strange square-shaped egg.
Deposited overnight in salted water in the bath, it yields up at tiny
water-horse whom their mother nicknames Crusoe. With the support of their
carnaptious grandfather known as Grumble, and despite shrewd maternal
misgivings, the children undertake to nurse and protect Crusoe who may well be
a legendary Kelpie.
The story reveals how family
attitudes change in response to the challenge of providing secretly for the
needs of an improbably growing water beastie, who progresses in stages from
the bath to the garden pond and out to a neighbouring lochan. An amusing
parallel is drawn between the instinctive, voracious appetites of Crusoe and
From the first, the real
wildness of the delightful little monster is emphasised, but he becomes too
tame for his own good, and has to be trained to lie low. Ironically from the
pond-level perspective of young Crusoe, Kirstie and her brother are seen as
the ‘Giants’. Three years later, after various alarming escapades,
it is clear that the by-now huge creature will somehow have to be safely
relocated. But how and where? On the return home of father, a merchant seaman,
a happy solution is achieved – involving a cattle float and a string of
Almost immediately afterwards,
in April 1933, a newspaper reports the first sighting of a monster
‘rolling and plunging’ in Loch Ness.
King-Smith’s treatment of
this warm-hearted animal fantasy is deceptively simple. While the Highland
setting is only lightly suggested, personalities of humans and animals are
well drawn, and the theme touches on serious matters of responsibilities in
wildlife rescue and care.
|CAMERONS ON THE HILLS
Macmillan, 1963 (op); Black Knight, 1965, ISBN: 0340039876 (op)
It is the Easter holidays and the three Cameron youngsters (Shona aged 13,
Neil, 11 and Donald, 7) are visiting their strong-minded aunt, a writer who
lives on her own on the outskirts of a small highland village.
The period seems to be the late
1950s and the setting is one of the Clearance glens in a fictional area of
Easter Ross below the Ben Wyvis massif. Brooding over the landscape is the
local big hill, Ben Vannish: foreshortened, mysterious, changeable in mood and
demanding respect. The two boys arrive determined to carry their favourite
pennants to its summit in the heroic style of Hillary and Tensing, but events
disabuse them and underline the message that hills can be dangerous: a late
spring snowstorm, a ’plane crash, and a mountain rescue in which the
young Camerons and their shepherd friends are able to save a baby lost from
A key figure in these
developments is Angus, the kindly but quietly formidable head shepherd who had
once worked as a cattleman in South America and had seen war service as a
piper in the Seaforth Highlanders. Like his friend Miss Cameron he is
self-sufficient. He is content to live with his two dogs high up in the glen
where he feels some kind of communion with the spirit of Ben Vannish and the
cunning old Royal stag which haunts its corries. Among the other wild creatures
he deals with in vivid episodes are a savage killer dog and a distressed
family of swans.
Events are seen through the eyes
of Shona, a sensitive and considerate girl who at times finds her young
brothers’ temperamental squabbles difficult to handle. She takes a
motherly pride in the esprit of her little Cameron clan.
The novel has its own version of
a happy folktale ending with the discovery of a long lost, if very modest-sized,
crock of gold. We are also left with the thought that the Camerons may one day
make it to the distant top of Ben Vannish when they are older ... or perhaps
not, for there is a slightly wistful echo of To the Lighthouse in this
Some young readers of
contemporary adventure fiction may find this story of holiday experiences in
the Highlands too quiet and uneventful for their tastes. That would be a pity
for it is a gently perceptive treatment of how children interact with their
This is the second of 3 novels
featuring the holiday exploits of the Cameron family in the Highlands, the
others being Camerons on the Train (1963) and Camerons at the
THE GIFT BOAT
Macmillan, 2004; Macmillan, 2005, ISBN: 0330420852
This contemporary story is set in the coastal town of Stonehaven with its old harbour and its steep streets where ‘it was always uphill going home’.
Gavin Robinson is nearly eleven,
and for his birthday Granddad Robbie has been building a beautifully detailed
model of an old fishing trawler. When Robbie is suddenly plunged into the
coma of a severe cerebral stroke, Gavin becomes progressively more obsessed
with a mission to help him regain his faculties. The grim course of the stroke
is charted unflinchingly.
The environment of a busy
modern hospital is tellingly conveyed: the anxious waiting beside the bed
trolley in a corridor of the casualty unit; the kindly, sometimes exhausted
staff; their mix of nationalities; the patient skills of the physiotherapist...
We see also the practical
problems faced by the Robinson family: three generations in the one household;
making meals, keeping jobs going, attending school, walking a lazy dog; and at
the same time fitting in regular visits to and from Aberdeen Royal hospital
16 miles away.
The narrative is strangely
deepened by allusions to the folk tale of the selchies or seal folk, and the
presence of a seal which occasionally surfaces in Stonehaven harbour. There is
a hint that the Robinsons, a seafaring family for generations, have, like the
legendary McCodrums, affinities to the selchies. It may even be that old
Robbie’s prognosis hangs on propitiating their skulking seal, who has
been offended in some unfathomable way. How will Gavin cope with his
unhealthily intense involvement in his grandfather’s future, the seal
and the unfinished model trawler?
This complex but economic little
novel for confident readers offers an unsettling even traumatic insight into
the impact of illness. To some, the introduction of an ancient myth may seem,
in more senses than one, far-fetched; but there is no denying
Dickinson’s powerful combination of poetic fantasy and sensitively
Corgi Books, 2003, ISBN: 055254986X
In this novel a historic Scots burgh is the setting for strange events.
Young Sam Burns tells of a haunting episode that rescues his family from the
consequences of a tragic accident. Their lives have recently been blighted by
the accidental death of 10-year-old sister Alice; the father has been reduced
to the state of an apathetic couch potato and the mother has surrendered to a
frantic whirl of community activities. Sam and his younger bother Jamie have
also been deeply affected. Sensitised by the loss of his sister, Sam
encounters across the centuries the wraith of another tragic girl, Janet. The
pregnant daughter of a 15th century Provost of the town, she is angrily cast
off by her father and languishes among plague victims in the isolated
compound called the Scabbit Isle. The narrative shifts and shades between
past and present until Sam’s growing courage and love lay Janet’s
soul to rest in a consummation involving the gift of a precious handkerchief
that had belonged to his sister Alice.The plight of Shakespeare’s Juliet,
also spurned by an angry father, enriches the theme via an unexpectedly
powerful English lesson. With the release of Janet, the whole Burns family
finds a redeeming purpose and vitality. The town’s secondary school
proves a supportive environment for Sam. Its wise and influential janitor can
tame bullies and produce an Elvis rendering when required; the scatty but
enthusiastic history teacher puts Sam on the track of the story of the plague
colony, and an inspirational English teacher brings life to the text of Romeo
This is a generously warm and
lyrical ghost story.
STRANGERS AT THE DOOR
Brockhampton Press, 1967 (op); Children’s Book Club, 1967, ISBN: 340040904 (op)
This novel makes an intriguing comparison with the much more recent
Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard (See Treasure Islands, page
14). In both narratives foreigners unexpectedly turn up at a remote West
Highland estate and prove that they are its legal proprietors. Their plans to
evict the sitting occupants are frustrated by ingenious local youngsters.
‘Home was home then, my dear – a palace in the wild.’
Between 1950 and 1975 Elinor
Lyon produced a sequence of 7 West Highland novels featuring the experiences
of Sovra, Ian and Cathie. Among these are The House in Hiding (1950),
The Dream Hunters (1966) and The King of Grey Corrie (1975).
Strangers at the Door
presents a late summer holiday episode in a location suggesting the
Morar/Mallaig area. Melvick is a run-down lochside village with a railway
station, a harbour, two hotels and a few guest houses. Alastair, the young
disabled laird, is doing his best to revitalise his ancestral inheritance
despite his own lack of funds. He is helped to outwit the would-be new owners
by his orphaned cousin Cathie, Sovra and Ian, the children of the local GP,
and two local lads. These become engaged, sometimes as edgy rivals, in solving
the crucial mystery of Alastair’s feckless ancestor and his lost money.
Written and set in the 1960s
this story may now seem dated to some young readers, but it has enduring
qualities. It reveals a distinctive mix of unshowy observation and dramatic
action with caves and boats. Adolescent temperaments are sharply
differentiated and there is an eye for wild landscapes, seascapes and
Highland weathers. Using the motif of a nostalgic poem by R.L. Stevenson, the
sobering theme is shown to be the value and vulnerability of remote little
communities such as Melvick:
Sheena Blackhall, Hamish MacDonald
Itchy Coo, 2003; ISBN: 1902927729
This groundbreaking volume juxtaposes for young readers two novellas in
Scots. The lively stories are told throughout in distinctive dialects.
MacDonald’s The Girnin Gates deploys a highly inventive, phonetic
version of the patter of the Glasgow conurbation, whereas Blackhall’s
Loon uses confidently the whole range of the strong Doric of the North
East. The two pieces make a stimulating pair, for though they are very
different in language and in tone, they share intriguing similarities which
Both occur in the recent past,
and are identifiably set in ordinary municipal housing estates, Garscadden on
Clydeside and Bridge of Don on the northern fringe of Aberdeen (lightly
disguised), places which have rarely been fictionalised. Gilbert and Donnie,
the first person narrators, are resilient teenagers who believe, often
rightly, that they are being put upon and unjustly blamed by parents and
teachers. They live among feckless, damaged adults whose own prospects have
been stunted by poverty and unemployment. Across perilous social frontiers the
youngsters catch glimpses of the fabled otherworlds of Milngavie and Auld
Both narratives are
reminiscences about growing up, episodic mixings of domestic tragedy and comic
knockabout. Outlying countryside is shown as a liberating influence on the
youngsters’ constricted lives, and an element of magic and mystery is
crucial to both plots ... the ominous black swan of the Forth and Clyde canal
and the talking white hare of Braegarr.
The endings are hopeful:
Gilbert’s aspirations successfully break out through the phantasmagoric
gates of the long demolished mansion house of Garscadden, and finally
Donnie’s mother declares she is ‘affa prood’ of him. One
attraction of these short texts is that they may well tempt young readers to
use their own familiar laguage forms to make fiction out of their own
experiences and locale. They should be encouraged to persist with both
stories, to enjoy their striking differences and similarities.
THE GARBAGE KING
Macmillan, 2003; Heinemann, 2004, ISBN: 0435130544
Contemporary African child poverty and exploitation are the urgent themes
of this story. For many young readers it is likely to prove an eye-opener. The
setting is in and around Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, in the wake of
years of bloody conflict. Elizabeth Laird does not preach, but she dramatises
her concerns through a compassionate narrative interweaving the lives of a
few young inhabitants of this chaotic and vibrant city.
Mamo and Dani, unknown to each
other, are both on the run in the lanes of Addis. Mamo, an illiterate orphan
of uncertain age, has been trafficked into agricultural serfdom up-country,
but has absconded back to town nearly dead from eating poisonous plants. On
the other side of the social gulf Dani, who is the dreamy, sheltered child of
an élite family, has run away from his luxurious gated compound, and from his
father, a tyrannical business tycoon who despises his son as a loser.
Unwittingly as the two struggle to survive on the downtown streets, their
tracks begin to converge until, seeking shelter for the night, they collide
terrifyingly in what turns out to be a tomb. Viewed through each other’s
uncomprehending eyes they appear at first as ‘a filthy ragged beggar
boy’ and ‘a soft rich kid’.
Their salvation is that they and
their foundling puppy are absorbed for a time into the society of a little
gang of beggars led by Million, a shrewd but volatile youngster with his own
code of brotherhood. Under the harsh tutelage of this natural leader they
begin to mature and take some pride in themselves as ‘Black Survivors’.
They also reveal unsuspected talents, Mamo as a scavenger, salesman and singer;
and Dani as a spellbinding teller of tales. One of the great strengths of the
novel is the subtlety of relationships and feelings among the desperately
poor children in Million’s group. The outcome hangs deftly on two female
sub-plots involving Mamo’s older sister and Dani’s invalid mother.
We can be fairly confident that
in the end Mamo and Dani will come through, achieving independence and respect;
but what of Million and his disease-racked lost boys, his ever changing tribe
of vulnerable street kids, as they disappear into the swirling traffic of Addis?
Elizabeth Laird has also
collected some of the folk tales of Ethiopia in
When the World Began, Oxford University Press, 2001.
THE YOUNG BARBARIANS
Hodder, 1901 (op); BiblioBazaar, 2009; ISBN: 1103962450
This largely forgotten novel seems to be the only account of the
experiences of boys under the stern regime of the ancient burgh grammar
schools of Scotland. The institution, Muirton Seminary, on its terrace by the
North Inch of the Tay, is based on the old Perth Academy around 1860, and the
general location of Muirton is very clearly Perth. The format is a series of
mischievous escapades involving a gang of classmates led by the irrepressible
Speug, son of a horse dealer. Superficially structure and subject matter
recall the contemporary Stalkey and Co (1899), but the work is much
more soft-centred than Kipling’s brutal masterpiece.
The narrator is a successful
old boy of Muirton. He sounds nostalgically self-satisfied as he recalls,
forty years on, the harsh golden days of the Seminary from which it has now
sadly deteriorated into refinement. His preferred metaphors are military: the
school’s business is to regiment and civilize young savages. Life is
seen as a campaign of running battles, with teachers, other pupils, municipal
dignitaries, farmers and rival schools. One vivid set-piece occurs when a
November snowstorm wraps the town, and police and teachers turn a blind eye
to protracted snowball street-fighting which rages in the vennels around the
Seminary. We learn that the staunch-hearted Speug and Co are destined for
death and glory in the imperial fields of Matabeleland and Egypt, or for
fortune as bankers, industrialists and academics. The most influential
teacher of these lads o’ pairts is the ferocious Bulldog, a mathematical
martinet who beats boys into wisdom but conceals a warm humanity. Girls play
no part in any of the episodes.
With its mawkish sentiment and
stock characters the novel may well be off-putting to some, but it is also
genuinely amusing and vigorous. In the vein of Tom Brown, Harry
Potter and Malarkey it succeeds in catching the rituals and barely
contained anarchy of school life which young readers will still recognize. Not
far ahead in the future lie the schoolboy comics of DC Thomson in Dundee.
Hodder, 2003, ISBN: 0340855576
Set in Edinburgh in 1822, the grim beginning of this novel describes a
mastectomy operation conducted without anaesthetics. It is performed with
panache as a demonstration before an audience of male medical students who
applaud the surgeon; but the young mother dies in agony a few days later. Her
apparently secure family rapidly disintegrates as the husband deserts young
Robbie and Essie, leaving them in terrible poverty. The children struggle to
survive the degradation of the stinking closes which feed into the Old
Town’s Canongate, Cowgate and Grassmarket. The narrative focuses
closely on Robbie’s developing obsessional urge to take revenge on the
surgeon, Dr Robert Knox, who, he believes, killed his mother. In the course of
his vendetta he is lured into the dubious dealings of Burke and Hare who
supply Knox with fresh corpses for dissection. Over the years, however, the
wheel of plot turns full ironic circle when Robbie is saved by Knox’s
skills and then later becomes a distinguished surgeon in his own right.
The portrayal of Robbie and Dr
Knox is convincingly complex, and major themes are vividly explored in the
context of a historic city famed for its medicine, its theology and its
squalor. Why does God permit the torments of disease and poverty that the two
children witness? In alleviating suffering do gifted doctors defy God’s
will? Does He actually exist?
Some young readers will find
this arresting novel too gruesome for their tastes: the lurid filth of
Fleshmarket Close is presented unsparingly ... everywhere there seem to be
live rats, dead cats, stinking carcasses from the markets, starving infants,
drunken prostitutes. In one episode of particularly Gothic nightmare Robbie
finds himself attacked in a dark Tolbooth cell by an unspeakable lunatic. In
fact the ghastly detail is layered on so thickly that it occasionally risks
slipping into unintentional comedy. Against all this horror, the beauty of
violin music is a recurring motif.
Really enterprising readers may
find it interesting to compare Morgan’s fictionalised account of the
fatal operation with the original version to be found in Dr John Brown’s
reminiscence of his days as an Edinburgh medical student, Rab and His
A NATION AGAIN
Mammoth, 2000; ISBN: 0749743484
This brief and graphic work for younger readers packages together fiction
and history in a moving response to the creation of Scotland’s new
parliament in 1999.
‘The things that happen to Annie in the story happened to many
people at that time.’
She is a poor, hungry
10-year-old girl, a ‘wee sparrow’, living near Kelso in 1699. The
crops have failed in the ‘ill years’ and her family is starving.
When her mother dies and her father Tam in desperation joins the Darien
enterprise, Annie at first lives with her relatives in the town. Later when
she hears a rumour that Tam has returned to Scotland, she resolutely sets out
northwards to find him.
Annie Weir, the young heroine,
is seen by the author as typical of her generation:
She meets up with cattle drovers
and then becomes a bonded child labourer working with her father in the
Lothian coal mines until he perishes in a fire underground. Gradually as she
is growing up, her natural talent for singing brings her into contact with
cultivated local gentry, the Clerks of Penicuik, and with a kind, lively
youngster, Alan Ramsay, who has ambitions to be a poet. She is drawn with him
into the political excitements and controversies of Edinburgh, and witnesses
on the streets the dying throes of the old Scottish parliament in 1707.
Despite all the chicaneries of the politicians, the two youngsters remain
confident that some day Scotland ‘will be a nation again’.
This is an unusually challenging
little book which casts a fictional historical light upon our present-day
Scottish affairs. In the story the political sympathies of Alison Prince are
clearly on the side of an independent Scotland, but in the second part of the
text she appends a simple, informative account of the persons and issues
involved in Annie’s adventures. Taking the two sections together young
readers and their teachers may also find links into other areas such as
Scottish poetry and folk song:
‘their melodies ran in her mind like a secret happiness’.
What are the words and tune of
Annie’s favourite song, ‘Bide ye Yet’? What does the music
of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik sound like today?
Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN: 0521476291
The year is 1819 and the setting is Robert Owen’s famed cotton
mills on the River Clyde at New Lanark. Christina Sinclair, the poor widow of
a Caithness fisherman recently drowned at sea, has shepherded her flock of
five children south in hope of work. Over one summer and autumn the novel
vividly records the family’s reactions to an alien, strictly regulated
industrial regime – from a first encounter with Owen their eccentric
new Maister, to the culminating destruction of one his great mills
through arson. The Sinclairs manage to survive the near fatal malice of an
orphan lad who is jealous of Owen’s interest in the family. The
children’s temperaments are nicely distinguished, ranging from the
redheaded determination of the teenager Henny to the poetical dreaminess of
little Betty who narrowly escapes drowning in the river.
At the heart of the narrative
is the theme of liberty in its various forms. The children, for example,
relish their illicit freedom to explore the wild moonlit Bonnington Woods
which stretch upstream to the Falls of Clyde. This opportunity is contrasted
to the tyrannous timekeeping of Kelly’s Clock which governs the whole
life of the factory and its village. The character of Owen himself embodies a
similar contrast: he is shown as benevolent and passionately convinced of the
liberating value of education, but is at the same time an obsessive control
freak in managing his workforce. A political thread is woven into the
narrative with references to the old radical emblem of the Tree of Liberty,
which the children believe may be found in the woods, and rumours of the
contemporary slaughter of Manchester workers at Peterloo.
This well researched novel,
which is directly and simply told with a colouring of Scots dialogue, is part
of a systematic reading scheme for English primary schools which takes account
of the requirements of Key Stage 2, Extended Reading. At the same time it can
stand very well in its own right as stimulating fiction dealing with important
ideas. The convincingly realised description of the mill community and the
workings of water power offer possibilities for use in support of visits to
the remarkable World Heritage site at New Lanark.
|MY FRIEND MR LEAKEY
J B S Haldane
Cresset Press, 1937 (op); Jane Nissen Books, 2004, ISBN: 1903252199
JBS Haldane, the great Scottish evolutionary scientist, once advanced the
paradox that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but
queerer than we CAN suppose’. Playfully he illustrated this notion in a
set of six weird and wonderful tales which quirkily mix magic, science and
The first three stories feature
Mr Leakey who appears as a timid little fellow rescued by the narrator from
the London traffic, but is later revealed to be a potent sorcerer. Unlike his
contemporary Professor Branestawm (Norman Hunter, 1933), he is not a dotty
Heath-Robinsonish inventor, but is a genial polymath who displays magical powers
blended with odd scientific knowledge which he is keen to impart.
In the first episode the narrator
is entertained to dinner in Mr Leakey’s home and meets his domestic staff
including the butler, Abdu’l Makkar, an ornately deferential but murderous
djinn; Oliver the octopus who waits at table, and the little dragon Pompey who
doubles as a cooking stove. Thereafter Leakey transports his new friend for a
day-trip on his magic carpet to revisit old acquaintances in India. This permits
an amusing low-orbit environmental survey of much of the planet. Finally, back
in London, Leakey holds a fancy dress party where he allows his guests to
metamorphose into any identity they please. One boy becomes a Rolls Royce and
a girl is transformed into Shakespeare. The narrator chooses to be the Toucan
on a Guinness advert and another guest asks to be changed into an atom of caesium.
After this diverting function ‘some of us went home by magic carpet,
some by tube and some by bus’.
Though the final three tales do
not explicitly involve Leakey, his tone of voice is detectable in the brisk
storytelling. The first of these has folk echoes. Clever Jack, a youngest son,
enters a competition to rid the Port of London Authority of an infestation of
rats. By means of electromagnetism he outwits the highly adaptable rodents and
wins the hand of the chairman’s beautiful daughter. In the second tale
Esplendido, a nasty mining plutocrat with a taste for gold bling and exotic
pets, meets his just deserts inside one of his crocodiles. The concluding episode
introduces a kindly shopkeeper in Wandsworth who sells nicknacks such as magical
collar-studs, and turns out to be the immortal naiad of London’s neglected
The background detail of
Haldane’s stories is firmly rooted in the 1930s and needs some explaining,
but their appeal is by no means dated. The simple style and knockabout humour
should still make them suitable for younger readers, and they are impishly
enriched with serious ideas.
Bodley Head, 2004; Red Fox, 2005, ISBN: 0099456265
Through this intensely romantic tale of Michael and Annie, two star-crossed
teenagers, there flows a sad old song, the Border ballad of Annan Water.
The contemporary setting is the
Duggans’ small equestrian business in the vicinity of the River Annan
in Dumfriesshire. This is a struggling husband-and wife concern heavily
dependent on the assistance of the son Michael who has a gift for handling
horses, but truants frequently from school. The recent accidental death of
Joanne, his young sister, has left him so depressed that he can see no clear
future for himself.
By chance or fate, he first
encounters Annie on the river verge. A traumatised girl who seems to have been
abused by her father, she flaunts her alienation luridly in Goth-style
dressing, with facial studs and rings, and self-cutting scars. Her father is
in prison and she is living with her invalid mother on the far side of the
Annan at a point where there is only a makeshift ferry crossing.
As Annie discovers a liberating
interest in horses, and also in Michael, he becomes infatuated by her, but is
also haunted by fragments of the old ballad which keep surfacing from memories
of his grandmother’s singing. When disturbing parallels begin to emerge,
it gradually dawns on him that he is somehow being compelled to live out the
events of the ballad until its engulfing conclusion.
The story moves swiftly and
graphically: the soul-destroying grind of commercial horse showing and dealing
is persuasively conveyed, and there is a touching appreciation of how the
personalities of horses and humans interact. The way in which the plot of the
ballad invades and finally dominates the lives of Michael and Annie is handled
with great skill. Even those young readers who find it all a little too neatly
contrived may be surprised into a tear by the slow-burning fuse of the
novel’s ending. Its last riddling pages are likely to generate much
Faber and Faber, 1971, ISBN: 0571096395 (op)
Set in the late 1960s this is a romantic tale of first love which
incorporates a strand of the old Celtic seal legends. Three teenage cousins
come together during their school holidays on the family estate of Carrigona,
a fictitious island in the Inner Hebrides, ‘like Mull only smaller’.
Carrigona is the archetypal
‘small isle’, furnished with ancestral castle, ruined medieval
chapel and a nature reserve with a long established seal colony. Its colourful
history involves an early Celtic saint and a Spanish survivor of an Armada
The three youngsters are free of
immediate parental supervision. Toby, the young laird, is an orphan;
Catriona’s mother who has a share in the estate is in an Edinburgh
hospital, and Miranda, a stranger to the others, seldom sees her wealthy,
separated parents. Anny, the castle housekeeper, feels obliged therefore to
keep an eye on their more wayward ploys and relatively innocent sexual
Catriona, a barefoot wild child,
is intensely, desperately in love with her older cousin, but Toby for his part
is obsessed mainly by his interest in seals. The arrival from London of their
remote, sophisticated cousin Miranda is a threat to their relationship:
‘heavy expense and continental finish were written all over her’.
With her exotic beauty she seems a throwback to the sixteenth century and her
ancestor, the unhappy witchlike Lucy, whose mesmeric portrait still hangs in
the Hall, and whose father was the Spaniard who came ashore from the galleon.
At one point when Miranda learns to to sing and play on the guitar the
island’s ancient seal-charming song, she seems fleetingly to shift shape
and become Lucy. Moreover the ancient mirrors in the castle flicker to
From an early age Miranda’s
personality has been damaged by her parents’ thoughtless rejection and
she reveals a capacity for spiteful mischief when the future of Carrigona’s
seal colony is threatened by culling. By the end of the novel she has however
developed a new maturity, at the same time laying to rest the unhappy spirit
At the heart of the story is an
entertaining account of the messy business of hand-rearing a deserted baby seal,
Plushet, who fixes on Toby as his substitute mother. This comedy nicely
counterbalances the darker, more mystical elements of the seal mythology.
Today the author’s knowingly
allusive style may not suit some young readers: the resident colony of bats in
the castle dining room is, for example, described as ‘fluttering
rhythmically behind Miranda’s back as though tracing a Bach fugue on the
air.’ Others however will appreciate the rich blending of legend and
natural history to explore adolescent relationships in this inventive
Hutchinson, 1970; ISBN: 0091028906 (op)
O I forbid ye, maidens a’
That wear gowd on your hair
To come or gae by Carterhaugh
For young Tam Lin is there.
This romance of perilous young love may not be to all tastes but it is
nonetheless a well-told tale which cleverly links two themes from traditional
Scots balladry – those of family feuding and rescue from fairy thraldom.
The setting is Carterhaugh tower on the verge of the great forest of Ettrick
in the Scottish Borders. The period is vaguely medieval, at a time when old
pagan beliefs seem, locally at least, to be more influential than Christianity.
Seonaid the laird’s daughter, who will be 17 at the Hallowmass festival,
has become infatuated by fleeting encounters with a beautiful but doomed young
man, Tamlane, rumoured to be Lord Roxburgh’s grandson. He must be rescued
from the enchantments of the Queen of the Fairies who haunts the wildwood.
‘Food’s ready,’ she said. ‘Come and get it while
The narrative is encrusted with
lush imagery which is sometimes distracting, but it does not really impair the
structure or movement of the the story. The confection of eerie superstition,
violence and stubborn love is likely to appeal to young readers who enjoy
historical fiction. If so, they should be encouraged to explore also the
traditional ballads ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas Rymer’ and
perhaps other related works such as Andrew Lang’s The Gold of
Fairnilee (1888) and Naomi Mitchison’s The Big House (1950).
Some may also try a more demanding novel of enchantment in the Border forests,
John Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927).
Hallowmass eve brings to
Carterhaugh the weird Guisers’ play ‘Galatian’ (Galoshins)
performed by a band of masked visitors. When a marauder from the Queen
infiltrates the revels and murders Seonaid’s brother, he triggers a
blood feud between two neighbouring lairdly families. In the ensuing confict
Seonaid finds herself bewildered in the woods, but when her father is later
killed in the course of the feuding, she draws upon new-found resolve and acts
decisively as the new laird. Tenaciously enduring the fearsome transformations
that Tamlane must undergo, she wins him back from the Queen. In the great hall
of Carterhaugh all ends well for the happy couple in a glow of unexpected
domesticity which verges amusingly on bathos:
World War I
Mammoth, 2000, ISBN: 0749739525
‘What’s the trouble, Tommy?’ asks the teacher one day. It
turns out that young Tommy Cameron is burdened by many troubles, but one
particularly serious problem is that he has difficulties with reading and
writing. His classmates gleefully pick up and chant the question as a jeering
nickname, ‘Tommy Trouble’. Tommy’s father, on whom he dotes,
has inexplicably deserted his family, leaving his wife to look after Tommy and
a baby sister. Under this strain she has difficulty in coping, with the result
that the lad is left at times to fend for himself.
The simple narrative focuses on
the village’s Remembrance Day ceremony which Tommy wanders into by
chance. He cannot understand what is going on, but is intrigued by the engraved
‘black squiggles’ on the war memorial. Later he explores and cleans
these inscriptions laboriously. To his surprise he discovers that he is able
to decipher what appears to be his own name – another Tommy of course,
‘Private Thomas Cameron’ who had died at Ypres in 1917.
What follows from this momentous
discovery includes friendship with a sympathetic elderly war veteran; facing
up to bullies who try to vandalise the memorial; realisation that he has
promising talent at football, and the growing interest of Kathleen, a younger
girl. Gradually Tommy is learning to read and ceasing to be an outsider.
This touching little story
glances at serious themes in a way that is likely to appeal to younger,
tentative readers. Its spirited, optimistic tone is reflected in the raucous
presence of the crows who swirl around the village trees. They seem to be
fellow free spirits, and Tommy’s own latent joie de vivre
responds spontaneously to their wild calls of CRAAK!
Harrap, 1973, ISBN: 024552066X (op)
This richly overloaded fantasy exploits the popular formula for summer
adventures in Highlands. The MacDonalds with their three children seem the
decent, nicely balanced, middle-class family which typifies such stories.
During a month’s stay in their holiday cottage in Mull, they are
conscientiously striving to be kind to a moody teenage guest, Kate. Though
she has come up from London, Kate is proud of her O’Neill antecedents
on Barra, and prefers to be called Bridie. She turns out to be self-deluding,
hungry for attention and traumatised by her unhappy relationship with her
mother. Despite the MacDonalds’ good intentions she does not fit in well.
Impending trouble is signalled
during a disquieting excursion to the ancient hill fort of Dunadd. When later
a nocturnal time-shift occurs, the four young people are transported through
the years to the forests and mosses of sixth century Dalriada, and their
identities begin to fuse strangely with their Scottish tribal predecessors.
They are caught up in the crisis of the tribe whose young leader, Aidan, has
been badly wounded in battle against encroaching northern Picts. Bridie the
outsider emerges as the tribe’s imperious princess/priestess, while the
oldest MacDonald lad John, who is a medical student, appears to have been
summoned back in order to save his blood ancestor Aidan by means of primitive
transfusion surgery. The authority of the old faith is being challenged by the
incoming Christianity of Columba on Iona, and a charismatic pagan priest,
Briochan, serves as villain of the piece. In the end the youngsters are
narrowly and mysteriously saved from drowning, perhaps by Columba, and are
restored unharmed to twentieth century Mull. They are all vaguely puzzled that
they seem to share what they call their ‘Dream of Dalriada’. Did
it really happen? What is clear is that Bridie is finally winning through to
a new maturity and self knowledge.
The story’s context and
plot are contemporary with the time of writing, in the early 1970s, but the
resultant dated references and assumptions are not damagingly obtrusive. To
some young readers however the indirect, rather coy treatment of teenage
relationships may now seem naive. Despite occasional overwritten descriptions
and unintentionally comic moments of celtic twilight, this novel stands out
as an ingenious, ambitious effort to weave together adolescent psychology and
pre-christian celtic myths. It displays moreover an authentic feeling for the
landscape and early history of mid-Argyll.
Good and Evil
THE CHAOS CLOCK
Floris Books, 2003, ISBN: 0863154220
Time is running out. Kate and David, ordinary youngsters leading
unremarkable lives, find themselves challenged to rescue their world from the
seductive powers of cosmic disorder.
This archetypal plot takes many
forms in film, TV and fantasy fiction: Gill Arbuthnott’s highly
ingenious version centring on the city of Edinburgh places the emphasis upon
dark forces threatening the orderly sequence of Time. As Edinburgh is
apparently a place where history is peculiarly near the surface, it is a
fertile site for the malign Lightning King to enact a final cataclysm
releasing past times to swirl up anarchically from the abyss and install the
reign of chaos. Seismic tremors will awaken Arthur’s Seat and the
Romans will return to Cramond fort; simultaneously the Nor Loch will
repossess Princes Street Gardens, and Greyfriars Bobby will wander the
kirkyard once more. And what better catalyst for this disaster than the
creation of an elaborate new clock in the Royal Museum to celebrate the
coming of the Millennium in 2000?
The museum, with the adjoining
new Museum of Scotland, is the focus of the narrative since it is a popular
venue for children such as David and Kate undertaking school projects. Not
only does it house the strange clock; it also displays a cache of ancient
weapons dredged from Duddingston Loch. The story supposes that this Hoard is
the potently charged relic of a mysterious battle in the Bronze Age between
the powers of good and evil.
The vulnerable young minds of
Kate and David are infiltrated by nightmarish personal temptations, but with
the aid of old Mr Flowerdew, a near immortal Guardian of Time, the pair
manage to tame the Clock, which is in danger of running wild. In a lunar
eclipse, struggling with the demonic forces of the Lightning King, they also
succeed in returning the Duddingston Hoard safely to the waters of the loch.
Thereby the ‘rip in time’ is healed and Edinburgh returns to its
douce normality as if nothing untoward had happened – at least for the
time being. The novel moves swiftly through brief and telling chapters, and
the differing atmospheres of Kate’s and David’s households are
skilfully sketched. Young readers may well find something to argue about in
the improbabilities of this fantasy so firmly located in contemporary
Edinburgh. The book could undoubtedly be a lively stimulus for exploring the
two Chambers Street museums.
Further time-shifting mischief
from the Lords of Chaos is the theme of
The Chaos Quest (2004).
PETER PAN IN SCARLET
Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN: 019272620X
This novel is being marketed as ‘the official sequel’ to J M
Barrie’s two main Peter Pan texts of 1904 and 1911. Its
designation raises expectations and questions. How much does the young reader
need to know of the detail of the original fiction? How far are Barrie’s
themes and his unique tone maintained?
‘And nothing in life shall sever
McCaughrean is ingenious in
making the introductory links. Some twenty years have passed; the date is 1926
and the intervening Great War has left its impact. The surviving lost boys,
who are now comically middle-aged professionals, reconvene because they have
been having bad dreams. Organised by the very competent Mrs Wendy they conclude
that Peter Pan is in some kind of danger, and manage with difficulty to fly
themselves back to Neverland as children.
Peter is still there but his
island has changed for the worse. The summerlands have gone from green to
stormy red and autumnal orange. Things are falling apart and Neverland is now
assuming the arid vistas of the Wasteland: the world is unravelling.
Hook of course has long ago been
swallowed, if not digested, by his crocodile. Peter has no idea of what has
become of Tinkerbell, but there are other fairies and new protagonists, most
notably a grotesque circus ringmaster, The Great Ravello. This hooded, fraying
presence attended by his faithful bodyguard of performing bears, becomes
Peter’s obsequious and admirable valet (his original name was Crichton!).
Under his influence, Peter, who has already donned Hook’s old scarlet
coat and Eton cravat, grows wildly autocratic. He conscripts the lost boys as
his ‘company of explorers’ in a white knuckle adventure to yomp
the wilds of Neverland, and make the perilous ascent of Neverpeak in search of
Hook’s lost treasure chest.
As this expedition nears its
climax both Peter and Ravello seem more and more like the late Hook. Singing
The Eton Boating Song, the pair fight it out in a blizzard:
The chain that is round us now.’
In the best Barrie tradition the treasure turns out be whatever you want it
But all disasters in Neverland
are miraculously reversible. With the help of time the environment is
self-repairing. Hook and Peter are reassuringly restored to their eternal
conflict, and Wendy and the Boys can win back via Kirriemuir on a raft of lost
perambulators to their waiting families in London. Is it purely coincidence
that Ravello is an anagram of All Over?
The narrative is agile and
amusing, with rich metaphoric inventiveness and fine control of prose rhythms.
After Barrie’s fashion it is confiding, but McCaughrean’s tone is
not Barrie’s: it is too sane, humane and companionable. This fantasy is
not a simple read, but adventurous young readers should find it exhilarating.
One integral delight is the elegant silhouette illustrations by David Wyatt.
Anyone who becomes hooked on Pan
should also look into the original Peter and Wendy of 1911 and another
recent spin-off, Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley
PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS
Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
Hyperion Books for Children, 2004; ISBN: 0786854456
This cheeky American take on the myth of Peter Pan displaces
Barrie’s fey nuances in favour of highly entertaining but simple
stereotypes. Young readers are likely to be drawn to its wisecracking dialogue
and the precipitate rush of ingeniously contrived incidents over 79 very short
chapters, many with teasing, page-turning final sentences.
Peter and his four orphanage
friends are consigned for slavery on a rat-ridden old sailing ship the
Never Land which, as its name suggests, seems doomed to founder at sea.
Underpinning the yarn is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, between the
Starcatchers and the Others for possession of a treasure chest of
‘starstuff’. This is a magically potent and dangerous heavy-metal
powder of which a large quantity had fallen to earth in Scotland. In many
skirmishes at sea and on land we encounter the piratical Black Stache who
loses his left hand in a duel with Peter; we also meet the attendant cast of
mermaids, the tribal inhabitants of a tropical island, and of course a
malevolent crocodile. In the end good prevails; Peter has learned to fly and
is fated to remain immortally a boy on the island. Tinkerbell emerges from the
starstuff as his jealous protector.
The novel seems designed to be
the first stage of a three-volume prequel tied into a projected Disney film.
As yet there are no traces of Bloomsbury and the Darling household, but we can
see where the narrative is heading. The final, tearful disappointment of the
plucky heroine Molly foreshadows the coming of Wendy.
THE PIRATES IN THE DEEP GREEN SEA
Macmillan, 1949 (op); Jane Nissen Books, 2000, ISBN: 1903252067
Imagine that our Earth has always depended for its spherical shape on a
great network of intersecting submarine cables; and that these are what we
familiarly know as the parallels of longitude and latitude. What would happen
if the security of this global grid were under threat from terrorists who
planned to cut its vital knots? On this grand question of world order and
chaos is based Linklater’s fantastical comic romp.
The period is shortly after the Second World War. Huw and Timothy are the
schoolboy sons of Horatio Spens, the eccentric laird of Popinsay, a small
Orkney island. A retired naval commander, Horatio is one-legged, explosively
irate and impoverished; his housekeeper is a bad cook, the old family home is
leaky and dilapidated, and not surprisingly his wife has gone off to live in
South Africa. The two lads however accept their odd way of life as normal.
Family tradition has it that a
wrecked pirate ship lies in the deep water below the Popinsay cliffs, and that
its captain was a Spens ancestor. Into this remote northern backwater, on
latitude 59 north and longitude 4 west, there floats an apparently immortal
survivor of the battle of Trafalgar, and a delightfully camp, singing octopus…
Now read on.
The story contains all the
ingredients of pantomime. It embodies a clash between forces of evil and good.
A magical potion allows humans to live in the depths of the sea, where
presides that benevolent mythic figure, Davy Jones. Talking animals and
mermaids abound. The main protagonists are nasty villains, youthful heroes,
comical elders and dames. The final battle brings a thoroughly satisfactory
happy ending involving the welcome discovery of treasure, and family fortunes
The classic components are all
there, but Linklater’s keen and stylish sense of the absurd ensures
that the outcome is not formulaic. The storytelling may be more extended than
is usual nowadays, but it is by no means dated. For many younger readers it
is likely to remain accessible and highly entertaining.
THE WEE FREE MEN
Doubleday, 2003; Corgi Books, 2004, ISBN: 0552549053
This playful fantasy is highly inventive in ideas and language. It
will challenge and delight confident young readers.
‘Crivvens – I could murderrr a kebab.’
This tiny tartan army is reiving
across the Downs in search of a new clan matriarch and thinks that Tiffany, as
a potential wise woman or Hag, will meet their requirements.
9-year-old Tiffany lives on her
family’s sheep farm in a strange terrain evoking the Sussex Downs, with
echoes of Kipling’s Pook’s Hill. A sharp-witted girl, she
is determined to qualify as a witch, and the story has a traditional folk
motif. She has to strive to rescue her baby brother from the wintry underworld
of the Queen of Fairy. On to this scene, from under Tiffany’s bed,
emerges a disreputable clan of six-inch, blue skinned redheads The Nac Mac
Feegle, half Picts, half pixies. The creed of these ‘wee free men’
is lying, stealing, fighting and boozing. Wee and sleekit they may be, but
they are also incurably pugnacious in the ‘You lookin’ at me,
Jimmy?’ mode. They speak a dialect that amalgamates The Broons,
The Patter and Chewin the Fat:
With the highly irregular help
of the wee free men and a lawyer aptly mutated into a toad Tiffany confronts
all the dreamlike torments and and transformations deployed by the Queen. In
an echo of the Tam Lin story her steadfastness wins back not only baby
Wentworth but also the son of the local Baron. Finally she is received into
the sisterhood of witches and the Wee Frees retreat bashfully to seek a more
suitable matriarch elsewhere. A demanding theme of the novel is
Tiffany’s maturing awareness of the Gaia-like harmony and power of the
ancient chalk downlands with their underlying traces of geological change and
centuries of human impact:
‘For ever and ever, wold without end.’
THE WIND TAMER
P R Morrison
Bloomsbury, 2006, ISBN: 0747579784
This novel draws in the young reader with early, unnerving signs that all is not quite right in the apparently normal Stringweed household.
On the arrival of his
tenth birthday young Archie discovers that in the times of his medieval
ancestors his unfortunate family name had actually been Strongwood. The loss
of vitality suggested by these shifted vowels was evidence of a crusader
curse that had blighted the family for centuries.
Its oldest sons were
doomed to be decent, but dull; diffident and wimpish. Archie’s father
Jeffrey, the local bank manager, was in this lacklustre mould; and Archie
himself is fated to fall under the same thrall now that he has reached the age
Set in Westervoe village
in a contemporary landscape very much like that of Orkney, the story has some
similarities to Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea.
Menace harnesses environmental forces of wind and wave on the grand scale. A
demonic tornado named Huigor is approaching Westervoe in order to fix the
curse upon Archie. Its advance is heralded by malicious talking winds and
strangely localised snow storms. How is the jinx to be frustrated? One
complication is the puzzling, slightly shifty nature of the relationship
between Jeffrey and his wife Cecille, who seems to be troubled by some
To Archie’s aid
flies in Uncle Rufus, an unconventional, enterprising world traveller with a
secret to be revealed later. Rufus, an adventurer with his own private Cessna
plane, is a second son, and is thus not immobilised by the curse. Flocks of
icegulls, beautifully elemental fantasy seabirds, also rally to Archie’s
The plot is complex,
with ingredients of mystery and suspense within an ordinary domestic setting.
There is convincing detail of the comically lethargic untidiness of the
Stringweed household and of the attitudes of Archie’s school friends.
In a fashion familiar
from computer games the narrative moves through hazards to a climax of fantasy
as the boy, newly made confident like his Strongwood forebears, challenges
with his dagger the power of Huigor, defuses the ancient curse on his family
and thereby resolves all mysteries. The contrived heroism of this hilltop
finale is hard to take seriously but it is certainly exuberant good fun,
icegulls and all.
Good and evil
Floris Books, 2005, ISBN: 0863155308
Set in a village in the East Neuk of Fife, Gill Arbuthnott’s latest
rich fantasy once again tells of young people struggling to save the world
from malign environmental powers. It daringly works out large themes in a
Two related stories intertwine
through the narrative. One of these, discovered in concealed journals,
portrays a trio of 18th century girls who innocently use magic in the hope of
mitigating bad harvests but are persecuted cruelly for witchcraft. In the
other, present-day story Josh and Callie are teenagers who become acquainted
during an unseasonably cold summer holiday in Pitmillie (Pittenweem?). Though
initially wary of each other, they soon team up when they bizarrely find
themselves rescuing what appears to be a dying Ice-man, who is, like Otzi,
thawing out in Constantine’s cave on the coast. He turns out to be a
being from the realms of primal myth – the Winter King, chosen consort
of the Summer Queen who governs the balance of the seasons. With his help and
the efforts of a contemporary coven of elderly ladies-who-lunch, the
youngsters try to defeat the advance of global ice as huge troll-like
creatures, the Winterbringers, lumber up the freezing beaches around St
In 1704 when their spells took
them to the beautiful Winter Queen and they saw the Kingfisher, what had the
three young witches done that undermined her beneficent rule? Across three
hundred years were they in some way guilty for what was now happening? Is it
significant that the unconventional Callie and her equally eccentric
grandmother are descendants of Janet, the girl who wrote the tragic journals?
This fast-moving novel is
entertainingly, improbably, complicated at times and its tone varies with a
sensitive control of image and language. Interested young readers might set it
beside Catherine Forde’s very different portrayal of youthful dabblings
in witchcraft in The Drowning Pond (2005).
THE WITCH OF CLATTERINGSHAWS
Jonathan Cape, 2005; Red Fox, 2006, ISBN: 0099464063
Two lively English youngsters venture north from London and encounter
adventures in the strange otherworld of Caledonia. This familiar plot
underlies the short, ‘speedy’ novel which is the concluding
instalment of Joan Aiken’s exuberant 11-part counterfactual fantasy,
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It can be enjoyed in its own right but
may well send enthusiastic readers back to explore earlier episodes in the
‘I knew that it was going to have to be a short book, as I am
growing old and didn’t have the energy for a long one.’
Joan Aitken died 4 months after she wrote these words.
The irrepressibly plebeian lass
Dido Twite and her diffident companion Piers, ‘the Woodlouse’,
Crackenthorpe are hunting for genealogical credentials that will release their
friend Simon, Duke of Battersea, from his new and very unwelcome chores as
King of England. When their train passes Roman Wall in the Borders, crosses a
great metal bridge and terminates in the lochside town of Clatteringshaws, they
emerge into a hilariously caricatured version of Scotland. The weather is
dreich and the neighbouring Loch Grieve boasts both a monster and a
ship-swallowing, Corrievreckan-style whirlpool. The dourly belligerent Picts,
who roll their Rs, subsist on a diet of porridge, kippers, oatcakes, drappit
eggs and ‘Highland Malt’. Malise, an amiable witch who is cousin
to the Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies a ‘disused ladies
convenience’ in a coach park by the loch. She doubles as district social
worker and health visitor. Everywhere there lurk infestations of small,
unspeakable nocturnal pests, the hobyahs, who devour anything or anyone they
The villain of the piece is the
grotesque Mrs Phemie McClan, the grasping proprietor of a local old folks
residential home, who plots with reactionary courtiers from St Jim’s
Palace in London to have her odious son installed as King. Needless to say,
their schemes are thwarted by Malise and her friend the Tatzelwurm monster.
After a cancelled fixture of war with an invading army of Wends, the Woodlouse
is identified as true monarch, and events hasten to a happy ending which
carries the hope of romance between Dido and Simon.
This entertaining little fantasy
reveals some sharper edges in, for example, the descriptions of
Phemie’s sad geriatric residents (‘the death’s-heads’).
It also bravely offers young readers, as an Afterword, the
author’s reasons for finishing her story with some ‘wild
leaps’ and some things unexplained:
|THE DROWNING POND
Egmont, 2005, ISBN: 1405221763
Class 4c’s project may focus on witchcraft but this disturbing novel
of school life takes young readers far from the ambience of Hogwarts. The
story concerns five teenage girls in what seems to be a normal Scottish
suburban comprehensive school. There is nothing remarkable about Nicky Nevin
except that she is obsessively driven by the need to win approval from the
Alpha group, star of which is Isabella della Rosa, the vindictive, Italianate
‘It Girl’ of the upper school. Janet and Margaret are
Isabella’s vacuous henchmaidens. At Hallowe’en this coven
viciously picks upon a new girl, Lizzie Brownie, who is a fey, unprepossessing
isolate from a deprived background.
Their increasingly hysterical
tormenting of ‘Lousy Lizzie’ is narrated in a fast-moving sequence
of brief personal flashbacks from the perspectives of the various girls, their
fantasies being stimulated by classwork on a notorious 17th century Scottish
witch trial and the music of James Macmillan’s The Confession Of
Isobel Gowdie. The grim opening episode of ‘swimming the
witch’ is perpetrated in the neighbouring Merlock Country Park (based
on Mugdock Park north of Milngavie).
What actually happens at the
Drowning Pond? Where does the truth lie; where the blame? Can there be any
forgiveness or reconciliation? Mostly the trouble has been generated by
adolescent emotions ... but not entirely. There are lurking, unexplained hints
of the raw supernatural in the behaviour of the weather and the atmosphere of
the Country Park ... and in the strange powers of plaguing and healing that
Lizzie claims to have inherited from her ancestors. This sustained,
inventively layered novel leaves such issues open. It probes the psychology of
teenage group hysteria, with levels of violence in action and language which
mean that it is possibly not for the faint-hearted reader. There are traces of
the influence of the Blair Witch Project and other Hollywood Gothic
genre films. The contemporary adolescent jargon of the girls is routinely
scurrilous and smutty.
HUNTRESS OF THE SEA
Scholastic, 1999, ISBN: 0439982588
Let a’ that live on mortal lird
Neer mell wi selchies o the sea.
(from Sealchie Sang)
Young readers may find this novel both gripping and perplexing since its
ambition is to fit an old folk tale of the supernatural into the realistic
setting of a modern crofting community on the bleakly beautiful grey coasts
The narrator, 12-year-old Ewan,
has been brought up courageously by his mother Jessie since his father
deserted them. The theme of single-parent childhood is common enough in junior
fiction but what makes this story strikingly different is that Duncan, the
father, has been lured far away from home in thrall to the deadly siren song
of the selchies, the fabled people of the sea who are half human and half seal.
The story starts with a tense
description of the boy’s return over the moor from school on a bleak
winter’s evening, shadowed by a dishevelled stranger. This unwelcome
arrival turns out to be his lost father, who tries to take up with wife and
son where he left off seven years earlier, but he has changed in frightening
‘Was this man really my father?’
The answer unfolds as the second half of the story swirls off into a wild
fantasy based on the legend of the fatal attraction of the seal folk for
humans. Duncan is revealed to have a second and parallel family, his seal wife
and seal son who are beautiful but malign. In their struggle to win back
Duncan the selchies enlist the aid of other creatures from the Celtic bestiary,
the black dog and the water horse, who wreak horrifying havoc on the local
crofters. This is a tragic story in which there can be no happy reunion of
Ewan’s mother and father, for the seal wife Neiraa deploys the
intoxicating power of the selchies’ song ... in the end successfully.
Temperley’s style is spare,
fast-moving and highly readable. He expertly evokes the alien presence of the
sea: its smells, sounds, creatures and flotsam; its submarine landscape of
shipwrecks and mariners’ bones.
The novel’s ending and the
role of Ewan’s mother may come as a surprise to young readers. How
fitting is it? How otherwise might the story have concluded?
Scotland’s strange legends
of the seal folk can be further explored in, for example, The Gift Boat
(Peter Dickinson, 2000); Broonies, Silkies and Fairies (Duncan
Williamson, 1985); The Wheel of the Finfolk (R E Jackson, 1972); and
The Seal-Singing (Rosemary Harris, 1971). Also well worth visiting is
the traditional ballad, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.
Bodley Head, 1994 (op); Red Fox, 1996, ISBN: 0099542617 (op)
The first thing to be said about this strange novel is that its ending
will come with a jolt of surprise to many young readers – and that is a
recommendation in itself. It is included in Treasure Islands as an
American rendering of the Loch Ness Monster topic in the highland landscape of
northern Vermont in New England. (See also the reviews of Emma
Tupper’s Diary, The Kelpie’s Pearls, The Boggart and
the Monster and The Water Horse.)
The teenage action-hero Luke
Perkins has been nicknamed ‘Loch’ because 10 years earlier during
a Scottish camping holiday with his parents he had experienced an unforgettable
nocturnal encounter with a monstrous creature on the shores of Loch Ness.
On the tragically early death of
his mother, Loch and his young sister Zaidee now find themselves accompanying
their father Sam on his current assignment. Dr Perkins, a distinguished marine
biologist, has become reluctantly employed, in a professionally demeaning
fashion, on a quest for a population of plesiosaurs believed to lurk in the
depths of remote high-level Loch Alban. This expedition is financed and led by
an odious media mogul, Cavenger, who is determined to win celebrity at all
costs by proving the existence of these supposedly extinct reptiles.
As his search using helicopters
and hi-tech launches intensifies, Cavenger, like Ahab hunting the white whale,
becomes crazily obsessed with the desire to slaughter the creatures. On the
other hand the Perkins family, recently bereft of their beloved mother,
develop some kind of sympathy for the adult plesiosaurs struggling to preserve
their young. They therefore find themselves trying to frustrate the monster
hunt. This clash of values is complicated by a running strand of romance
between Loch and Cavenger’s not-quite-spoiled brat of a daughter. The
narrative climaxes in an improbable welter of Jaws-type gore and horror.
What can possibly happen next?
Though unsubtle in some of its
characterisation, this novel has virtues of pace and vivid incident, and also
highlights issues of media ruthlessness and greed; scientific integrity; and
THE WHEEL OF THE FINFOLK
Rosemary Elizabeth Jackson
Chatto and Windus 1972, ISBN: 0701104872 (op)
We are back in the 1930s. Katy, the 12-year-old narrator, travels north
from her boarding school with her three cousins. Ranging in age from 8 to 16,
the youngsters are going to spend the summer holidays with elderly relatives
in a historic seaport that is identifiably Kirkwall on Orkney.
Katy is a fastidious only child
and her solemn, slightly prim view of things colours this gently eccentric
narrative. The complex fantasy of its plot results from the author’s
attempt to modernise a romantic Orcadian legend about the finfolk who are part
seal and part human. The story hinges on struggle for possession of an old
spinning wheel whose yarn seemingly has the power to preserve a
young woman’s beauty against ageing, but is otherwise damaging to all it
touches. The malignant schemings of Auga, an alluring but ruthless seal wife,
is vividly handled. Katy’s Orkney friends, who have acquired the wheel
innocently, find themselves being tormented by Auga who hopes to use it to
ensnare a handsome young islander and carry him off to Finfokaheim under the
A key role in frustrating the
seal wife is played by the outlandish Dewland family, who live by their wits
in a collection of hovels by the sea’s edge and are labelled
‘tinks’. In Katy’s eyes the formidably shrewd Mrs Dewland,
grandmother of the tribe, has all the presence of a Viking matriarch. A
traditional healer, she possesses an instinctive feeling for animals and
understands the seal folk and their legends. Her conversation is coloured by
touches of Orcadian Scots.
This novel’s narrative
complications and its oddly comic portrayal of minor characters such as the
hapless Episcopal clergyman and his spoiled wife may not be readily accessible
to young readers today. It is however distinguished by a loving rendering of
the landscapes and seascapes of the Kirkwall area.
Readers who develop an interest
in the seal legends of Orkney will enjoy George Mackay Brown’s stories
in The Two Fiddlers, 1974 and Pictures in the Cave, 1977. They
can also visit the website www.Orkneyjar.com.
Red Fox Definitions, 2003, ISBN: 0099439441
John Malarkey is a streetwise teenager newly arrived in Brook High, a
large and tough comprehensive school which could be located in any UK housing
estate. Trying to fathom the rules of this particular jungle he finds himself
victimised as an outsider by teachers as well as students. As Gray implies in
his Dedication, the tone of the novel owes something to police procedural
thrillers. An ominous mystery pervades the institution, a racket of some kind,
of which the teaching staff seem unaware, and Malarkey is thrust into
challenging a brutal gang culture with its own youthful godfather and
sartorial conventions. The banal underworld of school routines as seen from
the students’ viewpoint is plausibly conveyed – timetables,
detentions, sports fixtures, report cards and examinations. The layout of the
campus, with its hiding places for smoking, back entrances and rat runs, is
also convincing. Teachers are unsympathetically presented as mostly
ineffectual: harried, bullying and self-serving. Students tend to be the
products of disturbed family backgrounds. Gray handles the codes of
adolescent treachery, violence and sexual skirmishing effectively. Propelled
by sharp dialogue which is not unduly clotted by teenage argot the narrative
moves swiftly to an alarming and ambiguous climax. This stylish novel which
the publisher marks as ‘unsuitable for younger readers’ dramatises
Malarkey’s provocatively bleak view of contemporary school life.
Puffin Books, 2005; ISBN: 0141318597
James Bond’s Schooldays? The period is the 1930s. 13-years-old
James, an orphan, is sent off to Eton, where in his first ‘half’
he has to cope with the arcane rituals of that institution, and with the
bullying American George Hellebore whose father is one of its wealthy
When the Easter vacation
arrives, the narrative assumes the familiar form of a holiday adventure in the
Scottish Highlands. From King’s Cross James takes the night express
north to visit his guardian aunt and uncle in a village near Glenfinnan.
Buchanesque complications and coincidences arise immediately as he encounters
Hellebore and a reprobate young Cockney on the same train. It transpires that
the local laird is George’s father, the odious Lord Randolph Hellebore,
and James soon discovers that dangers are lurking up at Caisteal Hellebore on
its island in remote Loch Silverfin. Why is the loch stocked with flesh-eating
eels? Though the highland setting is far less plausibly rendered than that of
Eton, the plot has pace. Its vivid climax brings to a violent end Lord
Hellebore’s Dr Moreau-type experiments, and his megalomaniac ambitions
to engineer a warrior master race.
This novel is deftly contrived
to meet the requirements of a set of junior prequels to Ian Fleming’s
Bond fictions and the films that followed. James’s beloved Scottish
uncle Max, expert angler and former spy now dying of lung cancer, is movingly
portrayed, giving some melancholy depth to the tale. Young James himself
emerges as a likeable, self-contained, athletic boy acquiring a taste for
powerful cars. He discovers in himself the stamina and courage to endure
Hellebore’s pitiless injection of serum; and in the end a teasingly
beautiful girl, the blond and green-eyed Ryder Lawless, rides to his rescue
over the heather. The story clearly establishes that James Bond is not a lad
to tangle with, but young readers will find few hints as yet of 007, that
cold hedonist who twenty years later triumphs at the gaming tables of
Royale-les-Eaux. And that is probably just as well.
The promotional paraphernalia of
this project include the website: www.youngbond.com.
|THE GIRL WHO MARRIED A LION
Alexander McCall Smith
Canongate, 2005, IBSN: 1841957291
Like at least two other Scottish novelists (Naomi Mitchison and Elizabeth
Laird) Alexander McCall Smith has mined his experiences of living in Africa as
a source of traditional lore for children’s stories. In this selection,
which he has extracted from an earlier publication for a general readership,
the author beguilingly renders 18 folktales from the adjacent cultures of what
are now Zimbabwe and Botswana. These are enhanced by sprightly little line
Most of the items are fables
involving stereotyped talking animals and the humans who live with them on the
high central plateaux of southern Africa. The star performer is Hare, that
universal comic trickster, in a double act with his loudmouthed adversary,
Lion. Among other creatures in the cast are leopards, snakes, baboons, jackals,
hyenas and tortoises, all with their familiar traits: the jackal is treacherous
and the tortoise is slow in the uptake. The human families and communities of
these stories dwell in huts and have no roads or vehicles. They hunt, rear
cattle and crops, and their technology is confined to spears, bows and arrows.
The environment is charged with mysterious dangers. Prowling leopards and
lions can assume human form; people die and come alive again. In one story an
unhappy family is menaced by a vaguely monstrous ‘strange animal’,
a man-eater who can be restrained momentarily by the son’s drum music to
which it dances. The dire effects of drought and famine are recurring motifs.
There is no intervention by gods
or devils, but as always, among humans and animals alike, innocence and
kindness are challenged by greed and ingratitude. Though few explicit morals
are drawn, issues of behaviour are gently sown throughout. Goodness and youth
tend to win in the end, sometimes with an enigmatic touch of poetic justice.
The language of these carefully
worked, unsentimental fables is simple, the narrative direct, and McCall
Smith’s style is distinguished by neatly understated endings. His
introduction addresses young readers directly, hoping that they find fun in
In the primary school this
collection will certainly offer rich opportunities for acting out and reading
aloud. Some pieces can also be compared to Scottish equivalents in volumes
such as The Well at the World’s End, The Mouth of the Night
and Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children.
WHEN THE WORLD BEGAN
Oxford University Press, 2000; 2001, ISBN: 0192741896
Elizabeth Laird personally collected this miscellany of different types of
folktales from the very diverse and ancient cultures of Ethiopia in the northeast
corner of Africa. Its 20 stories have been retold with elegant simplicity for
younger readers, and vibrantly illustrated in colour. To start with, a creation
myth explains that in the beginning God was fooled into giving man the spear
which allowed him dominion over the animals. There then follows a just so
story of how the tortoise came to acquire its shell. Some of the ensuing items
are fables with morals about qualities such as friendship and gratitude;
tyranny and abuse of power. Just deserts are sternly administered, and
happiness-ever-after is at least a possibility. An entertaining issue is the
difference between apparent stupidity and cleverness in humans and animals.
There are Biblical echoes, for example, in the parable of a father who puts
his two sons to a test which ends in reconciliation and feasting. The stories
tend to be short, with the striking exception of one eerily extended tale of a
kind sister and a cruel sister, which involves perilous forest journeys and a
The customary bestiary of talking
animals includes dog, buffalo, lion, mouse, rat, baboon, and sheep, as well as
inveterate tricksters such as the fox. Several of the animal tales demonstrate
that it is naive to expect creatures such as hyena and crow to change their
knavish ways. On the other hand the final story, which takes us with a
travelling merchant into a contemporary Ethiopian city of gleaming glass and
concrete, concludes sombrely that ‘everything changes, everything
A valuable component of this
collection is the concluding commentary, ‘About these Stories’, in
which Laird movingly recalls how she came to gather her precious stories and
got to know the tellers, whose contributions she is careful to acknowledge
Young readers who relish this
beautifully produced volume should be encouraged also to explore The Girl
Who Married a Lion (see above), Alexander McCall Smith’s appealing
tales from southern parts of the African continent. For the primary school
stages both of these collections invite reading aloud, story telling,
discussion and acting out.
Last updated 26 August 2010.