Three British imports from Candlewick

I always find something I want to read in the Candlewick catalog, and among their spring/summer releases my eye was caught by three books that all turned out to have been previously published in the UK (Candlewick is part of the UK-based Walker Book Group). In other ways, though, they were quite different — not all to my taste, but they might be to yours!

The first one I picked up was Sophie Someone by Hayley Long. Here we have a contemporary tale about a fourteen-year-old girl trying to figure out what’s happened to her family, why they left England for Belgium, what her real name is, and many other mysteries, all wrapped up in Sophie’s “special language” which both mirrors her confusion and masks her real pain and anxiety. This involves switching out words for other similar words, in a way that seems baffling at first but soon becomes surprisingly simple to follow.

My first reaction was that this was an fascinating example of how our minds can create wholeness out of fragmentary parts, a confirmation that language is built of meaning, not of words. However, after a while I found myself wishing that Long had done something more with this device, had caused it to develop or transform in some way; as it was, it was like reading a rather ordinary story written in code, the novelty of which soon wore off. I think there’s a chance that young readers will be intrigued and amused by Sophie’s style and by the playful typography, and this might be enough for some, but I was left wanting more. (I was reminded of the books of Ellen Raskin … time for some rereading.)

Next I sampled Maid of the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, a historical novel by the curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in London. For one so steeped in the history of Hampton Court and other sites, it must be endlessly tempting to weave one’s knowledge of the everyday details of Elizabethan life into an exciting narrative. Worsley’s knowledge and love of the era was clear, but its transformation into fictional form did not quite work for me.

I had a hard time connecting with her protagonist, a fictional Elizabeth whose destiny becomes intertwined with real-life figures including the notorious Catherine Howard, and of course King Henry VIII. Elizabeth talked and acted like a modern teenager, and in general the tone was indistinguishable from a contemporary YA romance. This may make history spring to life for some readers, but it’s not my style at all. I would still be interested to see Worsley in her capacity as a TV documentary host, though, or maybe read some of her non-fiction, to see how she presents this kind of material in a different context.

Fortunately, I enjoyed my third selection much more: Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman was an exciting, satisfying adventure with an atmospheric setting based on the Devon coast and on real people and events of the eighteenth century. Plus, puppet shows!

The plausibility level was not always high here either, and yet with her storytelling energy and well-crafted language Landman managed to keep me engaged with her coming-of age story of a mixed-race boy with a mysterious past. Set adrift by the death of the man he’s always known as Pa, Caleb must try to unravel the secrets of his own origins as well as of his supposed father’s life and death. For fans of high-action, character-rich period drama by the likes of Philip Pullman and Leon Garfield, this will be a welcome new addition to the genre.

Thanks, Candlewick, for bringing these British imports to our shores! I hope each one will find the right audience to enjoy it.


Reading New England: Swim That Rock

John Rocco and Jay Primiano, Swim That Rock (Candlewick, 2014)

SwimRockSwim That Rock focuses largely on the most notable feature of Rhode Island’s geography: its coastline (which, as I mentioned in my state preview, covers almost 400 miles in a state less than 40 miles wide). And it dwells in loving detail on one of the human activities that has taken place there for untold generations: quahogging, or fishing for the hard-shell molluscs that abundantly populate Narragansett Bay.

This is not an activity that I would normally expect to capture my interest; I don’t even like clams, for heaven’s sake. But authors John Rocco and Jay Primiano write so fervently and engagingly that I couldn’t stop reading. It helps that they have created  a central character who is easy to like: fourteen-year-old Jake Cole, who can’t accept the death of his father at sea or the possibility that loan sharks will repossess the family diner and force him and his mom to move to Arizona. He takes to the water, determined to do something to save the way of life he loves, in the only way he knows: by fishing as hard as he can.

Encounters with shady characters provide excitement and local color, but it’s Jake’s elemental striving to wrest sustenance from the depths of nature, his quest to push himself beyond physical and mental limits, that is the real heart of the story. The authors (who grew up in a town very like Jake’s and are experienced quahoggers themselves) succeed in making us feel that we too have grappled with bullrakes and recalcitrant engines, with blisters and exhaustion and the need to pack in just one more load.

While the setting is brought to life with vivid immediacy, the character development is not quite so successful. There is an intriguing but rather perfunctory love interest for Jake, who I wish had gotten to tell more of her own story, and a father figure who is conveniently sidelined so that Jake can be on his own. Jake’s mom and best friend also remain somewhat shadowy, cardboard characters.

There’s still plenty of narrative drive and energy from the scenes on the water, though, and plenty of reasons to enjoy this fast-moving but emotionally satisfying story of adventure. If you’d like to experience something of what it means to grow up in Rhode Island, among the fishermen and women who are so much a part of its history and identity, do give it a try.


Reading New England: Two freedom fighters

Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (1942)
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006, 2008)

JohnnyTremainA few weeks ago, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where there is a room full of portraits of prominent Boston revolutionaries. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and others — captured on canvas, they look down at us with a cool yet challenging gaze. What would they think of our political antics today? What do we understand as the legacy they left us?

I had just met many of these legendary figures in the pages of Esther Forbes’s Newbery-award-winning novel, Johnny Tremain. Somehow I had avoided this well-known classic throughout my school days, but now I was swept up into the story of apprentice silversmith Johnny, the accident that changes his life, and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and the events leading up to the first shots fired in the War of Independence. It deserves the acclaim it has received, for it’s a vividly told, strongly characterized tale that brings a place and time to vibrant life.

2016-07-21 10.52.40
Paul Revere’s pensive portrait by John Singleton Copley (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

Even though it was published as a children’s book, and would probably now be labeled as “YA,” I think I enjoyed it far more now than I would have as a child, when the central character of Johnny would have had limited appeal for me, and I would have been more confused than inspired by much of the historical detail. But other children, with different interests than mine, may have a different response; this is truly a book that defies age limitations and definitions. Read it young, or read it old, but do read it. It’s a wonderful exploration of themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, forgiveness, love, and self-transformation.

Yet there is something missing in Forbes’s account. Though black servants and “handmaidens” appear briefly in the narrative, and once or twice there is a reference to “slaves,” there is no serious acknowledgement of the fact that the vaunted fight for liberty was undertaken with a full acceptance and even dependence on black slavery, which (as my recent reading of New England Bound made clear) was woven deeply into the economy and social structure of all the colonies, north and south.

Forbes puts the most stirring speech of the book in the mouth of a man some of the other freedom fighters consider a madman, and this may be her oblique nod to the irony that underlies the whole event. As James Otis asserts that they are fighting “so that a man can stand up” — implying any human being, of any race, with dignity and integrity — most of the other revolutionaries turn away without comment. His words move Johnny, though, as they were meant to move the readers of Forbes’s time who were engaged in another war against an even more terrible tyranny, and they resound into our own time as an ideal to strive toward. But do they really represent what the Boston leaders thought? How could they engage in a struggle for liberty while actively subjugating and oppressing other human beings?

Octavian1This irony is brought to the fore and engaged with in a complex way in a two-part novel by M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian is born into slavery in a Boston academy where scholars raise him in a bizarre experimental environment. The goal is to see whether Africans can attain the heights of European culture — or else, when the academy’s patronage changes hands, to prove that they cannot.

Regardless of the goal, the fact remains that Octavian, his mother, and their fellow slaves are treated as things rather than as people, objects that can be exchanged and priced like any other item at a market stall. When Octavian realizes this, he must break away and begin his own fight for liberty. His journey takes him into the camps of both armies, where he finds that neither has any interest in his personal liberation, but only in using him for political and military expediency. It’s up to him to seek his own precarious path toward freedom.

Anderson writes in a remarkably fluent eighteenth-century style that intersperses Octavian’s first-person account with letters, diaries, and proclamations in various voices and modes. It’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly evokes the liveliness and erudition of the literature of the period, and I enjoyed it very much, especially in the first volume, before it becomes too much like a parlor trick.

A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill
A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

I did wonder, though, how the intended audience of this avowedly YA novel would receive it. As a teenager I would probably have been as mystified as I was by Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, and not persisted very far. The scenes of combat, murder, torture, rape, and other acts of violence would also have been hard for me to take, had I been able to understand what was going on. But again, maybe that’s just me — perhaps teen readers of today, with stronger stomachs than mine, will be undaunted by the mountains of arcane vocabulary words, and be pulled along by the gripping plot and the truly revolutionary ideas it embodies. In any case, adult readers should not be put off by the YA label; this is another book that has no upper age limit.

Today, as many Americans are clamoring to subject themselves to a tyrant far more devious and unprincipled than poor old George III ever was, and as our “free country” continues to reveal its dark tendency towards oppression and domination, both of these books have much to teach us. Each of us has a chance, now, to truly “stand up.” We will do so not through unthinking slogans and rhetoric, nor by blaming and demonization of others, but by means of the inner fight for freedom that conquers self-interest and embraces humility, compassion, and reverence.

Will a day come when we no longer callously allow our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to depend upon the suffering of others? May the struggles of Johnny and Octavian and their comrades inspire us in this most decisive battle. More than ever, our future depends on it.



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New Release Review: The Lie Tree

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2016)

LieTreeI think that Frances Hardinge is destined to become one of my new favorite authors. I loved The Lie Tree (as well as her previous novel, Cuckoo Song) for the interesting things she does with ideas and relationships and history and myth. Hardinge’s prose is vivid and distinctive without being overly stylized, and her concepts spring out of real imaginative power rather than gimmicky formulas. Her young-adult characters are striving toward selfhood in a complex, nuanced way that can be appreciated by readers on both sides of the child/adult divide. With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.

In The Lie Tree, we are introduced to Faith Sunderly, a bright, talented girl on the threshold of Victorian womanhood. Neither her father, an renowned paleontologist, nor her social-butterfly mother have the least idea of what is going on inside her head, or that she might want to break out of the bounds of what society has decreed for her. But when the family suddenly moves to a remote island for a research project, Faith finds that the surface veneer of her family’s safe, conventional life is beginning to crack. What was the true motivation for this abrupt dislocation? Why have none of their servants been brought along? What is her father hiding in the summerhouse? And what is the inner and outer menace that threatens him? As she begins to investigate, danger comes close to her as well, and cannot be escaped without demanding a dark sacrifice.

The theme of lying and deception is intricately woven into the plot and embodied in the image of the Lie Tree. This is a fantastical creation that yet is plausible within the world of the story, which takes place during a time when science was opening up undreamed-of wonders and shaking the foundations of human knowledge. Theories and notions about the relationship between the physical and spiritual world proliferated wildly, and the notion of a plant that feeds on human mendacity would fit right in. Hardinge’s slow build-up of the insidious Tree made for a narrative that was both thrilling and psychologically astute.

Though I enjoyed much of the book immensely, I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed in the ending, which left me wishing for more development of certain characters. Friends turned into villains, villains into friends, but then the rising action culminated in a frantic chase that cut off any opportunity to explore these surprising developments further. I wouldn’t have minded another chapter or two in that direction.

That’s not going to stop me from reading Hardinge’s next book, though, and seeking out as much of her earlier work as I can. For thoughtful, emotionally satisfying, imaginative entertainment, she’s one author that I will treasure.


Reading New England: A Separate Peace

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.



Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20

New Release Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Seige of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015)

SymphonyCityUsing the life and work of the composer Dimitri Shostakovich as a “hook,” and specifically his masterful Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”), Symphony for the City of the Dead explores one of the most horrific places and times to live in human history: Russia from the 1917 Revolution through the rise of Stalin and the Second World War.

Leningrad (formerly and now again St. Petersburg) has a long and proud cultural history, which a native musical prodigy such as Shostakovich should have been free to inherit and build on. Instead, he found himself hemmed in by demands that his music fit Stalinist ideas of what music should be and do for “the people,” and by murderous forces from both inside and outside his country. At one time he slept outside his apartment door so that his wife and child would not be awakened when he was taken away by the secret police; surviving that peril at the cost of the suppression of his “formalist” Fourth Symphony, he found himself caught in the Nazi trap that became the seige of Leningrad, a three-year ordeal that Hitler devised in order to bring the Slavs to their knees. Yet within this deathly environment he began composing a symphony that would capture the imaginations of the nation and of the world.

It’s a fascinating topic, and I found that Anderson marshaled his information well, keeping his narrative moving along while incorporating an impressive number of facts and eyewitness reports. In this real-life horror story, there is no happy ending and no way to escape the incredible brutality of human beings, making us question what lurks behind the thin veneer of civilization. Yet there are also glimpses of bravery, endurance, and the power of art to both articulate and transcend our sufferings. The description of the first performance of the symphony within beseiged Leningrad is incredibly moving, as emaciated, tottering musicians push themselves to the limit in order to play for their city.

Finding the truth about the Soviet era is not easy, and Shostakovich’s true thoughts and feelings are basically impossible to uncover, given his need to mask and conceal himself in order to survive. But Anderson brought clarity into a murky time while still allowing us to feel its painful ambiguity. I was not so enamored of the author’s writing style, with its short, choppy sentences enlivened by the occasional hyperbolic statement or pop-culture reference. I’m not sure if this was meant as a gesture toward the book’s intended audience, older teens and young adults, but I found it unfortunate  and clumsy.

Still, I learned a tremendous amount about events of which I knew little and am even more impressed than ever by Shostakovich’s ability to create under such circumstances. I appreciated how Anderson made it vividly clear throughout his text that art — the making and experiencing of art — is a vital part of our nature as human beings, never more so than when our humanity is threatened by the brutal impact of war. For readers of any age, this is an important, profound message for our times.

I also have to mention the stunning cover and excellent design overall. As with another new release from Candlewick that I enjoyed recently, The Hired Girl, the design is perfectly in tune with the contents, and I also appreciate that attention to detail.


In Brief: New Releases for Young Readers

GoodbyeStranger  Marvels  HiredGirl


This fall, three of today’s brightest names in writing for children and young adults have new titles out. Even if you haven’t read their previous award-winning works, and whatever your age, these are all worth a look.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me; Liar and Spy)
With its mature themes of social media abuse and sexual teasing, along with fluctuating viewpoints and jumps in time, Stead’s latest may be a challenging read for the middle-school age group it’s aimed at. But it’s a challenge that could be well worth taking, as at the heart of this story are genuine, relatable, questioning young characters who in their varying ways are searching for the meaning of selfhood. They make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but find the courage to try again and re-forge broken relationships. Some of the solutions seemed a bit pat to me, but the quietly eloquent writing carried me along and the hopeful, sweet ending made me smile.
August 4, 2015 from Wendy Lamb

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Wonderstruck)
Author-illustrator Selznick starts his story with (mostly) wordless pictures — nearly 400 pages of them, creating a historical-theatrical extravaganza that intrigued me greatly. I wasn’t as enamored of the second, narrative part of the book, which seems to go initially in a completely different direction before returning to the image-story with a twist of perspective. Ironically enough, the “real story” rang less true to me than the fantasy, too heavy with Meaningful Issues and forced connections that didn’t feel genuine. An interesting experiment that fell somewhat flat.
September 15, 2015 from Scholastic

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, Splendors and Glooms)
This was far and away my favorite of the three, a historical novel in diary form written by a fourteen-year-old Joan, a farm girl in 1911 Pennsylvania who hopes for a better life. As articulated by Schlitz, Joan’s voice is alternately funny, fierce, and vulnerable, as she bravely — but very naively — makes her way from an oppressive family to employment that has its own risks and challenges. The unusual exploration of clashing minority religions (Joan is Catholic; her employers are Jewish) is sensitively done, and the historical setting is fully and convincingly realized. Many facets of history and culture are seamlessly integrated, from the chapter titles taken from real works of art that Joan might have seen, to the origins of the Baltimore school founded by progressive Jews where Schlitz works today as a librarian. A pleasure from beginning to end.
September 8, 2015 from Candlewick

Advance reading copies were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


The Immortality of Love: Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-9)


What makes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women immortal, when as a nineteenth-century moral story for the young it should properly have been forgotten long ago? A portion of the reading population might like to forget it, as Elaine Showalter points out in her illuminating introduction to my Penguin Classics edition: “in male literature. . . Little Women stands as a code term for sentimentality and female piety. . . . In a typically dismissive critical judgment of the 1950s, Edward Wagenknecht declared that Little Women ‘needs — and is susceptible of — little analysis.’ ” Yet it is still read and loved, at a time when the mores of American society have changed almost beyond recognition from those of Alcott’s day. Clearly, more is at work here than mere “sentimentality and female piety.”

As a child, I was simply entranced by the adventures of those four wonderfully realized characters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When Alcott decided to draw on her own life to create the moral tale her publisher requested, she feared the result would be dull. The reverse was the case, as the homely details of family life are what lend the story its irresistible charm and vitality. Who can forget Jo selling her hair, Amy bringing forbidden pickled limes to school, Meg succumbing to the temptation to dress up in “frills and furbelows,” or Beth’s joyful reaction to the gift of a piano? The girls’ idiosyncrasies and foibles are described with a wry humor that saves the narrative from becoming overly sweet, and their relationships with one another are spiced with realistic quarrels and quirks as well as love and tenderness.

When I went back to Little Women as an adult, I did find the moralizing aspect to intrude somewhat, but not as much as one might expect. With her unfailing perception and equanimity, Marmee is an idealized quasi-divine mother figure whose words of wisdom bring each episode to neat closure, especially in the first half of the book, which explicitly takes its theme and direction from the Christian precepts of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet the undogmatic, sensible nature of most of these lessons saves them from being only examples of that dreaded “female piety.” The underlying message is to be true to one’s inner core, and to find value in the lasting treasures of life: integrity, self-knowledge, human connections. Though the trappings of time and culture may change, this moral journey is universally valid, and surely a key to the book’s continuing relevance.

Meanwhile, the marvelously unconventional character of Jo, Alcott’s own alter ego, also plays a large part in its enduring appeal. With her exuberant speech and behavior, disregard of propriety, and literary creativity, she points toward a later time when women would be able to more fully express themselves and their potentialities. For modern readers, it can be disappointing when Jo’s youthful urges and artistic ambitions, along with those of her sisters, are partly squashed in favor of the ultimate female consummation of marriage and motherhood. But her spirit remains unquenched for readers and writers who have found in her a soul-sister, an inspiration and a companion when “genius burns.”

Opposite to Jo is gentle Beth, whose death is one of the other indelible experiences of reading Little Women in childhood. Saccharine Victorian death scenes are notorious, but Alcott’s sincere depth of feeling born of her own sorrow and loss gives this one a poignant simplicity, and I still cannot read it without sobbing. “Love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go,” Beth says. For me, this “belief in the immortality of love” is the gift and the legacy of Little Women, one for which I am forever grateful.

Classic MG/YA Challenge


Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
US hardcover, Greenwillow

To kick off Witch Week, we’re taking a look at Fire and Hemlock (1984), a book in which today’s date plays a very important role. It begins (after a brief prologue) when ten-year-old Polly accidentally stumbles into an ominous Halloween funeral at a nearby manor, and makes a life-changing connection to a man named Tom Lynn; and it ends on the same date nine years later, after Polly has learned much more about Tom and the sinister significance of that event. Not a retelling, but a sort of variation on themes introduced in the ballads of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” it brilliantly but unobtrusively mines the depths of folklore and myth while telling a very modern story, one in which the act of storytelling itself is central.

I believe Fire and Hemlock to be Diana Wynne Jones’s masterpiece — and Ana, who shares my high opinion of it, is here today to share her story about how she first encountered this marvelous and multi-faceted book. Ana is a UK-based reader and blogger. She works for a large public library system and has a particular interest in reader’s development work with young people. She writes about fantasy, children’s literature, non-fiction, cult TV and more at Things Mean a Lot and also contributes to Lady Business. Welcome, Ana!

Fire and Hemlock is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, and one of those books I know would have been hugely important to me no matter when I discovered them. But as it happens, the circumstances in which I came across it for the first time made it even more special. Fire and Hemlock was also my first Diana Wynne Jones, and although normally I’d be inclined to suggest that starting with an author’s best work is setting yourself up for future disappointment, there was no such risk in this case. First, because as much as Fire and Hemlock may be my favourite, it’s not like the rest of DWJ’s work isn’t amazing; secondly, because Jenny’s Law applies: DWJ is always better on a reread. Suddenly I knew they existed, all these marvellous books I could read and then read again; suddenly my world had grown in small but meaningful ways.
botanical illustration plant
Poison Hemlock (source:

I remember the day I got my copy of Fire and Hemlock well: it was the end of the summer when I was nineteen, and I was about to start my second year of college but still living at home. My literary diet that year had consisted of copious amounts of Discworld and Sandman, two series I still love. They shaped my sensibility, and I’m immensely grateful for that — but at the time they were the limits of what I knew, and I wanted more. That summer I’d also been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, which as I’ve mentioned before did more to raise me and form my tastes than any other single source I can think of. That was where I came across Diana Wynne Jones’s name for the first time.

When I was a teenager, my life was empty of a lot of things I almost take for granted now. This was before blogging and ease of access to endless sources of recommendations; before I had access to a public library service, let alone worked for one; before the post-Harry Potter market boom that started to make the kinds of books I wanted to read widely available in my country; before there were any sizeable bricks and mortar bookshops in the town where I lived. This was a time when even shopping for books online was a challenge — there were no magical words such as “Free Worldwide Delivery”, and not having a credit card made things incredibly difficult. (I remember, for example, that to gain access to the last few Harry Potter books without having to wait at least six months for a translation I had to ask a friend who had permission to use his parents’ credit card online to order me a copy along with his. At the time Amazon was not an increasingly evil monopoly — it was, for someone like me, something that gave me unprecedented possibilities.)
The day I bought Fire and Hemlock, I had gone with my parents to take my brother to the airport. He was, if I remember correctly, going to a scientific congress in Poland, his first big one, and all day I was filled with a vague longing for travelling adventures of my own. I hadn’t been anywhere much, not yet, and as much as I was happy for him I also wanted it to be me. My brother was going to be gone for less than a week, but I went along to the airport because I’d extracted a promise from my parents to stop at the Big Bookshop in the large city with the airport on our way back. The Big Bookshop wasn’t actually that big by most standards, but at the time it, too, represented possibilities beyond what was ordinarily within my reach. I kept hoping it would eventually surprise me with a wonderful find — and that one day, it did.
Tam Lin illustration
The White Steed, from Tam Lin by L.J. LeRolland

I found Fire and Hemlock, along with The Homeward Bounders, inside a bargain box of slightly tatty books in English. They were, I believe, €2 each — an astonishing thing in and of itself, before second-hand bookshops and library sales had become part of my world (books were expensive, easily more than €15 each, and thus had to be rationed). I recognised Diana’s name from Neil Gaiman’s blog and immediately pounced on them. And suddenly there it was: a small everyday miracle, a book I’d love more than I could possibly imagine, an unprecedented set of possibilities. There’s something about the mood of Fire and Hemlock that perfectly matches how I felt that summer. I desperately wanted my world to grow; Polly gave me that, in a way. Diana Wynne Jones’s reworking of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” was, among many other things, a story that saw me. It was about a bookish girl who vaguely wanted more, who learned that magic has sharp edges, who in the end fought for what she wanted to keep. It was, beyond any doubt, a narrative centred on this girl’s experiences. That mattered to me in ways I couldn’t yet pinpoint.

Many years later, when I read DWJ’s Reflections On the Magic of Writing, I came across an essay she wrote on writing Fire and Hemlock and on her growing desire “to have a real female hero.” It was a long, convoluted journey from that summer to where I am today, aware of feminism and representation issues and of how not really seeing ourselves in stories affects how girls like me make sense of the world. I wasn’t yet read to articulate any of this back then, but I recognised something in Fire and Hemlock. In many of Diana Wynne Jones’s stories (and Ursula Le Guin’s, another discovery from around the same time), girls get to be messily, gloriously human. I needed that desperately, and I’m glad I had these stories to keep me company during the years it took me to work out why.

Thank you, Ana, for starting off our week so beautifully with your journey of discovery. If other readers have a story about your first encounter with Diana Wynne Jones, I’d love to hear it (mine is here). If you haven’t yet read her, I hope that this week you’ll find a place to start. 

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at an early but very accomplished book, Power of Three, which again considers how the power of words and language can be used for both good and evil. And watch for the Witch Week giveaway, which starts at midnight tonight.

Witch Week starts in one week!

One week from today, I’ll be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and of one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. If you haven’t already, please check out the announcement post and consider signing up. Then come back to ECBR on October 30 for a preview, giveaway details, and more before the fun really starts on Halloween.

The six books we’ll be focusing on during the week

I’m busy getting everything in place for next week, but in the meantime here are links to my own earlier posts about DWJ and just a few of her marvelous books:

And here are some of my favorite reviews and other musings from the lovely bloggers who will be contributing guest posts next week:

Are you joining us? What are you looking forward to during the week?