The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

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When I see that Emily Gravett has illustrated a new book, my immediate reaction is a kind of involuntary and urgently clumsy plunge for the auld wallet. I would paper my walls with her illustrations if I could afford to, but even I can see that a twenty-five-year-old who still lives at home doing this is pushing the I’m-an-adult-who-prefers-to-read-kids-books-and-it’s-awesome a little too far. So I’ve held off until I have some actual children. This may be my only motivation for having actual children.

So not to beat around the bush any further, it’s awesome. The strong childlike voice of the narrator (not first person) is gentle and easy but lively. I’ve never read anything by this author before, but he knows how to nail a childlike voice without sounding remotely childish. It would suit a confident eight year old and could be read to much younger children. That said, it is CRREEEPY, in the style of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, though not quite as messed-up. This means that it will appeal to parents who don’t want to traumatise their children THAT MUCH while still enjoying a couple in involuntary shudders themselves.

The story is about imaginary friends, and is told from the point of view of one called Rudger, who is naturally devoted to the little girl who created him. Their ideal childhood is disrupted by the appearance of a man and an (think if every long-haired creepy little dead brat you’ve ever seen in a horror movie) imaginary girl who can see him and take a disquieting interest in the pair. The cutsy and whimsical world of the imaginaries is juxtaposed alongside the real world and an altogether much darker meeting of the two. The book opens with a shock and there are sad bits to boot. Sorry, no spoilers. Overall, this was a fantastic book, with illustrations working in perfect creepy and adorable harmony with the text. The simplicity of the storytelling belies the complexity of the story itself. For the brief time I spent reading it (it is very short) my brain was very happy.

13 Fantasy Books Worth Gushing About

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I believe that every person, to some extent, has a natural inclination towards fantasy that is inherent since they were children. But, like an unused muscle, our imaginations become inflexible from lack of exertion. I listen to the children I teach play sometimes, and I am always floored magical worlds they inhabit when allowed to let their imaginations furnish their play. Now don’t get me wrong, I love realistic writing. I need it, like everyone does. Yet, time and time again I come up against this adversion towards fantasy that I can’t make sense of. My only conclusion is that too often, the book market becomes saturated with fantasy stories that don’t do for us what the genre has the power to do, (by the way, that’s anything, anything at all, there are absolutely no limits) but rather, tend to regurgitate the same Dungeons and Dragons nonsense about sword wielding warriors, scantily clad damsels and some dark lord who wants to take over the world (It’s always about taking over the world isn’t it? I mean, why? They never actually say. It’s what dark lords do because they’re bad … and that’s it isn’t it? ZZZZzzzz.)

But there are lots and lots of fantasy stories that do SO MUCH MORE! They get down and gritty with the reader, asking tough questions, and making us feel for characters in tough situations. That’s because these worlds were built to be read as real worlds, inhabited by real people, with as many struggles and triumphs as we have. But because a good fantasy story is set in a made-up world, anyone can identify with the plight of the characters, or feel a sense of longing for the setting of the story. Just like a fairytale can evoke the first feelings of empathy in a toddler, so too can fantasy wake us up to the loves, fears, wonders and losses and everything else it means to be human, in a someone much older. Here are some of my favourite fantasy stories (in no particular order) that do just that.

1. Inkheart (Inkspell, Inkdeath) by Cornelia Funke

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Guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. At the heart of these books is a story about the love of books. I always find that when I try to explain the plot of Inkheart, I sort of let the book down. Suffice to say that it’s like letting your brain slide down a helter-skelter of wonder and fear. Also, the sequels are best for children aged 11+ and adult readers who don’t mind children’s books with a dark side.

2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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Like much of Neil Gaiman’s work, it’s kind of baffling to work out exactly what kind of readership it’s intended for, unless you’re me, in which case, I would say that it’s for everyone! Think of Kipling’s The Jungle Book – an orphaned boy raised by animals in the jungle, so logically, The Graveyard Book is about an orphaned boy raised by ghosts, vampires and werewolves in a graveyard. No prizes for guessing. This classic story of the journey from innocence to experience is poignant and funny at intervals and scary to boot all the way through.

3. The Tiffany Aching Books (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight) by Terry Pratchett

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There are a lot of books out there about witches. The good ones are written by authors who know how to use witchcraft to make the story work. Pratchett, blows them all out of the water though, with this trilogy. Preteen Tiffany no sooner begins her training as a witch when she learns that there is a big difference between real witches and women who drape themselves in pentagram jewelry and gaze in crystal balls. Real witches are the backbone of a community, from delivering babies, to laying out the dead, and every task inbetween be it as unmagical as clipping an old person’s toenails. Tiffany’s story is that of a young girl learning about the things that really matter in life, about growing up to be a responsible adult. Did give the impression that these books are serious? Ooops! Well there’s also a band of smelly, violent, kilted blue Scottish pixies that both help and hinder her along the way.

4. The Poison Throne (The Crowded Shadows, The Rebel Prince) by Celine Kiernan

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I hope the author doesn’t hate me for saying this, but these books are perfect for any reader who is thinking about tackling A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones for those of you who don’t read and haven’t left the house in three years), but isn’t quite ready for such a .. erm… mature series. Perfect for 11+, readers, the Moorehawke Trilogy is fiercely political and actually, just fiercely written in general. The female protagonist is wise, strong and generally KICK-ASS. The plot asks a lot of morally challenging questions of the reader and brings many of the characters to the point of breaking and beyond. Yet, they are lovable, hilarious, courageous and you want them all to survive and live happily ever after. Ahem… about that… no, nevermind.

5. The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long

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One of my favourite sub-genres of fantasy are books that draw inspiration from fairytales. Actually, I should say that my favourite books are the ones that do it well, because some are appallingly contrived. While many authors have weakened their plot by doing this, Treachery of Beautiful Things is a great example of a book that draws strength from folk and fairy tales, and creates an atmospheric world just seething with magic, where modern day characters meet the enticing but dangerous beings of the faerie realm. Here we see a female protagonist who is both feisty and vulnerable. In the midst of so much one-sided feistiness on the part of recent heroines, Jenny is really a refreshing character. I hope there is a sequel!

6. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There) by Catherynne Valente

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Alice in Wonderland meets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I can’t even begin to describe the richness of the writing that you will find in these books. I find myself not remembering lines so much as actually remembering the actually images they evoked in my minds eye while I read the book, as well as the smells, sounds and emotions. They’re also funny, witty and totally unexpected. They are set in a fairyland where anything (but not everything) goes and the heroine is entirely lovable.

7. Magus of Stonewylde (Moondance at Stonewylde, Solstice at Stonewylde, Shadows at Stonwylde, Shaman of Stonewylde) by Kit Berry

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Okay, okay, so it’s not strictly fantasy… but I had to mention them here. I’ll mention them anywhere if given half a chance! These books spanned a year’s readership that left me in emotional turmoil and suspense that I hadn’t experienced since Harry Potter. I became so attached to this characters to the point where I felt almost haunted by them. Stonewylde could be classed as magical realism. I personally don’t recommend it for anyone under the age of fourteen, because the plot gets pretty sinister and the morality of the characters is very grey because they live in a community which has been cut of from the outside world since pre-Christian times. I love the books all the more, however, because of their often challenging dilemmas.

8. The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

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I had to, I just HAD to! I wrote my M.A. thesis about this book. It’s an absolute jewel, based on Irish mythology but with a contemporary setting,and a nice little subversive hint that perhaps we don’t give our pagan roots as much attention as we should. Admittedly, the plot is long and rambling, with so many twists it’s hard not to turn the book inside out while reading it, but it’s so so beautiful and funny and filled with wonder. I still quote lines from it. The author’s use of language is nothing short of acrobatic. I dare anyone to reach the end whilst remaining both straight-faced and dry eyed.

9. Magyk – Septimus Heap book 1 (Flyte, Physik, Queste, Syren, Darke, Fyre) by Angie Sage

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J.K. Rowling meets Trudi Canavan and Raymond Feist. Definitely for children though. I love the characters, and the gothic feel of the story. More on this when I finish this satisfyingly long and bulky series.

10. Sabriel (Lirael, Abhorsen) by Garth Nix

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YOU HAVE NOT LIVED, until you’ve met the sarcastic cat who’s actually a  – oh wait, no spoilers, I forgot. Sabriel is an eighteen-year-old girl who can summon and dismiss the dead with a brace of bells?  Nix’s concept of magic is so original, almost scientific, but not at all heavy-handed or tedious to read. I love Sabriel as a heroine, because she is so dead  -pan and independent, but not at all given to the stereotypically feisty female lead characters we all seem to be favouring these days

11. Tithe (Ironside, Valiant) by Holly Black

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A twisty, tricksy tale about fairies, changelings and all things that go bump in the night. The sweetly seductive style is one I recommend for teens and upwards only.

12. Thirteen Treasures (Thirteen Curses, Thirteen Secrets) by Michelle Harrison

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Another series about fairies, this time suitable for younger readers (9+) and yet, still very creepy and twisted. This one is worth reading for the seamless working of fairy lore and plot alone, if not for the entertainment supplied the the fairies themselves, who make people’s lives absolutely miserable.

13. Wolf Brother (Spirit Walker, Soul Eater, Outcast, Oath Breaker, Ghost Hunter)

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Loosely based on a kind of early North American, Canadian, or perhaps prehistoric human existence, this series follows the adventures of an orphaned boy and his wolf cub companion with whom he shares a deep bond. In this harsh world they face demons, spirits and supernatural powers, all against the backdrop of a richly imagined and well researched world. Prepare yourself for scary and sad bits.

The Broken Spell by Erika McGann

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I hope I end up teaching a class of 5th class girls some year so that I can read these books with them! There is just so much scope. Unfortunately I doubt I’d get away with it in most Catholic Schools, with the many references to Wicca (although not in a religious context) and what with the descriptions of magic and spells being so suspiciously accurate!

   ‘But wait! How do YOU know if it’s accurate?’ I hear you cry. Well, I’m a witch! So there! And I think that qualifies me to tell you that Erika is on to something great here with this series.

   First off, although the book appears to be set nowhere in particular, there is a definite sense that these young teenage girls are Irish girls. They’re represented artfully and realistically, rather than stereotypically, and yet they possess and innocence that makes the book conveniently suitable for primary classes, and sort of reminds me of my first coven, not that the results of our spells were ever so dramatic!

   The spells, and their outcomes are genuinely very unique and imaginative, which is not easy to do these days, with all the teen fantasy books vying for our attention (Thanks J.K.).

   So here’s the taster! This sequel to The Demon Notebook begins in a much more light-hearted vein than its predecessor, with the five friends being schooled in magical theory by two senior witches, Their French teacher, Ms. Lemon and Vera (The Cat Lady) Quinlan. The girls are bored to tears being forced to memorise long lists of herbs without any promise of ever being allowed to attempt an actual spell. Then the glamorous Ms. Gold arrives in their school and turns the fruitless arrangement upside-down by promising to teach the girls to create clouds of golden butterflies, change their appearance at will and even to fly. 

   Before long, however, the inevitable happens and McGann’s writing returns to its wonderfully dark edge when a time-travelling spell goes horribly wrong, and Grace finds herself being stalked by a faceless hooded figure with a vendetta against all witches.

 

Happee Birthdae Harry!

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As I write, it’s thirty-nine minutes late, but I’m a stickler for deadlines, even when I’ve already missed them.

As an avid Harry Potter fan for twelve years now, It is with a certain amount of embarrassment that I admit that  it took some work convincing me to read those books. Yes, me, with the two half-edited fantasy novels and the Masters thesis in fantasy, but at the time I had no interest in reading fantasy, unless it had a lot to do with horses, then it was horse fiction and not fantasy. I’m really very thankful to J.K. Rowling for getting me out of that rut, because I had just turned twelve, and it was getting uncool. Other girls in school were putting sugar lumps in my locker!

I don’t need to provide a break-down of the books. Unless you’re a blind-deaf and have been living in a cave under the sea for the past decade and a half, you will know about the Harry Potter books. If you are blind and deaf and live under the sea, I sincerely apologise but, why are you reading a children’s literature blog anyway?

What was it about the books that hooked me? I didn’t like fantasy at the time did I? So it wasn’t really the magic, vivid and exciting as it was, or the humour… although my parents often did come into my room while I was reading to ask what on Earth was so funny that I needed to breathe in a paper bag?

Nor did it grab me from page one. Like those hapless publishers who turned down the Philosopher’s Stone, I didn’t really care enough about what was going on. It took some persistence before I got to know the characters, but once I did, nothing, not even a dead unicorn (horse fanatic, remember) was going to make me put them down.

You fall in love with them, those characters. They don’t leave you from the end page of book one to the closing of book seven and beyond. You love them, grow with them, and when you reach the end of page three thousand, four hundred and seven, they haunt you, both the still-living, and the dead.

I, like most of my friends, consider myself so lucky to have been of the generation who literally grew up with Harry Potter. I was always a more or less the same age as the trio when the books were released, which meant that my experiences, albeit being the experiences of a muggle teenager, ran parallel to those of the wizarding teens. There was my transition to secondary school (pretty unmagical)  versus their journey to Hogwarts, state exams versus the infinitely more scary-sounding O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s.

Let’s not forget first kisses either (I think I got on a bit better than Harry there. Although I do remember that one of the reasons I broke up with the boy was because he spoiled the sixth books on me…).

Like Harry, I even cast spells on the school bullies (with less dramatic results). Granted, I never had to battle a dark wizard or risk my life to ensure the continuation of an equal and free society. But that does not mean that my meagre little muggle life did not present its own challenges: bullies, boys and exams aside, those books gave me a repertoire of values to strive to live by, such as loyalty to friends, appreciation of family (wherever you may find one), kindness, love, self sacrifice and perhaps most of all, courage in the face of injustice and oppression.

At the heart of every good fantasy book, I believe there is a story of rebellion. Good fantasy isn’t simply a battle between the forces of good and evil, but it can be pared down to a promise, on the part of the protagonist, to leave the world he or she inhabits in better shape than how they found it, no matter what the personal cost. If this is true, Harry Potter is not just a good fantasy, it’s an effing great one!

Even more significant is the fact that it is a children’s fantasy (though it was never intended to be). It is children who rush to the aid of adult characters and who ultimately succeed in overthrowing an genocidal dictator where their adult counterparts have failed, or even hindered them.

Not that I had to stand up to much oppression in fairness. I am white, female and Irish and attended a schools that were almost exclusively white, female and Irish. Mind you, they were Catholic, and it became clear by the age of fourteen that I wasn’t. And thank you Harry Potter, for earning me many an enemy in the staffroom for encouraging me to speak out, but my house was never in with a chance of winning the house cup anyway, because we didn’t have one. Nor did I mind that the confidence required to voice my sense of oppression (trivial as it often seems now) is something that, in this frequently unjust world, I want to invest in my pupils as a teacher, my readers as a writer and, maybe someday (in the distant, distant future), in my children as a mother. How will I do that? I’ll give them Harry Potter.

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