Category Archives: Children

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13 was my first read of 2014 and the first book for #LARmonth

The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson
Macmillan Children’s Books, 1994

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By the beginning of January, I needed a good comfort read. And if anyone can provide comfort reads, it is Eva Ibbotson. Happily diving into the Ibbotson novel I received as a holiday present those first days of the year, I cannot say I was disappointed.

In The Secret of Platform 13 said platform at King’s Cross Station provides a portal between our world and an island for 9 days every 9 years. When the son of the king and the queen of the island disappears in the world and is unable to return to the island, the queen is devastated. A rescue party is organised nine years later to bring back the prince, among which are a wizard, an ogre, a fey, and the young hag Odge. Can they bring back the prince before the portal closes for another 9 years?

When the rescue party arrives in London, they find that the boy they are told is the prince, Raymond Trottle, is not what they expected. He is a spoilt boy who is given everything he desires by the rich lady who calls herself his mother. Meanwhile, Ben, who helps in the Trottle’s household, does all in his power to help the rescuers, and even if he wishes he could join the rescuers in going to the island he stand by his dying grandmother who he does not want to leave alone.

Admittedly, the story in The Secret of Platform 13 has its predictable qualities. There is a clear set up where the reader finds himself rooting for Ben, while Raymond is portrayed as horrible from the beginning. I find myself agreeing with Ana’s observation that she would have liked it better if the ending had been a little different. Moreover,after reading more of Eva Ibbotson’s book, particularly One Dog and His Boy, I wonder if selfish rich people are a bit of a trope in Ibbotson’s work? She has a definite view of who is “good” and “bad”, and while some privileged people (for example the king and the queen in this story) are portrayed as lovely people, it is clear that Ibbotson did not have much sympathy for rich people who become spoilt and selfish. On the one hand, who can blame her? On the other, it would be nice to see a little more shades of grey built into the narrative at times. Ana’s suggestions for an ending where inheritance is less prominent than upbringing would work wonderfully in that case, I think.

These criticisms aside, I did very much enjoy The Secret of Platform 13. It is always a joy to read Ibbotson’s work. At least part of the reason being that she integrates fantasy with our contemporary world seamlessly. There is no needless explaining; instead the world building simply is, which is something I really appreciate. Another thing I love about Ibbotson is her portrayal of children: with agency, with good intentions, and yet their slight faults.

All in all, The Secret of Platform 13 was a lovely start of the year and of this year’s Long-Awaited Reads Month.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

Black Maria - Diana Wynne JonesBlack Maria – Diana Wynne Jones
Published as Aunt Maria in the US

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2000
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In Black Maria, Mig, her brother Chris, and her mother visit their aunt Maria in a seaside town. On the surface, Maria is everything one may expect of an elderly aunt in fiction: she is a little stiff and boring, she upholds the social conventions, and the children are not particularly fond of her.

Quickly, however, Mig and Chris discover that something more and entirely different is going on beneath the surface. With her polite correctness, aunt Maria seems to control an awful lot of people in their life, stifling them with correctness, so to say. The men, meanwhile, all appear to be grey-suited zombies without a will of their own. When Chris rebels against her aunt, she turns him into a wolf. It is now left to Mig to try to turn her brother back into a human, and to do so, she has to go against her aunt and the social mores of the town..

As always, I turned to Ana for advice on what to read next by Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended Black Maria since she knows I am interested in gender. I admit, I was a little sceptical. I don’t particularly like the cover for this one (I admit I like it a lot better in retrospect) and I don’t know.. I just had trouble to look past that. But of course I should have known better. Ana knows what she recommends, and Diana Wynne Jones was too smart to merely have this be the cutesy tale that I somehow expected from the cover.

What makes Black Maria such a great read is the combination of Jones’ utterly engaging writing style and storytelling with a very smart and layered commentary on gender relations. To be more precise, through Aunt Maria’s particular position and the social conventions of the town, Diana Wynne Jones magnifies the power relations and consequences of a strict interpretation of a “natural” gender divide. Moreover, by turning this divide on its head, by having women as naturally belonging to the domestic sphere, but also giving them the control of the village instead of the men, she also questions emancipatory ideas that use the “natural spheres of men and women” argument to argue that women are actually more capable of ruling. She then counters those experiences with the arguments of a few men who fight Maria’s regime, who also use the idea of “natural” gender competences in their effort to gain power. All this is preceded by small comments of Maria on how Mig should behave more in a manner that befits a girl, thus leading up to the larger themes underlying the novel.

In the midst of this fictional and very well-executed world that always remains subtle in its references to the critique below the surface, it is a joy to follow Mig in her navigation of all these claims and power relations. To see her waver, but also find her own path.

[insert contented sigh here]

What more can I say? This is Diana Wynne Jones, everyone: of course you should read it. As for me, I am happy that I still have so many of her books left to explore. And yet, with every new treasure I find, I am also saddened knowing that it means I have one book less to look forward to.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, We Be Reading, Shelf Love, Yours?

Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden

Thursday's Children - Rumer GoddenThursday’s Children – Rumer Godden
Virago Modern Classics, April 2013 (
First published 1984)
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Thursday’s Children is about the Penny family. Mother concentrates all her hopes on Crystal, the fifth child and longer-for girl after four boys. Crystal is to be a ballet dancer, groomed by her mother who was once a chorus girl and longs to see her former dreams realised through her only daughter. Doone, sixth child and clearly an “accident”, has to accompany his sister to ballet class when there is no one to watch over him at home. There, he secretly becomes fascinated by dancing, and he starts practising in the hallway so that no one will see him. Doone has his reasons to keep his dancing a secret. His mother would not understand, focused as her attention is on Crystal, who is her one and all. His father thinks dancing is not suitable for boys. And his brothers never really seem to bother much about him. Nevertheless, Doone is willing to do everything he can to become a ballet dancer.

As many of you predicted in the comments of my library loot post, I really really enjoyed Thursday’s Children. What’s not to love? There’s ballet! And a child overcoming obstacles! There’s heartfelt writing! And social commentary! Basically, I wanted to travel back in time while reading this, and push the book into the hands of my childhood self. The hours I spent dreaming of being a professional dancer back then! The hours I spent dancing in the living room, the bedroom, on the street while walking somewhere, even on my bike.. Godden does a really good job at capturing the fascination for music and movements, the emotions it can evoke, and all the romantic feelings associated with dance. But she also highlights the difficult aspects of pursuing a career in dance: the rivalry and ugliness between children and parents that are all part of this world as well.

However, if you do not care much for ballet yourself, I think this book might still be of interest. The thing is, it really is about pursuing the things you love, the sacrifices you have to make in the process, but also the importance of love and family relations.

I was reminded of Eva Ibbotson when I read Thursday’s Children, although perhaps they are not that much alike. Like Ibbotson, Godden highlights the ugliness of classicism through the interactions of, particularly mother and Crystal with other girls in class.  Perhaps more than Ibbotson, Godden portrays extremes of hurt and ugliness, particularly towards the end of Crystal’s storyline. And in Doone’s portrayal, the sympathy evoked for him, and the overall sympathetic outlook on the world, she occasionally seems to share Ibbotson’s rose-coloured glasses. I somehow feel I am being unfair to both authors by comparing their work, because I think the strength of their writing is that it is so recognisable and individual. I guess what I meant to say is that I felt the same warmth and feeling radiate from Thursday’s Children as I do in Ibbotson’s novels.

Most of all, I think Godden shines in portraying the family interactions between the Pennys. It is hurtful and difficult to read about the treatment of Doone sometimes. Godden walks a fine line between invoking stereotypes of parents pursuing their own hopes and dreams through their children and forgetting about the other children in the family. However, she manages to remain realistic, I think, and handles these storylines really well. Even more so because, especially towards the end, she manages to complicate them: she shows both the hurt and the love that is part of so many families, she shows how every family member might stand up for other things, fight for some while forgetting about others, and how in their effort to do right all of them make mistakes.

Colour me impressed. And a little regretful that I did not discover Rumer Godden earlier. So.. which book should I read next?

Other Opinions: Jenny’s Books, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson

Comet in Moominland - Tove JanssonComet in Moominland – Tove Jansson
Translated from the Swedish by Ernest Benn Limited
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990 (original: 1946)
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There is a reason why I love Tove Jansson’s fiction for children. It has to do with quotes such as the following, showing Moomintroll and Sniff returning from a day playing outside and meeting Moominmamma in the garden:

“We’ve had supper, ” she said. “You’d better see what you can find in the larder, my dears.”
Moomintroll was hopping with excitement. “We’ve been at least a hundred miles from here!” he said. “We followed a Mysterious Path, and I found something terribly valuable that begin with P and ends with L, but I can’t tell you what it is because I’m bound by a swear.”
“And I found something that beging with C and ends with E!” squeaked Sniff. “And somewhere in the middle there’s an A and a V- but I won’t say any more.”
“Well!” said Moominmamma. “Fancy that! Two big discoveries in one day! Now run and get your supper, dears. The soup is keeping hot on the stove. And don’t clatter about too much because pappa is writing.”

In short, it is in being able to capture the homey feel of a loving home in a short scene. It is the fact that Tove Jansson takes the characters who are children seriously. She does not explain their exxageration, or unnecessarily emphasises  it. She feels no need to explain it away or ridicule it. The parental figures take their child, and their (I guess?) adopted child (Sniff) seriously. They allow them to go on adventures, they allow explorations and questions and finding things out for yourself, they allow them to take risks, but they are also there as caregivers. Moominvalley feels like a utopian society in that way, but one that doesn’t come with a bitter unfolding. It is simply a world where people have different interests, they seek different forms of fulfillment, creatures are allowed to smile at that, but never to question those motives or to ridicule them. I rather like to find myself lost in a world such as that, knowing I will encounter a number of surprising and intriguing characters along the way.

In Comet in Moominland, Moominvalley is threatened by a comet. Sniff and Moomintroll set out on a journey to visit the observatory in the lonely mountains to learn more about the comet. Once there, they encounter a stock of interesting characters, but they also realise that they will do anything in their power to protect those they love.

Comet in Moominland is the second Moomin book I have read. The first I read a little over a year ago, Moominpappa’s Memoirs. The one thing I had to get used to in these books is how everything is presented as taken for granted. There is no “hello children, this is Moomin, he is a strange creature that we’re not familiar with, and he lives here and here, and he does this and this, and his parents are Moominpappa and Moominmamma, and his friends are..” (but perhaps that can be found in the first book of the series, The Moomins and the Great Flood?) Instead, Jansson throws you into this world as if it is an accepted thing, which I had to adjust to at first? although really, I much prefer it this way.

Actually, I would argue that the world and its creatures are presented as fact more than works, because it has that “fantasy which you know can’t be real but still feels real nonetheless” thing going for it. Perhaps an explanation for this can be found in the familiar settings? The homes, the weather, the sea, even the explanation of the comet once Moomintroll arrives at the observatory..

As always, Jansson writes in her quiet style, that is sparse but invites engagement and silent contemplation. Similar to the only adult book written by Jansson that I have read, The Summer Book, she does an incredibly job at describing the setting of this tale. But more than that, her writing just invokes the pleasure of knowing that Jansson must have loved these characters and this world.

I feel as if I could ramble on and on, but perhaps the only thing I really want to say is that this book made me glow a little inside, and made me want to have my very own Moomin to hug close (with preferably the same will of his or her own).

Actually, there is one more thing that I would like to mention. I am afraid that I might make this sound almost too idyllic and unreal, and because of that rather bland. The thing is, there are real treasures buried here. On their journey, Sniff and Moomintroll encounter dangers. Moreover, they are sometimes endangered because of their own mistakes. There are lessons buried in this book, even though they are luckily not -in your face-. Last but not least, this book, set at the time of a possible apocalypse, infers some interesting reflections on the different ways people deal with a threat to the only world they know. Again, all that is done in an open-minded, funny, and non-judgemental way, but one that at the same time foregrounds love, hospitality, and (extended) family. It might sound insipid and sugar-coated, but it does not feel that way when reading it. I, for one, only found Comet in Moominland endearing and surprisingly reflexive.

Other Opinions: Presenting Lenore,  utter randomonium, My Favourite Books, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Beauty - Robin McKinleyBeauty – Robin McKinley
David Fickling Books, 2003

Originally published in 1978
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[note: this was written late at night, which shows. I hope it's not too difficult to navigate my meandering thoughts.]

I shall always have fond memories when it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast. I know it might be considered sacrilege to some, but I was introduced to the fairy tale through Disney’s movie version of 1991. I was four, and it was the first movie I saw at the cinema. There I was, with my cousin and my aunt (who used to babysit me), and I remember sitting there, and that movie having such an impact. I don’t remember much of the theatre visit, except that the building was quite stately, and that there was a scene where (in my mind) Belle dances with the Beast in a yellow dress, in the library.

There is a reason why Belle has always been my “favourite princess”, if I were to choose one. It is her bookishness in that Disney movie. Her walking from her house, with a book in her hand and a blue dress on, dancing through the streets, being friendly to everyone, and snubbing Gaston (snubbing the annoying man who thinks he’s all that is an important part of my liking for Belle). I wanted to be her. That’s it, basically.

I was very happy to discover that Beauty, in this retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (note that it was published many years before the Disney movie!) is also bookish. She is also, in her own estimation, not truly a beauty. It is a nickname given to her, her actual name is Honour (next to her sisters Grace and Hope). One of the wonderful things in this story is that the main character grows into both her nicknames, that she shows them to be a perfect fit, and that she slowly gains confidence about being worthy of them.

It is not that Beauty is not confident. It is her strength as a female character, that we perhaps do not associate with what we have learned to think of as “the princesses in fairy tales”, which, in part, makes this story so enjoyable. Beauty is willing to go against the grain. First, she devotes herself to studies and reading. Then, when the family has to move, she works around the house and does work that requires great physical strength. Then, when she meets the beast, she wonders, she is sometimes naive, but she also has a very strong will and she’s not unwilling to voice her own opinions. I liked her for that. Very much so.

Beauty is the kind of character that makes it easy to sympathise. Even if at times it becomes a little difficult to believe that she really wouldn’t have understood all those hints that are spoken at night, by invisible servants. Even if, having had people remark that she has grown into a great beauty, and that she does not see herself as others do, she struggles against the notion, and rejects the beautiful gowns laid out for her. Then, at the same time, I also appreciated her for that. I’d like a female fairy tale lead to reject dresses. I understand the notion of not feeling comfortable in your skin, or confident in whatever you have doubts about, despite being told otherwise. It is something many will empathise with. It is something I certainly emphasise with.

Robin McKinley does a wonderful job of setting the scenes. She spends a great deal of time describing scenery. She makes sure to evoke moods through that same scenery. She makes sure you know all the characters involved: Beauty’s father, her sisters, I could see faces accompanied with them all.

There is one thing though, that I wondered at while reading the book. For the first time while reading this, I realised how Beauty and the Beast is not just a romantic love story to swoon over (which happened, for me, here). But how there are some really problematic things going on in the relationship that is established. Sure, I loved Belle for rejecting Gaston in Disney’s version, but have I ever stopped to think that she fell in love with the person who captured her father, and then held her prisoner instead? In this story, there is the same kind of dynamic going on, to a certain extent. As The Literary Omnivore put it, it’s a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

I remember, faintly, that there were moments when Beauty reflected on this herself. Or perhaps, I am editing them in, in my memory, in retrospect (but I think not? Help me out here, fellow readers!). Here is a man, or beast, who lives a life of luxury, even if it is established to be an isolated and sad one, and who can offer Beauty a lot of the things that she always wanted (hello magical library with all the books ever written and yet to be written!). There are moments when I felt that McKinley handled this situation really well, with the reflections, and  the response of Beauty’s family, and Beauty actually makes conscious decisions about staying or returning to the Beast, and she makes them repeatedly.. However, there are moments when they were less overt, or when I felt the tale overrode them, where I would have loved for more questions to have been raised (the ending, for example, and Beauty accepting “the dress” were such moments). But it is a fairy tale, and McKinley makes it easy to go along with these aspects of the story, even if she makes you wonder at the same time. I guess the quality of this story is, in part, that it made me reflect on such things, even if it may not have provided all the answers.¹

I fear I might sound much too critical. The thing is, I did very much enjoy this book. I wanted to keep on reading it. I wanted to hug it close at times. Beauty is a wonderful heroine. It is not that the story is lacking, or at fault. Perhaps it is more that it opened my eyes to the narratives inherent to the fairy tale as it has been told so many times. And that is what made me think. And then, reading this as a retelling, I might think that there were moments where there might have been more subversion, even if there are plenty of moments there. In itself, Beauty does a wonderful job of expanding the story, of giving us a very detailed setting, of offering us a picture of a supportive family and strong girls. In short, it is not my favourite-favourite fairy tale retelling (but who could top Tender Morsels?), but it was wonderful nonetheless. It is definitely going on the re-read pile.

I know there are many more Robin McKinley books out there. I have Deerskin on the shelves, and I cannot wait to get to it (I know it is supposed to be much darker than Beauty - not that that’s better per se, it’s just if people wanted to warn me). Are there any titles you particularly recommend? I think McKinley might very well turn out to be an author of whom I want to read many books.

Other Opinions: There are many.

¹ Can I give an example of such questions the story raised? I’m inserting them as a footnote, because I couldn’t help but ramble a little. Here it is. In her post, The Literary Omnivore also remarked that in Beauty, the Beast does not seem to overcome his nature through Beauty. Instead, he is as he has mostly been. I agree with her. Instead of the Beast (as in the Disney version, which is the only one I know, and I do not know it by heart) going from a more “beastly”, more aggressive, character, to one that is “humane”, tender, and awkward, through Belle’s intercession and for her, in Beauty the Beast is mostly as he has always been (while his beastly outside mostly leads to him becoming more isolated, which is his suffering). He is willing to hope at a better life, meeting Beauty. But a fundamental change? I have seen less of that.

However, after writing that down, there springs a new question to mind. Or really, two questions. One being that that story might be problematic in itself. Beauty might have had more agency in that the Beast not only changed her, but she also changed him (more expressly), and I would definitely cheer for that. But I wonder if in that version is captured the narrative of “if you are a lovely enough girl, you can change the bad boy for the better”, which is not one which can be retold without raising question marks (but which is also part of what I loved about the Disney version. Ugh, I both love and hate discovering problematic things in favourite stories). And then there’s question two, which is the prevailing idea that love will change you at your core. Now, I am a romantic, and I do believe love changes people. But I wonder if it is a good thing if it changed your very nature? Is that romance, or a little scary? Is it not another narrative we are so often told, but that raises complex issues? Should a change always be established through finding your “true love”? Should we think of natures of being “natures”, or “cores”? I hope not, not completely. I don’t know, perhaps this is what McKinley avoids in her tale, as she seems to emphasise that both Beauty and the Beast allow something to flower when they are together, something that was already there but that they could not see? And I like that (romanticised?) idea of love, but even so, I cannot help but wonder at this idea of change through another person too? So, as I said above, this book led me to ask a lot of questions. Questions that are not part of this book per se, that did not detract from my enjoyment, but which led me to wonder and rethink some things, and, as usual, leaving me without any answers (which I do not mind, but you might think I have just wasted your time in having you read this footnote).

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.