Something magical happens when, years after finishing a book, a certain moment suddenly flashes into consciousness. These are rarely significant episodes, often trivial, but they have something miraculous about them. Some are delicious, others less so. Here I’m remembering some as I see them now, without going back to the books to check for accuracy.
Alan Garner’s Mountains
I love Alan Garner’s Wales, particularly his description of the mountains, and their daunting emptiness. In the ‘Owl Service’ the hero is up there, wandering the grey stones, lost. Unlike the slate coloured comedy of Frank Cotrell Boyce’s landscape in ‘Framed’, Garner’s summits are spiritual places, where silent epiphanies occur. Garner paints the sombre desolation of the Welsh mountains so accurately they appear more real than those I can see from my window.
Camp Green Lake
It isn’t a camp, it isn’t green and it isn’t a lake. It’s just Holes. Stanley Yelnats (is he the first palindromic hero of a children’s book?) has some digging to do. There are just holes, the heat, the lizards, and the stink of sweaty bodies. Mr Sir comes to fill Stanley’s canteen, but he lets the water pour into the dry ground. Never has a book made me quite so thirsty.
Susan Cooper’s Green Lanes
I spent many summers in Cornwall as a child. I never thought of looking for the Holy Grail, but my dad did get me hunting for Cornish Piskies. He told me they were on the headland, and I would have to go out there with a bucket and spade, the spade for hitting back the wheat, much taller than me then, and the bucket was collecting Piskies. He told me if I listened I could hear them chattering. “Over Sea, Under Stone” is soaked in the mood of Cornwall of my youth, the green lanes and suspicious locals. There is magical moment when one of the protagonists, seeking out a suspicious character, finds himself in the green lanes between those high Cornish hedgerows. I can’t remember what happens, but those lanes, their greenness, and the perfect quality of their Cornishness, is captured forever.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s Aerial View
In 'The Kite Rider' McCaughrean takes you up above the action. We get a bird’s eye view of a battle scene, with the boy on his kite, passing intelligence to the Great Miao. It’s a stunning sequence, a clever device for showing us the plan of things, but it is vertiginous and breathtaking.
William Nicholson’s Examination Room
Aramanth not only sounds like a dodgy liquer, it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth. Nicholson’s dystopia and its rabid testing culture is a savage satire of the idiotic educational policy of successive UK administrations. Aramanth is a hostile place, even if it is home to the dear family of our heroes. It’s a place you have to escape, and that’s what the protagonists do. But the white robes of the examiner, caught in a spangle of sunlight, somehow summon me back to the examination halls of my schooldays, and fill me with dread.
Arrietty takes her first step into the garden. It is a sublime epiphany: it stirs up the rage of adolescence, of dreams of the future, of impossible hopes and utter fearlessness. It’s my favourite moment in children’s literature, and one I savour again and again and again. The reader’s knowledge that there are giants out there, and one is about to appear, makes the moment bitter-sweet, especially as Arrietty is about to find out she may be the very last of her race.