Saturday, 17 July 2010

Five Epiphanies in Children's Literature - Andrew Strong

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’s Garden

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.


Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for reminding me of these wonderful moments, Andrew. A lovely post.

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh - YES, about Arrietty's garden! And I'd add Lucy (in The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle) running up the hill in search of her pocket handkerchieves, until she's so high she looks down on the farmhouse and thinks 'she could have tossed a pebble down the chimneys'. (from memory...)

Jan Markley said...

A moment I remember from my childhood reading is the character in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe who betrays his siblings for turkish delight.

Anonymous said...


Janet said...

Reading your blog, you are taking me back to my children's librarian days. There are lots of good books out there and now my grandchildren are reading them.
As to your bent for fantasy etc., The Day of the Triffids is one of the few I have ever read. I think John Wyndam's books are compulsive.

Meg Harper said...

I so agree about Holes! Apart from Epiphany moments, it's a book without a word out of place. But I don't know who Arrietty is! I know she sounds famous and familiar but I confess ignorance!

Andrew Strong said...

Arrietty is a character in Mary Norton's 'The Borrowers' - I'm sorry, I should have made that clear, but have just been reading it (again) and was so utterly absorbed I childishly assumed the rest of the world should automatically know! Incidentally Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli (who produced 'Spirited Away', 'Howl's Moving Castle') released 'The Borrower Arrietty' just last Saturday.

Meg Harper said...

I worked it out driving along this afternoon! Not a favourite of mine but am very interested to hear that Studio Ghibli have made a version as I love their work - esp Howl. Did you see their Earthsea? Not their best and not very true to Le Guin but still wonderful in its way. Thank you!