WILD SWANS by Jackie Morris

On the days that bring grey skies, traffic jams, tax returns and flu, I look for magic. And my first port of call, almost always, is Jackie Morris – an illustrator and author whose art and words transport me to other worlds in seconds. Last year I read about her snow leopard, before that her ice bear and a few years ago her dragons. Now Jackie Morris is back with Wild Swans, her take on an original fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson – and its every bit as magical, if not more, than what has gone before.

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‘Eliza lived in a castle beside a forest…’ At first there is only happiness: a childhood blessed with loving parents and eleven brothers, handsome and brave. But when the queen, their mother, dies, a terrible change comes to the castle and to Eliza. Enchantment deep in the forest leads the king to marry the mysterious woman in white. Who knows why he conceals his children from her, in a tall tower, within a complex maze… But when the new queen discovers them, she takes bitter revenge, and eleven boys become eleven swans, who must fly far, far away from their sister. Eliza will need love, faith and courage to find her brothers, and this is only the beginning of her quest to break the white queen’s spell.

Even before the story starts, Morris brings the magic: a double page spread of an enchanted castle, the sea, a restless sky and a girl soaring across it on the back of a swan. It effortlessly draws the reader into the story – a sort of promise that what you are able to read is special and otherworldly.

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Morris’ knowledge of, and delight in, the outdoor world – of nightingales, firecrests, goldcrests, curlews, silver sand eels – is a joy to read and each setting Eliza travels to to find her brothers is beautifully and convincingly evoked. The characterisation, too, is superb: a mysterious woman with ‘long white hair that glowed like the moon…a constant moving crown of moths’, a faery queen who lives in a castle carved from the clouds, a loyal sister who will stop at nothing to find her brothers and a vile bishop who seeks to undo any seeds of goodness sewn.

 

At the heart of the book there is an unsettling darkness, true to many of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales and Morris encapsulates this evil in a brilliantly compelling way. The embittered white queen throwing ‘soft cloths of the finest spiders’ webs, each warped with a spell and wefted with jealousy’ over innocent boys is spine-tinglingly horrid and as she curses Eliza with witch-knots, Moontrug’s shoulders hunched up in fear.

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Wild Swans is a story of winged magic, of twilights ‘filled with the soft wings of moths’, swan feathers ‘jewelled with tiny drops of water’ scattered on abandoned shores and flights over seas that shift from ‘pearl to slate, silver-splintered, fish belly fright, dove grey…cloud-shadowed’. But it is also a book about the ‘textures of silence’ – a sister’s quiet deeds, a dog’s faithful companionship and the mysterious watching of a hare. In the run up to Christmas, we live our lives at breakneck speed, but Morris reminds us that is it in the silence of everyday life that some of the greatest magic is found. So, amidst the rush of Christmas shopping and frantic holiday plans, listen to the wind catching in the heavy-leaved branches, the distant birdsong and the quietness of footsteps and heartbeats. Wild Swans is another magnificent read by Jackie Morris and Moontrug hugely recommends it.

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THE WRECK OF THE ARGYLL by John K. Fulton

Moontrug loves reading about magical places (taking strolls through Narnian woods, high-fiving Legolas in Rivendell and sipping butterbeer in Hogsmeade) but she’s also a fan of stories rooted in the real world, of plots bound up in places she’s been. And she was very excited to see that author, John K. Fulton, has set a children’s book in Dundee, a city half an hour away from where Moontrug grew up.

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Dundee, 1915. Twelve-year-old Nancy Caird is desperate to do her bit for the war. So when she suspects one of her teachers of being a German spy, she’s determined to foil his plans, and ropes in the reluctant Jamie Balfour to help her uncover the scheme. Midshipman Harry Melville is on his first voyage aboard HMS Argyll as it forges through the black and story North Sea, unaware of both hidden rocks and German plots that threaten the ship. When Nancy and Jamie’s suspicions are confirmed, and they discover HMS Argyll is in deadly danger, they’re drawn into a web of espionage, secrets, and betrayal, where no-one is as they seem and no-one can be trusted.

Right from the opening line, ‘Nancy kept to the shadows as she followed the spy’, Fulton sets the pace for his war-time thriller. And Moontrug loved Nancy’s impetuous nature – creeping out of bed at night to investigate crimes and making friends with boys in graveyards… Her friendship with Jamie is really well drawn and the two provide an exciting spy duo. Moontrug also loved the inclusion of suffragette Jean who boldly declares: ‘Women were meant to stand with men, shoulder to shoulder, as equals’ in a time when women didn’t even have the vote.

Fulton perfectly captures the clandestine world of spies and all the excitement and danger lurking there: ‘He spun the cylinder with a practised air and snapped it shut with a flick of the wrist’ and the tension rises as Nancy discovers the truth behind characters’ pasts: ‘Then, unexpectedly, she heard the unmistakable sound of a key turning in the lock.’ It is perhaps this weaving of invented spy plot with historical details from the sinking of the Argyll that makes the story work so well. Indeed the language used to describe the scenes on board the Argyll was richly evocative and Moontrug could almost feel the dark, cold seas buffeting against the ship. Fulton creates a real sense of foreboding as the Argyll draws ever nearer the Bell Rock in the fog and the rain and the thrashing waves.

But set alongside the action and the drama, Fulton touches on the pathos of war, of men coming back from The Front with memories so awful they can only make jokes to deal with the trauma – and of little boys left in Scotland without fathers to look after them. Moontrug loved the humour Lachlan and Hector brought to the story, especially when Hector asks the doctor if, after his injures, he’ll ever be able to play the fiddle. The doctor replies: ‘I see no reason why not,’ to which Hector responds with, ‘Grand, because I could never play before.’

The topographical details of Dundee, combined with the historical events on board the Argyll and the excitement of spies combine to make this a convincing and exciting spy thriller for children. And the last line of the book is just wonderful…