Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes won me over quietly—I almost didn’t see it happening. Jonathan Auxier’s story of an orphaned thief who eyes were (eep!) pecked out by ravens has a wit and charm and enough unexpected quirks to make it unlike any other books I’ve read. I liked it. I passed it on to Lydia, who loved it. But for some reason (maybe it was the thieving? Or the crows?), I didn’t immediately review it for this blog.
But then I read Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard.
There was nothing subtle about the way this book won me over: affection for it roared over me like a semi truck, overtaking me so abruptly that, at one point, I thumped the cover at Mitch while I read and announced, “Oh my word, I love this book!” before diving back into the story. It was the sort of book I adored so much, so immediately, that I kept my fingers metaphorically crossed for the rest of the book in the hope that the ending wouldn’t fizzle.
This book is glorious from start to finish.
Sophie Quire is a sequel to Peter Nimble, in that it happens after Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, Peter Nimble is in it, and it was written by the same author. But it might be more accurate to call it a companion book, I don’t know, because the main character here is Sophie Quire, a young bookmender in the city of Bustleburgh, which is currently banishing nonsense in all its forms. When she meets a certain blind thief and takes on an unlikely commission, everything in Sophie’s life changes.
Jonathan Auxier’s writing is as exhilarating in this book as it is in The Night Gardener and Peter Nimble. His characters are bizarre and loveable, and through their adventures, Auxier explores (among other things) the importance of stories and nonsense. Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is a beautiful book, one that has a deeper layer of truth underneath the story, waiting for those willing to look for it.
Some authors play with language in a showy way, a way that draws the reader’s eye away from the story and onto their clever wordplay, but not Anne Ursu. She shapes each scene with obvious enjoyment, but it’s the scene we see, not her masterful shaping of it. She plays with words in the quietest way, panning out suddenly from a scene until pieces we hadn’t noticed yet become vivid and living, or giving a word some unexpected tilt that brings a new facet of meaning to light.
The delight behind her writing drew me into Breadcrumbs—a thrift store find—immediately. But the story itself held me there.
Breadcrumbs travels over familiar ground: it is a coming-of-age tale, and a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” It could feel tired, too familiar. But it doesn’t.
The world Ursu constructs to house both the recognizable lives of her main characters and the cold enchantments of The Snow Queen is bewitching. The way she moves us from one to the other seems just right. When the main character, Hazel, sets out to rescue her best friend Jack from an enchantment she doesn’t fully understand, she finds that the world around her becomes less and less clear—it grows harder to tell who is trustworthy and who is not. Through Hazel’s adventure, Ursu depicts the realistic confusion of coming-of-age without blurring the lines between good and evil.
One other thing I loved about Breadcrumbs, though, was Hazel. She’s inventive, brave, and the right kind of quirky. She’s loyal, kind, and bold. She is Indian, adopted at birth by American parents. Her struggle to place herself in her surroundings, to understand where she fits—as an adopted child, a child of recently divorced parents, a child who doesn’t look like those around her—is a part of the story, but it isn’t what the story is about. The story is about a rescue, and the rescuer, in this case, is Hazel.
I loved Breadcrumbs. It is a beautiful book. But one of the things I loved best about it was that it introduced me not just to a new favorite story, but to a new favorite author. I can’t wait to see what else Anne Ursu has written.
Redwall. Now she knew why creatures talked of it with such reverence; it appeared to blend with the surrounding Mossflower country as a haven of rest and tranquility, in harmony with all nature, like some gentle giant of a mother, sheltering and protecting her children.
Mariel of Redwall
I encountered Redwall Abbey in my early twenties. I was wandering then, in need of a refuge, and I found one within the grounds of Redwall. Evil was clear-cut there, easy to see and to fight—unlike the sin that seeps and simmers in our adult lives. Reading about the peaceful creatures of Redwall battling the rat Cluny, and feasting on good things like woodland salad and maple cordial fortified me for my own battle.
A good story can do that.
But when I handed my battered copy over to Lydia a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect her to love it. I even cautioned her that she may not love it yet, and that if she didn’t fall for it immediately she should withhold judgement and try again in a few years. Cluny is really scary, and I wasn’t sure she was ready to meet him.
She was ready to meet him. She came downstairs a few hours later, shining-eyed and wondering if there were more books in the series.
Lydia was in luck: Redwall is one of twenty-two books (meaty, full-length, well-written books) about the Abbey and its inhabitants. The inhabitants change from book to book, as the stories generally take place at different points along a timeline.
Think Chronicles of Narnia or Star Wars: you grow to love one batch of characters in a book, and then pick up the next book to find a batch of brand new characters to love, with, perhaps, a few cameos from old favorites in the new story. The mischievous Dibbun of one book may be the elderly Abbot of the next book. It’s great fun.
Lydia was so taken with these books that she’s begun working industriously around the house, doing chores and setting up lemonade stands in order to fund her growing collection of Redwall books. She has out-paced me in the series, so I’ve been taking recommendations from her on what to read next. She is the true Redwall authority in our home now, so I asked her to share her thoughts on the series with you. Here is why Lydia thinks your family will love these books:
I love these books! I can’t believe that the first time I read Redwall, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Girls will like it because there are beautiful girls who are very brave, too, and boys will like it because there are lots of battles. There are hilarious hungry hares, beautiful young maidens, old abbots and abbesses, brave young warriors (who are sometimes girls!), cute little Dibbuns, strong badger lords (and a badger lady), very bad vermin, big brave Skippers, odd-speaking moles, argumentative Guosim shrews and much more! Dive into the world between the covers of a Redwall book!
I think she summed up the series quite nicely! I can really only add a few grown-up thoughts to that.
The evil in these books is shocking, and I think it’s meant to be.
The villains in these stories war amongst themselves, kill innocent creatures, and go to terrible ends to achieve their goals. They are brutal, but they are rarely funny and never glorified. When the story transitions from the villain’s stronghold, where he slays his friends out of vengeance, pride, or boredom, to the Abbey orchard, where strangers and friends feast together, the reader can’t help but love the lovelier scene.
As my daughter and I have discussed these books, I’ve been struck by how well they help shape her affections. She has been quick to notice the way that the creatures of Redwall serve one another, while the villains serve only themselves, or to notice how the Redwall soldiers honor their fallen while their enemies simply leave their dead behind. And that contrast is, I think, the point: there is no moral ambiguity to this story, no anti-hero. The bad guys are very bad; the heroes aren’t perfect, but they are still very good.
Jacques was a child in England during WWII, and I wonder how his experiences shaped the portrayal of evil in these stories. If your child is a sensitive reader, I will give you two warnings: Be ready for graphic battle scenes and very bad bad guys, but don’t let those turn you away from the story. Jacques does a great job of making the stories feel safe, even when they’re at their scariest.
Jacques was fond of writing in dialect. In the case of the hares, who sound like characters from a P. G. Wodehouse novel, this is delightful. But in the case of the moles, who are meant to sound (I think) like operating drills, the dialogue can be a bit trickier to decipher. If you’re reading aloud, you might familiarize yourself with the dialogue before reading to your kids so you don’t get sucked into a whirlpool of zzzs and rrrs.
The food. Oh, the food.
Jacques has said that his lavish descriptions of Redwall feasts sprung from his memory of rationing during the war, when he fantasized about the dishes in his mother’s cookbook. His descriptions of food are so mouth-watering that they have inspired a whole cookbook and have inspired us to throw our own Redwall feast. There are so many dishes in there that sound wonderful, even if I have no idea what they are: meadowcream trifle, buttercup cordial, mushroom and leek pasty with gravy. I want comfort food—and a lot of it—when I’m reading these books.
In fact, that was the second caution I offered Lydia when I gave her the book: you might not like it yet, and it will probably make you hungry. I am so glad I was wrong about the first one, and so glad I was right about the second.
For some time I’ve been in the habit of telling our daughters stories before bed. These usually center around three sisters whose names are uncannily like those of our daughters, and whose adventures resemble things that happened to our daughters that day. But there is always a twist: if they hold a tea party in the back yard, a dragon comes to visit. If they lose a first tooth or start school or stay inside all day because of the rain, some dose of magic deepens the story and makes their day somehow enchanting. Some of these twists are, if I’m perfectly honest, pulled straight from the pages of whatever book we’re reading. But the girls don’t seem to mind, and my imagination isn’t exactly sharp by eight o’clock at night.
Stories like Twig capture that blend of the real and the imagined that appeals to my sleepy daughters. Something magical happens when an author taps into a child’s imagination and draws out a story so wondrous, so childlike, that reading it is uncannily like watching our children invent worlds in our living room. AA Milne had a knack for capturing this: the stories in Winnie-the-Pooh are written with all the clarity and ingenuity of an adult, yet they capture the element—whatever it is—that makes them so clearly the invention of a child.
Elizabeth Orton Jones (Caldecott award-winning illustrator of Prayer for a Child) writes of the adventures of a young girl named Twig in a way that captures that mix of ordinary life and the imagination. She tells of fairies and cockroaches, talking sparrows and chatty neighbors, in a way that kept my daughters wide-eyed and enthralled as we read. I don’t know if this book would appeal to most boys, honestly, but for my girls, meeting Twig was like meeting a kindred spirit in the pages of a beautifully illustrated book. They’re already hungry for sequels.
Nap time settles over our house. Those small enough to sleep, sleep. Those too big for naps go into their separate rooms armed with books—many books. I briefly consider washing the dishes from lunch or checking my email, but a breeze sweeps in the screen door and it smells like—oh, like the summers of childhood or something, so I step outside to explore it for a moment.
I come to my senses two hours later in a cushioned porch chair, sunburned and blinking. Somehow, I’m holding North! or Be Eaten.
Today, I have the privilege of introducing you (perhaps you’ve met?) to Mother Daughter Book Reviews, a site that abounds with reviews of children’s literature. I’m serving as a guest poster today and my subject is perfectly summer worthy:
Some of these adventure stories are classic; some are recent releases. Many will (hopefully) be new to you! May you spend your summer investigating wardrobes, cupboards, and tollbooths. May you pick up a magic coin, a bandolier of bells, a bow, or a ring linked to enchanted thread. May you steer clear of Voldemort and the toothy cows of Skree.
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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