Sometimes, when browsing my local crack den, I mean second hand bookshop, certain books just reach out and grab me. ‘Buy me’, they cry helplessly as my fingers caress the unbroken spine (how? How do you do this? Seriously I have been reading paperbacks with spines for about twenty years now and have never managed to keep a single one in tact, what is your secret? Silicon fingers? Cif?) ‘Buy me, and I will be yours…I will never leave you, never deceive you, you can trust me. My name is book’. This happened to me last week in Poverty Aid (possibly the greatest charity shop in the world, on Cardigan Lane in Leeds. Gonna buy all my furniture there when am Big). I walked in with a pound thinking I would treat myself and walked out with five pounds worth of books and random crap paid for on my credit card. And I wonder why I can’t afford real food and have to bulk up my lasagne with stock. Which is delicious, btw, the 70s got that one right.
The two books I bought weren’t even new! They were remnants of my childhood- ‘The Oaken Throne’ and ‘Thomas’, both part of the Deptford Histories by Robin Jarvis. I finished ‘The Oaken Throne’ last night and need to share with you this amazing, and too often neglected, children’s author. Those of you of a certain age may remember his books with fondness, others, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by taking him up.
Jarvis’ first series of fantasy novels aimed at readers from about 8 years old was The Deptford Mice. This is based on a world populated by anthropomorphic mice and other rodents living around London, who worship a system of spirits and gods based on the power of nature and the circle of life. The story centres on one mouse family, the Browns, who throughout the series become entangled in a war against the evil powers of the god Jupiter, who lives in the sewers under London and wishes to cover the world in darkness and prevent the spring. The series is prequelled by another The Deptford Histories, which are, in my opinion, the stronger of the books, each telling the history of a minor character in The Deptford Mice, unrelated to each other and spread across time and place. My favourite book would be ‘The Oaken Throne’, which I have just re-read, about the war between squirrels and bats over the power of a magical portal that controls the coming of spring, the Starglass and manages not only to evoke Shakespeare in its depiction of doomed love and demonstrates to children truthfully, understandably and non-patronisingly the futility of war based on racial hatred, but also has one of the most powerful and sad endings I have ever read in a book, never mind a children’s book.
What I like about the books is just how inventive they are. Anthropomorphism is not a rare occurrence in children’s literature, but combining this with a tangible religious and political system, and stories that include themes such as inter-racial relationships, slavery and exploitation, and, it could be argued, environmentalism, is a rare achievement for books aimed at children younger than ten. Although the writing is not as strong as, say, Phillip Pullman, it is just as inventive and challenging to the reader to grasp this fully formed and realised world
Jarvis, unlike other children’s fantasy writers of the last twenty years who I am not going to mention, is incredibly versatile. By making series of books that conform to the trilogy format he is able to explore a wide range of situations and characters without being caught in a over-long tangent of events and characters that are not well rounded enough to last for more that a couple of books without having by necessity to be killed off, and although both the Deptford Mice and Histories, and the new series The Deptford Mouselets are based in a world of speaking mice and bats and squirrels at war, he is a gift that keeps on giving with other trilogies that are just as inventive and enjoyable to read.
I was first introduced to Jarvis when I was about 8 by the Whitby Witches, a trilogy, surprisingly enough, based in the North East England coastal town of Whitby- famous for it’s beautiful Abbey and connection to Bram Stoker who set part of ‘Dracula’ there. I grew up about ten miles from Whitby and was therefore very much aware of the town’s beauty and spiritual past. The Whitby Witches tells the story of two young orphans, one of whom, Ben, can see not only dead people (including, tragically, his parents), but supernatural beings. When he and his sister Jennet (beautiful name) are adopted by a strange old woman and brought to live in Whitby, it is not overly clear why their lives have brought them to this beautiful, eerie place. However, Ben soon discovers a race of fantasy characters, the Aufwaders, that live along the shore under the cliffs (if you ever visit Whitby, which you will want to do after reading this books walk along the beach and you can almost see the little fisher folk cleaning their nets). The story follows Ben as he tries to help the Aufwaders, who are struck by a curse that was brought on them when their ancestor fell in love with a human, bearing his half-breed child that was subsequently neglected by the rest of the tribe and their gods, the Lords of the Deep who evoke the spirits of the oceans. This leads to the human man’s death, the Aufwader’s suicide, and a curse by the Lords that all Aufwader women will die in childbirth. Pretty adult themes for a book about an 8 year old boy. Makes Harry Potter look almost tame (which it is).
The stories get even more adult in nature in the second book of the series, where the pre-teen Jennet is prayed on by an adult male warlock in order to get closer to the coven of witches to which her foster mother, Alice, belongs. I truly believe that it is important that children talk about things that worry them: instead of merely smothering our children in wii-fit cotton wool, we should openly discuss bad things that happen in the world, this can be facilitated by the reading of excellent literature and A Warlock in Whitby provides that. I would highly recommend this book as invoking pathos, as a way of getting children to talk about abuse, and exploitation. I cannot remember the entire plot, but I can remember the feeling of tingling up my spine when Jennet is persuaded she is in love with Nathanial Crozier, in the modern world of social networking, with grown ups preying on the emotions of children, it is important for people to recognise from an early age that this is wrong.
Jarvis has also written a series based around WWII and ancient Norse mythology crossed with a bit of Greek, set in a modern day museum (starting to tell why I love this guy? I mean, what happened, did he wake up in the morning and go “I wonder what would happen if the Fates in charge of the Yggdrasil actually ran a museum in London that contained a time traveling device in the shape of a stuffed bear” and then just go from there?). I did not enjoy this series as much as the other too (a bit weird for me, probably why its called The Wyrd Museum series), probably because I did not like any of the characters, whilst I loved Alice, Jennet, Ben and the Aufwaders and had a strong liking for the Deptford Mice. The books are also insane, jumping from ancient Viking myth to the history of Glastonbury to the Nazis to the trials single parenthood way to fast- or maybe I’m just getting too old for them!
Occasionally re-reading something from your past can go two ways, either you want to go back in time and rip the book from your tiny-child spine creasing fingers and beat yourself round the head with it for wasting your precious pre-taxpaying time when you could (and should) have been watching The Craft, or make you all warm and soft inside because you know what’s going to happen and you don’t care- as Miley Cyrus once said, it’s the climb. Re-reading Jarvis over the past few days has been a pleasure, and I can’t wait for this week of reading The Damned Utd in preparation for seeing David Peace talk next week at the Headingley Lit Fest on Saturday to be over so I can get stuck into Thomas!