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Unicorns still exist

From The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
From The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Do you begin to notice things in a picture book intended for children because you’ve read it 200 times and you start to look out for shapes in the clouds? Or is it that you have agreed to read this book 200 times because there’s something in it that you knew you could sit with for a while? I think the latter: in Jeffers’s books, adults notice that, in between the sweetness, there are strange melancholic tendencies and notes in his illustrations – while children see in his books the spirit which overcomes these, instead.

The young person is not inappropriately steeped in adult sadness, the adult is not stuck in a multi-coloured sugar sachet with the uncanny feeling that they might be there for all eternity.

And so you read it one more, three more, many more times than you had planned for one evening, each time noticing, or feeling, something new.

Jeffers’s new book, The Fate of Fausto: A painted fable (HarperCollins) feels more purposefully like a children’s book for grown ups – the endpapers are marbled and the illustrations were made (we are told) using traditional lithographic printmaking techniques at Idem Press in Paris during the summer of 2018, which is, in itself, a good story: because Jeffers, as the flaps of his well-worn books always remind us, is the boy from Belfast, who now lives in Brooklyn and summers with manual presses in Paris.

Blinding selfishness

The fable of the fate of Fausto is a particularly good one, about identifying your essence and being true to yourself. Fausto, an old, besuited, moustached man, believes that he can, does and probably should own everything.

And so he goes out to prove it: the flowers, the sheep, the mountain will all agree that they are his. He tries to stamp on the sea, even, to prove his ownership. “But he did not understand. And he did not know how to swim. The sea was sad for him, but carried on being the sea.”

That’s a position which, if extended outwards, is difficult to maintain: the ability to be sad for someone else, but remain unchanged can be the symptom of blinding selfishness, or self-love. Discuss. I tried The Fate of Fausto out on my kids and realized that this was the first of Jeffers’s books to be less inclusive – written for me, not for them.

Most children’s books are written for them, not me. And so, really, we should ask the intended readers about the works under consideration. We begin with The Time Travel Diaries (Piccadilly Press) by Caroline Lawrence, whose “Roman Mysteries” books have sold millions of copies to young and adventurous historians/detectives. In her latest, Alex, a boy who knows some Greek and Latin, is sent in a time machine back to Roman London to find a blue-eyed, African girl for a billionaire called Solomon Daisy. Our reviewer Alex Lea (aged thirteen) reports, “This book is a must-read for kids my age and let me tell you why.”

Please do. “Alex goes in the portal only to find out that the school bully, Dinu Balan, travels with him, but he loses him”, thank goodness. “There are some shocking plot twists, which had me on edge and confused.

Lawrence creates the right mood by her choices of words, which makes the reader feel the same way. What I learnt from the book is that you should look at things from someone else’s point of view.” That’s often the lesson of young person’s fiction, isn’t it? That and how to get away from evil, rich, or old people with names like Fausto, or Solomon Daisy, or Sorrotore.

Sorrotore appears in The Good Thieves, by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury). Rundell’s is another great story: she’s a Fellow at All Soul’s College, Oxford, specializing in John Donne. She’s also a multi-award-winning children’s writer, who believes in a cartwheel a day and climbs colleges by night. In her most recent book, Sorrotore is a greedy millionaire who has cheated Jack out of his beautiful ancestral home, Hudson Castle, in New York. Jack’s granddaughter, Vita Marlowe, arrives from England ready to avenge him.

She steps off the boat, “set her jaw, and nodded at New York City in greeting, as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight”. Mary Imlah (thirteen) explains that “with Silk (a pickpocket), Arkady (an animal tamer), and Samuel (an aspiring acrobat), Vita devises a plan to reclaim Hudson Castle from the scheming Sorrotore.

As well as the vividly presented setting, I particularly loved the strong will that made the characters so memorable”. Strong will is important, in real-life as well as in fiction; sometimes it’s called being spirited, decisive, headstrong, bossy, even.

Lawless plan

Mina Caines (eleven) adds, “The Good Thieves pulled me in and made me want to keep reading. I like how the book had funny points, such as: ‘Like I said, the kindness of birds is a painful thing!’”. That’s a good, poignant sort of funny.

“The basic plot is that Vita Marlowe, a girl left with a limp from polio, has a grandfather called Jack who was cheated out of his home and fortune. She’s desperate to make him happy again, so pulls a pickpocket girl and two talented boys into a lawless plan.”

Mary Imlah also took on Laura Wood’s Under a Dancing Star (Scholastic), in which “seventeen-year-old Beatrice is bored of living alone in the dilapidated Langton Hall with her strict and controlling parents”.

The “curious troublemaker”, as Mary describes our protagonist, must submit to an arranged marriage with the wealthy, “pathetic” Cuthbert in order to keep Langton Hall thriving.

- Times Literary Supplement

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