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TREASURE ISLANDS
updates

Treasure Islands: a guide to Scottish fiction for young readers aged 10–14 is published by ASLS to help teachers, parents and general readers find quality works of fiction. We are well aware that our selection is far from comprehensive, and we intend to expand on it on this website. If you have favourite Scottish novels or collections of stories which you would like to recommend to young readers, we shall be delighted to consider adding them to our selection. Please send your suggestions, ideally using the format of the current entries, to

How to use this guide

The entry for each text outlines the setting of the story, its plot and main characters. It says something about themes and offers an appreciative comment; it also suggests the age range within which the work is most likely to be of interest, and its level of reading demand for that range. The compiling group is convinced that all of the chosen works are worth introducing to young readers. We emphasise however that each entry is a statement by one member of the group, and not a consensus verdict by committee. Personal differences in attitude and style are therefore to be expected.

For convenience of reference we have arranged our notes into categories according to our judgements of the type of text. We are well aware that it is not possible to do this with much precision since category names are largely arbitrary and tend moreover to overlap. One novel can be a historical horror story, another a humorous fantasy, and yet another an animal story about a hunted outsider. Nonetheless we have thought it helpful on balance to arrange our notes in the following groupings:

We have also supplied some keywords as a quick summary for each text. We have made very rough-and-ready suggestions about the likely interest and age range of each work within the years 10–14. Again we do this tentatively in the knowledge that it is rash to generalise about the types of texts likely to be psychologically best suited to any stage of development.

As further guidance, we have identified for each age range 3 broad reading levels suggesting linguistic demand:

  1. texts which in their language are likely to be immediately accessible to readers in the indicated age range,
  2. those which are likely to be reasonably straightforward for readers in that range,
  3. those which are likely to be more demanding for readers in that range.

These levels are the most problematic of our codings. Experienced teachers are wary of such indicators for they know that if young people alight upon a text dealing with something that interests them, they are willing to persevere at a level that stretches and extends their reading skills. We recognise also that skilled reading aloud can make difficult texts more accessible to insecure readers.

The publication details in each note are, we believe, accurate. Wherever possible these include the date of the first edition and the ISBN of the most recent edition, whether that is currently in print or not.


ADVENTURE

Age: 12–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Growing up
History
Love
Revenge
the Wars of
   the Roses

THE BLACK ARROW
Robert Louis Stevenson
Cassell, 1888 (op); 1st World Library, 2004, ISBN: 1595405119

Stevenson, who famously tended to deprecate his own work, underestimated the quality of The Black Arrow when he dismissed it as ‘tushery’ and a ‘pot boiler’. Set among the woodlands and shores of fifteenth century Suffolk, this action-crammed tale of revenge describes the escapades of young Richard Shelton as he experiences the vicious anarchy of the Wars of the Roses. As in Treasure Island and Kidnapped, the hero learns to his cost the moral ambiguities of the colourful adults with whom he has to deal. The ward of a treacherous local magnate, Dick finds that his developing macho attitudes are challenged by the clinging companionship of a lad whom he regards half affectionately as a ‘milksop’. When he eventually discovers that this wimp is a girl, Joanna, in disguise, romance develops. Seeing her dressed as a woman, he is ‘instantly taken with a feeling of diffidence’ and for the first time perceives her to be in some way superior to himself.
     This is the most bloody and violent of Stevenson’s stories for young readers. Dick himself has already acquired bad habits of casual killing, and the arrival of his namesake, the youthful Richard, Duke of Gloucester, strikingly evokes a pathologically murderous warlord in the ascendancy. The climactic battle for Shoreby is a chilling Brueghelesque panorama of carnage – in the snow, at sea, in moonlight, on the streets and in the woods. As love for Joanna begins to shift Dick’s values, he remorsefully quits the pitiless male disciplines of war, and in the end, implausibly perhaps, they ‘dwelt apart from alarms in the green forest where their love began’.
     This novel certainly presents challenges to today’s young reader – its contrived archaism of dialogue, the complexities of the plot, and the shifting ambivalences of the main protagonists. But it remains well worth reading both in its own right and as a companion piece to Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Dick’s harrowing encounter with the hooded leper bears comparison, for example, with the episodes involving blind Pew and the Mull catechist in these latter novels.
 


Age: 11–13

Level: 1

Keywords:
Borders
Crime
Horses
Riding


BORDER RIDING
Nigel Tranter
Brockhampton Press, 1959 (op); White Lion Publishers, 1977, ISBN: 0856862428 (op)

A great wee adventure story for 11- to 13-year-olds, Border Riding is set in the wild and empty spaces of the Border countryside between Hawick and Jedburgh in Scotland and Hexham in England.
     Fiona MacBride has journeyed from her Hebridean island home to visit Ken Rutherford and his family on their farm in the south of Scotland. Ken is horse mad and has recently received a new horse, Demon. Desperate to show Fiona his home terrain, he can’t wait to be up in the saddle and off to introduce her to the hills and moors of the Border landscape. Fiona, worried about the inadequacy of her riding skills, is rather concerned by Ken’s enthusiasm, but determined to follow as best she can. She is soon enjoying the wide open spaces of the hills, managing well on the more sedate pony, Walter Scott.
     The day before the Common Riding begins calmly with fair weather and a good itinerary but, as with all great adventures, ‘things do not go according to plan’. Mist descends and despite all Ken’s endeavours and knowledge of the hills the pair are lost and spend the night outdoors. They are awakened by unusual sheep activity. Ken soon realises they are witnessing the work of sheep stealers, modern day border reivers ...
     Tranter brings together all the elements of a very exciting adventure – mystery, danger, traditions, tension and heroism.

Contributed by Lorna M J Kerr
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Cats
Edinburgh
Humour
Mystery


CATSCAPE
Mike Nicholson
Floris Books, 2005, ISBN: 0863155316

Here we have villainy and sleuthing rampant in the douce environs of Comely Bank, Orchard Brae and Stockbridge. This is deepest Rebus territory, but Mike Nicholson does not offer young readers an exploration of the heart of Edinburgh’s darkness. On the contrary, the story is a daft, high spirited romp involving Fergus and Murdo, two inquisitive youngsters whose friendship is triggered during the school holidays when they are confronted by an eerie coincidence. It turns out that their flashy hi-tech watches both start to run backwards at exactly the same spot, a manhole cover in Comely Bank Avenue. They are also confronted with a simultaneous but apparently separate enigma in the disappearance of several local pet cats. These two strands of mystery are skilfully kept apart and run parallel, allowing suspense to build. What could the malfunctioning watches possibly have to do with the disappearing cats?
     The two boy detectives conduct their quest with all the routines of formal police procedures: they establish their ‘incident room’ in Murdo’s father’s caravan, collating evidence, tailing suspects and staking out premises.
     Murdo is an intense, geeky lad much given to enthusiastic fact-finding and cataloguing, whereas Fergus is cooler, and shrewdly observant. Despite these differences in temperament they share a quirky sense of humour and work well together in their gumshoe investigations. Across the generations there also develops an alliance of age and youth as they enlist the help of frail but feisty Jessie Jenkins, an elderly widow who practises karati, can abseil, and is an expert silver surfer. Keeping an eye on their puzzling behaviour are suspicious parents, an irate neighbour, a supercilious teenage sister and a tolerant community police officer.
     The felony which they finally hunt down is satisfyingly bizarre, far-fetched but neatly worked out. Their criminal mastermind turns out to be a demented fishmonger who schemes to dominate the market for catfood, and for that purpose keeps 500 doped cats experimentally penned underground in old, forgotten vaults under Raeburn Place. Catscape is a light, entertaining read which purveys improbable mischief in everyday surroundings. There is a frisson or two of danger but no real harm is done, even to the cats, and the villains eventually have their collars fingered by the police. This sprightly yarn which may well inspire some young readers to contrive a short crime mystery for their own home patch.
 


Age: 13–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Growing up
Seafaring
Shipwreck
South Atlantic


DICK RODNEY, or, THE ADVENTURES OF AN ETON BOY
James Grant
Routledge, 1863 (op); George Routledge and Sons, ‘new edition’ no date, (1870?) (op)

This novel’s theme is the Victorian equivalent of ‘gap year’ adventuring. The year is 1861. Dick Rodney, the narrator, reveals himself as a callow youth very conscious of being a recent alumnus of Eton College. When he finds himself accidentally adrift off the Devon coast on a foundering schooner, he is rescued by an outward bound brig the Eugenie, but there is no avoiding a lengthy voyage to Cuba and Capetown. This trading enterprise succumbs to many hazards and disasters, and when Dick miraculously survives and returns home ‘tempered by a year of adversity’, he soberly resolves to take his father’s advice and pursue further study at Cambridge.
     The story is an archetypal boy’s nautical yarn with no significant female presence. It strings together a sequence of gaudy incidents: a tornado, fire at sea, mutiny, murder, shipwreck, survival on a remote island, and fabled treasure. There is narrative pace, though with occasional doldrums, and some fine description of exotic settings. Character tends to stereotyping but the melodramatic Hispanic villain, El Cubano, is a genuinely fearsome creation who by farfetched coincidences manages to haunt Dick throughout the voyage. The culminating chase on Tenerife that leads to his execution by garrotting is thoroughly gruesome. One protagonist, Mark Hislop, the Scottish mate of the Eugenie, is nicely individualised. He proves to be a highly competent and reliable seaman. A devout Christian, he is also an autodidact who bores his mates with his encyclopaedic knowledge but also uses it to save their lives.
     Grant’s unironic assumption of the global potency of “the The great scarlet ensign of ‘Old England’ ... floating from the gaff peak of an English man-of-war” reads oddly today but the novel may still attract confident young readers interested in stories of the sea.
 


Age: 11–13

Level: 2

Keywords:
Animals
Family
Stalking
Wester Ross


ORDERS TO POACH
Olivia FitzRoy
Collins, 1942 (op); Fidra Books 2006, ISBN: 0955191025

In the range of Scottish fiction for young readers, this recently reprinted novel is probably unique. It was concocted in 1940 by a teenager of aristocratic background to amuse her younger sisters when they were living on their own, in effect as evacuees, at Inverewe in Wester Ross. Within the genre of the Highland holiday adventure it is highly distinctive not only in its setting and subject matter but also in the assumptions made by its young author.
     Set in the 1930s the fictional location of Carrick is very clearly based on the deer forests of the remote Letterewe wilderness. The four Stewarts and their two friends are a pack of upper-class youngsters come north for the summer to their familiar haunts on the ancestral estate. Unfortunately their father, an impoverished army officer serving abroad, has had to let his ground to a comically obnoxious tenant, Mr Drake, an industrialist who refuses to permit the fishing and stalking required to keep the sporting property in good condition. In circumstances recalling Buchan’s John Macnab Stewart has however encouraged his family to carry out clandestine poaching for salmon and stags under the noses of Drake’s imported guards.
     Ninian Stewart, a newly fledged Old Etonian, is a sensible, confident lad who acts in loco parentis in maintaining discipline in the group. His seventeen-year-old sister Fiona, a debutante fresh from her triumphant London season, is a crack shot obsessed by an urge to stalk red deer. Their friend Hugh from a neighbouring estate is an officer cadet at Sandhurst. Cousin Sandy an orphan from Skye, and two younger twins complete the raiding party.
     Carrying out their father’s wishes, the kilted poachers range freely in a series of hide-and-seek hunting forays, sometimes living rough in a wet, hilly terrain. They have boat-handling skills, can use rods and rifles, and are all enthusiastic and expert killers of salmon, sea trout and stags. They gralloch deer without flinching.
     The dialogue carries odd traces of Ransome, Blyton and early Mitford. Without any real adolescent angst, there is nonetheless effective treatment of the interplay of youthful personalities in their various exploits.
     Autobiographical elements are only partly digested in this quite lengthy story. The author seems to share her characters’ upper-class code of values in an unproblematic way. Although, significantly, the Stewarts can speak Gaelic, an innocent condescension colours the descriptions of domestic staff, ghillies and local crofters. The novel’s striking virtue, which makes it well worth attempting, is its graphic representation of extreme outward-bound high jinks in the Highlands.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Crime
Conservation
Family
Fishing
Highlands
Outsiders


STRANGER ON THE RIVER
Pat Gerber
Kailyards Press, 1999 (op); Glowworm Books, 2002, ISBN: 1871512816

This lively, clearly told adventure story offers an original mix of attractions. It focuses on a group of youngsters who attend primary school in Glenmellish, a small lochside town which has many similarities to Inveraray in Argyll. Val, an enterprising 11-year-old, joins with her classmates in foiling a plot by a ruthless gang to poison the Mellish river and poach its salmon. These experiences lead to a maturing friendship with the slow-learning son of an unemployed ghillie.
     The narrative neatly incorporates environmental issues. Val’s parents who are regarded as ‘white settlers’ are striving to establish an organic fish farm on the loch. Themes that emerge include the ecology of the river, the symbolism of the life cycle of the salmon and the role of the foreign absentee owner of the Glenmellish estate. While the colourful community of local characters such as the police constable, the teacher and the game keeper recalls the cast of a TV soap, there are other intriguing echoes, ranging from Hedderwick’s Katie Morag to Gunn’s Highland River. Assorted pet and working dogs romp, sniff and bay their way through the escapade helping to trap the poachers. The leaders of the gang, who are both English, are satisfactorily villainous stereotypes, one being a Cockney thug, and the other a Cruella de Ville-ish harridan. At the climax of events the mysterious Arab laird, ‘the Sheikh’, materialises out of the skies in his helicopter bringing a pledge of future prosperity for Glenmellish.
     Sue Gerber’s vivid line drawings interpret the text very attentively.
 


ANIMALS

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Animal rescue
Highlands
Red deer
Stalking

THE SINGING FOREST
H Mortimer Batten
Blackwood, 1955 (op); Puffin, 1958, ISBN: 0140301143 (op)

This novel explores a potent theme of animal fiction – the fate of a young creature in distress reared domestically by humans until the call of the wild asserts itself. (See also Michael Morpurgo’s The Last Wolf and Dick King-Smith’s The Water Horse.)
     The writer, a practical naturalist with firsthand experience of the world of Highland stalking, traces the life cycle of a red deer pet-named Corrie, from its rescue by the laird as a tiny calf, to its heroic maturity as a fourteen-pointer stag and subsequent decline into old age. The vividly detailed episodes include encounters with early predators, forest fire, rutting, commercial poachers with sten guns, severe winter blizzards and starvation.
     The setting is a deer forest somewhere in the eastern Grampians with its castle and attached village – a secluded territory into which the concerns of the larger post-war world of the 1940s seldom intrude. In the structure of the novel there is a contrast between the paternal community of an old-fashioned sporting estate and the harsh natural history of a herd of deer within its rough bounds.
     The relationships of the laird and his family with the estate workers and cottagers are sentimentalised but their ambivalence towards the deer is nicely treated. They conserve, love and admire the beasts but ultimately they kill them for their sport, and they adhere to the stern selective code of stalking which culls the weak and elderly so that the quality of the herd may be maintained. Such moral dilemmas of ‘country sports’ are still likely to interest some young readers today.
     Any author who has chosen to empathise with the personality of a wild creature faces the final challenge of how to round off the animal’s life. Readers who are moved by what happens to Corrie in the end, might compare Batten’s approach with that of David Stephen in String Lug the Fox (1950) and also Henry Williamson’s classic resolution in Tarka the Otter (1927).
 


Age: 10–11

Level: 1

Keywords:
Family
Highlands
Legends
Nessie


THE WATER HORSE
Dick King-Smith
Viking, 1990, (op); Puffin, 1992, ISBN: 0140342842 (op)

Starting on the shores of Moidart in 1930 this captivating short novel for younger readers traces the first three years in the life of a sea creature who is fated to mature into the Loch Ness Monster.
     After a ferocious storm Kirstie and her young brother Angus find in a rock pool a strange square-shaped egg. Deposited overnight in salted water in the bath, it yields up at tiny water-horse whom their mother nicknames Crusoe. With the support of their carnaptious grandfather known as Grumble, and despite shrewd maternal misgivings, the children undertake to nurse and protect Crusoe who may well be a legendary Kelpie.
     The story reveals how family attitudes change in response to the challenge of providing secretly for the needs of an improbably growing water beastie, who progresses in stages from the bath to the garden pond and out to a neighbouring lochan. An amusing parallel is drawn between the instinctive, voracious appetites of Crusoe and five-year-old Angus.
     From the first, the real wildness of the delightful little monster is emphasised, but he becomes too tame for his own good, and has to be trained to lie low. Ironically from the pond-level perspective of young Crusoe, Kirstie and her brother are seen as the ‘Giants’. Three years later, after various alarming escapades, it is clear that the by-now huge creature will somehow have to be safely relocated. But how and where? On the return home of father, a merchant seaman, a happy solution is achieved – involving a cattle float and a string of sausages.
     Almost immediately afterwards, in April 1933, a newspaper reports the first sighting of a monster ‘rolling and plunging’ in Loch Ness.
     King-Smith’s treatment of this warm-hearted animal fantasy is deceptively simple. While the Highland setting is only lightly suggested, personalities of humans and animals are well drawn, and the theme touches on serious matters of responsibilities in wildlife rescue and care.
 


FAMILY

Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Adventure
Animals
Highlands
Mountains

CAMERONS ON THE HILLS
Jane Duncan
Macmillan, 1963 (op); Black Knight, 1965, ISBN: 0340039876 (op)

It is the Easter holidays and the three Cameron youngsters (Shona aged 13, Neil, 11 and Donald, 7) are visiting their strong-minded aunt, a writer who lives on her own on the outskirts of a small highland village.
     The period seems to be the late 1950s and the setting is one of the Clearance glens in a fictional area of Easter Ross below the Ben Wyvis massif. Brooding over the landscape is the local big hill, Ben Vannish: foreshortened, mysterious, changeable in mood and demanding respect. The two boys arrive determined to carry their favourite pennants to its summit in the heroic style of Hillary and Tensing, but events disabuse them and underline the message that hills can be dangerous: a late spring snowstorm, a ’plane crash, and a mountain rescue in which the young Camerons and their shepherd friends are able to save a baby lost from the ’plane.
     A key figure in these developments is Angus, the kindly but quietly formidable head shepherd who had once worked as a cattleman in South America and had seen war service as a piper in the Seaforth Highlanders. Like his friend Miss Cameron he is self-sufficient. He is content to live with his two dogs high up in the glen where he feels some kind of communion with the spirit of Ben Vannish and the cunning old Royal stag which haunts its corries. Among the other wild creatures he deals with in vivid episodes are a savage killer dog and a distressed family of swans.
     Events are seen through the eyes of Shona, a sensitive and considerate girl who at times finds her young brothers’ temperamental squabbles difficult to handle. She takes a motherly pride in the esprit of her little Cameron clan.
     The novel has its own version of a happy folktale ending with the discovery of a long lost, if very modest-sized, crock of gold. We are also left with the thought that the Camerons may one day make it to the distant top of Ben Vannish when they are older ... or perhaps not, for there is a slightly wistful echo of To the Lighthouse in this possibility.
     Some young readers of contemporary adventure fiction may find this story of holiday experiences in the Highlands too quiet and uneventful for their tastes. That would be a pity for it is a gently perceptive treatment of how children interact with their adult friends.
     This is the second of 3 novels featuring the holiday exploits of the Cameron family in the Highlands, the others being Camerons on the Train (1963) and Camerons at the Castle (1964).
 


Age: 11–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Grandparents
Hospitals
Illness
Seals


THE GIFT BOAT
Peter Dickinson
Macmillan, 2004; Macmillan, 2005, ISBN: 0330420852

This contemporary story is set in the coastal town of Stonehaven with its old harbour and its steep streets where ‘it was always uphill going home’.
     Gavin Robinson is nearly eleven, and for his birthday Granddad Robbie has been building a beautifully detailed model of an old fishing trawler. When Robbie is suddenly plunged into the coma of a severe cerebral stroke, Gavin becomes progressively more obsessed with a mission to help him regain his faculties. The grim course of the stroke is charted unflinchingly.
     The environment of a busy modern hospital is tellingly conveyed: the anxious waiting beside the bed trolley in a corridor of the casualty unit; the kindly, sometimes exhausted staff; their mix of nationalities; the patient skills of the physiotherapist...
     We see also the practical problems faced by the Robinson family: three generations in the one household; making meals, keeping jobs going, attending school, walking a lazy dog; and at the same time fitting in regular visits to and from Aberdeen Royal hospital 16 miles away.
     The narrative is strangely deepened by allusions to the folk tale of the selchies or seal folk, and the presence of a seal which occasionally surfaces in Stonehaven harbour. There is a hint that the Robinsons, a seafaring family for generations, have, like the legendary McCodrums, affinities to the selchies. It may even be that old Robbie’s prognosis hangs on propitiating their skulking seal, who has been offended in some unfathomable way. How will Gavin cope with his unhealthily intense involvement in his grandfather’s future, the seal and the unfinished model trawler?
     This complex but economic little novel for confident readers offers an unsettling even traumatic insight into the impact of illness. To some, the introduction of an ancient myth may seem, in more senses than one, far-fetched; but there is no denying Dickinson’s powerful combination of poetic fantasy and sensitively observed realism.
 


Age: 11–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
History
Loss
Love
Plague
School
Supernatural


SCABBIT ISLE
Tom Pow
Corgi Books, 2003, ISBN: 055254986X

In this novel a historic Scots burgh is the setting for strange events. Young Sam Burns tells of a haunting episode that rescues his family from the consequences of a tragic accident. Their lives have recently been blighted by the accidental death of 10-year-old sister Alice; the father has been reduced to the state of an apathetic couch potato and the mother has surrendered to a frantic whirl of community activities. Sam and his younger bother Jamie have also been deeply affected. Sensitised by the loss of his sister, Sam encounters across the centuries the wraith of another tragic girl, Janet. The pregnant daughter of a 15th century Provost of the town, she is angrily cast off by her father and languishes among plague victims in the isolated compound called the Scabbit Isle. The narrative shifts and shades between past and present until Sam’s growing courage and love lay Janet’s soul to rest in a consummation involving the gift of a precious handkerchief that had belonged to his sister Alice.The plight of Shakespeare’s Juliet, also spurned by an angry father, enriches the theme via an unexpectedly powerful English lesson. With the release of Janet, the whole Burns family finds a redeeming purpose and vitality. The town’s secondary school proves a supportive environment for Sam. Its wise and influential janitor can tame bullies and produce an Elvis rendering when required; the scatty but enthusiastic history teacher puts Sam on the track of the story of the plague colony, and an inspirational English teacher brings life to the text of Romeo and Juliet.
     This is a generously warm and lyrical ghost story.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Highlands
Mystery
Nature
Outsiders
Sailing


STRANGERS AT THE DOOR
Elinor Lyon
Brockhampton Press, 1967 (op); Children’s Book Club, 1967, ISBN: 340040904 (op)

This novel makes an intriguing comparison with the much more recent Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard (See Treasure Islands, page 14). In both narratives foreigners unexpectedly turn up at a remote West Highland estate and prove that they are its legal proprietors. Their plans to evict the sitting occupants are frustrated by ingenious local youngsters.
     Strangers at the Door presents a late summer holiday episode in a location suggesting the Morar/Mallaig area. Melvick is a run-down lochside village with a railway station, a harbour, two hotels and a few guest houses. Alastair, the young disabled laird, is doing his best to revitalise his ancestral inheritance despite his own lack of funds. He is helped to outwit the would-be new owners by his orphaned cousin Cathie, Sovra and Ian, the children of the local GP, and two local lads. These become engaged, sometimes as edgy rivals, in solving the crucial mystery of Alastair’s feckless ancestor and his lost money.
     Written and set in the 1960s this story may now seem dated to some young readers, but it has enduring qualities. It reveals a distinctive mix of unshowy observation and dramatic action with caves and boats. Adolescent temperaments are sharply differentiated and there is an eye for wild landscapes, seascapes and Highland weathers. Using the motif of a nostalgic poem by R.L. Stevenson, the sobering theme is shown to be the value and vulnerability of remote little communities such as Melvick:

‘Home was home then, my dear – a palace in the wild.’      Between 1950 and 1975 Elinor Lyon produced a sequence of 7 West Highland novels featuring the experiences of Sovra, Ian and Cathie. Among these are The House in Hiding (1950), The Dream Hunters (1966) and The King of Grey Corrie (1975).
 


GROWING UP

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Adventure
Humour
Mystery
Scots
   Language

DOUBLEHEIDER//:
Sheena Blackhall, Hamish MacDonald
Itchy Coo, 2003; ISBN: 1902927729

This groundbreaking volume juxtaposes for young readers two novellas in Scots. The lively stories are told throughout in distinctive dialects. MacDonald’s The Girnin Gates deploys a highly inventive, phonetic version of the patter of the Glasgow conurbation, whereas Blackhall’s Loon uses confidently the whole range of the strong Doric of the North East. The two pieces make a stimulating pair, for though they are very different in language and in tone, they share intriguing similarities which invite exploration.
     Both occur in the recent past, and are identifiably set in ordinary municipal housing estates, Garscadden on Clydeside and Bridge of Don on the northern fringe of Aberdeen (lightly disguised), places which have rarely been fictionalised. Gilbert and Donnie, the first person narrators, are resilient teenagers who believe, often rightly, that they are being put upon and unjustly blamed by parents and teachers. They live among feckless, damaged adults whose own prospects have been stunted by poverty and unemployment. Across perilous social frontiers the youngsters catch glimpses of the fabled otherworlds of Milngavie and Auld Tullyvar.
     Both narratives are reminiscences about growing up, episodic mixings of domestic tragedy and comic knockabout. Outlying countryside is shown as a liberating influence on the youngsters’ constricted lives, and an element of magic and mystery is crucial to both plots ... the ominous black swan of the Forth and Clyde canal and the talking white hare of Braegarr.
     The endings are hopeful: Gilbert’s aspirations successfully break out through the phantasmagoric gates of the long demolished mansion house of Garscadden, and finally Donnie’s mother declares she is ‘affa prood’ of him. One attraction of these short texts is that they may well tempt young readers to use their own familiar laguage forms to make fiction out of their own experiences and locale. They should be encouraged to persist with both stories, to enjoy their striking differences and similarities.
 


Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Ethiopia
Gangs
Parents
Poverty
Running away


THE GARBAGE KING
Elizabeth Laird
Macmillan, 2003; Heinemann, 2004, ISBN: 0435130544

Contemporary African child poverty and exploitation are the urgent themes of this story. For many young readers it is likely to prove an eye-opener. The setting is in and around Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, in the wake of years of bloody conflict. Elizabeth Laird does not preach, but she dramatises her concerns through a compassionate narrative interweaving the lives of a few young inhabitants of this chaotic and vibrant city.
     Mamo and Dani, unknown to each other, are both on the run in the lanes of Addis. Mamo, an illiterate orphan of uncertain age, has been trafficked into agricultural serfdom up-country, but has absconded back to town nearly dead from eating poisonous plants. On the other side of the social gulf Dani, who is the dreamy, sheltered child of an élite family, has run away from his luxurious gated compound, and from his father, a tyrannical business tycoon who despises his son as a loser. Unwittingly as the two struggle to survive on the downtown streets, their tracks begin to converge until, seeking shelter for the night, they collide terrifyingly in what turns out to be a tomb. Viewed through each other’s uncomprehending eyes they appear at first as ‘a filthy ragged beggar boy’ and ‘a soft rich kid’.
     Their salvation is that they and their foundling puppy are absorbed for a time into the society of a little gang of beggars led by Million, a shrewd but volatile youngster with his own code of brotherhood. Under the harsh tutelage of this natural leader they begin to mature and take some pride in themselves as ‘Black Survivors’. They also reveal unsuspected talents, Mamo as a scavenger, salesman and singer; and Dani as a spellbinding teller of tales. One of the great strengths of the novel is the subtlety of relationships and feelings among the desperately poor children in Million’s group. The outcome hangs deftly on two female sub-plots involving Mamo’s older sister and Dani’s invalid mother.
     We can be fairly confident that in the end Mamo and Dani will come through, achieving independence and respect; but what of Million and his disease-racked lost boys, his ever changing tribe of vulnerable street kids, as they disappear into the swirling traffic of Addis?
     
     Elizabeth Laird has also collected some of the folk tales of Ethiopia in When the World Began, Oxford University Press, 2001.
 


Age: 12–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Friendship
Perth
School
Victorians


THE YOUNG BARBARIANS
Ian Maclaren
Hodder, 1901 (op); BiblioBazaar, 2009; ISBN: 1103962450

This largely forgotten novel seems to be the only account of the experiences of boys under the stern regime of the ancient burgh grammar schools of Scotland. The institution, Muirton Seminary, on its terrace by the North Inch of the Tay, is based on the old Perth Academy around 1860, and the general location of Muirton is very clearly Perth. The format is a series of mischievous escapades involving a gang of classmates led by the irrepressible Speug, son of a horse dealer. Superficially structure and subject matter recall the contemporary Stalkey and Co (1899), but the work is much more soft-centred than Kipling’s brutal masterpiece.
     The narrator is a successful old boy of Muirton. He sounds nostalgically self-satisfied as he recalls, forty years on, the harsh golden days of the Seminary from which it has now sadly deteriorated into refinement. His preferred metaphors are military: the school’s business is to regiment and civilize young savages. Life is seen as a campaign of running battles, with teachers, other pupils, municipal dignitaries, farmers and rival schools. One vivid set-piece occurs when a November snowstorm wraps the town, and police and teachers turn a blind eye to protracted snowball street-fighting which rages in the vennels around the Seminary. We learn that the staunch-hearted Speug and Co are destined for death and glory in the imperial fields of Matabeleland and Egypt, or for fortune as bankers, industrialists and academics. The most influential teacher of these lads o’ pairts is the ferocious Bulldog, a mathematical martinet who beats boys into wisdom but conceals a warm humanity. Girls play no part in any of the episodes.
     With its mawkish sentiment and stock characters the novel may well be off-putting to some, but it is also genuinely amusing and vigorous. In the vein of Tom Brown, Harry Potter and Malarkey it succeeds in catching the rituals and barely contained anarchy of school life which young readers will still recognize. Not far ahead in the future lie the schoolboy comics of DC Thomson in Dundee.
 


HISTORY

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Edinburgh
Family
Horror
Medicine

FLESHMARKET
Nicola Morgan
Hodder, 2003, ISBN: 0340855576

Set in Edinburgh in 1822, the grim beginning of this novel describes a mastectomy operation conducted without anaesthetics. It is performed with panache as a demonstration before an audience of male medical students who applaud the surgeon; but the young mother dies in agony a few days later. Her apparently secure family rapidly disintegrates as the husband deserts young Robbie and Essie, leaving them in terrible poverty. The children struggle to survive the degradation of the stinking closes which feed into the Old Town’s Canongate, Cowgate and Grassmarket. The narrative focuses closely on Robbie’s developing obsessional urge to take revenge on the surgeon, Dr Robert Knox, who, he believes, killed his mother. In the course of his vendetta he is lured into the dubious dealings of Burke and Hare who supply Knox with fresh corpses for dissection. Over the years, however, the wheel of plot turns full ironic circle when Robbie is saved by Knox’s skills and then later becomes a distinguished surgeon in his own right.
     The portrayal of Robbie and Dr Knox is convincingly complex, and major themes are vividly explored in the context of a historic city famed for its medicine, its theology and its squalor. Why does God permit the torments of disease and poverty that the two children witness? In alleviating suffering do gifted doctors defy God’s will? Does He actually exist?
     Some young readers will find this arresting novel too gruesome for their tastes: the lurid filth of Fleshmarket Close is presented unsparingly ... everywhere there seem to be live rats, dead cats, stinking carcasses from the markets, starving infants, drunken prostitutes. In one episode of particularly Gothic nightmare Robbie finds himself attacked in a dark Tolbooth cell by an unspeakable lunatic. In fact the ghastly detail is layered on so thickly that it occasionally risks slipping into unintentional comedy. Against all this horror, the beauty of violin music is a recurring motif.
     Really enterprising readers may find it interesting to compare Morgan’s fictionalised account of the fatal operation with the original version to be found in Dr John Brown’s reminiscence of his days as an Edinburgh medical student, Rab and His Friends (1859).
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 1

Keywords:
1707
Edinburgh
Music
Politics
Poverty


A NATION AGAIN
Alison Prince
Mammoth, 2000; ISBN: 0749743484

This brief and graphic work for younger readers packages together fiction and history in a moving response to the creation of Scotland’s new parliament in 1999.
     Annie Weir, the young heroine, is seen by the author as typical of her generation:

‘The things that happen to Annie in the story happened to many people at that time.’      She is a poor, hungry 10-year-old girl, a ‘wee sparrow’, living near Kelso in 1699. The crops have failed in the ‘ill years’ and her family is starving. When her mother dies and her father Tam in desperation joins the Darien enterprise, Annie at first lives with her relatives in the town. Later when she hears a rumour that Tam has returned to Scotland, she resolutely sets out northwards to find him.
     She meets up with cattle drovers and then becomes a bonded child labourer working with her father in the Lothian coal mines until he perishes in a fire underground. Gradually as she is growing up, her natural talent for singing brings her into contact with cultivated local gentry, the Clerks of Penicuik, and with a kind, lively youngster, Alan Ramsay, who has ambitions to be a poet. She is drawn with him into the political excitements and controversies of Edinburgh, and witnesses on the streets the dying throes of the old Scottish parliament in 1707. Despite all the chicaneries of the politicians, the two youngsters remain confident that some day Scotland ‘will be a nation again’.
     This is an unusually challenging little book which casts a fictional historical light upon our present-day Scottish affairs. In the story the political sympathies of Alison Prince are clearly on the side of an independent Scotland, but in the second part of the text she appends a simple, informative account of the persons and issues involved in Annie’s adventures. Taking the two sections together young readers and their teachers may also find links into other areas such as Scottish poetry and folk song: ‘their melodies ran in her mind like a secret happiness’.      What are the words and tune of Annie’s favourite song, ‘Bide ye Yet’? What does the music of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik sound like today?
 

Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Family
Growing up
Industrial
   Revolution
New Lanark


SPINDLE RIVER
Judith O’Neill
Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN: 0521476291

The year is 1819 and the setting is Robert Owen’s famed cotton mills on the River Clyde at New Lanark. Christina Sinclair, the poor widow of a Caithness fisherman recently drowned at sea, has shepherded her flock of five children south in hope of work. Over one summer and autumn the novel vividly records the family’s reactions to an alien, strictly regulated industrial regime – from a first encounter with Owen their eccentric new Maister, to the culminating destruction of one his great mills through arson. The Sinclairs manage to survive the near fatal malice of an orphan lad who is jealous of Owen’s interest in the family. The children’s temperaments are nicely distinguished, ranging from the redheaded determination of the teenager Henny to the poetical dreaminess of little Betty who narrowly escapes drowning in the river.
     At the heart of the narrative is the theme of liberty in its various forms. The children, for example, relish their illicit freedom to explore the wild moonlit Bonnington Woods which stretch upstream to the Falls of Clyde. This opportunity is contrasted to the tyrannous timekeeping of Kelly’s Clock which governs the whole life of the factory and its village. The character of Owen himself embodies a similar contrast: he is shown as benevolent and passionately convinced of the liberating value of education, but is at the same time an obsessive control freak in managing his workforce. A political thread is woven into the narrative with references to the old radical emblem of the Tree of Liberty, which the children believe may be found in the woods, and rumours of the contemporary slaughter of Manchester workers at Peterloo.
     This well researched novel, which is directly and simply told with a colouring of Scots dialogue, is part of a systematic reading scheme for English primary schools which takes account of the requirements of Key Stage 2, Extended Reading. At the same time it can stand very well in its own right as stimulating fiction dealing with important ideas. The convincingly realised description of the mill community and the workings of water power offer possibilities for use in support of visits to the remarkable World Heritage site at New Lanark.
 


HUMOUR

Age: 10–11

Level: 2

Keywords:
Animals
Environment
Magic
Science

MY FRIEND MR LEAKEY
J B S Haldane
Cresset Press, 1937 (op); Jane Nissen Books, 2004, ISBN: 1903252199

JBS Haldane, the great Scottish evolutionary scientist, once advanced the paradox that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we CAN suppose’. Playfully he illustrated this notion in a set of six weird and wonderful tales which quirkily mix magic, science and daft fun.
     The first three stories feature Mr Leakey who appears as a timid little fellow rescued by the narrator from the London traffic, but is later revealed to be a potent sorcerer. Unlike his contemporary Professor Branestawm (Norman Hunter, 1933), he is not a dotty Heath-Robinsonish inventor, but is a genial polymath who displays magical powers blended with odd scientific knowledge which he is keen to impart.
     In the first episode the narrator is entertained to dinner in Mr Leakey’s home and meets his domestic staff including the butler, Abdu’l Makkar, an ornately deferential but murderous djinn; Oliver the octopus who waits at table, and the little dragon Pompey who doubles as a cooking stove. Thereafter Leakey transports his new friend for a day-trip on his magic carpet to revisit old acquaintances in India. This permits an amusing low-orbit environmental survey of much of the planet. Finally, back in London, Leakey holds a fancy dress party where he allows his guests to metamorphose into any identity they please. One boy becomes a Rolls Royce and a girl is transformed into Shakespeare. The narrator chooses to be the Toucan on a Guinness advert and another guest asks to be changed into an atom of caesium. After this diverting function ‘some of us went home by magic carpet, some by tube and some by bus’.
     Though the final three tales do not explicitly involve Leakey, his tone of voice is detectable in the brisk storytelling. The first of these has folk echoes. Clever Jack, a youngest son, enters a competition to rid the Port of London Authority of an infestation of rats. By means of electromagnetism he outwits the highly adaptable rodents and wins the hand of the chairman’s beautiful daughter. In the second tale Esplendido, a nasty mining plutocrat with a taste for gold bling and exotic pets, meets his just deserts inside one of his crocodiles. The concluding episode introduces a kindly shopkeeper in Wandsworth who sells nicknacks such as magical collar-studs, and turns out to be the immortal naiad of London’s neglected river Wandle.
     The background detail of Haldane’s stories is firmly rooted in the 1930s and needs some explaining, but their appeal is by no means dated. The simple style and knockabout humour should still make them suitable for younger readers, and they are impishly enriched with serious ideas.
 


LOVE

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Border ballads
Family
Goth style
Horses
Riding
South-west

ANNAN WATER
Kate Thompson
Bodley Head, 2004; Red Fox, 2005, ISBN: 0099456265

Through this intensely romantic tale of Michael and Annie, two star-crossed teenagers, there flows a sad old song, the Border ballad of Annan Water.
     The contemporary setting is the Duggans’ small equestrian business in the vicinity of the River Annan in Dumfriesshire. This is a struggling husband-and wife concern heavily dependent on the assistance of the son Michael who has a gift for handling horses, but truants frequently from school. The recent accidental death of Joanne, his young sister, has left him so depressed that he can see no clear future for himself.
     By chance or fate, he first encounters Annie on the river verge. A traumatised girl who seems to have been abused by her father, she flaunts her alienation luridly in Goth-style dressing, with facial studs and rings, and self-cutting scars. Her father is in prison and she is living with her invalid mother on the far side of the Annan at a point where there is only a makeshift ferry crossing.
     As Annie discovers a liberating interest in horses, and also in Michael, he becomes infatuated by her, but is also haunted by fragments of the old ballad which keep surfacing from memories of his grandmother’s singing. When disturbing parallels begin to emerge, it gradually dawns on him that he is somehow being compelled to live out the events of the ballad until its engulfing conclusion.
     The story moves swiftly and graphically: the soul-destroying grind of commercial horse showing and dealing is persuasively conveyed, and there is a touching appreciation of how the personalities of horses and humans interact. The way in which the plot of the ballad invades and finally dominates the lives of Michael and Annie is handled with great skill. Even those young readers who find it all a little too neatly contrived may be surprised into a tear by the slow-burning fuse of the novel’s ending. Its last riddling pages are likely to generate much debate.
 


Age: 12–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Hebrides
History
Outsiders
Seals
Supernatural


THE SEAL-SINGING
Rosemary Harris
Faber and Faber, 1971, ISBN: 0571096395 (op)

Set in the late 1960s this is a romantic tale of first love which incorporates a strand of the old Celtic seal legends. Three teenage cousins come together during their school holidays on the family estate of Carrigona, a fictitious island in the Inner Hebrides, ‘like Mull only smaller’.
     Carrigona is the archetypal ‘small isle’, furnished with ancestral castle, ruined medieval chapel and a nature reserve with a long established seal colony. Its colourful history involves an early Celtic saint and a Spanish survivor of an Armada wreck.
     The three youngsters are free of immediate parental supervision. Toby, the young laird, is an orphan; Catriona’s mother who has a share in the estate is in an Edinburgh hospital, and Miranda, a stranger to the others, seldom sees her wealthy, separated parents. Anny, the castle housekeeper, feels obliged therefore to keep an eye on their more wayward ploys and relatively innocent sexual skirmishings.
     Catriona, a barefoot wild child, is intensely, desperately in love with her older cousin, but Toby for his part is obsessed mainly by his interest in seals. The arrival from London of their remote, sophisticated cousin Miranda is a threat to their relationship: ‘heavy expense and continental finish were written all over her’. With her exotic beauty she seems a throwback to the sixteenth century and her ancestor, the unhappy witchlike Lucy, whose mesmeric portrait still hangs in the Hall, and whose father was the Spaniard who came ashore from the galleon. At one point when Miranda learns to to sing and play on the guitar the island’s ancient seal-charming song, she seems fleetingly to shift shape and become Lucy. Moreover the ancient mirrors in the castle flicker to disturbing reflections.
     From an early age Miranda’s personality has been damaged by her parents’ thoughtless rejection and she reveals a capacity for spiteful mischief when the future of Carrigona’s seal colony is threatened by culling. By the end of the novel she has however developed a new maturity, at the same time laying to rest the unhappy spirit of Lucy.
     At the heart of the story is an entertaining account of the messy business of hand-rearing a deserted baby seal, Plushet, who fixes on Toby as his substitute mother. This comedy nicely counterbalances the darker, more mystical elements of the seal mythology.
     Today the author’s knowingly allusive style may not suit some young readers: the resident colony of bats in the castle dining room is, for example, described as ‘fluttering rhythmically behind Miranda’s back as though tracing a Bach fugue on the air.’ Others however will appreciate the rich blending of legend and natural history to explore adolescent relationships in this inventive novel.
 


Age: 12–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Border ballads
Feuds
Growing up
History
Supernatural


TAMLANE
Anne Rundle
Hutchinson, 1970; ISBN: 0091028906 (op) O I forbid ye, maidens a’
That wear gowd on your hair
To come or gae by Carterhaugh
For young Tam Lin is there.
               —‘Tam Lin’

This romance of perilous young love may not be to all tastes but it is nonetheless a well-told tale which cleverly links two themes from traditional Scots balladry – those of family feuding and rescue from fairy thraldom. The setting is Carterhaugh tower on the verge of the great forest of Ettrick in the Scottish Borders. The period is vaguely medieval, at a time when old pagan beliefs seem, locally at least, to be more influential than Christianity. Seonaid the laird’s daughter, who will be 17 at the Hallowmass festival, has become infatuated by fleeting encounters with a beautiful but doomed young man, Tamlane, rumoured to be Lord Roxburgh’s grandson. He must be rescued from the enchantments of the Queen of the Fairies who haunts the wildwood.
     Hallowmass eve brings to Carterhaugh the weird Guisers’ play ‘Galatian’ (Galoshins) performed by a band of masked visitors. When a marauder from the Queen infiltrates the revels and murders Seonaid’s brother, he triggers a blood feud between two neighbouring lairdly families. In the ensuing confict Seonaid finds herself bewildered in the woods, but when her father is later killed in the course of the feuding, she draws upon new-found resolve and acts decisively as the new laird. Tenaciously enduring the fearsome transformations that Tamlane must undergo, she wins him back from the Queen. In the great hall of Carterhaugh all ends well for the happy couple in a glow of unexpected domesticity which verges amusingly on bathos:

‘Food’s ready,’ she said. ‘Come and get it while it’s hot.’      The narrative is encrusted with lush imagery which is sometimes distracting, but it does not really impair the structure or movement of the the story. The confection of eerie superstition, violence and stubborn love is likely to appeal to young readers who enjoy historical fiction. If so, they should be encouraged to explore also the traditional ballads ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas Rymer’ and perhaps other related works such as Andrew Lang’s The Gold of Fairnilee (1888) and Naomi Mitchison’s The Big House (1950). Some may also try a more demanding novel of enchantment in the Border forests, John Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927).
 


OUTSIDERS

Age: 10–11

Level: 1

Keywords:
Family
History
Literacy
School
World War I

TOMMY TROUBLE
Stephen Potts
Mammoth, 2000, ISBN: 0749739525

‘What’s the trouble, Tommy?’ asks the teacher one day. It turns out that young Tommy Cameron is burdened by many troubles, but one particularly serious problem is that he has difficulties with reading and writing. His classmates gleefully pick up and chant the question as a jeering nickname, ‘Tommy Trouble’. Tommy’s father, on whom he dotes, has inexplicably deserted his family, leaving his wife to look after Tommy and a baby sister. Under this strain she has difficulty in coping, with the result that the lad is left at times to fend for himself.
     The simple narrative focuses on the village’s Remembrance Day ceremony which Tommy wanders into by chance. He cannot understand what is going on, but is intrigued by the engraved ‘black squiggles’ on the war memorial. Later he explores and cleans these inscriptions laboriously. To his surprise he discovers that he is able to decipher what appears to be his own name – another Tommy of course, ‘Private Thomas Cameron’ who had died at Ypres in 1917.
     What follows from this momentous discovery includes friendship with a sympathetic elderly war veteran; facing up to bullies who try to vandalise the memorial; realisation that he has promising talent at football, and the growing interest of Kathleen, a younger girl. Gradually Tommy is learning to read and ceasing to be an outsider.
     This touching little story glances at serious themes in a way that is likely to appeal to younger, tentative readers. Its spirited, optimistic tone is reflected in the raucous presence of the crows who swirl around the village trees. They seem to be fellow free spirits, and Tommy’s own latent joie de vivre responds spontaneously to their wild calls of CRAAK!
 


SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

Age: 12–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Argyll
Celtic tradition
Family
Growing up
Outsiders

BEADBONNY ASH
Winifred Finlay
Harrap, 1973, ISBN: 024552066X (op)

This richly overloaded fantasy exploits the popular formula for summer adventures in Highlands. The MacDonalds with their three children seem the decent, nicely balanced, middle-class family which typifies such stories. During a month’s stay in their holiday cottage in Mull, they are conscientiously striving to be kind to a moody teenage guest, Kate. Though she has come up from London, Kate is proud of her O’Neill antecedents on Barra, and prefers to be called Bridie. She turns out to be self-deluding, hungry for attention and traumatised by her unhappy relationship with her mother. Despite the MacDonalds’ good intentions she does not fit in well.
     Impending trouble is signalled during a disquieting excursion to the ancient hill fort of Dunadd. When later a nocturnal time-shift occurs, the four young people are transported through the years to the forests and mosses of sixth century Dalriada, and their identities begin to fuse strangely with their Scottish tribal predecessors. They are caught up in the crisis of the tribe whose young leader, Aidan, has been badly wounded in battle against encroaching northern Picts. Bridie the outsider emerges as the tribe’s imperious princess/priestess, while the oldest MacDonald lad John, who is a medical student, appears to have been summoned back in order to save his blood ancestor Aidan by means of primitive transfusion surgery. The authority of the old faith is being challenged by the incoming Christianity of Columba on Iona, and a charismatic pagan priest, Briochan, serves as villain of the piece. In the end the youngsters are narrowly and mysteriously saved from drowning, perhaps by Columba, and are restored unharmed to twentieth century Mull. They are all vaguely puzzled that they seem to share what they call their ‘Dream of Dalriada’. Did it really happen? What is clear is that Bridie is finally winning through to a new maturity and self knowledge.
     The story’s context and plot are contemporary with the time of writing, in the early 1970s, but the resultant dated references and assumptions are not damagingly obtrusive. To some young readers however the indirect, rather coy treatment of teenage relationships may now seem naive. Despite occasional overwritten descriptions and unintentionally comic moments of celtic twilight, this novel stands out as an ingenious, ambitious effort to weave together adolescent psychology and pre-christian celtic myths. It displays moreover an authentic feeling for the landscape and early history of mid-Argyll.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Edinburgh
Family
Good and Evil
History
Museums


THE CHAOS CLOCK
Gill Arbuthnott
Floris Books, 2003, ISBN: 0863154220

Time is running out. Kate and David, ordinary youngsters leading unremarkable lives, find themselves challenged to rescue their world from the seductive powers of cosmic disorder.
     This archetypal plot takes many forms in film, TV and fantasy fiction: Gill Arbuthnott’s highly ingenious version centring on the city of Edinburgh places the emphasis upon dark forces threatening the orderly sequence of Time. As Edinburgh is apparently a place where history is peculiarly near the surface, it is a fertile site for the malign Lightning King to enact a final cataclysm releasing past times to swirl up anarchically from the abyss and install the reign of chaos. Seismic tremors will awaken Arthur’s Seat and the Romans will return to Cramond fort; simultaneously the Nor Loch will repossess Princes Street Gardens, and Greyfriars Bobby will wander the kirkyard once more. And what better catalyst for this disaster than the creation of an elaborate new clock in the Royal Museum to celebrate the coming of the Millennium in 2000?
     The museum, with the adjoining new Museum of Scotland, is the focus of the narrative since it is a popular venue for children such as David and Kate undertaking school projects. Not only does it house the strange clock; it also displays a cache of ancient weapons dredged from Duddingston Loch. The story supposes that this Hoard is the potently charged relic of a mysterious battle in the Bronze Age between the powers of good and evil.
     The vulnerable young minds of Kate and David are infiltrated by nightmarish personal temptations, but with the aid of old Mr Flowerdew, a near immortal Guardian of Time, the pair manage to tame the Clock, which is in danger of running wild. In a lunar eclipse, struggling with the demonic forces of the Lightning King, they also succeed in returning the Duddingston Hoard safely to the waters of the loch. Thereby the ‘rip in time’ is healed and Edinburgh returns to its douce normality as if nothing untoward had happened – at least for the time being. The novel moves swiftly through brief and telling chapters, and the differing atmospheres of Kate’s and David’s households are skilfully sketched. Young readers may well find something to argue about in the improbabilities of this fantasy so firmly located in contemporary Edinburgh. The book could undoubtedly be a lively stimulus for exploring the two Chambers Street museums.
     Further time-shifting mischief from the Lords of Chaos is the theme of The Chaos Quest (2004).
 


Age: 10–13

Level: 3

Keywords:
Adventure
Environment
Family
Growing up
Pirates


PETER PAN IN SCARLET
Geraldine McCaughrean
Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN: 019272620X

This novel is being marketed as ‘the official sequel’ to J M Barrie’s two main Peter Pan texts of 1904 and 1911. Its designation raises expectations and questions. How much does the young reader need to know of the detail of the original fiction? How far are Barrie’s themes and his unique tone maintained?
     McCaughrean is ingenious in making the introductory links. Some twenty years have passed; the date is 1926 and the intervening Great War has left its impact. The surviving lost boys, who are now comically middle-aged professionals, reconvene because they have been having bad dreams. Organised by the very competent Mrs Wendy they conclude that Peter Pan is in some kind of danger, and manage with difficulty to fly themselves back to Neverland as children.
     Peter is still there but his island has changed for the worse. The summerlands have gone from green to stormy red and autumnal orange. Things are falling apart and Neverland is now assuming the arid vistas of the Wasteland: the world is unravelling.
     Hook of course has long ago been swallowed, if not digested, by his crocodile. Peter has no idea of what has become of Tinkerbell, but there are other fairies and new protagonists, most notably a grotesque circus ringmaster, The Great Ravello. This hooded, fraying presence attended by his faithful bodyguard of performing bears, becomes Peter’s obsequious and admirable valet (his original name was Crichton!). Under his influence, Peter, who has already donned Hook’s old scarlet coat and Eton cravat, grows wildly autocratic. He conscripts the lost boys as his ‘company of explorers’ in a white knuckle adventure to yomp the wilds of Neverland, and make the perilous ascent of Neverpeak in search of Hook’s lost treasure chest.
     As this expedition nears its climax both Peter and Ravello seem more and more like the late Hook. Singing The Eton Boating Song, the pair fight it out in a blizzard:

‘And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now.’

     In the best Barrie tradition the treasure turns out be whatever you want it to be.
     But all disasters in Neverland are miraculously reversible. With the help of time the environment is self-repairing. Hook and Peter are reassuringly restored to their eternal conflict, and Wendy and the Boys can win back via Kirriemuir on a raft of lost perambulators to their waiting families in London. Is it purely coincidence that Ravello is an anagram of All Over?
     The narrative is agile and amusing, with rich metaphoric inventiveness and fine control of prose rhythms. After Barrie’s fashion it is confiding, but McCaughrean’s tone is not Barrie’s: it is too sane, humane and companionable. This fantasy is not a simple read, but adventurous young readers should find it exhilarating. One integral delight is the elegant silhouette illustrations by David Wyatt.
     Anyone who becomes hooked on Pan should also look into the original Peter and Wendy of 1911 and another recent spin-off, Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, 2004.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Humour
Magic
Pirates
Seafaring


PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS
Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
Hyperion Books for Children, 2004; ISBN: 0786854456

This cheeky American take on the myth of Peter Pan displaces Barrie’s fey nuances in favour of highly entertaining but simple stereotypes. Young readers are likely to be drawn to its wisecracking dialogue and the precipitate rush of ingeniously contrived incidents over 79 very short chapters, many with teasing, page-turning final sentences.
     Peter and his four orphanage friends are consigned for slavery on a rat-ridden old sailing ship the Never Land which, as its name suggests, seems doomed to founder at sea. Underpinning the yarn is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, between the Starcatchers and the Others for possession of a treasure chest of ‘starstuff’. This is a magically potent and dangerous heavy-metal powder of which a large quantity had fallen to earth in Scotland. In many skirmishes at sea and on land we encounter the piratical Black Stache who loses his left hand in a duel with Peter; we also meet the attendant cast of mermaids, the tribal inhabitants of a tropical island, and of course a malevolent crocodile. In the end good prevails; Peter has learned to fly and is fated to remain immortally a boy on the island. Tinkerbell emerges from the starstuff as his jealous protector.
     The novel seems designed to be the first stage of a three-volume prequel tied into a projected Disney film. As yet there are no traces of Bloomsbury and the Darling household, but we can see where the narrative is heading. The final, tearful disappointment of the plucky heroine Molly foreshadows the coming of Wendy.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Adventure
Humour
Orkney
Pirates
the Sea


THE PIRATES IN THE DEEP GREEN SEA
Eric Linklater
Macmillan, 1949 (op); Jane Nissen Books, 2000, ISBN: 1903252067

Imagine that our Earth has always depended for its spherical shape on a great network of intersecting submarine cables; and that these are what we familiarly know as the parallels of longitude and latitude. What would happen if the security of this global grid were under threat from terrorists who planned to cut its vital knots? On this grand question of world order and chaos is based Linklater’s fantastical comic romp.
     The period is shortly after the Second World War. Huw and Timothy are the schoolboy sons of Horatio Spens, the eccentric laird of Popinsay, a small Orkney island. A retired naval commander, Horatio is one-legged, explosively irate and impoverished; his housekeeper is a bad cook, the old family home is leaky and dilapidated, and not surprisingly his wife has gone off to live in South Africa. The two lads however accept their odd way of life as normal.
     Family tradition has it that a wrecked pirate ship lies in the deep water below the Popinsay cliffs, and that its captain was a Spens ancestor. Into this remote northern backwater, on latitude 59 north and longitude 4 west, there floats an apparently immortal survivor of the battle of Trafalgar, and a delightfully camp, singing octopus… Now read on.
     The story contains all the ingredients of pantomime. It embodies a clash between forces of evil and good. A magical potion allows humans to live in the depths of the sea, where presides that benevolent mythic figure, Davy Jones. Talking animals and mermaids abound. The main protagonists are nasty villains, youthful heroes, comical elders and dames. The final battle brings a thoroughly satisfactory happy ending involving the welcome discovery of treasure, and family fortunes are restored.
     The classic components are all there, but Linklater’s keen and stylish sense of the absurd ensures that the outcome is not formulaic. The storytelling may be more extended than is usual nowadays, but it is by no means dated. For many younger readers it is likely to remain accessible and highly entertaining.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 3

Keywords:
Fairy Queen
Picts
Sheep farming
Wee folk
Witches


THE WEE FREE MEN
Terry Pratchett
Doubleday, 2003; Corgi Books, 2004, ISBN: 0552549053

This playful fantasy is highly inventive in ideas and language. It will challenge and delight confident young readers.
     9-year-old Tiffany lives on her family’s sheep farm in a strange terrain evoking the Sussex Downs, with echoes of Kipling’s Pook’s Hill. A sharp-witted girl, she is determined to qualify as a witch, and the story has a traditional folk motif. She has to strive to rescue her baby brother from the wintry underworld of the Queen of Fairy. On to this scene, from under Tiffany’s bed, emerges a disreputable clan of six-inch, blue skinned redheads The Nac Mac Feegle, half Picts, half pixies. The creed of these ‘wee free men’ is lying, stealing, fighting and boozing. Wee and sleekit they may be, but they are also incurably pugnacious in the ‘You lookin’ at me, Jimmy?’ mode. They speak a dialect that amalgamates The Broons, The Patter and Chewin the Fat:

‘Crivvens – I could murderrr a kebab.’      This tiny tartan army is reiving across the Downs in search of a new clan matriarch and thinks that Tiffany, as a potential wise woman or Hag, will meet their requirements.
     With the highly irregular help of the wee free men and a lawyer aptly mutated into a toad Tiffany confronts all the dreamlike torments and and transformations deployed by the Queen. In an echo of the Tam Lin story her steadfastness wins back not only baby Wentworth but also the son of the local Baron. Finally she is received into the sisterhood of witches and the Wee Frees retreat bashfully to seek a more suitable matriarch elsewhere. A demanding theme of the novel is Tiffany’s maturing awareness of the Gaia-like harmony and power of the ancient chalk downlands with their underlying traces of geological change and centuries of human impact: ‘For ever and ever, wold without end.’  

Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Animals
Family
Heroism
Orkney
Storms


THE WIND TAMER
P R Morrison
Bloomsbury, 2006, ISBN: 0747579784

This novel draws in the young reader with early, unnerving signs that all is not quite right in the apparently normal Stringweed household.
     On the arrival of his tenth birthday young Archie discovers that in the times of his medieval ancestors his unfortunate family name had actually been Strongwood. The loss of vitality suggested by these shifted vowels was evidence of a crusader curse that had blighted the family for centuries.
     Its oldest sons were doomed to be decent, but dull; diffident and wimpish. Archie’s father Jeffrey, the local bank manager, was in this lacklustre mould; and Archie himself is fated to fall under the same thrall now that he has reached the age of ten.
     Set in Westervoe village in a contemporary landscape very much like that of Orkney, the story has some similarities to Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea. Menace harnesses environmental forces of wind and wave on the grand scale. A demonic tornado named Huigor is approaching Westervoe in order to fix the curse upon Archie. Its advance is heralded by malicious talking winds and strangely localised snow storms. How is the jinx to be frustrated? One complication is the puzzling, slightly shifty nature of the relationship between Jeffrey and his wife Cecille, who seems to be troubled by some undefined guilt.
     To Archie’s aid flies in Uncle Rufus, an unconventional, enterprising world traveller with a secret to be revealed later. Rufus, an adventurer with his own private Cessna plane, is a second son, and is thus not immobilised by the curse. Flocks of icegulls, beautifully elemental fantasy seabirds, also rally to Archie’s cause.
     The plot is complex, with ingredients of mystery and suspense within an ordinary domestic setting. There is convincing detail of the comically lethargic untidiness of the Stringweed household and of the attitudes of Archie’s school friends.
     In a fashion familiar from computer games the narrative moves through hazards to a climax of fantasy as the boy, newly made confident like his Strongwood forebears, challenges with his dagger the power of Huigor, defuses the ancient curse on his family and thereby resolves all mysteries. The contrived heroism of this hilltop finale is hard to take seriously but it is certainly exuberant good fun, icegulls and all.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Climate change
Fife
Good and evil
Myth
Witches


WINTERBRINGERS
Gill Arbuthnott
Floris Books, 2005, ISBN: 0863155308

Set in a village in the East Neuk of Fife, Gill Arbuthnott’s latest rich fantasy once again tells of young people struggling to save the world from malign environmental powers. It daringly works out large themes in a recognisable location.
     Two related stories intertwine through the narrative. One of these, discovered in concealed journals, portrays a trio of 18th century girls who innocently use magic in the hope of mitigating bad harvests but are persecuted cruelly for witchcraft. In the other, present-day story Josh and Callie are teenagers who become acquainted during an unseasonably cold summer holiday in Pitmillie (Pittenweem?). Though initially wary of each other, they soon team up when they bizarrely find themselves rescuing what appears to be a dying Ice-man, who is, like Otzi, thawing out in Constantine’s cave on the coast. He turns out to be a being from the realms of primal myth – the Winter King, chosen consort of the Summer Queen who governs the balance of the seasons. With his help and the efforts of a contemporary coven of elderly ladies-who-lunch, the youngsters try to defeat the advance of global ice as huge troll-like creatures, the Winterbringers, lumber up the freezing beaches around St Andrews.
     In 1704 when their spells took them to the beautiful Winter Queen and they saw the Kingfisher, what had the three young witches done that undermined her beneficent rule? Across three hundred years were they in some way guilty for what was now happening? Is it significant that the unconventional Callie and her equally eccentric grandmother are descendants of Janet, the girl who wrote the tragic journals?
     This fast-moving novel is entertainingly, improbably, complicated at times and its tone varies with a sensitive control of image and language. Interested young readers might set it beside Catherine Forde’s very different portrayal of youthful dabblings in witchcraft in The Drowning Pond (2005).
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
History
Humour
Monsters
Storytelling
Witches


THE WITCH OF CLATTERINGSHAWS
Joan Aiken
Jonathan Cape, 2005; Red Fox, 2006, ISBN: 0099464063

Two lively English youngsters venture north from London and encounter adventures in the strange otherworld of Caledonia. This familiar plot underlies the short, ‘speedy’ novel which is the concluding instalment of Joan Aiken’s exuberant 11-part counterfactual fantasy, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It can be enjoyed in its own right but may well send enthusiastic readers back to explore earlier episodes in the sequence.
     The irrepressibly plebeian lass Dido Twite and her diffident companion Piers, ‘the Woodlouse’, Crackenthorpe are hunting for genealogical credentials that will release their friend Simon, Duke of Battersea, from his new and very unwelcome chores as King of England. When their train passes Roman Wall in the Borders, crosses a great metal bridge and terminates in the lochside town of Clatteringshaws, they emerge into a hilariously caricatured version of Scotland. The weather is dreich and the neighbouring Loch Grieve boasts both a monster and a ship-swallowing, Corrievreckan-style whirlpool. The dourly belligerent Picts, who roll their Rs, subsist on a diet of porridge, kippers, oatcakes, drappit eggs and ‘Highland Malt’. Malise, an amiable witch who is cousin to the Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies a ‘disused ladies convenience’ in a coach park by the loch. She doubles as district social worker and health visitor. Everywhere there lurk infestations of small, unspeakable nocturnal pests, the hobyahs, who devour anything or anyone they can get.
     The villain of the piece is the grotesque Mrs Phemie McClan, the grasping proprietor of a local old folks residential home, who plots with reactionary courtiers from St Jim’s Palace in London to have her odious son installed as King. Needless to say, their schemes are thwarted by Malise and her friend the Tatzelwurm monster. After a cancelled fixture of war with an invading army of Wends, the Woodlouse is identified as true monarch, and events hasten to a happy ending which carries the hope of romance between Dido and Simon.
     This entertaining little fantasy reveals some sharper edges in, for example, the descriptions of Phemie’s sad geriatric residents (‘the death’s-heads’). It also bravely offers young readers, as an Afterword, the author’s reasons for finishing her story with some ‘wild leaps’ and some things unexplained:

‘I knew that it was going to have to be a short book, as I am growing old and didn’t have the energy for a long one.’ Joan Aitken died 4 months after she wrote these words.
 


SUPERNATURAL & HORROR

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Bullying
Family
Outsiders
School
Witches

THE DROWNING POND
Catherine Forde
Egmont, 2005, ISBN: 1405221763

Class 4c’s project may focus on witchcraft but this disturbing novel of school life takes young readers far from the ambience of Hogwarts. The story concerns five teenage girls in what seems to be a normal Scottish suburban comprehensive school. There is nothing remarkable about Nicky Nevin except that she is obsessively driven by the need to win approval from the Alpha group, star of which is Isabella della Rosa, the vindictive, Italianate ‘It Girl’ of the upper school. Janet and Margaret are Isabella’s vacuous henchmaidens. At Hallowe’en this coven viciously picks upon a new girl, Lizzie Brownie, who is a fey, unprepossessing isolate from a deprived background.
     Their increasingly hysterical tormenting of ‘Lousy Lizzie’ is narrated in a fast-moving sequence of brief personal flashbacks from the perspectives of the various girls, their fantasies being stimulated by classwork on a notorious 17th century Scottish witch trial and the music of James Macmillan’s The Confession Of Isobel Gowdie. The grim opening episode of ‘swimming the witch’ is perpetrated in the neighbouring Merlock Country Park (based on Mugdock Park north of Milngavie).
     What actually happens at the Drowning Pond? Where does the truth lie; where the blame? Can there be any forgiveness or reconciliation? Mostly the trouble has been generated by adolescent emotions ... but not entirely. There are lurking, unexplained hints of the raw supernatural in the behaviour of the weather and the atmosphere of the Country Park ... and in the strange powers of plaguing and healing that Lizzie claims to have inherited from her ancestors. This sustained, inventively layered novel leaves such issues open. It probes the psychology of teenage group hysteria, with levels of violence in action and language which mean that it is possibly not for the faint-hearted reader. There are traces of the influence of the Blair Witch Project and other Hollywood Gothic genre films. The contemporary adolescent jargon of the girls is routinely scurrilous and smutty.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Celtic tradition
Highlands
Mythology
The Sea
Selchies /
   Selkies


HUNTRESS OF THE SEA
Alan Temperley
Scholastic, 1999, ISBN: 0439982588 Let a’ that live on mortal lird
Neer mell wi selchies o the sea.
          (from Sealchie Sang)
Young readers may find this novel both gripping and perplexing since its ambition is to fit an old folk tale of the supernatural into the realistic setting of a modern crofting community on the bleakly beautiful grey coasts of Caithness.
     The narrator, 12-year-old Ewan, has been brought up courageously by his mother Jessie since his father deserted them. The theme of single-parent childhood is common enough in junior fiction but what makes this story strikingly different is that Duncan, the father, has been lured far away from home in thrall to the deadly siren song of the selchies, the fabled people of the sea who are half human and half seal.
     The story starts with a tense description of the boy’s return over the moor from school on a bleak winter’s evening, shadowed by a dishevelled stranger. This unwelcome arrival turns out to be his lost father, who tries to take up with wife and son where he left off seven years earlier, but he has changed in frightening ways: ‘Was this man really my father?’ The answer unfolds as the second half of the story swirls off into a wild fantasy based on the legend of the fatal attraction of the seal folk for humans. Duncan is revealed to have a second and parallel family, his seal wife and seal son who are beautiful but malign. In their struggle to win back Duncan the selchies enlist the aid of other creatures from the Celtic bestiary, the black dog and the water horse, who wreak horrifying havoc on the local crofters. This is a tragic story in which there can be no happy reunion of Ewan’s mother and father, for the seal wife Neiraa deploys the intoxicating power of the selchies’ song ... in the end successfully.
     Temperley’s style is spare, fast-moving and highly readable. He expertly evokes the alien presence of the sea: its smells, sounds, creatures and flotsam; its submarine landscape of shipwrecks and mariners’ bones.
     The novel’s ending and the role of Ewan’s mother may come as a surprise to young readers. How fitting is it? How otherwise might the story have concluded?
     Scotland’s strange legends of the seal folk can be further explored in, for example, The Gift Boat (Peter Dickinson, 2000); Broonies, Silkies and Fairies (Duncan Williamson, 1985); The Wheel of the Finfolk (R E Jackson, 1972); and The Seal-Singing (Rosemary Harris, 1971). Also well worth visiting is the traditional ballad, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.
 

Age: 12–14

Level: 2

Keywords:
Conservation
Family
Monsters
New England


LOCH
Paul Zindel
Bodley Head, 1994 (op); Red Fox, 1996, ISBN: 0099542617 (op)

The first thing to be said about this strange novel is that its ending will come with a jolt of surprise to many young readers – and that is a recommendation in itself. It is included in Treasure Islands as an American rendering of the Loch Ness Monster topic in the highland landscape of northern Vermont in New England. (See also the reviews of Emma Tupper’s Diary, The Kelpie’s Pearls, The Boggart and the Monster and The Water Horse.)
     The teenage action-hero Luke Perkins has been nicknamed ‘Loch’ because 10 years earlier during a Scottish camping holiday with his parents he had experienced an unforgettable nocturnal encounter with a monstrous creature on the shores of Loch Ness.
     On the tragically early death of his mother, Loch and his young sister Zaidee now find themselves accompanying their father Sam on his current assignment. Dr Perkins, a distinguished marine biologist, has become reluctantly employed, in a professionally demeaning fashion, on a quest for a population of plesiosaurs believed to lurk in the depths of remote high-level Loch Alban. This expedition is financed and led by an odious media mogul, Cavenger, who is determined to win celebrity at all costs by proving the existence of these supposedly extinct reptiles.
     As his search using helicopters and hi-tech launches intensifies, Cavenger, like Ahab hunting the white whale, becomes crazily obsessed with the desire to slaughter the creatures. On the other hand the Perkins family, recently bereft of their beloved mother, develop some kind of sympathy for the adult plesiosaurs struggling to preserve their young. They therefore find themselves trying to frustrate the monster hunt. This clash of values is complicated by a running strand of romance between Loch and Cavenger’s not-quite-spoiled brat of a daughter. The narrative climaxes in an improbable welter of Jaws-type gore and horror. What can possibly happen next?
     Though unsubtle in some of its characterisation, this novel has virtues of pace and vivid incident, and also highlights issues of media ruthlessness and greed; scientific integrity; and environmental conservation.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 3

Keywords:
Adventure
Celtic tradition
Orkney
Outsiders
Selchies /
   Selkies


THE WHEEL OF THE FINFOLK
Rosemary Elizabeth Jackson
Chatto and Windus 1972, ISBN: 0701104872 (op)

We are back in the 1930s. Katy, the 12-year-old narrator, travels north from her boarding school with her three cousins. Ranging in age from 8 to 16, the youngsters are going to spend the summer holidays with elderly relatives in a historic seaport that is identifiably Kirkwall on Orkney.
     Katy is a fastidious only child and her solemn, slightly prim view of things colours this gently eccentric narrative. The complex fantasy of its plot results from the author’s attempt to modernise a romantic Orcadian legend about the finfolk who are part seal and part human. The story hinges on struggle for possession of an old spinning wheel whose yarn seemingly has the power to preserve a young woman’s beauty against ageing, but is otherwise damaging to all it touches. The malignant schemings of Auga, an alluring but ruthless seal wife, is vividly handled. Katy’s Orkney friends, who have acquired the wheel innocently, find themselves being tormented by Auga who hopes to use it to ensnare a handsome young islander and carry him off to Finfokaheim under the waves.
     A key role in frustrating the seal wife is played by the outlandish Dewland family, who live by their wits in a collection of hovels by the sea’s edge and are labelled ‘tinks’. In Katy’s eyes the formidably shrewd Mrs Dewland, grandmother of the tribe, has all the presence of a Viking matriarch. A traditional healer, she possesses an instinctive feeling for animals and understands the seal folk and their legends. Her conversation is coloured by touches of Orcadian Scots.
     This novel’s narrative complications and its oddly comic portrayal of minor characters such as the hapless Episcopal clergyman and his spoiled wife may not be readily accessible to young readers today. It is however distinguished by a loving rendering of the landscapes and seascapes of the Kirkwall area.
     Readers who develop an interest in the seal legends of Orkney will enjoy George Mackay Brown’s stories in The Two Fiddlers, 1974 and Pictures in the Cave, 1977. They can also visit the website www.Orkneyjar.com.
 


THRILLERS

Age: 13–14

Level: 3

Keywords:
Bullying
Growing up
Outsiders
School

MALARKEY
Keith Gray
Red Fox Definitions, 2003, ISBN: 0099439441

John Malarkey is a streetwise teenager newly arrived in Brook High, a large and tough comprehensive school which could be located in any UK housing estate. Trying to fathom the rules of this particular jungle he finds himself victimised as an outsider by teachers as well as students. As Gray implies in his Dedication, the tone of the novel owes something to police procedural thrillers. An ominous mystery pervades the institution, a racket of some kind, of which the teaching staff seem unaware, and Malarkey is thrust into challenging a brutal gang culture with its own youthful godfather and sartorial conventions. The banal underworld of school routines as seen from the students’ viewpoint is plausibly conveyed – timetables, detentions, sports fixtures, report cards and examinations. The layout of the campus, with its hiding places for smoking, back entrances and rat runs, is also convincing. Teachers are unsympathetically presented as mostly ineffectual: harried, bullying and self-serving. Students tend to be the products of disturbed family backgrounds. Gray handles the codes of adolescent treachery, violence and sexual skirmishing effectively. Propelled by sharp dialogue which is not unduly clotted by teenage argot the narrative moves swiftly to an alarming and ambiguous climax. This stylish novel which the publisher marks as ‘unsuitable for younger readers’ dramatises Malarkey’s provocatively bleak view of contemporary school life.
 


Age: 10–12

Level: 2

Keywords:
Adventure
Bullying
Growing up
Highlands
Horror
School


SILVERFIN
Charlie Higson
Puffin Books, 2005; ISBN: 0141318597

James Bond’s Schooldays? The period is the 1930s. 13-years-old James, an orphan, is sent off to Eton, where in his first ‘half’ he has to cope with the arcane rituals of that institution, and with the bullying American George Hellebore whose father is one of its wealthy benefactors.
     When the Easter vacation arrives, the narrative assumes the familiar form of a holiday adventure in the Scottish Highlands. From King’s Cross James takes the night express north to visit his guardian aunt and uncle in a village near Glenfinnan. Buchanesque complications and coincidences arise immediately as he encounters Hellebore and a reprobate young Cockney on the same train. It transpires that the local laird is George’s father, the odious Lord Randolph Hellebore, and James soon discovers that dangers are lurking up at Caisteal Hellebore on its island in remote Loch Silverfin. Why is the loch stocked with flesh-eating eels? Though the highland setting is far less plausibly rendered than that of Eton, the plot has pace. Its vivid climax brings to a violent end Lord Hellebore’s Dr Moreau-type experiments, and his megalomaniac ambitions to engineer a warrior master race.
     This novel is deftly contrived to meet the requirements of a set of junior prequels to Ian Fleming’s Bond fictions and the films that followed. James’s beloved Scottish uncle Max, expert angler and former spy now dying of lung cancer, is movingly portrayed, giving some melancholy depth to the tale. Young James himself emerges as a likeable, self-contained, athletic boy acquiring a taste for powerful cars. He discovers in himself the stamina and courage to endure Hellebore’s pitiless injection of serum; and in the end a teasingly beautiful girl, the blond and green-eyed Ryder Lawless, rides to his rescue over the heather. The story clearly establishes that James Bond is not a lad to tangle with, but young readers will find few hints as yet of 007, that cold hedonist who twenty years later triumphs at the gaming tables of Royale-les-Eaux. And that is probably just as well.
     The promotional paraphernalia of this project include the website: www.youngbond.com.
 


TRADITIONAL STORIES

Age: 10–11

Level: 2

Keywords:
Africa
Animals
Botswana
Environment
Fables
Zimbabwe

THE GIRL WHO MARRIED A LION
Alexander McCall Smith
Canongate, 2005, IBSN: 1841957291

Like at least two other Scottish novelists (Naomi Mitchison and Elizabeth Laird) Alexander McCall Smith has mined his experiences of living in Africa as a source of traditional lore for children’s stories. In this selection, which he has extracted from an earlier publication for a general readership, the author beguilingly renders 18 folktales from the adjacent cultures of what are now Zimbabwe and Botswana. These are enhanced by sprightly little line drawings.
     Most of the items are fables involving stereotyped talking animals and the humans who live with them on the high central plateaux of southern Africa. The star performer is Hare, that universal comic trickster, in a double act with his loudmouthed adversary, Lion. Among other creatures in the cast are leopards, snakes, baboons, jackals, hyenas and tortoises, all with their familiar traits: the jackal is treacherous and the tortoise is slow in the uptake. The human families and communities of these stories dwell in huts and have no roads or vehicles. They hunt, rear cattle and crops, and their technology is confined to spears, bows and arrows. The environment is charged with mysterious dangers. Prowling leopards and lions can assume human form; people die and come alive again. In one story an unhappy family is menaced by a vaguely monstrous ‘strange animal’, a man-eater who can be restrained momentarily by the son’s drum music to which it dances. The dire effects of drought and famine are recurring motifs.
     There is no intervention by gods or devils, but as always, among humans and animals alike, innocence and kindness are challenged by greed and ingratitude. Though few explicit morals are drawn, issues of behaviour are gently sown throughout. Goodness and youth tend to win in the end, sometimes with an enigmatic touch of poetic justice.
     The language of these carefully worked, unsentimental fables is simple, the narrative direct, and McCall Smith’s style is distinguished by neatly understated endings. His introduction addresses young readers directly, hoping that they find fun in the stories.
     In the primary school this collection will certainly offer rich opportunities for acting out and reading aloud. Some pieces can also be compared to Scottish equivalents in volumes such as The Well at the World’s End, The Mouth of the Night and Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children.
 


Age: 10–11

Level: 1

Keywords:
Africa
Animals
Environment
Ethiopia
Fables
Family
Humour


WHEN THE WORLD BEGAN
Elizabeth Laird
Oxford University Press, 2000; 2001, ISBN: 0192741896

Elizabeth Laird personally collected this miscellany of different types of folktales from the very diverse and ancient cultures of Ethiopia in the northeast corner of Africa. Its 20 stories have been retold with elegant simplicity for younger readers, and vibrantly illustrated in colour. To start with, a creation myth explains that in the beginning God was fooled into giving man the spear which allowed him dominion over the animals. There then follows a just so story of how the tortoise came to acquire its shell. Some of the ensuing items are fables with morals about qualities such as friendship and gratitude; tyranny and abuse of power. Just deserts are sternly administered, and happiness-ever-after is at least a possibility. An entertaining issue is the difference between apparent stupidity and cleverness in humans and animals. There are Biblical echoes, for example, in the parable of a father who puts his two sons to a test which ends in reconciliation and feasting. The stories tend to be short, with the striking exception of one eerily extended tale of a kind sister and a cruel sister, which involves perilous forest journeys and a baleful ogre.
     The customary bestiary of talking animals includes dog, buffalo, lion, mouse, rat, baboon, and sheep, as well as inveterate tricksters such as the fox. Several of the animal tales demonstrate that it is naive to expect creatures such as hyena and crow to change their knavish ways. On the other hand the final story, which takes us with a travelling merchant into a contemporary Ethiopian city of gleaming glass and concrete, concludes sombrely that ‘everything changes, everything passes’.
     A valuable component of this collection is the concluding commentary, ‘About these Stories’, in which Laird movingly recalls how she came to gather her precious stories and got to know the tellers, whose contributions she is careful to acknowledge individually.
     Young readers who relish this beautifully produced volume should be encouraged also to explore The Girl Who Married a Lion (see above), Alexander McCall Smith’s appealing tales from southern parts of the African continent. For the primary school stages both of these collections invite reading aloud, story telling, discussion and acting out.
 

Last updated 26 August 2010.