A while back I promised that I’d write more about the newer children’s books I love. As my bookshelves prove, there are many of them but there are a few in particular that stand out for different reasons.
One of them is Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, a Canadian. This is a book I had to read whilst judging for the Carnegie Medal and my heart sank when I saw it. It appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres. But one should never, of course, judge a book by its cover and when I finally steeled myself to read it, I was enchanted. It’s set in an alternative past (it feels Edwardian) on an airship – a very enclosed community – and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew. It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast. I loved this so much that, when the sequel, Skybreaker, was published, I rushed out to buy a copy. And now I’m excited because there’s a third book due out in May.
I’ve mentioned Linda Newbery elsewhere in this blog, I know, but her books are so good that I can’t apologise for that. I discovered Linda’s books in my early years as a school librarian and loved them immediately. In my view, Sisterland is an outstanding teenage novel and it was a strong contender for the Carnegie Medal. Linda has a tremendous ability to create memorable characters and to cause them to interact believably. In Sisterland she cleverly depicts a variety of relationships, some of them overlapping and all containing an element of tension. Without it ever becoming an issue-driven novel, it looks at the nature of prejudice and explores the reactions of various characters to it. I have to say, though, that the first time I read the novel that wasn’t what I thought about. I simply enjoyed the story. Whenever I see Linda, I nag her about writing a sequel. I know she’s never going to but it doesn’t stop me wishing she would!
That I would include here something by Eva Ibbotson was never in doubt; the problem was always going to be which her books. As I’ve said before, I love them all but in the end I chose The Star of Kazan. It’s a jewel! With a deft touch she has created memorable characters: Annika, a girl in love with life and Austria; Ellie and Sigrid, servants defined by duty and generosity; the eccentric professors for whom they work; the glacial Edeltraut von Tannenberg. And Vienna. The warmth and fondness with which the author always describes Vienna make me feel as though I’ve been there – although I never have. This is a wonderful evocation full of waltzes, Sauerkraut, the not-so-blue Danube, the Prater, Lipizzaner stallions and affectionate laughter at the city’s idiosyncrasies. Vienna is integral to the novel. It is more than a setting in time and place. It is a main character. The Star of Kazan is a delight. Eva Ibbotson’s gentle irony and subtle humour enhance a beautifully crafted and well-managed plot. There is no extraneous detail; like an expertly conducted symphony, everything comes together in a satisfying Viennese conclusion. It truly is a masterpiece and I’m still a bit put out that it didn’t win the Carnegie Medal!