The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is another one of our charity shop finds. And I know I say this about almost all of the books I discuss here, but this one really is one of my favourites.

Perhaps best known for The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff has also written a number of books about the Arthurian legends, and I feel as though The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup very much draws inspiration from these. That’s not to say that this is a stereotypical medieval fantasy story – there are no swords, or sorcery. At its core, the tale is about a singing musician who finds a dragon’s egg, hatches it, raises it, and loves the resulting dragon.

And it’s that love which makes this such a rare tale.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the course of my life, and I’ve found that if the gender roles of knights and damsels are challenged – and this is rarer than you’d think – that it’s done by placing women in a traditionally masculine role i.e. the Knight Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s The Song Of The Lioness Quartet.

Don’t misunderstand me – that’s brilliant too. But this is honestly the only instance I can think of – off the top of my head, in any case – in which there’s a boy in a caring role, who undertakes a quest for non-romantic love.

The plot follows The Minstrel – a young man who sings for his supper as he tours the kingdom. One day, he finds a dragon egg, just as it’s about to hatch. He cares for the dragon pup – who he names Lucky – and the two form a loving, gentle friendship. One night, though, Lucky is stolen. The Minstrel goes searching for him but to no avail. His songs become sadder and he grows hungrier. Time passes, until a chance encounter leads him to Lucky – a prisoner now in the king’s menagerie. The Minstrel then uses his skills as a song-writer, and the love he feels for his friend, to solve the king’s dilemma and win the freedom of the dragon pup.

Aside from the obvious ‘quest for the love of a friend’, this book is also unique in that the happy ending doesn’t involve vanquishing a foe – neither with violence nor with trickery. It involves healing with music. There are no villains in the work – the thief who steals Lucky is only trying to survive in a harsh world and the Minstrel doesn’t seek vengeance.

Yes, the questing hero is still male, but it feels different to the usual ‘hero saves damsel’ tale on account of the love which drives the search being parental, fraternal, and philial. It’s more Finding Nemo/Finding Dory than any usual fantasy. It deals with the family-we-choose, and I feel like in the context of a blended family, or an adopted family, that this would be a great book to use in a discussion about how kin doesn’t necessarily mean blood-relative.

The story is a gentle subversion of a whole host of fantasy tropes, and as a result, it becomes its own thing entirely.

Have you read The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup? Or any of Sutcliff’s other works? Can you think of any other fantasy stories which avoid the usual stereotypes?

As ever, I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Farn ❤

Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories, by Reinhardt Jung

One of the things that I’ve missed most about the pre-Covid world, is the ability to browse. So many of my very favourite children’s books have been fluke finds in charity shops or the library. From The Year At Maple Hill Farm, to Rosy’s Garden and the myriad of titles in between, these small-print-run, out-of-print gems have quickly become family favoruites.

Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories by Reinhardt Jung is another book which fits this description.

I don’t know whether I can properly call this a ‘browsing’ find, but it was down to a hunger for running my fingers along a shelf of spines which led me to it. Bored, uninspired, and stuck in a rut, I went searching for videos of other peoples’ bookshelves on YouTube. I eventually stumbled on the videos of Leena Norms, and in particular, one of her bookshelf tours. And in that tour, she mentioned Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories.

At its core, this book is a collection of very short tales, but beyond that, it also chronicles the man who gathers these stories together. Old and in pain, the eponymous Bambert writes himself stories as a way to combat loneliness. One day, he settles on the idea of releasing his work into the world so that it can find its own setting.

I bought the book before I’d even finished hearing the plot.

I have always been, and always will be, a total romantic when it comes to story telling. The stories around stories – the tales of the writers and the bards – make my heart sing.

And Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories is that – a book about a book – but it’s also so much more.

The writer – Reinhardt Jung – was born in Germany in 1949, and some of the themes in Bambert’s tales seem to deal with the country’s fascist past. The text doesn’t do this overtly, but the story about the glass rafts is clearly about the concentration camps of the Nazi regime. Another two stories deal with war directly, with children as protagonists.

It might sound, at this point, like the book is a somewhat dark affair, but it really isn’t. Interlaced through the stories are insights into Bambert’s life, and the budding, gentle friendship which forms with the shopkeeper in the store below. It’s a rare tale about men befriending one another in a way that is supportive and caring. This happens so seldom in children’s literature that I feel it merits a mention.

A few points of note: the protagonist drinks to forget his pain, both he and the shopkeeper smoke cigars, and there is character death (though this is dealt with tenderly and poetically). The book touches on love and disability, and the fact that these things may not necessarily go hand-in-hand. It is a work which – for my part – I feel needs to be debriefed with older children, or read aloud to younger children to facilitate discussion about the events it contains.

But it should absolutely be read and enjoyed by children.

We don’t give young people enough credit for the levels of complexity that they’re able to process, and we can be neglectful when it comes to providing stories which deal in shades of grey, or which deal with death, or disappointment. But by showing them examples of these things in literature, we can better equip them for when life is less than ideal – by getting to know Bambert, for example, they might come to know that they’re not alone in feeling lonely.

I would love to hear your opinions on Bamburt’s Book of Missing Stories, if you’ve read it. And I would love to hear if you know of any other books which provide challenging content.

Love,

Farn ❤

Kitra by Marcus Gideon

Kitra by Gideon Marcus is the book I wish that I’d read as a teenager.

At some point in my teen years, I jumped from reading the usual 8-12 age range, to reading full on adult fantasy. It wasn’t that YA wasn’t a genre that was around back then, but the sort of things which my local library stocked were… not my style. You couldn’t have paid me to read Sweet Valley High books.

I’m sure if I’d looked harder, I might have found something, but as a huge science fiction/fantasy nerd, I wanted books that echoed the popular culture that I loved. I wanted something akin to Stargate SG:1, to Star Trek: Voyager, to Farscape, to Phantasy Star Online, to Buffy… I ended up eye-ball deep in Neil Gaiman books, but what I really wanted was this.

Kitra is remarkable for many reasons. The most important one – that the protagonist is a queer person of colour – is probably the one I’m going to go into least detail about here. Not because I don’t think it’s worth discussing, but because I think other places do it better and I’d rather direct your attention there.

I think what I want to explore most is something that the author talks about in an interview:

“For the last twenty years, YA has been dominated by fantasy and dystopia. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but it got to the point where everyone was trying to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Space hasn’t gotten any less interesting; science shouldn’t be passé; and characters don’t need magic or special powers to be extraordinary.”

The relatively low stakes of the book – no galaxy to save, no galactic war, no overarching evil – gives it a very intimate feel. The group dynamics, the situation the crew finds themselves in, and the relationships between characters provide the conflict.

The plot is simple – the eponymous Kitra purchases a second hand spaceship, which doesn’t function as anticipated on its maiden voyage. The small crew find themselves stranded on an abandoned planet without fuel and with low food reserves, and need to rely on their own skills to get home.

And that’s it, really. Cue Apollo 13 meets Futurama.

With the exception of a flippant reference to a red light district (in a place that came across as Space-Amsterdam), and an accidental flashing, this doesn’t have anything that isn’t particularly unsuitable for younger readers. My eldest devoured it from cover-to-cover and is eagerly awaiting a sequel. I think both instances just went way over their head. This makes it a great book for a precocious reader, whose language skills are perhaps a little advanced for their age but may struggle with more mature themes.

It’s also a particularly timely book. It deals with the feelings of people living in very close quarters with one another, and about the ways in which love can wear thin. I think that’s something many of us can relate to, living in various states of lockdown as we have over the last twelve months. Reading something like this can help assuage the feeling that we’re alone.

I read this as an adult in a morning. It was just what I needed – there was enough plot to hook me, to keep me turning pages, and the writing was sound. Because Pandemic, I’ve been reading lighter things at the moment – romances, village mysteries and the like – so it was nice to branch out from that without leaving my comfort zone. I can imagine I’ll be reading more YA in the months to come.

Have you read Kitra? Are there any other YA books with relatively low stakes that you might recommend? I’d love to add some more to my list!

Interview with the Robot by Lee Bacon

Over the past few days, we’ve really been enjoying Lee Bacon’s Interview with the Robot. You can listen to it for free here.

It’s an Audible Exclusive, and as we’re not subscribers, it’s not something I would normally have come across. I’m so glad we did though. It’s like… How to describe it?

I guess it’s more like a radio play, though the large sections of exposition by the titular robot do help it feel a bit like a conventional story. The plot is part Sylvain Neuvel’s ‘Themis Files’, part ‘Blade Runner’, part ‘Ex Machina’, part ‘Altered Carbon’, part ‘Detroit; become human’, but for children.

I feel like it’s important to add that the premise of man vs machine doesn’t suffer from the far lower age rating. Rather than dilute the themes in the above stories, it asks different questions and explores other aspects of android ethics. It also nimbly deals with the question of family power dynamics for an age group in which this is increasingly relevant.

First off, let me just say that the voice-acting is absolutely sublime. And the way action is described is wonderful – none of the usual ‘I’ll just walk over to the desk to put this sheet of yellowed a4 paper away.’ I think that’s the beauty of the interview style format – it can switch seamlessly between flashback and present.

The basic plot is this;
A girl named Eve is arrested for shoplifting. Whilst in an interview with her appointed advocate from child welfare services, Eve reveals that she is a robot and that she’s running from a group of powerful people. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that Eve’s past isn’t as simple as it might at first appear. 

The run time is 3hrs 42mins – a decent morning’s listening, but not too long to feel like an undertaking. It’s a great companion to a jigsaw, or craft, or Lego, or a game of Tetris… whatever you’re doing.

As I have two small people present, and as they’re full of opinions, I thought i would share some with you… you lucky things…

A note on the age rating: The suggested age is 10+. I can understand why. There are some genuinely unsettling moments in which traditional family models are somewhat subverted. And there’s a whole section about removing skin to reveal wiring beneath, but I think a lot of the uncomfortable parts go over the head of my youngest whilst my eldest – nearing 9 – has the reading under her belt to understand the more… subtle parts. As ever, use your better judgement – you know your children.

5 yr old’s thoughts:
“It’s good so far. I like that (Character) doesn’t manage to capture Eve, because why would (Character) want to capture her? I don’t like that (Character) tries to hurt them becuase it won’t (achieve Character’s goals) – it’ll just hurt the robot! (Character) does not think first! (Character) should think first!”

Brackets added to prevent spoilers.

8 yr old’s thoughts: 
“I think it’s very good and interesting. I really like the way it explores robot identities, and I like how you also get (Character’s) side of the story – that it’s not just black and white.”

If you have a listen, I’d love to hear how you get on!

Stay safe out there!
-Farn ❤

Today’s ideas…

Another round up of things I found on Twitter and thought looked cool, plus an activity relating to maps that we’re going to be doing with my youngest later.

So, to start off, here’s some lovely ideas from the Woodland Trust. Obviously some of them rely on access to the outdoors, but it’s easy enough to replace the natural materials in activity 4 (‘Create Natural Art’) with things you might have at home – scraps of fabric, old buttons, even pillows and blankets. Think Giant Art Attack (those of you who remember the 90s TV show).

Another really exciting thing I saw was creative writing classes, delivered via YouTube. As someone who’s led writing workshops before, I can whole-heartedly recommend these. They’re all about enjoyment and love of the craft. Absolutely worth having a go at.

If you’ve got the wood, the tools, and the space, then making a bird box is a fabulous family project. Instructions are available for free on the RSPB website.

Cressida Cowell of ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ fame has been uploading videos of her, reading her books onto YouTube. You can watch them here.

Today, we’ve been drawing maps of the different rooms in our house as maps were something that nursery was working on when we were all sent home.

I gave the maps to my youngest child, along with three egg-shaped buttons. The task was simple – hide the buttons somewhere in the room, then mark the location on the map and have me find them. Once I’d found them, it was my turn to hide them and mark them on the map.

It’s been a lot of fun for him – less fun for me because I’m not a fan of repetition, but of course, even less fun is him taunting his older sister while she tries to do her school work…

That’s my offering for today – I hope it helps some of you stave off boredom.

Please stay safe, stay at home, and be kind to one another.

And if you can, let me see what you’ve been up to – maybe your quarantine stories will help inspire other people!

With love.
– Farn ❤