My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was intrigued to receive this review copy from the publisher; Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I’ve had a strange relationship with. I admire his writing, greatly, yet often feel quite distanced from it when reading. When spoken though, or performed, I would wed it in a heartbeat. Language is strange like that, it shifts depending on the space it is. This is how I write here, tentatively, reaching my way into this review, but speaking – ? No. Difference. Form, space – content. Language shifts; writing is not speaking, speaking is not writing, but then sometimes, writing is all things and all things are writing. A world of contradiction caught in a few quick dashes on the paper, and held as tight as a kite string in a wicked Autumn storm.
The Riddlemaster holds the key to a marvellous island, full of treasure. In order to get to the island, Anouk, Ben and Cara must solve seven riddles. If they don’t solve them, they face the grim fate of being eaten by the animals on the boat; “Beast, and Wildcat, and Wolf, the three Bears, and Dragon / surrounded the three children. They licked their lips.” The children manage to solve the riddles and eventually arrive on an island full of stories: “So now you’re ready to meet the islanders and they’re all / waiting to share their stories with you. Anansi and Anne of Green Gables, Ali Baba and Arthur ….” The final scene sees the children racing excitedly onto a island full of books, and the land scored with letters from the alphabet.
Though I found a few of the moments between the pages jarring (a book like this lives on rhythm and sometimes that rhythm skipped) and would have happily pared down several paragraphs, there is much to enjoy in The Riddlemaster. It’s a paean to stories and libraries and I see some substantial opportunities for related play and activities with it. I also applaud the way it flirts quite happily with disaster; the children are almost eaten several times when they almost can’t quite figure out the riddle in time. Crossley-Holland’s skill in strong, powerful language remains deeply pronounced and rather lovely: “Cara blew out her cheeks like a teapot” and “The boat’s mast was a soaring word-tree. It had thousands and thousands of leaves and each fluttering leaf had one word painted on it.”
Where this book absolutely sings is in Stéphane Jorisch’s illustrations. Jorisch gives us a tapestry of almost medieval characters; those twisting, fanciful half-dreamt, half-believed outlines of animals and characters that twist into each other and curve around the page. His children are perfect; three distinct, diverse characters, and they’re each rendered with such movement that they’re a delight. These thin washes of colour, dark and light, thin and fat, balance deliciously against the white background of the page, and it’s a delight. I want a wordless picturebook from Jorisch because there’s so much in his work; the question of a line, the expression of doubt in his finger. It’s the artwork that pulls this book together for me; great dreamy, fantastical washes, and movement filled lines. I need to find out more about Jorisch.