The Riddlemaster : Kevin Crossley-Holland & Stéphane Jorisch

The RiddlemasterThe Riddlemaster by Kevin Crossley-Holland

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.

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“I’ve got a riddle,” spat Wildcat.

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.

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“Again Wolf, and Wildcat, and the three Bears, and Beast, and Dragon pressed round the three children. They licked their lips and bared their teeth.”

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.

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Follow the people who say “Morpurgo” – a day out @oxfordlitfest

I went to Oxford Literary Festival yesterday. For those of you who may have missed it, I’m a bit smitten with Oxford. It’s one of those cities where which sort of beats with story and history – it’s a fascinating and oddly humbling place.

The first event I went to was an event with Kevin Crossley-Holland talked about the history of the wizard. Wait, no, I got that wrong. The first event I attended was Merlin himself talking about wizards and magic in his timbre-filled voice, echoing through the hall and up through the stained glass wizards. There is something spellbinding about the buildings in Oxford, and Christ Church Hall is full of story. It is almost tangible and to sit there with a bunch of people that you’ve never met, all of you with arms resting on tables and bodies leaning forward, chanting: “Set him Free” as Merlin crept down towards the dais – it was something quite spectacular. I am still full of awe for that moment.

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Image: Wikipedia

The other event I attended was very, very different but rather spellbinding in its own way. Chaired by Tony Bradman, this event saw him and three other authors – Bernard Ashley, Jamila Gavin and Marcia Williams – talk about the issues on and around writing about World War One. Bradman has just edited an anthology of stories around the first world war and I was particularly keen to hear about this (talk about a dream team – the authors include Adele Geras, Jamila Gavin and Linda Newbery!). To my shame, I’m not hugely read on Ashley’s work, nor Williams’ but I think that will be changing fairly swiftly. Marcia Williams’ ‘Archie’s War’ is one that I’ve already got out from the library and Ashley’s ‘Shadow of the Zeppelin’ sounds fascinating too.

Hearing these authors talk made me a bit emotional actually (yes, there is a reason why I try to go to these sorts of things by myself). All of them spoke with such power and conviction about their work. It was impossible to not gain a sort of fervent faith in the validity of storytelling and the importance of it and to understand history remain accessible to us all. Bradman, in particular, spoke about how, when editing the anthology, that it was important to him that the reader understood the experience of others in it – such as the German experience, the Irish experience and the experience of fighting in the East.

I particularly loved hearing Jamila Gavin speak. I’ve been privileged enough to hear her talk before but really, she is such a graceful speaker with a very quiet eloquence, she is one to fight through crowds to hear again. As part of her research for her story, she told of how she looked through a world of photographic evidence from world war one in order to try and find an Indian soldier – she found one.

I can’t reccommend this sort of stuff enough. It makes me believe, so much, in the power of literature and of books and of the sheer weight and import that children’s books hold in the world. And it made me think a lot of the trust we place in them, how societally vital they are, and how there are people everywhere who want to get these books to the right people at the right time. A joy. A humbling, moving, beloved, joy.

(And oh, oh god, Jamila Gavin is so good you guys!)