4/3/14

The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett


Sometimes I read a book and am stunned by its kid appeal, and other times I read a book and want to urge other grown-ups to read it, and this is not a judgment of book goodness or lack thereof, but simply how the story feels to me.   Falling firmly into this later category is The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick, March 2014 in the US).

One the face of it, it seems like a book young me would have loved, back in the day (for starters, the cover art is total eye candy for the romantic young girl).  Cecily, her older brother Jeremy, and their mother leave London during WW II, retreating to the old family home deep in the countryside of northern England.  There is a bonus additional child, an interesting little girl, taken in along the way.  There is the crumbling old castle on the edge of the estate, that holds secrets of a mysterious past; Uncle Peregrine tells the children its story, which involves Richard III, and does so most grippingly.  There is a strong element of fantasy, lifting it all out of the ordinary.  And the writing is lovely, with pleasing descriptions of food and bedrooms and the books in the library (three things I like to read about).

But yet it felt more like a book for adults, and I'm not at all sure young me would have found it entirely pleasing.

For one thing, Cecily, whose point of view we share, is ostensibly a twelve year old, but she acts much younger, and is thoughtless, somewhat unintelligent, and not really a kindred spirit.  The way she behaves is all part of a convincingly drawn character, but it is not an appealing one.   May, the younger evacuee, is much more interesting, but she is off at a distance from the reader.   I think young readers expect to like the central character; Cecily felt to me like a character in a book for grown-ups, where there is no such expectation.  Likewise, the dynamics among the family (and May), strained by the war, involve lots of undercurrents of tension that are complicated and disturbing.

For another thing, and this gets a tad spoilery, it is clear pretty early on that the two boys Cecily and May meet in the ruined castle are from another time, and what with the title being what it is, anyone who knows the story of Richard III can put the pieces together (it will, of course, take longer for the child reader who has No Clue).   But these two boys aren't directly players in the story taking place in the present, nor does the fact of their existence bring about obvious change.  They are more like ghost metaphors or something and the book would have a coherent story (though a less lovely one) without them, and so they disappointed me.  These sorts of ghost aren't  exactly what I expect in a book for children, but I'd love to talk to a grown-up about them!  And this ties in with a more general feeling I had, that I was being expected to Think Deeply and Make Connections, and I almost feel that I should now be writing an essay on "Power and Metaphor in The Children of the King."

So, the upshot of my reading experience was that I appreciated the book just fine, but wasn't able to love it with the part of mind that is still, for all intents and purposes, eleven years old. 

Here are other reviews, rather more enthusiastic:

The Children's War
Waking Brain Cells
The Fourth Musketeer

I've reviewed one other book by Sonya Hartnett --The Silver Donkey (it was one of my very early reviews, back in 2007).  I seem to have appreciated that one more, but it amused me that I had something of the same reaction to the stories within the story:  "I'm not a great fan of interjected stories in general, because I resent having the narrative flow broken, and also because I feel challenged by them. The author must have put them in for Deep Reasons, I think, and will I be clever enough to figure out what they were?"

7 comments:

  1. Really important question on which everything about my feelings for Sonya Hartnett hinge: Did Richard III kill the little princes, in this iteration of them? Because if so I am taking Sonya Hartnett off my TBR list and I DO NOT CARE HOW MUCH SHE APPEALS TO ADULTS. I like Richard III and I do not think he killed those kids.

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    1. Well, the character telling his story thinks he did it, which was people assumed at the time....so it's not quite S.H.'s own opinion....

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  2. Kid appeal is perhaps not a strength of this book, but I do love it--despite loathing Cecily most of the time--and was content to let it wash over me without worrying too much about making more than the obvious connections. Agreed that the ghosts were underutilized! What was the point of them?? Anyway, my more enthusiastic comments will go up today!
    [There is a revealing Q and A on Hartnett's website, if you want to know Hartnett's opinion on Richard III, Jenny. Not sure if you will, though.]

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  3. I might have to try this one. It definitely sounds interesting *to me*, but I can understand that some books published for kids just don't appeal to them. (I mean, the Newbery Award is infamous for picking books with low kid appeal.)

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  4. This is one author whose writing just leaves me sort of null. I tried to read this and got about 50 pages in before I put it aside. Hartnett's writing style and stories just don't work for me--I read The Midnight Zoo two years ago and felt the same. In this case I don't think it's a question of author skill so much as taste. But she does tend to write with what feels to be a more adult sensibility.

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  5. This looks great, Charlotte. Thanks for sharing!!

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  6. I'm reading now, on the recommendation of a friend who is a member of the Richard III Society; I'm a Richard fan too and am careful what I read on this subject.

    Not a great Sonya Hartnett fan, which is why I hadn't intended to read this one, even though it was a CBCA Award winner( in the Younger Readers category!). I disliked Midnight Zoo, which was, I agree, more aimed at adults, but still won the CBCA award, because it seems to be the thing that if Sonya Hartnett writes a book in any given year it will win at least the CBCA award and often the Premier's Literary Award as well. This one was obscure and full of purple prose. I did like The Silver Donkey but the author spoiled it for me by saying in an interview that she'd told children asking about the pilot who tells te stories that he would be shot for desertion afterwards. She doesn't like happy endings. Still, I will finish Children Of The King(check out te Australian cover some time, not nearly as pretty, probably just as well - the cover you shw is deceptive). BTW, I got the impression that the children's uncle who tells the story is described in a way that sounds like Richard III himself. The hair, the eyes, the build...

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