Tag Archives: Hilary McKay

Happy memories

I’ve been looking for nice memories from the past. Well, I suppose memories of necessity tend to be from the past.

Anyway, here is a photo of Jon Mayhew in Edinburgh in August 2013. It was a special day. I believe it was Jon’s first at the book festival. And I wasn’t there!

‘You weren’t?’, I hear you say. No. But I sent my Photographer. Hence the picture of Jon laughing in front of Bookwitch’s favourite London Plane tree, our very own photo backdrop for when the blue or green carpet was less available. You can’t beat a good plane tree.

As I – almost – said, I have fond memories of that day. My Photographer was all grown up and able to go on her own, allowing herself one day when she could leave her brown dwarfs on their own in St Andrews, and frolic in Charlotte Square instead.

And thanks to generous people like Jon, she got tickets for events. Or so I believe. I wasn’t there. But she sent ‘home’ lots of photos of all the authors she caught that day, and it was almost as if I had been there. That’s proof of how it is in the children’s books world. You feel included, and you can send your child to them.

Having had a quick look to see how I was suffering at home, I discovered I had invited Hilary McKay round for scones. So that was all right, too.

The Swallows’ Flight

I need to offer up even more and bigger thanks to Hilary McKay and her writing. It seemed impossible that there could be a book as great as, or greater than, The Skylarks’ War, but with The Swallows’ Flight I would say Hilary has done the impossible.

Thank you from the bottom of my tear-drenched hankie.

This time it’s about the children born between the two wars, whose turn it is to fight when WWII begins. Although, as with Skylarks, we learn most of what we need to know in the twenty years before. The war is ‘skirted past’ reasonably briefly. Unlike its predecessor, Swallows features not only a group of children in England, but we are introduced to two German boys and their families in Berlin.

And it works. We get to know Hans and Erik as human beings, and we see the changes to life in Germany alongside the boys. We find out what they want to do with their lives until developments mean they end up doing totally different things; in this case the boys become pilots in the Luftwaffe.

At ‘home’ we meet the generation after Clarry, Peter and Rupert from Skylarks. Peter and Vanessa have six children, and Clarry is godmother both to her niece Kate and to her best friend Violet’s daughter Ruby. We all need a Clarry godmother!

While we wait for the war that lumbers towards the families, we mostly learn about normal stuff like sibling rivalry, being bullied at school or being unwell and almost forgotten about by others. It is all this that forms the characters of these children, soon to be adults. Even Clarry’s and Peter’s rather unsatisfactory father has a role to play. There are cats, including a very random one, and there is a – smelly – dog.

There is much over the years to be sad about, but also many small and humorous incidents. I won’t spoil your reading.

My tears were partly over the inevitable deaths, but more for all those moments that simply make you cry. They rather bunch up towards the end of the story. There is much humanity here, and Hilary’s touch is lighter than ever.

The Time of Green Magic

Hilary McKay’s latest novel, The Time of Green Magic, is about the merging of families; discovering you can like an unwanted step-sibling.

It’s also about reading, the importance of doing it, what you get out of it (could be a rather damp book, or frostbite), and the many different ways you might learn to read and why you’d want to.

Hilary McKay, The Time of Green Magic

Abi and her dad Theo move in with Polly and her two boys Max and Louis, and her beloved granny finally gets to move back to Jamaica. So it’s all change for everyone, and change is always hard. And then they suddenly need to find a new house to rent, and end up in a lovely ivy-covered tall house that is much too expensive, which is why the adults work extra long hours.

That also leaves room for alarming things to happen, like the pretend – or is it? – pet Louis is visited by in his room. Just like the wet book that fell into the ocean as Abi was reading.

Like in most Hilary’s novels, this is a lovely, if unsettled, family, doing the best they can in a difficult situation. Is Iffen real, or does Louis imagine him? If so, how come Abi and Max can see him too? And where did he come from? How to get rid of him?

There is much love in this story.

Kanada bound

Well, he was. The Resident IT Consultant is now safely back from his Kanadian adventures. (Sorry about the Ks. I got a bit karried away, what with Swedish and German and all the rest.)

He decided he wanted to go and see his relatives over there, so he went. I was allowed to come too. I just didn’t feel up to it. Besides, there is so much a witch can get up to when all alone in the house. I suspect he still hasn’t found the things he’s not found yet. And it’s been a couple of weeks, so I no longer recall what I hid where.

Just like when Son went the first time, there were cousins to see. An uncle. Even a brother, if you allow for the US detour. There’d have been another uncle, but he very sensibly decamped to New Zealand. Cousins once removed (which is a really odd way of putting it).

They looked after him well.

After all, I sent along books as bribes. I chose several of my favourites, mostly with some sort of connection to Scotland, to possibly entice some of them to come and visit us. Gruesome murders is a sure way of tempting people to come. I don’t remember all my choices, but James Oswald was there, as was Elizabeth Wein and Catriona McPherson. And naturally Meg Rosoff and Hilary McKay for a bit of comfort reading.

There were oatcakes too, but I imagine the books were the best.

And when they’d swapped their Grandfather’s jigsaws with each other, the Resident IT Consultant escaped across the border near Niagara Falls. Really fishy visitors obviously walk across, and here he is, looking surprisingly all right for a man who never selfies. Anyway, he’d have needed extra long arms for this one.

The Resident IT Consultant

Another Costa for Hilary!

I sensed that Hilary McKay was most probably going to be this year’s winner of the children’s Costa award. But I didn’t want to say so, since it’s so hard to deny things in a believable way if cornered.

“Children’s writer Hilary McKay collects the Costa Children’s Book Award for the second time for The Skylarks’ War, a story following the loves and losses of a family growing up against the backdrop of World War One which the judges called ‘as perfect a novel as you could ever want to read’.”

How right that judge is.

And Hilary was up against some good ones, so it’s never easy predicting. Or for that matter – I imagine – to judge.

Yippee for Hilary and her Skylarks!

Hilary McKay, The Skylarks' War

Bookwitch’s 2018 selection

It’s that time of year again. Here are some of the books I enjoyed the most, chosen with some difficulty, because the next tier consists of really excellent books. Too.

I haven’t always felt that ‘picture books’ belong here, but the two I’ve got on my list are more literature with pictures. They make you cry. I mean, they made me cry. And that’s good. They are:

Michael Morpurgo and Barroux, In the Mouth of the Wolf

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones (translated by Peter Graves)

And then for the more ‘regular’ children’s novels:

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

Candy Gourlay, Bone Talk

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Matt Killeen, Orphan Monster Spy

Hilary McKay, The Skylark’s War

Sally Nicholls, A Chase in Time

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable (translated by Guy Puzey)

Celia Rees, Glass Town Wars

Ellen Renner, Storm Witch

Books like these make everything worth while. There are a couple of ‘beginners,’ some ‘mid-career’ authors – whatever I mean by that – and some established authors with decades of great writing behind them. And, only two that I knew and loved before Bookwitch became famous for her reading, meaning that this blogging business has been responsible for many introductions, without which my life would have been the poorer.

The Skylarks’ War

I frequently give thanks for the writing of Hilary McKay, but never more so than now, on the publication of The Skylarks’ War. This story, which we got a sideways introduction to in Binny in Secret, the middle book about Binny, is an absolute delight, even though it’s about WWI and there will be tears, and you weep with happiness as well as that awful sadness that accompanies war stories. Who will die?

Born soon after the turn of the century, Clarry has always felt guilt over killing her mother in the process. But she has her older brother Peter and their cousin Rupert, and the three of them have their summers at the grandparents’ house in Cornwall. That’s a good thing, as Clarry and Peter’s father is a sad example of parent; one who is neither horrible, nor kind and loving.

Hilary McKay, The Skylarks' War

It is Clarry’s good nature and positive outlook on life, despite being a murderess, which make this book. The boys have to be boys, go to boarding school, be manly, and go to war, while Clarry is expected to stay at home and attend the Miss Pinkses’ Academy where nothing useful is taught.

As always there are many unusual and interesting characters, and they are what make the book, and it is they who help Clarry develop. And still, someone has to die. There is a war on. There is much on feminism, in a quiet sort of way, and you finish the book determined to do as well as Clarry. Except you know you can’t.

Did you know that back then it wasn’t too difficult to transport a horse from one part of the country to another? Trains had horse boxes and you simply put the horse on the train.

Excuse me for a moment. There seems to be something in my eye.

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Hilary McKay has re-written ten well-known fairy tales with her usual charm and warmth. I love them!

There is just one thing though; if you start a child off with these as their first fairy tales, I honestly don’t see how you can then give them a more ordinary version of the same tales later.

Sarah Gibb, Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales

I have read countless varieties of most of these stories, and they are much the same. Some are older and more traditional, while others might have been modernised and are easier to read aloud. But none are like Hilary’s, and I would love to read them to a child. And if it was a child who already knew the basic tales, I rather imagine they would experience the same warm glow from Hilary’s version as I did. That in itself could be a discussion point.

Let’s see, I especially loved Chickenpox and Crystal (that’s Snow White, to you), and The Prince and the Problem (The Princess and the Pea). And The Roses Round the Palace (Cinderella) and Over the Hills and Far Away (Red Riding Hood and the Piper’s Son).

And if I mention any more, it will look as if the whole collection was my favourite. I ‘quite liked’ all of them…

There is a flavour of the Casson family over these royal family tales. It’s nice to find that queens can be sensible in the Hilary McKay way. And to have a story featuring a noddle-offer is quite something. (I believe it’s what Kings use to remove the heads of Princes who have an interest in the King’s daughters.)

I absolutely refuse to tell you more about these tales. It would mean spoilers, and you don’t want that. You want to read this collection, and you want to come to it fresh, to see what Hilary has done with our old favourites. How she has made them into new favourites.

This is really something.


The illustrations by Sarah Gibb almost require a post of their own. They are the most glorious, traditional style, black and white pictures that you need for fairy tales.

And the cover! It incorporates all or nearly all the tales. You see Red Riding Hood, but you don’t yet know what Hilary has done to her.

Sarah Gibb, Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales

Bookwitch bites #139

At last! The tail is gone and the tale might be with us later this year. Philip Pullman has had a haircut – unless that BBC interview yesterday was recorded years ago – and there are claims that the first part of The Book of Dust will be available on Philip’s birthday in October. Well.

Philip Pullman

It’s been ten years since Son and I were in Oxford, when Philip and David Fickling reckoned Dust would be ready in 2009. What I didn’t know is that Dust would be a trilogy. No wonder Philip’s been so long in writing it, especially as it sounds like the second part is also complete. That just leaves the ending of this equel to His Dark Materials to be written.

The Branford Boase longlist has been announced. I haven’t read a single book on the list, and to the best of my knowledge I have not been offered any of them either. Would quite like to read Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy, which is the only one I’ve heard of. I would probably like to read a few of the others, too. Maybe I’ll be spurred into action when the shortlist comes.

I have just been followed on Twitter by Jacqueline Wilson. Well, not her personally, as I believe Jacqueline is sensible enough not to waste time on social media, but someone doing it for her. I’m hardly ever on there, so I won’t be taking up too much of anyone’s time.

Both Philip and Jacky have been the big draw names at the Branford Boase award evenings. Celebrities, perhaps, but celebrities in the book world; not in the book world because they are celebrities.

Chris Priestley has been quoted in recent discussions on celebrity authors. It’s mainly the crazy aspect of how some very good writers still have to have a day job to feed themselves, while a lot of book sales go to those who need it less, and whose books just might not be of quite the same calibre as those by authors holding down two jobs. After all, if you are doing two jobs, it means you are pretty keen to write, and you are likely to do a better job of it.

Juno Dawson does her job pretty well as far as I understand. She writes books teenagers want to read, and she knows how teenagers feel. Juno was recently booked to talk at a school, when they decided to uninvite her at the last moment. It was deemed ‘inappropriate’, it seems. As the school back-pedalled, they said it had nothing to do with Juno being transgender. Oh no, not at all.

Most books are important and worthwhile. Hilary McKay – who claims not to mind if her books are turned into motorways – sent me this link to an article about how books are being rescued from becoming landfill. Better World Books collect unwanted books in Fife and sell them online, raising funds for literacy and libraries. Books not becoming Dust, so to speak.