There are some books that positively pulsate with good vibes, even when the subject matter is grim. It can be because of a particularly optimistic character, small acts of courage and good faith, and it can also be because of the vivacity of the language. We have all of these things on display in Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King.
The Second World War is rearing its ugly head, France has fallen and Britain is on the verge of attack. Hordes of children are being sent away from the city into the countryside, into the arms of family, friends, or even strangers, for safe keeping. Two such children, Cecily and Jeremy Lockwood, have the upper class luxury of escaping with their mother to their uncle’s lavish country estate in the north. At Cecily insistence and Jeremy’s calm approval (“It’s the right thing to do”), the Lockwood’s take in an evacuee named May. Once safely ensconced in Heron Hall, Cecily does her best to make May her new best friend, while still wanting to maintain a sense of superiority. Jeremy, at the volatile age of 14, is sore that he has been sent away from London and wants desperately to be useful, though how, he hardly knows. And Uncle Peregrine, the master of Heron Hall, engages the children in a dreadful story of England’s past, with Kings and Queens and children in peril. Through the horrors of the war told in hush whispered over folded newspapers and the ceaseless lessons learned from Uncle Peregrine’s story, Cecily, May and Jeremy begin to find their way in a world in turmoil.
Cecily is an interesting character. While positively effervescent and brimming with good feelings, she’s a bit of an anti-hero. She’s undoubtedly bossy, snobby and has a temper (though her bursts of anger blow over as quickly as they came). She wants May to be her friend, but she also wants to lord over her, making sure her generosity is never forgotten. May, for her part, is reserved, but curious, clever and respectful. She survives May’s generosity with aplomb, and holds her own grief close to her chest.
The inclusion of Uncle Peregrine’s story, an anonymous retelling of the story of Richard III and the two princes in the tower, gives the family’s present circumstances more weight. The emphasis on power, how it festers and corrupts could not hold more relevance for the war at their doorstep. Ms. Hartnett’s use of language is both whimsical and classical. “Every castle is haunted,” says Uncle Peregrine. “Hauntings are as common as cats.” “His wife snorted like a dubious pig in an apron”. The Children of the King is littered with such rich and imaginative language.
Despite the heavy subject matter, The Children of the King is a delight to read. Of Ms. Hartnett’s work, I’ve only read (and absolutely loved) Sadie and Ratz, an early chapter book I recommend to emerging readers all the time. I have a few more of her works on my shelves, and they are shooting right up the reading list. With novels like this, it is easy to understand why Ms. Hartnett was the recipient of the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett
2014, Candlewick Press
2014, Candlewick Press