So While the Sun Shines Outside and the Days Grow Long, What Have I Been Up To?
Having recently read a lot of books for teenagers (thank you Carnegie), I wanted to return to my favourite age group- the one I teach and quite possibly the one I relate to the most in all things bookish- 9 to 12 year olds. When I talk books with my class, the one thing they say they long to get their teeth into is ‘something scary’. I’ve generally struggled with making recommendations along these lines: Cliff McNish’s Breathe seems to go down pretty well with my more advanced readers for instance, but beyond this I find myself reaching back in time to books like The Children of Green Knowe or find myself mentioning Coraline which is frightening in all the wrong ways (button eyes, think needles, shudder), whereas what I’d like to do is recommend something fresh and new. And so here I am, writing about Children’s Historical Fiction. Okay, hardly modern, but this is a pretty new book and for its focus audience it delivers the required shivers.
What Better Time for a Wintry Ghost Story?
Frost Hollow Hall fits the ‘something scary’ criteria the ten year old readers I know are looking for. It’s based in the Victorian era and which primary aged children haven’t studied this as a topic? Not many, making it a familiar friend to some but also a good indicator as to whether this is the book for you. Personally, it seems to me the Victorian staples of gas lamp light and imagined hard times make it an ideal choice of setting.
The characters are likeable and agreeably imperfect- Tilly is great, a bit feisty, not afraid of climbing through windows into strange rooms in the dead of night, which is of course exactly the right attitude to have! Frost Hollow Hall itself is part Thornfield Hall, part Manderley with a bit of the gothic promise of Northanger Abbey. The grounds are unsurprisingly snow covered and come fully equipped with graveyard, spooky ice house and Frozen Lake of Doom- perfect.
Tilly Higgins is a single minded young lady, let down by each member of her family in different ways and living a somewhat mapped out life of working as a means to live frugally. When she has a fearsome brush with death, we rush along with her to embrace something extraordinary away from the humdrum of her every day life. Fate brings her to Frost Hollow Hall with its agitated spirits and hidden past. From there it’s up to Tilly and her good friend Will to uncover the secrets of the hall and solve the mystery connected to the death ten years hence of Kit Barrington, son and heir. Exciting!
Yes, for the kids it’s definitely exciting. It provides a neat story with different views into Tilly’s life- her role in the family, her friendships, her dreams and her adventures. It also finishes as the pages end, rather than rolling into a set up for ‘book two’ in the series. There is no book two. I really approve of this. As much as I love a trilogy, it’s good to read a traditional beginning/ middle/ end book, feel satisfied and move on to something new. I liked the ‘Jane Eyre’ feeling the book gave me, on an introductory level. In true teacherly spirit, Emma Carroll (a secondary school English teacher) doesn’t just provide a good read but also introduces her readers to a whole genre. For kids who enjoy this book, it’s wonderful to think of the wealth of literature they have in front of them for future years, sigh…
And For the Adults?
Erm, it works to an extent, but isn’t this to be expected? It’s a rare children’s book that effortlessly crosses the generations. I was gripped most of the way through, but failed to understand some character development, especially with Tilly’s mother. I also became increasingly dissatisfied with the visitations from Kit in Tilly’s dreams. I liked the idea of it, but I wanted to get to know the ghostly Kit a little more than I was allowed to. He’s an intriguing character but for me remained two dimensional- I can understand this though, what with him being dead and all, I just wanted more insight and if you’ve got to level criticism, surely wanting to know more about characters is kind of a good thing really?
Something that maybe wasn’t so good was how the clichés stepped up towards the end of the book, with some threads ending a bit on the cheesy side. But I’m looking at this after a billion years of reading this genre, which puts me in a jaded position compared to the bright-eyed bunny rabbits for whom it’s aimed and who won’t find it twee in the slightest. But remember, it does wrap up neatly, if not in an entirely satisfying way for absolutely everyone. And how many ways can you end a Victorian Spookfest? Three? Happy ending, unhappy ending, big spooky house burns down? That’s all I can think of. (The house doesn’t burn down. The rest is up to you.)
A debut from an author to watch out for. The ending dropped it to a…
GGG- Gogogo- I’m not emotional but I liked it.
…but my guess is the kids will know better and would grade it higher.