Amy Raphael Recommends 5 Children's Books Inspired by Folklore
Set in seventeenth-century Scotland at the height of the witch trials, The Forest of Moon and Sword is a thrilling children’s debut from Amy Raphael. Brave Art sets out from her small Caledonian village to England, where her mother has been taken on a fraudulent charge of witchcraft, and Art's adventures along the way owe a large debt to the folklore and traditional tales of the British Isles. In this piece, Amy selects five children's books which bring folklore vividly to life.
We have always turned to folklore in unsettling times, when we hope that the past, however distant, might in some way inform and even make sense of the present. Some of those stories are passed down from generation to generation orally, but many are recorded in books.
The late Rudyard Kipling, most famous for The Jungle Book, considered six questions when he was writing: What, Why, When, How, Where and Who? Kipling’s world famous Just So Stories wondered how, for example, the elephant got its trunk, thereby continuing a long tradition in which storytellers have asked simple but important questions about how we judge others, or how likely we are to rely on nature: was it the warm evening or witchcraft that made the milk curdle? Did the bird feathers on the ground form an arrow by chance or were they there to guide someone who is lost? (Art Flynt, the twelve-year-old protagonist in The Forest of Moon and Sword, is guided by bird feathers when she is riding from Scotland to Essex to save her mother from the Witchfinder General).
The list of great novels that draw from folklore is endless, so this isn’t a top five as such, just five children’s books that I particularly love.
The Wolf’s Secret by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, illustrated by Júlia Sardà
The world can be a disturbing place and so I think it’s really important to scare kids – bear with me – if in the context of a well-told story with gorgeous illustrations. Which is exactly what this award-winning book for young children is. The story is as old as time, but it has been injected with new life: a feral wolf who lives in a scary forest, and who is feared by all the other animals, is in fact lonely and in desperate need of companionship. People often talk of ‘instant classics’, but mostly it’s a handy label. The Wolf’s Secret is, however, the real deal. Partly, I think, because Dahman has led an itinerant life (she was born and raised in Morocco and has lived in France, Spain, Shanghai, the US and the Caribbean, while Digard is French) and her experience of the wider world shows. This dark European folk tale is a timely reminder of what is beyond our borders.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner
An early review of my book saw ‘shades of Alan Garner’ in it and I nearly fainted. I loved Garner’s work as a child, but didn’t think about it consciously as I was writing The Forest of Moon and Sword; even the vague thought of trying to emulate him would have inevitably left me with only blank pages. Anyway, without giving too much away, The Owl Service is about some kids in a Welsh valley, a myth about a woman made of flowers who is turned into an owl after betraying her husband and a dinner service decorated with, yes, you guessed it, owls. This novel has everything: mystery, adventure, politics and history. It’s also, most importantly, a fantastic read that has always been as appealing to adults as to their teenage kids.
The Box of Delights by John Masefield, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Surely one of the greatest children’s books ever written, The Box of Delights was first published way back in 1935 and turned into an equally-popular TV series fifty years later. Masefield only wrote two books for kids, the other being The Midnight Folk (written first, in 1927), but he somehow managed to change children’s books forever, influencing everyone from JK Rowling to Piers Torday, who staged a version a few years ago. The conceit of The Box of Delights is simple – in a nutshell, what if Christmas didn’t happen? – but what makes it timeless is the inclusion of time travel, magic, wizards and, in Maria, a girl who has real agency. Everyone who is writing fiction for kids owes something to Masefield, including C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and first timers like myself!
The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
I was just one year old when this was published, and knew nothing of Team Hughes v Team Plath. That was to come later. As a child I simply adored this story of a gigantic metal robot who makes a ‘CRRRAAAASSSSSSH!’ landing on a beach and is discovered, shattered into pieces, by a young boy called Hogarth. Hughes first told the story to his own kids and then, 25 years after The Iron Man was published, wrote a sequel called The Iron Woman, which wasn’t an attempt at virtue signaling but instead Hughes’ shot at addressing climate change. Hughes’ language in The Iron Man is, of course, poetic, but it also hints at something existential, without being remotely pretentious.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, abridged by Robin Waterfield
This is a slight cheat, as it’s more historical adventure, but the story has been told and retold so many times that it is surely verging on folklore. When I set out to write The Forest of Moon and Sword, my initial idea was to gender flip the original Dumas novel and set it in Scotland and Essex during the English Civil War. But novels inevitably shapeshift and in the end all what I borrowed from Dumas was something more universal: an adventure filled with conspiracy, loyalty, betrayal and friendship. Waterfield’s version is considerably less dense than the original and perfect to read out loud to kids.
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