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Second Star to the Right and Straight on 'til Morning: Jenny McLachlan's Favourite Magical Worlds

Posted on 26th July 2019 by Mark Skinner
Jenny McLachlan's The Land of Roar is a bewitching fantasy, featuring a magical land comprised of just about everything imaginative children adore. Dragons, unicorns and mermaids abound in a world reached through the folds of a bed, and where adventure, peril and excitement lurk on every page. In this exclusive essay, the author of August's Waterstones Children's Book of the Month reveals the enchanting fictional landscapes that lit up her and her children's imaginations.

I had a pretty nice childhood. I grew up by the sea, eating banana sandwiches, watching children’s TV and trundling round the neighbourhood on my roller boots. Because my mum was essentially a seven-year-old trapped in a grown woman’s body I had more freedom than most. Mum was a big fan of bonfires, dens and going on adventures (which she called Magical Mystery Tours). One memorable MMT involved my brother and me being led confidently through a wood until we ended up on the roof of an ESSO garage. Then we went back into the woods and had a bonfire. To add an extra frisson of excitement to the MMTs, Mum would pretend that what we were doing was illegal and give us whistles which we had to blow if we saw anyone.  

And yet, despite all this freedom and fun, I still craved more. Greedy, I know. Like most children, my days were controlled by grown-ups and a myriad of rules. Hours were spent doing things I didn’t want to do (maths, sitting with crossed legs, reading comprehension) and eating things I didn’t want to eat (ice-cream scoops of cold mash studded with little cubes of beetroot). If my friends and I ever fancied having an adventure, like climbing a particularly high tree or digging a swimming pool at the park*, well those pesky grown-ups would just pop up and put a stop to our fun. 

I fantasised about being a totally free agent, and finding a place where I could do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and never, ever have to ask permission to eat a sweet. I can’t be the only child who got into a wardrobe only to shuffle out a few minutes later feeling thoroughly disappointed. I also tried looking for a secret room in my house which I reasoned might lead to a magical kingdom . . . nope.

But all was not lost because I was A READER, and so books came to the rescue.

With Edmund I tasted enchanted Turkish Delight conjured up by a witch (sweet and scary). With James I rolled down a hill in a peach (sticky). And with Wendy I flew to another land (pure magic). And I spent hours and hours floating on clouds over Moominvalley.

It’s not surprising that when I grew up I should want to create the one thing that gave me so much pleasure as a child.

Roar is a world that lets children run as wild as their imaginations. It’s reached via a folding camp bed (much more reliable than a wardrobe) and it contains waterfalls, rivers, mountains and caves that are all waiting to be explored. There are dragons and furries (small furry fairies), friends made out of the things children love, and a villain made out of the things they hate. (There has to be a villain. How can a child be a hero without a villain?) I wanted Roar to be a place children long to visit again and again. A place that belongs only to them. A sentence I wrote in the middle of my plan simply says, ‘Give them what they want’, and that’s what I tried to do.

Here are a few of my favourite children’s books that feature magical worlds. Some are classics that I loved as a child. Some are graphic novels. Some are my children’s favourites. All give children what they want in the most abundant and joyful ways.

Moominsummer Madness - Tove Jansson 

For me, Moominvalley is the ultimate magical world. It manages to be comforting and disconcerting, cosy and chaotic, all at the same time. Moominsummer Madness is one of my favourites. There is something incredibly appealing about having to set sail in a floating theatre to escape a flood. Comet in Moominland comes a close second purely because of the beds Moominmama scoops out of the sand in a cave. I suspect this was the forerunner to Win’s cave in The Land of Roar.

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Tove Jansson’s mercurial creations were always destined to embrace the theatrical life and, in Moominsummer Madness, a floating theatre plays a key part in their wonderfully wistful and bizarre story. The fourth installment in the Moomin saga is every bit as charming, surreal and wise as its predecessors.
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Hilda and the Black Hound - Luke Pearson

I love fantasy books that have one foot in the real world and another in the fantasy world. Pearson’s Hilda series of graphic novels achieve this balancing act perfectly. Any child will relate to Hilda with her real world dramas involving friends, scouts and moving house. They will also delight in the odd, beautiful, and just-the-right-amount-of-scary City of Trolberg and its surrounding wilderness.

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A bravura fusion of Scandinavian folk tale and twenty- first- century comic art, the Hilda books are a technicolour treat for young and old alike. Mischievous spirits afflict Hilda’s homestead in this typically spirited romp from the incandescent imagination of Luke Pearson.
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Peter Pan - J.M.Barrie 

I recently re-read Peter Pan to my eight-year-old daughter and was struck by how beautifully J.M. Barrie writes, and by how dark elements of his story are. Alongside Mermaid Cove, the first Wendy house and the lashings of fairy dust are missing children, murderous pirates, a viciously spiteful fairy and some very neglectful parents. Excellent!

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Neverland, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook – the roll call of iconic creations that bless this Edwardian classic is seemingly endless. Yet despite the story’s familiarity it is worth noting the deftness with which Barrie’s spins his prose and the delicious darkness that lurks just beneath the surface thrills.
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The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the first book my mum gave to my dad, and the first my husband gave to me. It’s clearly a book people love so much they have to share it. Middle Earth and its inhabitants are described by Tolkien with such confidence and detail that it’s easy to believe it exists. I’d like to say it’s the worm Smaug I like best, or Bilbo’s journey of transformation, but I’d be lying. It’s the food: the fat legs of mutton, glasses of wine, ‘scraps and crumbs’, second breakfasts and cake. So much cake.

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Woven into the very fabric of the national consciousness, Tolkien’s staggeringly realised Middle Earth plays host to dwarves and dragons, Gollum and Gandalf amongst many others. With The Hobbit, British fantasy fiction soared onto another level and its influence and echo resound through every major work of the imagination written since.
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The Ingo Chronicles - Helen Dunmore

Mermaids are a fascinating and appealing concept. Our seas are huge and relatively unknown, and in Dunmore’s Ingo series the author brings the world of mermaids to life in stunning detail. If you’ve ever wondered what living under the sea might feel like, I recommend this series. Dunmore’s writing is so effective I found myself holding my breath along with Sapphy when she sinks beneath the waves. Not a good idea for an asthmatic. 

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Bringing the depth of characterisation and crystalline prose that mark out her adult work, Helen Dunmore’s immersive children’s fantasy series shimmers with aqualine grace and magical romance. Evocative and expansive, this is fiction to dive into head first.
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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis

When I was a child this book terrified me: Mr Tumnus is scary, Edmund is scary, Mr Beaver is scary, the fur coats are scary, even the silent snowy forests are scary. And don’t get me started on the Turkish Delight-wielding child-snatcher who is the White Witch. For all these reasons, I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I still do.

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The magical kingdom of Narnia, entered through a wardrobe door, takes centre stage in one of the most identifiable children’s novels since the war. As a quartet of wide-eyed evacuees encounter wicked witches and saintly lions, Lewis guides the reader expertly through a brilliantly imagined world.
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*Mum, I’m finally able to admit it. You were right about the swimming pool. There were only three of us, we were seven and we only had plastic spades. But if you’d helped us…

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