The Children of Green Knowe is a perfect Christmas classic. It will instantly remind you of that end of term feeling you used to get as a child around the time that the school Christmas play rehearsals started; when you could smell the tinsel and your fingers were sore from screwing up bits of crepe paper to glue onto your class snowman display.
This is a gentle story that is definitely aimed squarely at children rather than teenagers (though there’s much for the less self conscious YA reader to enjoy here too). This first book of a six part series by Lucy M Boston follows 7 year old Toseland’s journey to find his place within his extended family while incorporating fantastical elements that bring his world quite literally to life.
Some readers have complained that this book is too slowly paced and lacking in action. While it’s true that nobody vanishes into wardrobes, consorts with house elves or rides dragons, I can’t help but think that dissatisfied readers are perhaps more used to the secondary world fantasies that make up the more common part of what we read and see of the genre today.
The drama in The Children of Green Knowe has more of an internal character; it’s not just what happens but how Tolly feels about the events that drives the story. For me, Green Knowe is much more similar to ‘traditional’ children’s fantasy such as The Box of Delights, The Dark is Rising, or even some of Alan Garner’s work such as The Owl Service in this respect.
It’s important to understand the framing of the book as well. This is supposed to be a gentle, controlled story with events that occur firmly within the control of the main character most of the time. This isn’t Middle Earth, where “there are no safe paths” and anything can happen. It’s overall a tale of a boy finding his place in the world and in his family and I don’t think it would be right to prioritise flashy action scenes over that central narrative. It would feel disjointed and muddled.
The Children of Green Knowe introduces the young reader into the concept of ghost stories, but in a safe, non-scary way. The dangers are pitched more at the old-school Dr Who level – enough to make you feel a bit nervous and maybe check under the bed, but not enough to give you nightmares. The strong sense of nurturing helps to add to this feeling of safety as elements that might normally scare a child (such as sleeping in a strange bedroom) are turned into something fun (moving around the things in the bedroom to try and make impressive-looking shadows).
The characters are all very likeable (in fact I’d like Granny Oldknowe to come and visit me!) and though they’re not drawn in huge amounts of detail, there’s enough to let distinct personalities and quirks shine through. What I especially like, though, is how the author has given inanimate objects a sense of being alive too – the weather is a very tangible presence in the book, shaping the story and setting the scenes; plants and rocks have a role to play and the animals are almost as well defined as the human characters.
Overall, this is an ideal book to read with your children, or to curl up with yourself on a wintry afternoon. It will leave you with a warm Christmassy glow. Alternatively, it would probably also make an interesting book to compare with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to see the differences in protagonists who are the same age and, on the surface of it, quite similar in personality.