Oh I just love Hilary McKay. She has written these Casson books, which are among the most endearing books I have ever read. I organize my bookshelves (more or less) by how much I couldn’t do without the books, with the books on the right being the absolutely most essential ones, and then getting less and less essential moving to the left. And the Casson books, despite being a recent discovery, are on the far right of my children’s books section, along with the likes of The Ordinary Princess and Peter Pan and Indian Captive, which I read when I was tiny. So there you go.
Having had a stressful week of (joyously successful) job interviewing and hospital visiting, I ditched Cat’s Eye and switched over to reading Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star. They are lovely. Clever me for discovering them. The Casson family consists of two artist parents – Bill, who is always taking himself off to his studio in London, and Eve, who buys squashed paint tubes and does all sorts of different things that Bill says are “Not Exactly Art”, and their children, all named after paint colors – Cadmium (Caddy), Indigo, Saffron, and Permanent Rose.
One day Saffy discovers that her name, Saffron, is not on the paint colors chart, and this proves to be because she is really Eve’s twin sister’s daughter, born in Italy and only transferred into Eve and Bill’s family when her mother died in a car accident. And years later, when their grandfather dies, they discover a note attached to his will that says “For Saffron. Her angel in the garden. The stone angel,” and Saffy, fierce and lonely, becomes determined to find it. And Caddy is learning to drive, and trying to pass her exams, and being in love with her driving instructor Michael, and Indigo is learning not to be afraid of heights, and Saffy makes friends with Sarah, a girl in a wheelchair who lives close by.
When I last read The Ordinary Princess, and I said that it sounded like it could be saccharine? But every time it could have been saccharine, it stopped being saccharine and be awesome instead? Same is true of Saffy’s Angel. It isn’t saccharine because it’s wry. When Caddy and Rose and Indigo decide to go to Wales to look for Saffy’s angel, Caddy says she can’t because she can only do left turns; and Rose fetches a map and says “Wales is left! Look! It’s left all the way!” Which is exactly how I view the world. Everything is either left or right.
Also, I like it when Caddy is studying for her exams, and not wanting to read Hamlet (I totally sympathize):
“He was a prince,” said Caddy. “Of Denmark.”
“I’ve been there,” said Michael, sounding very pleased with himself. “I went to a concert in Denmark, years ago! In a sea of mud. Never stopped raining for three days. Terrible place, Denmark!”
“Hamlet went mad.”
“So did a lot of us.”
“And his girlfriend drowned.”
“Not surprised at all. Wettest place I’ve ever seen.”
“She was called Ophelia.”
“And she couldn’t swim?”
“Poor old Oph.”
“Yes,” agreed Caddy, beginning to feel a bit better, “and poor old Ham, in all that mud.”
And then Indigo’s Star is about Indigo being bullied by British schoolchildren and making friends with an American boy called Tom who plays guitar and goes up on high places, and does not miss his family in America, and wants a new black guitar that he does not have the money for. Rose, missing her father, writes him letters intended to be terrifying and make him come home. And she gets glasses, right at the start, and I love it when she gets glasses:
Rose had the sort of eyes that manage perfectly well with things close by, but entirely blur out things far away. Because of this even the brightest stars had only appeared as silvery smudges in the darkness. In all her life Rose had never properly seen a star.
Tonight there was a sky full.
Rose looked up, and it was like walking into a dark room and someone switching on the universe.
The stars flung themselves at her with the impact of a gale of wind. She swayed under the shock, and for a time she was speechless, blown away by stars.
And then there are bits that I like because I have a big family and sometimes conversations get exactly like this (also the reason my family continues to love While You Were Sleeping – because the way that family talks is exactly how my family talks when we are all together eating dinner):
“There’s your breakfast, Rose!”
“It looks just like hot concrete,” observed Rose. “I’ve got to describe a day in the life of an Ancient Egyptian. What shall I put?”
“Is this your holiday homework?” asked Sarah. “Don’t do it, Rose! Eve will write you a note to say it’s iniquitous to give eight-year-olds homework in the school holidays! You will, won’t you, Eve?”
“I could never spell ‘iniquitous’, Sarah darling!”
“Hot concrete,” said Rose mournfully, prodding her porridge.
“Write this,” ordered Saffron. “‘The Ancient Egyptians are all dead. Their days are very quiet.’ Porridge is meant to look like hot concrete. Eat it up.”
“Full of vitamins,” remarked Eve hopefully, scratching another gluey chunk out of the saucepan and shaking it into a bowl.
Heeheehee. Hilary McKay is great. I have read very few alive-authored British children’s books anywhere near as good as Hilary McKay. Which is why I didn’t mind that there is written a sequel to A Little Princess even though normally I absolutely hate for people to try to write sequels to books that I like a lot (I mean, different people, other than the original author – I am not opposed to sequels qua sequels!). I concluded that if anybody could ever write a sequel to A Little Princess and have it not be awful, it would be Hilary McKay. But I will let you know when it comes out.