Fantastic Frankenstein and Folk Tales

Today’s reviews focus on two books I’ve added to the library recently, which deal with the fantastical in literature. One is a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the other is a lyrical environmental ode to the beauty and importance of trees (both of which are close to my heart!).

Following Frankenstein, by Catherine Bruton. Cover illustration and chapter illustrations by Thy Bui, published by Nosy Crow

As a devotee of the original Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, I was immediately intrigued to know how the famous Gothic novel would be interpreted by a modern-day children’s author. Catherine Bruton has definitely spun an original tale from a classic piece of literature, which will not only stand on its own merits but will also hopefully encourage children to read the book that inspired this sequel.

Our heroine, Maggie, is the daughter of Robert Walton, the explorer who, in Mary Shelley’s original novel, discovers a nearly dead Victor Frankenstein as he hunts his infamous creature across the barren, frozen Arctic. In Catherine Bruton’s novel, Robert Walton has now become obsessed with finding the Monster – to the extent that she believes he cares more about this than anything – including her. So, the next time her father sets off on a mission of discovery, Maggie decides to stow away on his boat so she can see, first hand, why this quest is so special to him.

The expedition fails to find the Monster. Instead, they make a more startling discovery: it has a son called Kata. The explorers capture the half-human, half-monster child and take him to New York, where more danger lies in store not only for Kata but also for our other main protagonists.

This is a clever take not only on Frankenstein but also on Moby Dick as Captain Ishmael is in command of the ship that sails to the Arctic at the beginning of the story. The descriptions of the Arctic are beautiful, and the inclusion of some Inuit words are a nice touch, too. As an Arctic fan I would have loved more of the book to be set there, but the New York vaudeville setting was also inspired, with its nods to showman PT Barnum. There is so much in this story – the detail is quite extraordinary. However, this is not just an adventure; there are moments of fear and heartbreak, too. Bruton captures the sense of overwhelming obsession and how it affects not just the individual affected but their friends and family, too. Equally, she explores what it is to be different and what friendship, family and acceptance mean in a way that avoids sentimentality.

This is an exciting and emotional read – perfect for lovers of adventure and human-interest stories.

The Girl Who Talked to Trees, by Natasha Farrant. Illustrated Lydia Corry, published by Head of Zeus

I first came across this book on a display table in a bookshop and couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous cover. As I picked it up and leafed through it I was further entranced by Lydia Corry’s illustrations – rich, captivating, colourful. Anyone who thinks that books with pictures should end as soon as a reader becomes more proficient is – sorry – wrong. I could see straight away how the artwork and the narrative were symbiotically intertwined.

Then there was the title: The Girl Who Talked to Trees. I love trees – I officially have an ‘orchard’ in my garden, as well as a horse chestnut, a quercus ilex (holly oak), numerous holly trees, as well as pines and willows. So a book that was about a girl who could actually talk to trees was bound to be something I had to read – and I am glad to say that I enjoyed every minute of it.

Natasha Farrant’s book is about eleven-year-old Olive (aptly named after a tree!) who spends her time with her best friend – a four-hundred-year-old oak tree. She loves the grounds around her mansion, which are covered in trees of all different types. They are all familiar, all part of what makes home, home. Therefore, she is horrified when her father, Sir Sydney, announces that they will have to cut down all the trees to build a grand summerhouse to impress visitors. Distressed, Olive runs away into the meadow, desperate to find a way to save her beloved trees. This desire sparks a story quest, narrated by seven different trees, which hopefully will inspire her to come up with a plan to keep the trees safe.

The seven storytelling trees are: the oak, the linden, the alder, the plane, the wild apple, the tulip tree, and the box. Each treats Olive with a tale, and each tale has a moral at the heart of it. At the beginning of each tale is a collection of facts about the tree in focus: for example, there are over 500 species of oak tree, and the wild apple trees from the mountain forests of eastern Kazakhstan are the ancestors of all the apples we now eat! The stories themselves are worthy of a place with the traditional tales of old – they are lyrical, and beautifully told, and speak of the importance of remaining true to one’s nature, of taking time to enjoy the beauty surrounding you, of acceptance and peace.

Ecology and environmentalism are buzzwords these days and are especially relevant to young readers who are inspired by the acts of others to preserve the natural world. This book champions this cause but not in an overly didactic way. It’s a peaceful and reassuring musing on how we can all play a part not only in defending the environment but also in celebrating it.

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