A literary vodka for kids
Content warning: This review contains major spoilers, so don’t show to any children who intend to read the book. Also, discussion of dead children.
If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you lived through Children of the Stones and the Sunday Horrors, through Escape into Night and Sapphire and Steel, creepy, sometimes outright terrifying shows that laid the foundation for the more real horrors that were to come. As teenagers we read Children of the Dust and Z for Zachariah; we went on class trips to see The Day After. Our parents watched, and were consumed by, Survivors and Threads. Even our picture books (Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows) assured as that were all going to be annihilated by nuclear war, and if we survived the blast, we were going to die hideous deaths from radiation poisoning. We were tough. But also often terrified.
Kids these days have arguably much more certain threats than nuclear war: pandemics and climate change. A new book for children, The Raven’s Song, tackles these dangers head on, showing us the origins of a devastating virus, then the future results: a world where most humans have gone, and the earth is in recovery from the destruction currently being wrought on it.
How do you write about this stuff for children without subjecting them to the nightmares we experienced as kids? It’s tricky, but The Raven’s Song, a collaboration between award-winning New Zealander Bren MacDibble (How to Bee) and award-winning Australian Zana Fraillon (The Bone Sparrow) is a masterclass in writing dark, difficult material for a child reader.
Young adults love the angst-heavy stuff. Patrick Ness, author of the brutal, bleak The Knife of Never Letting Go and the emotionally devastating A Monster Calls, is often asked why he writes such dark material for teenagers. He told the LA Times: “[Teenagers] write just the darkest, most violent, bleak [stories] and that’s OK.” In other words, darkness is where teenagers dwell, and if you ignore that “you’re leaving a teenager to face that by themselves,” says Ness. “I think that’s immoral.”
Fiction for pre-teens is different. They still need to move lightly through the world. As writers for middle grade (usually for ages around eight-12 as a guide), we’re advised to not make things Too Emotional, and to keep the action moving. If characters need to stop to dwell on things, advised the great writer Joan Aitken in The Way to Write for Children, make it quick! Even Joan Aitken is probably considered quite slow compared to 21st Century writers.
Katherine Rundell, middle grade author and astonishing writer of ‘grown-up’ non-fiction, writes in her extended essay Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise: “Children will not be patient if you pontificate or meander or self-congratulate. Rather, children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.”
The Raven’s Song is literary vodka. It’s a complex middle grade novel about terrible things, at once sad and joyful, foreboding and hopeful, and a lot less devastating than some dystopian books for older readers. It embodies everything Rundell values about children’s books.
It starts a couple of thousand years ago, deep in the bogs of an unnamed country, with the charming rhyme ‘The Ravened Girl of the Bog’. It begins:
Upon a moonlit night she came
Down hillside steep and rocked
Into the place of inbetween
The Ravened Girl of the bog
What follows is a lovely little ditty about child sacrifice. I am hooked. It is disturbing, atmospheric and intriguing, like The Wicker Man for kids.
And in the morn they left her there
Deep down in the dark of the quag
And there she rests, and there she waits,
The Ravened Girl of the bog.
Shivers. And that’s before the first chapter.
Ravens here are reliably doing what they’ve always done, throughout mythology: birds of ill omen, harbingers of death, disease and bad luck. They’re also messengers between the living and the spirit world. Tick, tick, tick.
Of her co-author, MacDibble said, “She’s studied a lot about child sacrifice, so Zana wanted to sacrifice some children.”
The poor old Ravened Girl will have her part to play, but The Raven’s Song follows Shelby and Phoenix, living a hundred or so years apart. Shelby lives in the future where humans and the earth have been devastated by pandemics and climate change, so in this society, people live in small, exact colonies, to rewild the earth for future generations.
“I’m twelve years old,” narrates Shelby. “I’ve had so many history lessons I know to my core this is how we have to live now. Three hundred and fifty kind, ethical, truthful people on seven hundred hectares or not at all… We live kindly and work hard upon this honoured earth.”
She and her friend Davey find a hole cut in the perimeter fence and decide to take a look at the uninhabited “honoured and natural world” outside their boundary. What they find is mystery: talismans, an abandoned city, an elderly tiger, and a secret that could potentially blow their world apart.
The character’s voices are the book’s core strength, and what turn grim subject matter into quickness and light. Shelby is witty, determined and brave, with a whiff of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker about her. It’s hard not to be suspicious of the society, and the off-page government that decrees it; we’ve been conditioned by everything from Riddley Walker to The Giver and The Hunger Games to expect malevolence in that department. The characters’ greetings of “Kind morning: and “Go kindly” left me in high alert after being scarred by “Happy Day!” in Children of the Stones, which played into fears about pagan worship and human sacrifice.
The authors each write a character, bringing their singular preoccupations to the job, which makes their voices beautifully distinct. Bren MacDibble writes cli-fi (climate fiction) for children, creating futures where bees are extinct, or the seas have risen too high. She recently told the West Australian: “I think it’s good for kids to have a think about [climate change] without being terrified by the actual news.” Of her co-author, she said, “She’s studied a lot about child sacrifice, so Zana wanted to sacrifice some children.”
Zana Fraillon is interested in deep time, which she’s been studying as part of her PhD in Creative Writing. She is also the curator of the Story House and Found Objects exhibition which asks: “What stories will our fossils tell? What kind of ancestor will we be? If we can imagine the past stories contained in objects, then we are better enabled to imagine the future stories and possibilities that exist for all of us.”
With the planet heating up, the bog is shrinking, exposing things buried thousands of years ago, including a long-dormant virus
While Shelby is all action and vitality, outward-looking and curious, our other protagonist, Phoenix, living just a few years from now, is more dreamy, plagued by visions he is not sure are real or not. His raven initially appears to him human-sized, wearing red sneakers – surely a first in raven lore. He’s also grieving his mother, recently dead, and living with his three sisters and little brother, their sympathetic grandmother and cynical, sceptical, fed-up aunt.
Phoenix lives near a bog, and with the planet heating up, the bog is shrinking, exposing things buried thousands of years ago, including a long-dormant virus caught in the feathers of a mummified raven. Little brother Walter finds it and soon develops a mysterious rash. It’s the same bog that contains the Ravened Girl of the rhyme, deep under its surface, buried with thirteen ravens as a long-ago act of sacrifice.
There’s a history and archaeology lesson lightly embedded in these pages. Bog people are still being found today across Europe, remarkably preserved. Evidence often suggests murder, or ritual sacrifice, a phenomenon explored chillingly in Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, and in Siobhan Dowd’s atmospheric YA novel Bog Child. And like that novel’s young Fergus, The Raven’s Song’s Phoenix and Walter develop a psychic connection across time with the unfortunate victim.
Good children’s books so often ask monumental tasks of little people
The book treads similar territory to Alan Garner, who is deeply engaged with the landscape around him, and acutely aware of the layers of time. It’s debatable whether Alan Garner still writes books for children; he would probably simply say he writes books for people. In reading The Raven’s Song, I think of the bog lights that called to Gwyn in The Owl Service; the impenetrable Red Shift, which palimpsests three different times on top of each other like geological strata; and more recently, young Joseph Coppock of this year’s Treacle Walker, who is gifted a second sight and has his own encounter with a bog body, the glumfie Thin Amren. Like Phoenix, he is tasked with a job no child should have to bear. “I’m only little. I’m only little,” says Garner’s Joseph, and it could have just as easily been said by Phoenix or Walter, or in the future sections, by Shelby, who undergoes a similar trial. Good children’s books so often ask monumental tasks of little people.
This, then, is a book about many things: climate change, rewilding, deep time, reverence for the natural world that evokes pagan ideas of Wild Magic, the concept of being a ‘good ancestor’. It speaks to modern fears of ancient viruses released from the permafrost due to climate change, and there are echoes of the Covid 19 pandemic and the lessons we could have taken from it but didn’t: “[The] sickness caused people to stop and think about what really matters.” It reminds us that, for a moment there, we did too.
It’s also about sacrifice, so Fraillon got her wish. But it’s not just the Ravened Girl; the current population forgoes the comforts and the convenience of today’s world, making sacrifices to heal the earth for future generations. Phoenix and Walter are sacrificed in their way, as is a lab full of cryogenically frozen children – the near-future equivalent of a peaty bog. Selby faces a moral dilemma, whether to leave the children and forget about them, “A deep dark secret like a rock in my heart”, or to tell her village about them and risk getting into trouble.
She makes the courageous choice, but she can’t save them. It is a testament to the skill of MacDibble and Fraillon that the story unfolds in a way that won’t scar their readers. They neither trivialise nor ramp up the horror but stick to that golden rule for middle grade; they don’t dwell too deeply on the emotion of the moment. Even when Phoenix, the only child to survive suspended animation, fills Shelby’s pockets with the dust of his brother’s mummified remains, it’s not as horribly morbid as it sounds, but a gentle, loving gesture. At the same time, it will satisfy any child drawn to the maudlin, the visceral business of what happens to bodies when they die.
The writing is lively and exquisite, lyrical but not self-consciously so. It’s wonderful to read a children’s book that takes such care with the prose. It builds atmosphere and a sense of place without sacrificing pacing and story. The two writers working together produce some kind of alchemy. Phoenix and Shelby are delightful characters, who bravely follow their destiny and save the day, save the world even. In doing so Phoenix joins the Ravened Girl and passes into his own mythical story that will no doubt be sung for generations.
At the satisfying conclusion, all of time overlaps, showing us we are all connected across history. It’s full of hope: for humanity, and for the planet. It tells us that what we do now matters. The earth will be here regardless. It’s humans that are fleeting.
Alan Garner said, “We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.” The Raven’s Song will help children unriddle the world, find their boundaries, know they have agency, and imagine what they can do with it. It might make them feel a little less hopeless than some of their adults about the future. Read it with your kid if you can, and talk about it afterwards.
The Raven’s Song by Bren MacDibble and Zana Fraillon (Allen & Unwin, $18.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.