Friday 22 June 2018

ReadItDaddy's Chapter Book of the Week - Week Ending 22nd June 2018: "Thornhill" by Pam Smy (David Fickling Books)

This week's Chapter Book of the Week is a book that has been catching my eye ever since it first arrived in bookstores last summer...
We're fashionably late to the party with this review, I realise - but to spin back in time to last August when this first started drawing my eye, I don't think I'd ever seen a book like it. I mean if there's one thing you don't expect it's to encounter something sitting in the children's section that looks like it could've come straight from a Hitchcock movie.

"Thornhill" by Pam Smy feels like it's being done a disservice by any associative label like "Children's Book" in much the same way as Shaun Tan's work.

Clad in its glorious black cover, black edged pages and stunning mono illustrations, it defies you NOT to want to pick it up and start flicking through it.

I hadn't properly 'met' the book until the other night when I managed to snag a copy at a booksellers event (thanks DFB!).

Pam was actually at the event as well, but you just couldn't get near her - she was hugely popular and in demand and I think just about everyone wanted to talk to her - and it's not difficult to see why once you start to dig into "Thornhill". (I think I was a bit too in awe of her to approach and rudely ask for her to sign my book, if I'm really honest!)

This is the sort of book that I've been clanging on about on the blog for ages, the sort of book that harks back to an era in children's books (and perhaps in children's media in general) where the big publishers were far more willing to take on riskier edgier stuff, to indulge the darker side of children's tastes and not just play it safe with twee little stories about cute little bunnies, besties and cake.

Thornhill transported me back in time to when I'd have been around the same age as Ella, a latchkey kid who lived in a truly horrible block of flats in Islington where you'd still find derelict houses and patches of wasteland, places that you really weren't supposed to play in or near as a kid, but were inexplicably drawn to just like Ella is drawn to the house in this story - a house that is undoubtedly a 'character' here in its own right.

Pam Smy has created something truly jawdroppingly stunning in the tale of Ella, who moves into a house opposite the derelict titular institute that gives the book its name.

Ella's view from her room. But who is the mysterious girl she keeps seeing playing in the grounds of Thornhill?
The place is boarded up and surrounded by security fences, and yet as Ella is unpacking her things in her new room she's convinced she sees a young girl playing in the grounds of the house.

Then at night, as Ella sleeps, a solitary light flicks on in Thornhill, high up in the eaves...

By that point you're hooked, you daren't even breathe and you'll find it impossible not to carry on reading.

The story flicks between the present-day and Ella's life, relayed in pictorial / wordless form (save the odd letter from her absentee father) and a series of written diary entries from 1982 of a girl named Mary, chronicling her life at the institute, sadly a life filled with bullying, solitude and despair.

Spooky goings on!
Mary reclusively hides in her room, stealing down to the kitchen to grab sustenance but wrapping herself in her own private world of her diary, and making tiny little puppet figures that become her only true friends.

As Ella and Mary are slowly drawn together, the story envelopes you like a dark cloak, a gentle but firm caress daring you to tear your eyes away (trust me, you won't be able to until the very end).

When I first read this through properly I lay in bed in almost pitch darkness on a windy night and it's the first time in a very long time that a book has drawn icy fingers up and down my spine as it plays out its terrifying conclusion and Ella finally begins to unlock the secrets of what happened in the house all those years ago.

Who's that girl? What is her secret?
I wasn't prepared for the whump in the chest that this book delivers at the end, nor the expert way Pam loops the story in on itself like a tight little stitch in an exquisitely rendered tapestry.

t's got everything I crave from 'dark' books. It piles on the atmosphere thanks to a combination of brilliant writing and utterly mesmerising illustrations. It tackles themes that we are extremely passionate about on the blog and are (sadly) still as prevalent today as they were over 30 years ago (ironically around the time that this sort of book seemed to begin to fade from existence in children's publishing) and it's testament to what happens when you're a publisher that isn't against pushing the envelope, taking risks and recognising fantastic talent and giving that talent an amazing forum to be creative in.

The world now wants to know what Pam's going to come up with next but "Thornhill" is understandably winning awards left right and centre, and getting all the attention it so rightly deserves.

Add our "Book of the Week" award to the teetering tottering pile as this is unmissable stuff. The only quandary I'm left with is how I'm going to keep this out of C's hands as I think it's possibly too dark even for her - but dang, I really want her to read it one day without a doubt.

It's not often that a book affects you so much that you start to dream about it (or should I say 'have nightmares about it') but honestly, that's high praise considering how many books we get through on the blog. When something like this comes along you just jump on it and clasp it to your chest, it's that special.

"Thornhill" by Pam Smy is out now, published by David Fickling Books (kindly supplied for review)