Friday, 19 April 2013

The Casson Family series by Hilary McKay:Book review

To drink with this

Hot chocolate with marshmallows

Comforting, sweet and reminiscent of childhood. Nuff said.

What’s what

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book'.” Martin Amis

I would like to respectfully disagree with Martin Amis. There should be no shame in writing or reading books aimed for children, the best of these being just as thought-provoking and meaningful and enjoyable as anything you will get from Booker prize winning literature. A children’s writer must anyway aim their novel at children of varying ages, of varying levels of comprehension, and the most accomplished design books which have layers of meaning which will be appreciated more by older readers. I probably have my dad to thank for all the amazing books written for children which I have read since entering adulthood. I passed all my library books on to him after I finished them, and he read Alex Rider, Sweet Valley High et al and discussed them with me as seriously as if they were the Dickens novels I moved on to eventually.

I loved Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series when I was growing up, but the Casson family series was after my time - the first was published in 2001, by which time the Dickens’ years had begun. The series focuses on an eccentric dysfunctional-yet-really-pretty-wonderful sprawling family living in modern-day England. There are four children with strong and distinct personalities, two well-meaning but mostly absent parents, and assorted friends such as Derek-from-the-camp, and Michael the driving instructor.

Indigo explained to him that in England summer was when you carried your coat around instead of wearing it. Only for a few reckless days in August, said Indigo, could it be safely left at home. Indigo's Star, pg 203

The first three books in the series (Whitbread award-winning Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose) are near perfect. The plot is minimal but the characters are wonderfully realised and I gobbled these books up at the rate of one a day during a stressful week at work. Having the Cassons to come home to felt like immersive yet mild and cuddly therapy.

Eve looked at Rose, and she did not laugh. She understood about hearts, even if she did not understand about money. She put an arm round Rose and hugged her tight. Indigo's Star, pg 144

The small details here are the ones which make this such a vivid world to drop into; Eve, the mother, swigs a mixture of instant coffee and coca cola to keep her going while working on her paintings in the shed at the bottom of the garden; nobody ever cooks except Indigo, who dreams up delights like grilled cheese on top of curry; there are several generations of guinea pigs running loose through the house and garden.

McKay’s writing is full of wry, warm humour and flawed but lovable characters. She deals with serious issues without easy resolution or resort to cheap moralising or oversimplification. Dad Bill moves out to live with a girlfriend for a while; Saffy is adopted and struggles with her place in the family; Indigo is bullied at school. None of these events dominate the plot but are all just part of the overall picture of family life.

He had drifted away from them all into another life, with hardly a backward glance. Still, he had come home when she asked him to and he had bought Tom the black guitar. He was good and he was bad. Indigo's Star, pg 254

Caddy Ever After and Forever Rose don’t quite meet the incandescent pitch of the first two books in the series. The point of view shift from third to first person and the increased focus on Rose bring a feel of scattiness and a shortage of detail. These are minor points however, and the series comes to a satisfying end.

There is a nostalgic sense to McKay’s writing which I can’t quite pinpoint. Maybe it’s the non-attention of the parents, so essential in YA literature, or the big messy squabbly family. The series doesn’t feel quite contemporary despite being written within the last few years. This is Enid Blyton meets Jacqueline Wilson, without the fussiness of the first or the brash and often quite bleak take on modern life of the second. Whatever McKay’s magic formula, this series was a lot better than most books by non-brain injured writers I’ve read this year.


If I knew any nine year old girls I would impose this on them straight away, in between their mandatory Buffy viewings.

On the small screen

I’d like to imagine this as a children’s tv show, but I don’t think this type of programme is in vogue. Even when I was a teenager this would have felt old-fashioned.

Rose did not say any more, but she and Indigo stayed out for a long, long time, wishing, and watching the stars, the steady ones and the ones that passed with red and green lights across the sky. Indigo’s Star pg 266


Let’s all choose to ignore Martin Amis. Hilary McKay’s fiction is damn good

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