I’m always on the look out for short novels for children. Not because I think children have particularly short attention spans (although it has been bandied about, this idea), but because, often, if you are giving a child a book as a reading book in school, or using a book for guided reading, the longest they can realistically have it, is for six weeks. If you want to study a book in depth, or you want them to finish a reading book and move on to something new, to get a bit of variety into their reading diet, you do not want to be handing out volumes of Lord of the Rings.
Quite often, in the past, the shorter books, have also been easier books, or books specifically designed for younger readers, with topics and themes that interest younger children. It can be hard to find shorter books with more complex, mature ideas and vocabulary that will give the challenge older readers need, but in the time frame teachers can realistically work with.
One wonderful thing about the age we live in now, is that although we are increasingly worried about children’s literacy, the children’s publishing world is booming, and there is an increasing range of things available for children of all ages and ability. Children’s book departments are growing ever larger. Which cheers me greatly.
This week I found a book called ‘Fen Runners’ by John Gordon in my local library. It had glowing reviews for the author by Alan Garner and Michelle Paver on the back, both authors I enjoy reading.
I took it home.
It is what we would call a novella, coming in at about 130 pages of text. It’s format is slightly cut down from a novel size, and there are less words on every page, larger line gaps and a bigger font. I think it would be perfectly achievable as a reading book, or a guided reading book within school, given the average six weeks to a half term slot.
This is a kind of supernatural/ghost story. Joe and Kit are swimming in the pools and dykes of the fen land in which they live. They are having a competition to see who can stay under the water the longest. Joe always wins. This time Kit is determined to stay under longer. He holds on to a knot of weeds on the bottom of a pool called Dutchman’s Cut, to help keep him down.
When he tries to get back to the surface, it is as if the weed has hold of him, and he nearly drowns. As he pulls himself upwards he has to wrench the weed with him. With it comes a jumble of old objects. A rusted metal blade and a shiny, mother of pearl scale. It is these items which seal Kit’s fate.
Kit starts to see a shadowy figure here and there, usually following a girl he has noticed in the nearby town. She looks haunted, and when she realises that he can see the figure that is tailing her, she takes Kit into her confidence. They are pulled into an eerie world of fen legend and mythology, battling ancient forces of darkness.
The writing is atmospheric and brooding. The sense of place in the book is superbly done, and the taut pull of the narrative really does keep you in suspense until the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It reminded me of a more grown up version of Tom’s Midnight Garden, probably because of the fen land setting and the skating episodes in the book. It also has Alan Garnerish qualities in that it takes a real sense of place and its folk tales and modernises them with quite creepy effect.
I recommend this for boy and girl readers from the ages of 8 to 12. As a read alone book it demands someone with a good vocabulary because some of the writing is quite complex and you need to be able to track what is going on and how the different strands of the story loop together over the time the narrative plays out. In class you may be able to start it with younger readers if it is something you’re reading to them or in groups of guided readers.