Reviewed by Gerard Healy
This is the first children’s book by the renowned J.K. Rowling after her hugely successful Harry Potter series which broke records for world-wide sales. It’s probably fair to say that this one is not in the Harry Potter league, but nevertheless, it’s a charming tale that should entertain children and the young-at-heart everywhere. It has the added bonus of some great illustrations from children around the world who entered a competition in conjunction with this initially on-line publication during Covid-19 earlier this year.
One of the advantages Rowling gained by setting her yarn in the long-ago kingdom of Cornucopia is that she can people it with familiar figures from children’s literature. So, we have a foolish king, scheming courtiers, brave children, a hairy monster and a wicked orphanage keeper to name but a few. Throw in a duplicitous servant, power-seeking officers and a cowed populace and we have the characters needed to explore one of Rowling’s themes of how evil rises and how it can be tackled. Part of that story involves disinformation, which is a key element of the Ickabog legend, reputably a fearsome monster in the remote northern marshes of the kingdom.
The Ickabog is an interesting literary creation, having as it does a split personality. The kinder side bears a passing resemblance to Roald Dahl’s BFG with its size and amiable nature, but it also has a violent streak which fuels the monster stories. The unscrupulous powers-behind-the-throne use this latter attribute to spread fear in the community and impose a tax, supposedly to defend against the threat. I detected an echo of the War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks or elements of the Brexit debate in Britain which tapped into that fear of the other.
Two of the leading characters, childhood friends Daisy Dovetail and Bert Beamish are five years-old when the story opens. They’re living in what seems a peaceful, prosperous kingdom and their respective parents have substantial jobs in the palace. Unfortunately, their childhood idyllic is shattered when both lose a parent in tragic circumstances. Insult is added to injury when their friendship is strained by changing circumstances. We then fast forward to their teenage years, when things have become pretty grim in the kingdom.
However, the two villains, Lords Spittleworth and Flapoon, don’t have things all their own way. They’ve become increasingly stretched, trying to hold their grip on power. Again, Rowling could have channelled any number of third-world dictators here. As in real life, (think Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai), these events don’t happen without heroes to lead the charge and young Daisy shows similar grit, brains and leadership. Sensibly, Rowling has adult heroes in Mrs Beamish, Captain Goodfellow and others to also lead the revolt. For the boys, Bert proves he’s brave and resolute as well under pressure.
A moot point in the plot is the King’s continual foolishness and short-sightedness. Could a ruler be so blind to flattery and ego-centred, that they miss what’s going on outside the palace/ White House? The short answer is yes.
Then there’s the people’s acceptance of distorted truth re the threat posed by the Ickabog. Half-truths, rumours and lies become jumbled and spun to the detriment of nearly all and serious consequences follow for the citizenry. A look at different Covid-19 responses around the world brings that lesson home ten-fold.
I did ponder the issue of death and cruelty in the book and its possible impact on younger readers. Rowling is not into graphic details of murders, but she doesn’t sidestep the darker side either. For example, there’s the degradation of dungeon incarceration, mistreatment of orphans via Basher John and widespread poverty and its grim effects. Even the question of whether King Fred should face the death penalty is raised. The author seems to believe that it can be a cruel world and children can’t be sheltered from that view indefinitely. However, she does say, “All I know is that countries… can be made gentle by kindness” (p 281).
Rowling describes the book as a “political fairy tale” for children and I can certainly recommend it. It has an interesting story-line, engaging characters and a good message at its core for all of us. Plus, some marvellous illustrations by a flock of gifted young artists.
J.K. Rowling is the British born (1965) writer, best known for the Harry Potter series of books and spin-off movies. The seven books in the series have sold over 500 million copies world-wide and have been translated into over 80 languages. Her books have won numerous awards. She has also written crime fiction under the pen-name of Robert Galbraith and co-written a stage play. In 2017, Rowling was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature and philanthropy.
by J.K. Rowling
Hachette Childrens Group
ISBN: 978 1510 202252
282 pp; $45 (HB)