The Winter Sleepwalker by Joan Aiken

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The Winter Sleepwalker by Joan Aiken

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Winter Sleepwalker contains eight fairy tales with a modern twist. Wonderful for reading aloud to children slightly too old for picture books and for new readers to attempt alone, they are the perfect mix of funny, scary and downright odd. Recommended by Bookbag to fill that difficult gap between picture books and independent reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 96 Date: November 1995
Publisher: Red Fox
ISBN: 0099496410

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Fancy a game of celestial football? C'mon, you'll love it. We can use a planet for the ball, whole constellations for our goals, and the playing field will stretch over an unimaginable distance. We can have as many players as we like, you can have the angels and I'll have the genies. Our game will last for as long as we want it to, and there won't be any winners or losers because we'll be playing just for the fun of it. Sounds good? Good. Come on then. Bags my team has Little St Icarus in goal, he's a heavenly little player:

"Little Saint Icarus was a terrific goalkeeper. He darted and flew between his celestial goalposts at a speed which would make a comet seem as if it were travelling in reverse. He caught the ball, pounced on it, zipped it back into play, not once, not a hundred, but an infinite number of times; and as he played he sang, and his voice pealed among the planets and nebulae like the voice of wonder itself."

He's as keen as mustard, is Little Saint Icarus, so keen that he invents a sort of huge, astral broom made from tiny stars and wreaths of gas just to keep his goal clean and tidy. One day he is sweeping away the particles of stardust in preparation for a game when he finds what looks like a stray hair. He pulls it and, "with a mighty, unbelievable flash and splash" the universe is plunged into darkness. He's pulled a heavenly fuse. And he's in big trouble:

"A voice rumbled above him, and there was a baleful flash of lightning. 'Icarus!' said the Voice. 'Yes, Sir!' 'Do you know who I am?' 'Yes Sir. You are the Umpire.' 'Do you know what you have done?' 'I've blown a fuse.' 'You have set back the course of Progress by a thousand million aeons.' 'Oh.'"

Poor Little Saint Icarus - celestial umpires, like many all-powerful beings, judge summarily and harshly. His punishment is to fall, inside a cage, and to carry on falling throughout eternity, or at least, until a single dog howls for the pity of his plight. And when Little Saint Icarus asks what exactly a dog is, the Umpire only replies that he hasn't decided yet. So he falls and he falls and he falls, until...

Oh, you don't know this one do you? It's a new fairy tale, not a traditional one. I'd better not tell you the rest then. Fairy tales are good. They are sometimes violent, they are sometimes dangerous, and they are sometimes naughty. They are peopled with monsters and dragons and witches who cast evil spells and have nasty creatures for assistants. So often in books for children we prefer to show a world that lacks problems and dangers - and so often we then end up with a world in those books that is, however safe, rather dull don't you think? Fairy tales are never dull. And fairy tales also have heroes, romance, adventure, and sometimes a good measure of humour. And they're not all old.

The fairy tales in The Winter Sleepwalker aren't old. Joan Aiken wrote them just a few years ago. Catch a Falling World, the one describing the adventures of Little Saint Icarus, is my favourite of the eight. Today. Tomorrow it might be the less funny, much darker Furious Hill which tells the story of a mysterious horseman who arrives in a remote village and with ease, but eerie, almost menacing ease, cures the ills of all who ask for his help. He asks them only one question: "What did my father say to his son as he lay dying?" The traveller is unknown, enigmatic; he is strange, but he is a force for good in the village. And he has an enemy; the wolf that has walked among the villagers for many years, disguised as a man. The wolf has evil in his heart but he is familiar to them. And when the wolf accuses the traveller the villagers form an angry mob for, despite his good deeds, they fear the stranger and his eerie powers. They cast him over a cliff and turn away but only to find that they must face the consequences of their terrible deed.

The day after tomorrow I expect I'll like one of the remaining six stories best. Maybe it will be the one about Mrs Abelsea, her grandsons Mat and Rod and the monsters from Mars. Or maybe it will be the one about Princess Scilla, Prince Teb and the ghost-tigers. Or maybe even it will be the one about Melusina who is turned by a jealous queen into a big, pink snake, but only on Sundays. Oh, or maybe it will be one of the others, because they're all great.

Traditional fairy tales may be old but they are not archaeological remains, things that remain exactly as they did in the past. They are living things, not fossils, but neither are they so altered by time that they are unrecognisable from the things they once were. They are as likely to have grown or to have acquired significance over time as they are to have shrunk or to have lost relevance. They are old, but mutable things, and they are often the things that give children their first idea that the world is not only a place full of kind people and apple pies but a place sometimes of danger and cruelty. And in them our hero generally does get his or her heart's desire, but often only after running terrible risks, often aided by magic. They have been shaped by time and by generations of people and have been told by storytellers of many kinds. Every house should have a Mother Goose. And every house should have some new fairy tales too, some great ones, like Aiken's, some newer ones to read aloud in their original form and to tell and retell from memory in quiet moments, so that they reshape and reform and twist about, exactly as the old ones have.

Aiken is a master of the art. She gets right down to children and she has fun doing it, you can tell. Her stories are by turns wild and funny, dark and slightly shivery, and tell tales of the sorts of high adventure that children love. She is wonderfully severe and uncondescending. She knows how children like the kind of finality that really slams the door - "Mrs Hatecraft was never seen again." The End. Like that. She knows their eye for detail too - how they like to know the hero's age in years AND months AND days, for example, and how they love lists, lovely rhythmic, repetitive lists. Look at her pink snake spell:

"'I can't stop the person who took my ball from sniffing it and becoming beautiful,' she [the jealous queen] said. 'I can't stop that. But this I do say: once a week, every Sunday, that person will turn into a pink snake. And every Sunday that snake will grow a little bigger, until the ball is given back to me. And, in between times, the person will hiccup every time they eat an apple. And her tights will always ladder. And her nail polish will peel. And her lipstick will smear. And she will lose her train-pass and her contact lenses will fall out.'"

You'll buy The Winter Sleepwalker and you'll read a story aloud every night for eight days. And you'll giggle a bit and shiver a bit and wonder a bit, just like we did. And you'll find yourself making your own pink snake spells. Then you'll be joining in the tradition of shaping a living, changing world of stories for children. And you couldn't be spending your time at anything better than that. Unless you're busily engaged in a game of celestial football, of course!

The Winter Sleepwalker would make a perfect Christmas present for readers aged 0-100, but probably for sevens, eights and nines if they're going to read it for themselves.

Children who enjoy a modern twist on a fairy tale might well enjoy Esio Trot by Roald Dahl.

Booklists.jpg The Winter Sleepwalker by Joan Aiken is in the Top Ten Books With A Christmas Theme.

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Magda said:

I was just about to buy it from Amazon despite 6 week delivery time, but it's classified there as 12-16?????

My daughter is old enough to enjoy Just So Stories on audio book, and the old fashioned versions of Grimm, Perault and Russian folk tales; but young enough to still sometimes demand Kipper.

Please help!

Jill replied:

HA! If I gave this to Conor (aged 11), he'd be mortified! Never thee fear, Magda, Amazon are clearly in meltdown. Fine to read alone from 7 or 8 to 10 and to read aloud from about 4.