One of my New Year non-resolutions was to try and read more YA literature in 2014. There was a time when it was my job to know what was new in the Children’s Literature world and because I reviewed for a number of related magazines it was reasonable easy to keep up with whatever was being published. However, since I retired I have lost touch with current trends and have had to admit, when friends have asked me for birthday and Christmas recommendations, that I don’t know what today’s children are reading. So, one of the first things I did when the new term began and the city centre was rather quieter than it had been over the holiday period was go and have a real mooch around the children’s book section of our local branch of Waterstones to see what was current and demanding to be read.
I have to admit that I automatically avoided anything that looked as if it was infested with vampires. I am definitely vampired out! Nevertheless there was plenty that looked interesting, some by writers I already knew and relished and others, like Christopher Edge’s Twelve Minutes to Midnight, by authors I had yet to read.
Edge’s series about Penelope Tredwell, the thirteen year old heiress and owner of the magazine The Penny Dreadful, is now well underway, the third instalment The Black Crow Conspiracy having just been published. Twelve Minutes to Midnight is our introduction to this feisty young heroine, who may live two hundred and fifty years later and come from an entirely different strata of society but is surely a direct descendent of Joan Aiken’s irrepressible Dido Twite. The Penny Dreadful has known hard times but has been rescued by the serialisation of a series of thrilling stories penned by the reclusive Montgomery Flinch. Flinch is such a retiring character by necessity because in fact the tales that captivate the magazine’s readers are being written by Penny herself but, of course, Victorian England is not a place in which it is possible for a young lady to make such an admission. However, public opinion, no doubt fed by memories of Charles Dickens, demands that the author should make an appearance and read from his works in person, so Penny has hired an actor, Monty Maples, to stand in for her and appease the demanding readership.
Unfortunately, ‘Flinch’s’ appearance in public prompts the Physician Superintendent of Royal Bethlam Hospital (Bedlam) to seek his aid in discovering why it is that every evening at twelve minutes to midnight all the patients rise up from their beds in what appears to be a catatonic trance and start writing on whatever surfaces they can find. Monty Maples is insistent that this is not what he signed up for but Penny forces him to visit the hospital so that she can accompany him and attempt to discover what lies behind this disturbing set of circumstances. Although she has to fight to get the Superintendent to admit that she is even there, it is Penny who thinks to ask what the patients are writing and while it makes no sense to the characters in the book it is clear to the reader that somehow the afflicted are foreseeing the future and predicting what will happen in the twentieth century. Why they should be doing this and what use the information might be to the villain of the piece I have absolutely no intention of telling you, although I might just drop a hint by saying that this is a book that Ron Weasley should definitely not read.
This was a good read and a perfectly decent way of spending a Sunday afternoon. It was certainly a book that I would have recommended to my Year Six classes (10-11) and possibly one that I would have read to them in that precious last twenty minutes of every school day. However, it didn’t really meet my criteria for the very best of children’s literature in as much as I didn’t feel that it was anything more than a rattling good tale. Not that there is anything wrong with a rattling good tale and I’m sure that children who have read the first in this series will eagerly pick up subsequent volumes, but I like a bit more bite in my children’s literature, something that will get us talking about ideas in the book that reach out into the wider world. I’m afraid that this didn’t offer that which is a pity because otherwise I might have gone out and ordered the next two in the series. As it is, I am glad to have made Penelope Tredwell’s acquaintance but I think I’ll leave it at just the one meeting.