I really didn’t read a lot of the classic children’s books when I was a kid. My reading history went from Richard Scarry picture books, to ‘Treasure island’, and then onto World War II memoirs and other Non-fiction History books I would find in the adult section of my local library. The librarian probably thought it was odd that a ten year old kid was taking out a five hundred page academic level book on the archeological discoveries of Heinrich Schleiman in ancient Troy, but that’s the kind of thing I read when I was that age. So I missed out on a lot of classic literature for children.
So now that I have my own family, and I’m searching for books that would be appropriate for my 5 year old. I will sometimes take a few books from our local library that I may have missed when I was a kid. I recently read about the author Joan Aiken, so I looked for one of her books and was somewhat surprised that my local library only had two books, one of which was ‘The Stolen Lake’.
Joan Aiken (1924 – 2004), daughter of American poet Conrad Aiken, started writing at a very young age. Her first short story was published when she was just 17. Her novels for children focused alternative history, supernatural fiction, and humorous stories. She also wrote several novels for adults, such as several continuations of the novels of Jane Austen. Among her children’s stories, most likely her most famous work is the alternative history series ‘The Wolves Chronicles’. Another series ‘Arabel and Mortimer’ is a series of stories about alittle girl and her pet crow, one of which was the second book that my library had of hers.
‘The Wolves’ series presents an alternative 19th century Britain where James II has not been deposed, and is currently ruled by James III. Some of the other changes to history include a tunnel under the Channel between Britain and Europe, America is what is left of the Roman Empire, parts of South America had been colonized by Britain as well. The series starts with ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, published in 1962, through ‘The Witch of Clatteringshaws’, published in 2005. ‘The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of the series, published in 1980. I’m sure it would help to read the series in order, though it is not absolutely necessary, as each book is a self contained story.
‘The Stolen Lake’ is the story of Dido Twite, and her adventures in New Cumbria with Captain Hughes and the crew of the HMS Thrush. Dido had been traveling back to England on the Thrush after her adventures in the previous book in the series ‘Nightbirds on Nantucket’, when the Admiralty diverted the journey to New Cumbria. From what I can tell, New Cumbria appears to be what is now Brazil. Though in this world, Brazil was actually colonized by settlers from ancient Celtic tribes. A series of treaties ties New Cumbria to Britain, and the current Queen, Ginevra, has asked for help from Captain Hughes in locating the missing lake of the title. It seems that the King of neighboring Lyonesse has stolen New Cumbria’s lake, and the Queen needs help in getting it back to its rightful spot on the map.
The stolen lake of the title is not the end of the fantastic details of the story, which also includes giant blood thirsty birds, man eating fish, evil dressmakers, a revolving castle made of silver, and a ship’s steward who may or may not be King Arthur. What keeps all of this fantasy from spinning out of control is Dido, with her fearlessness, curiousity, and ingenuity at solving the problems she is presented at every turn. She maintains her positive attitude throughout, with many witty and humorous conversations with the Captain and crew.
Once we arrive in New Cumbria, Dido is soon presented with a number of mysteries. who is this Queen Ginerva, and why has she seemingly never aged in centuries ? Why are there no other children her age in New Cumbria ? Is Mr. Holystone, the ship steward, really King Arthur ? The main mystery, and the reason for the quest that Dido goes on is to find the stolen lake. I’m not giving much away here by saying that of course Dido finds the lake, but what is surprising is that all of the other mysteries are also resolved by the end as well in a series of action packed adventures.
Dido more than hold’s her own throughout the action, solving problems and taking on the scary creatures the members of the expedition find on their journey. Aiken’s prose is a bit more complex than the usual YA fare, I would think that fans of the works of Lloyd Alexander or J.K. Rowling would like the Aiken books as well.
There’s quite a bit of historical context presented, and since this is alternate history, much of it has been altered. It’s probably not too common to find a kid who would be aware of all of the historic context, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be completely fluent in that. I certainly didn’t know a great deal about the real James I and the actual succession battle, but I did find this much more engaging then the usual YA fare, and I’ll be on the lookout for further books in the series.