Here are a few poetic short novels for young readers that I picked up recently because I loved the illustrations. I purchased each of these books for a dollar at a used bookstore in Portland, Maine. All three turned out to be amazing reads. It seems I can never get enough of youth novels published in the 1960s and 1970s!
The Horned Helmet by Henry Treece (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1963
The Horned Helmet takes place at the end of the Viking Period. It is a piece of historical fiction written in a modern manner and based on the Jomsvikings. This is a fast-paced and moving coming of age story told in short chapters. Beorn, an Icelandic boy has already witnessed cruelty as a young boy when the story begins. His mother has died, and his father has drowned himself in the sea. Beorn is to be a slave, but escapes and is befriended by a fierce warrior. Starkad, a viking, takes Beorn above his ship, The Reindeer. He experiences the cruelty of their raids, how to fight, kill and accept their hard-dealing ways. After sharing a story with Starkad about an icelandic man who robbed a king’s grave, Starkad is inspired to do the same on a dangerous raid. Bringing Beorn along with him, they retrieve a powerful sword and a horned helmet. But they are captured and their companion Gauk in beheaded. Starkad becomes like a father figure to Beorn. When Starkad is crippled by the ship, Beorn saves his life. After Starkad marries, Beorn heads back to a life of violence. However, the Viking age is coming to an end and it won’t be long until Beorn throws in his horned helmet for a more noble way of life.
I don’t usually read historical fiction, but found myself entranced by this world and this pinnacle time of change in history. I loved both the savagery and sense of humor in these characters. You can be sure that I’ll write about Treece again because I was so intrigued by this book.
The Cold Flame by James Reeves (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1967
This is an amazing retelling of a Brothers Grimm story. The description in this book states that this book is “suitable for all readers who find themselves too old for the simple versions of fairy tales they used to love”. I would say that is a fair description as this seems a bit too sinister a tale for children. A 25 year old down on his luck soldier encounters a witch. He tries to do her a favor and ends up in the bottom of a well, left to die. With all hope abandoned, the soldier lights a pipe while waiting to die. A crazy tiny man appears out of the smoke and grants the soldier any wish he desires. To amuse himself, the soldier requests that the princess come at night to do his housework. The King eventually finds the soldier and puts him on trial. Before the soldier is to be killed, the phantom manikin appears and slays the king's men. The soldier chooses to be King even though he knows he will probably make a poor leader. I loved the dark, nihilistic tone of this magical story!
Marra’s World by Elizabeth Coatsworth (Illustrated by Krystyna Turska) 1975
Coatsworth is a well-known children’s author from Maine and this might be her least well known book. From what little I know of her work, I believe this one is darker in tone than what she is more famous for. It is a realistic story about a quiet outsider girl who lives on an island off of Maine. She is shown little love from her father, her mother is gone and her grandmother is cruel to her. The other girls in school treat her as if she is invisible. When Marra finally makes a friend with a new girl named Alison, the two explore nature together and find beauty in the quiet world. A boat trip on a foggy day leads to a poetic moment where Marra may or may not have an encounter with the spirit of her mother. This is a moody piece that reads more like a character study or a short story than a novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a peek inside this strange, cold world.
I also recently reread the following book, a favorite from my childhood:
Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (Illustrated by Jill Bennett) 1975
This is Dahl’s most realistic and least whimsical of the books that he wrote for children. It is the story of a loving father and son. Danny’s father owns a filling station out in the country and they live in a tiny caravan. Instead of going to school, Danny’s father teaches him how to be an expert mechanic. Danny’s father has a secret. When he goes out late one night and does not return, Danny gets behind the wheel of one of the cars he has prepared and goes searching for his father. He finds him in a pit in the woods. It is revealed that Danny’s father is a poacher. After rescuing his dad, Danny comes up with the most brilliant plan ever for poaching all the pheasants from the rich old Mr. Hazell. I love the subtle rebelliousness in this book and the portrait of a loving and unconventional family. The illustrations by Jill Bennett are perfectly integrated into the story and are far more detailed than Dahl’s more persistent collaborations with Quentin Blake. Highly recommended.