Walker Books, 2021-2022
240pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
Crouched behind the stacked crates of the fishmonger’s stall in the market, Nine’s muscles are tensed, her senses alert waiting for just the right moment to snatch the lady’s handbag… For the streets are her world and stealing treasures for Pockets, the leader of the gang, is her life and she knows all the tricks of pickpocketing and all the twists and turns of the alleys and lanes back to the Nest of a Thousand Treasures. He’s called her Nine because she in the ninth member of the gang, offering her a place to sleep and the odd meal in exchange for the things she steals.
But Nine dreams of bigger things, a better life and when she steals a house-shaped ornament from a mysterious woman’s purse, things begin to change… She knocks on its tiny door and watches in wonder as it grows into a huge, higgledy-piggledy house squeezes between its neighbours. Inside are characters as strange as the house – Eric the housekeeper troll who is lost without his feather duster; a Scottish wooden spoon who wields a sword and Flabberghast , a young wizard who’s particularly competitive at hopscotch… But they have all been put under a spell by a wicked witch, a spell that only Nine can help them break before the clock winds down and which, while offering her a better life means she will have to sacrifice the thing that is dearest to her…
While the time and place of this new three-part series aren’t identified, it is reminiscent of the Dickensian world of Oliver Twist and Fagin but with magic and fantasy thrown in. But there the similarities end for Nine is not Oliver – she is clever, smart and thanks to her visits to the local library where she is actually welcomed, very well-read, and her willingness to save her new “friends” is more about giving herself a prosperous future than any altruistic concerns for them. She is determined to find the strawberries that Pockets says don’t exist… But then, given her life so far she has never known friendship and kindness and her defensiveness and self-interest have been built on the walls of self-protection. So, if she succeeds in breaking the spell, will she be able to just walk away with her prize?
There is a plethora of fantasy books in the children’s book market at the moment with characters and plots whose limits know only the bounds of their authors’ imaginations, but this one stands out because of Nine and her emotional growth as she begins to understand that there is more to life than the untold wealth promised by the glowing jewels imprisoned by the witch’s spell. The characters are not scary and unimaginable – we can all picture a troll, a wizard and a wicked witch and what can be confronting about a game of hopscotch?
As soon as she saw them on my desk, Miss 11 claimed these for herself and had her nose in them – now she must wait patiently for the third and final, although its title and release date remain as mysterious as Flabberghast’s house.