I finished the book earlier in the week, so finally I have finished the review!
The style and setting
I think the first thing I will say is that Jacqueline Wilson does not attempt to mimic Blyton’s writing style. This can be done well – but the best examples I have seen have been from fan-fiction writers. No professional author I’ve read has managed to do it very successfully.
Secondly, the book is set firmly in the present-day. The language is modern but fairly neutral – it isn’t full of slang or pop-culture references which would quickly date it. There’s also none of that strange dichotomy whereby some books have children exclaiming golly gosh how frightfully awful one minute and then spending their decimalised money the next.
There are a few brief references video games and Satnav (which stops working once they are near the Enchanted Wood – something magical going on, perhaps?) in the first chapter, but Wilson has kept the charming old holiday cottage a technology-free place to allow for a more timeless setting. It is not completely timeless, as the odd reference to modern activities are made, but they are rare.
What’s the same?
Wilson has not taken the entirely of the Faraway Tree cannon and added to it, but she has preserved the majority of it, making changes here and there to suit her narrative. Of course this book takes place some 70 years later, and so you’d imagine some things would change over that time period.
Anyway, what has remained the same are the inhabitants of the tree. Moon-Face is there, in his house with the slippery-slip and the red squirrel who collects the cushions. Silky is there, still baking magical treats. The Angry Pixie stills shouts out his window and throws water at unsuspecting climbersby. Dame Washalot is still washing away and also tipping water over unsuspecting climbers. The Saucepan Man and Mr Whatzisname are still friends.
Various lands still come to the top of the tree at random intervals, and there’s still the danger of being swept away if you stay too long in one of them.
The woods are still a mysterious place, over the ditch and full of wisha-wisha-wishas and friendly animals.
Aside from it being in the present day with different children, of course.
Silky shows herself to Birdie, the youngest, their first evening at the cottage, and then every time they go into the woods an animal meets them and leads them there, whereas in the original stories the children find out about the tree from some gnomes and have to persuade them to to show them the way. After that they are able to find it whenever they want.
I wondered if the tree, and its inhabitants got lonely after Jo, Fanny and Bessie stopped visiting, though perhaps their children and their children’s children would have? So perhaps its more of a sign of the times – the tree only allows trusted visitors and sends an escort, nobody else will ever find it.
The passage of time is different, too. In the originals the children would take off for a few hours and return after a few hours. Here they are only gone minutes, no matter how long they spend in the tree. Again, the tree is magic so this could be its way of maintaining a way for it to have visitors. In the present day children don’t get to go running off all day on adventures in the woods without someone at least wondering what they are up to.
Despite not having wings in the original books Silky was illustrated with wings by Rene Cloke, and then by most other illustrators after that, too. Interestingly she also has wings in Wilson’s book. I can imagine Wilson thinking how Silky doesn’t have wings, but she really ought to, and putting them in, rather than it being a mistake. There are so many other details from the original book in there that it’s obvious research has been done, but I’d be interested in seeing her actual thought process on it.
The lands that come are new for this story and are obviously designed to appeal to modern children. There is the Land of Unicorns (with unicorns being hugely popular for girls in particular), the Land of Bouncy Castles, The Land of Princesses and The Land of Dragons.
There was one new element that I wasn’t quite so keen on, and that was the hint of romance between Silky and Moon Face. I have only read the first two books, and only once each, so there may in fact be a subtle closeness between them in the original books, but I don’t think so. There’s nothing overtly romantic but there is definitely a special friendship there, with Moon Face rushing in to defend Silky and getting quite upset when he thinks she is going to go off with a prince. There is also a couple of references to kissing, for example the children looking for Silky and wondering if she’s off kissing the prince, which I’d prefer not to have had in this book.
Is it ‘woke’?
To answer in brief, it’s really not.
I mean, not unless you think that boys and girls both being allowed to do adventurous things is woke, or not having boys say things like ‘you girls can stay here and clean the house while I go exploring’. I don’t agree with rewriting the original books to ‘fix’ these things but it would be pretty weird and pointless to go inserting 1940s social attitudes into a 2022 novel, unless it was set in the 1940s.
There are perhaps three times where the children say anything deliberate about equality (but without using such a word). There’s nothing outlandish, nothing more than the kind of thing George would say about being as good as a boy, and why should she have to do the washing up just because she’s a girl. If I was to make any criticisms of the book it would be that one or two of these comments from the children seem a fraction contrived, or at least a little too obvious.
It’s interesting, though, that I feel the book is aimed a little more at girls than at boys. Almost all of Blyton’s books were aimed at both genders – Malory Towers and St Clare’s being the only strongly girl-orientated series – including the Faraway Tree books. This one isn’t strongly aimed at girls, but with the Land of Unicorns, a cute baby bear, The Land of Princesses, an emphasis on how pretty Silky and her ever-changing outfits are, and so on, I feel that the content is a little more stereotypically girly than ‘gender neutral’ as the Daily Mail called it. (Incidentally, the children are not at all gender-neutral. Milo likes comics and gaming, Birdie wants to be a princess and Mia loves unicorns.)
Over all this was an enjoyable read. It was different enough from the original to stand apart as a modern continuation, but it also retained enough of the original books to be familiar.
The new foods Silky made were wonderfully imaginative and would have been perfectly at home in Blyton’s tales. The lands that visited the tree were interesting, with the last one being the sort of dangerous one that would have gotten the original trio into just as much trouble.
The one thing I really didn’t like were the illustrations. They managed to make even the sweetest of characters look positively terrifying! They’re not so bad in colour, on the jacket, but in shaded black and white… shudder. I don’t have my scanner set up right now but I will get some of the illustrations scanned and added as soon as I can so you can experience them for yourselves!
Have you, or will you read this?