Affirm Press, Australia, 2020
Cover and internal Affirm Press
Cover illustrations Sylvia Morris
What a huge pleasure this book is! It has everything we want from magical realism – the archetypal struggle between good and evil, a pair of plucky youngsters who embark on a series of quests and overcome danger and fear in the process, a silver tongued villain who really is a nasty piece of work, human frailty and optimism, family love, quirky humour and a marvellous setting in a place we all want to visit i.e. The Grandest Bookshop in the World.
This book is based loosely on the ideas and exploits of the real person of Edward William Cole, who really did found The Grandest Bookshop arcade in Melbourne in the late 19th century, and published (among other things) the first two Cole’s Funny Picture Books.
Amelia Mellor has created a fantastical world of books and other pleasures for her readers. And please do not be thinking this a book just for children. It is a sheer delight for readers of any age who have kept their curiosity and joie de vivre alive.
Our heroic book-children, Vally and Pearl Cole, embark on a series of quests, challenges to test their brains, relationships and many personal qualities, in order to win back the book arcade, which has been foolishly gambled away to the villainous Obscurosmith, Magnus Maximillian.
Dear Pa has suffered a moment of human weakness in his grief for his child Ruby, who died some years ago of Scarlet Fever – he so wants her back that he trades the Arcade, and with it his general well-being, to the Obscurosmith in return for his heart’s desire: to see her again. But, doing deals with the Devil is never profitable, and so it proves here also.
Using the language of flowers as part of the quest clues, the children must figure out first what the clue means – often a riddle is involved – and then they work against the clock to pass each test, often at great personal peril.
Amelia Mellor has a wonderful understanding of what this literary form demands. She knows the voices of children well and paints vivid characters, lovable for their strengths and flaws alike. The growth in the relationship between Vally and Pearl is heart-warming and we enjoy watching them both mature through the adversity.
Their parents also have some learning to do – we’re never too old to learn about ourselves. Pearl and Vally’s consciousness of how important their family and family home are provides a strong unifying theme for the story with its wild flights of fancy. It is a happy ending we seek, after all.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its rich vocabulary and its complex ideas. The author shows great respect for her young readers, but also succeeds in capturing the rest of us.
The prequel to this book, The Bookseller’s Apprentice, will be published later in 2022 and I look forward to it very much.
Thank you to Affirm Press for my review copy and to Amelia for a delightful conversation about wonder and this book.