Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
This is a perfect book – for children a story of an adventurous trip by hot air balloon to the Arctic by a small boy and a crow, for adult readers an allegory equally as powerful and complex as Lewis, Baum and Grahame.
The story is simply and beautifully written by Sofie Laguna with exquisite, detailed line drawings by Marc McBride. A nod here too to the layout and design, evocatively rendered in Arctic blue.
Matthew is a timid, bookish lad, shielded from danger by his loving mother and somewhat chivvied by his puzzled father, largely friendless and solitary. One night he is awoken by tapping on his bedroom window and finds a persistent crow on the ledge – Lewis Carmichael. In very little time, the two embark on a hot air balloon journey to the North Pole, fulfilling Matthew’s dream to visit the Arctic and all its wildness. He’s read so much about it in books of polar exploration.
Meeting all manner of weather and the challenges of navigation in a hot air balloon, the pair arrives at the Arctic, aided and buffeted in equal measure by Boreas, the North Wind.
Along the way, Matthew learns to care for the needs of Lewis as well as to look after himself in a way that would have been impossible just a few days ago.
There he experiences the magnificence and the fearfulness of the animals he has read about in books, the glorious sight of the northern lights, the intensity of the cold and more birds than he could have ever imagined.
He also learns that his capacity is not limited, that he can indeed do wonderfully clever, brave and difficult things. He finds his voice and his fullness. And so does Lewis, this damaged crow who broke his wing the first time he tried to fly.
I cannot adequately express how very beautiful this book is and how profoundly it moved me. Sofie Laguna has conjured so surely that space between the magic and the real – like Lewis we are utterly convinced that science and mythology can both be true, that the North Wind can be a meteorological phenomenon and a Greek god.
Never for a minute do we question that Lewis and Matthew can fly the hot air balloon to the Arctic. It is perhaps the author’s own potent sense of belief that enables us to also believe and then to rejoice in the emergence of Matthew from his binding chrysalis.
Lewis the wise philosopher and teacher, the true friend, also finds his peace – but let us not spoil a moment of the reader’s pleasure with detail disclosure.
This is a book to join the ranks of classic children’s fiction, those books we continue to read and find anew as adults, pages where we are constantly surprised by what we missed on earlier readings. Every home needs one. I will treasure mine.
Thank you Allen & Unwin for my review copy and Sofie Laguna for such a delightful conversation about this work.