A dark middle grade fantasy which will delight fans of Coraline and Alice in Wonderland. Ages 10+.
Maggie Blue Brown is having a really tough time. Her father has left, her mother has suffered a breakdown and she is living in a strange town with her eccentric Aunt Esme, where she has to sleep on a sofa bed in the living room. She hates being away from her seaside home and hasn't made any friends at her new school. In fact, the only friend she seems to have made since being in West Minchin is a fat, one-eyed tabby cat who follows her in the hope of being let into the warm flat for the night. But there is someone at school that she wishes she could be friends with: Ida.
On the surface it would seem that the gorgeous Ida has everything Maggie doesn't: cool clothes, a great phone, lots of friends and a huge house. But Maggie is convinced that Ida and she could be great friends. She can't explain it, but every now and again Maggie gets a jolt of someone else's feelings and realises that she knows things about them, like how they are feeling and what may have caused it. Despite Ida's increasingly hostile behaviour towards her, Maggie can't shake the feeling that they should be friends.
Strange things start happening, which make Maggie begin to worry about her own mental health. Maggie sees strange lights hovering in her neighbour‘s garden and the one-eyed cat, Hoagy, begins talking to her. Then, one afternoon, she witnesses something terrifying in the woods behind her school: the new guidance counsellor changes into a wolf and drags Ida through a window to another world.
On the surface, this story is familiar: a young girl forced to enter a surreal and bizarre alternate world completely unlike ours and navigate her way out again. There is even a talking cat. So far, so Wonderland. Where Maggie Blue differs is in the heroine. The majority of readers will be able to relate to the outsider that Anna Goodall has created in Maggie Blue Brown. Maggie is dealing with some very real issues. Her mother is in the middle of a serious mental health crisis, she has an absentee father and there are clearly money issues. On top of this, she is struggling to fit in at her new school and the portrayal of her invisibility, as she drifts from lesson to lesson being ignored by both adults and children, feels very real. The only time she is the focus of attention is when she is being bullied or told off. From the start of the story we are given hints that she has a temper, something which eventually reveals itself when the children in her class go to far.
However, there are positives in her life. Her Aunt Esme is a wonderful character with a huge beehive and a whirlwind social life. She clearly cares deeply about Maggie and seems to be the only realible adult in her life. She introduces Maggie to a friend of hers who actually believes Maggie when she explains some of the things she has seen. This is a huge relief, as Maggie wonders at one point if she is seeing things because she is becoming like her mum.
The scenes in the dark world are, well, dark! This is not your typical middle grade fantasy adventure land. The world and its rules are peculiar, unpleasant and difficult to understand; I found myself as lost in it as Maggie was. The landscape is strange and the creatures that she encounters there range from odd-but-cute to sinister and bizarre: I was reminded strongly of Jim Henson's land of Thraa in The Dark Crystal. I was pleased when I realised that this is not a stand-alone book because there was an awful lot in the dark world sections that left me with questions that I hope will eventually be answered.
Dark as the book sounds, I really enjoyed reading about Maggie and her life in West Minchin. Anna Goodall's writing is engaging and full of great details and quirky characters. Maggie is a character that I loved spending time with and I found myself really rooting for this lost, lonely girl. I was also delighted on reading this to find a favourite new literary cat! Hoagy is an absolute treat from start to finish. He is a tough, curmudgeonly grump with a fantastically wicked sense of humour and he is such a great character that just leaps out of the book. I found myself smiling and gasping at some of his scenes. Anna Goodall has created characters than I was fully invested in and cannot wait to carry on reading about. The stunning cover art by Sandra Dieckmann deserves a mention as it is such a visual treat and really matched the story: if you look closely, you can even spot Aunt Esme's beehive in one of the windows!
I think Anna Goodall has captured the sense of isolation and the struggle to fit in which is sadly something all too common for some children, particularly those whose families struggle to make ends meet or who are affected by a parent suffering from a mental health crisis. Despite being aimed at children aged 8 to 12, I think this reads more like a young teen book and I would recommend it for children aged 10 or 11 and up. The writing is superb, the themes are deep and I found the creatures and the dark world to be fascinating, but quite disturbing at times. Fans of dark, horror fantasy, such as Coraline, surrealist fantasy like Alice in Wonderland or bizarre and peculiar worldbuilding, like that of The Dark Crystal, will absolutely love it.
Ultimately, this is a story about how important it is to care for those around us and to help each other through the inevitable dark times in our lives: we learn that everyone has their problems, no matter how perfect their lives may seem. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Maggie Blue and the Dark World and I am looking forward to the next installment of Maggie and Hoagy's adventures.