Children’s Book Blog: Recommended read – Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
When Simon, Jane and Barney Drew go to stay with their Great Uncle Merry in the Cornish village of Trewissick, they are all looking forward to a long summer holiday of hilltop picnics and seaside jaunts. But when Barney discovers an ancient map from King Arthur’s day, they suddenly find themselves up against the minions of a mysterious dark power, many of whom appear in the unlikeliest of guises. Luckily for the children, their enigmatic uncle turns out to be something of an expert on ancient maps and Arthurian legend, with mysterious powers of his own. Can the Drews decode the map and discover the invaluable treasure it leads to before the dark forces manage to get their hands on it?
Who’s it for?
Eight to 12 year-olds, King Arthur addicts and anyone who enjoys a good quest.
Why should I read it?
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet, and the most accessible for younger readers. At first glance it may appear to have more than a little in common with Enid Blyton’s adventure stories – a group of children hunting for treasure, an idyllic rural setting, sumptuous picnics – but look more closely and you’ll find much darker ideas lurking beneath the sun-bleached surface: class tensions between the middle-class outsiders and village locals, the corruptive power of greed on seemingly good people, and adults who will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if that means putting children’s lives at risk.
The baddies in this book really are terrifying, all the more so because many of them seem outwardly quite pleasant. There’s suave yacht owner Mr. Withers, the nubile young woman who claims to be his sister, the village vicar (or is he?) Mr. Hastings and, creepiest of all, the rosy-cheeked housekeeper, Mrs. Palk, who wouldn’t appear out of place in Seventies horror movie The Wicker Man.
This was written in the early Sixties, so the pacing is perhaps a little slower than we’re used to seeing in more recent children’s books, and the odd outdated word – like ‘smashing’ and ‘beastly’ – crops up. However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is one of the most well-crafted quest stories you’re ever likely to read. The prose is complex enough to stretch young vocabularies without detracting from the plot and piecing together the clues on the children’s map is a hugely satisfying experience, as is trying to work out who’s good and who’s bad.
Best character: Great Uncle Merry who, while he tells the children about King Arthur and his knights, seems ‘as ancient as the rock behind him’. No prizes for guessing what ‘Merry’ might be short for… (though it’s made pretty clear in the final chapter just in case you haven’t got it by then).
Best line: ‘They could smell a strangeness in the breeze that blew faintly on their faces down the hill; a beckoning smell of salt and seaweed and excitement.’
If I like this, what other books might I like?
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (though I probably wouldn’t tackle this unless you’re at least 10)
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: Over Sea, Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, Under Stone
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