Title: Maggie Blue and the Dark World
Written by: Anna Goodall
Illustrated by: Sandra Dieckmann
Published by: Guppy Books
Maggie Blue and the Dark World is an inventive middle-grade quest with themes of friendship, bravery and the search for identity. It highlights the importance of camaraderie and the struggle to summon courage when we feel afraid and alone.
Maggie Blue Brown feels abandoned and unwanted she is ‘the kind of child that adults find it easy to ignore or dismiss – too quiet, too weird, too angry.’ Her mother, Cynthia Brown, has been institutionalised with depression after her husband, Lionel Blue, left them for a younger woman. So Maggie lives with her eccentric Aunt Esme in West Minchen, UK. The headmistress of Fortlake School only accepted her as a personal favour to Aunt Esme. Maggie believes she is ‘a burden to her Aunt Esme, extra stress for her depressed mother, and an afterthought to her absent father.’
Her only friend is a grumpy, old, one-eyed tomcat, called Hoagy who greets her each evening with a purr that sounds like it is humming jazz. Sandra Dieckmann has produced a beautiful illustration of Hoagy for the front cover. Although at no point in the story is Maggie small enough to sit on Hoagy’s head and nor would he let her.
Anna Goodall’s characters are all well-formed and credible. She has obviously spent a long time developing their backstories to make them realistic and believable, the type of people you might see every day in the street, each driven by their own agendas. She paints a perceptive picture of human greed and capitalism. Her debut novel is a reflective insight into children who have to navigate a world with parents who have mental health issues and are never around.
Maggie has a crush on popular girl Ida, who in return bullies her relentlessly, calling her ‘Bruise’, due to her double-barrelled surname. Yet Maggie still wants to be her friend. She sketches Ida in her notebook and calculates their compatibility, believing it must be high as they share the same birthday, the 21st June 2007. When Ida discovers the drawing of her in Maggie’s notebook she labels Maggie a stalker.
Only Maggie’s school councillor, Miss Cane, shows her any kindness and she is a particularly formidable and menacing character with the ability to shape-shift into a wolf and definitely not to be trusted Behind her smile she is a malicious woman. So when Maggie witnesses Ida being kidnapped and dragged into a portal in Everfall Woods by Miss Cane, she is unable to say anything to the police and those she does try to tell will not believe her, reflecting the realistic, universal truth that adults rarely listen to children.
Aunt Esme introduces Maggie to her friend, Dot, who is in a wheelchair and uses herbs for healing. In a chapter from Hoagy’s point of view we learn Dot has asked Hoagy to watch over Maggie as she thinks Maggie is special. With the aid of some instructions copied from one of Dot’s ancient books and Aunt Esme’s ring that Maggie stole from her finger whilst she slept, she crosses through the portal into the Dark World in search of Ida. Maggie believes when she saves Ida, she will become her best friend.
In the Dark World Maggie travels to the gilded palace of Sun City, which is ruled by the charismatic and manipulative villain, Eldrow, who controls the people with stolen happiness. She discovers the protector of nature, known as the Great O, has been forced away triggering the land into darkness. Armed with the stolen ring of protection, Maggie becomes the centre of attention and for the first time she starts to feel special. For a while she forgets why she came to the Dark World in the first place.
Although the book seems to meander into the story, in the same way as Anna Goodall has developed well-rounded characters, she has obviously spent time creating her magical world, with its well thought out history, elaborate city and corrupt politics. Her vibrant, detailed descriptions create vivid pictures in the readers imagination that linger long after the book is shut.