Reviews /

Paradise Sands

Authored by Levi Pinfold
Illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Published by Walker Books

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Paradise Sands: There are many things I like about Levi Pinfold’s new book, and strange as it may sound, one of the things that I liked, days after I had first read it – was that I still didn’t have a straight answer. Let’s begin with what seems simple. It is certainly memorable, evocative, and, in line with all his other works, stunningly beautiful. It also appeals to my love of picture books that are darker and it will remind readers, who may well have their eyes set on their secondary schools, that picture books are worthy accompaniments to longer novels and not necessarily for the faint hearted.

In terms of plot it resembles something of a reworked ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The siblings (four of them this time, one girl and three teenage boys) are without their parents, not because they have been left in the woods exactly, but because the mother appears to be in some kind of hospital. The group drive through the ‘dry and dusty’ landscape to visit her, but they stop en route to pick flowers, and here they remind themselves of the cautionary poem their mother told them (prefaced at the beginning of the book), which our narrator dismisses as ‘nonsense’. Of course, it is not nonsense, as the story shows the group progressing through each line, falling deeper and deeper into temptation as they go, and we are reminded of the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ who tempts the children in with her house of gingerbread. The Teller’s house/hotel is far grander than the witch’s cottage though, and the Teller is a more magnificent figure. The majesty of the house is emphasised as the children are pictured, barely visible in the left- hand corner, while the white pillars tower above them. In contrast to the bleak sandy landscape outside the building, the interior is rich with food, lush green vegetation, a pool and many exotic, if grey ghostly-looking animals. The Teller is turns out is a majestic lion, reminiscent in terms of illustration and power, if nothing else, of Aslan.  While the girls’ brothers fall to temptation as the Teller states ‘They took what was offered. They belong here now, and must live by our rules’  the girl refuses to eat or drink for three days in return for a reunion with her brothers asserting ‘We belong together, not with you.’ Once she has broken the spell, the building seems to turn to dust, and in a neat repetition of the first line ‘And it was Bill driving, Danny in the passenger seat, and Bob beside me in the back’ the brothers carry on oblivious to Teller’s Hollow, and the family visit their mother who it is implied, has first-hand experience to match her daughter’s.

The illustrations throughout are captivating and bleak and the writing is poetic. This book could give hours of useful and interesting classroom discussion. I would be interested in using this not just to discuss how fairy tales are rewritten for every generation and perhaps how they were in years gone by told to adults and children, but to consider gender. And here is where the text, and my reaction to it, becomes more complex. Is it empowering that the girl (perhaps in a nod to Gretel) saves the boys? Or is it problematic the girl’s sacrifice is to do with refusing food and drink? Is the story likely to repeat for generations to come and again will it always be the girls who go without food while the boys are oblivious? Why is it the mother and daughter who share this pain, pictured inside while the boys play outside? Although the girl narrates the story, what do you think her name might be, and why do we never find out?

These are all rich and important questions, but if you are going to select this text, make sure you do so ready to devote plenty time to it, for, despite being a picture book, this is not a quick end of the day kind of book.