When We Got Lost in Dreamland: Venturing into a magical land is a common enough trope in children’s literature. Sometimes this enchanted place is largely ‘other’ (Neverland or Narnia), sometimes it is hidden within our own society (Harry Potter’s wizarding world), and sometimes it is built from the imagination of the protagonist (The Land of Roar). For all their differences, one aspect these alternative universes share is that they are external places to which the characters must go for their adventures. It is here that When We Got Lost in Dreamland winds away from the well-trodden path, as the foreign soil onto which the hero must tread is internal, his own subconscious. This shift may seem circumstantial, but it has a profound impact, turning what initially seems to be a swashbuckling adventure into a surprisingly introspective, almost philosophical, character-driven story.
This wildly inventive tale sets its tone with its opening quote from Samuel Taylor Coldridge: “If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awake — Aye, what then?” It is from this question that the whole story spins, what if we don’t just carry our lives into our dreams, but our dreams into our lives?
The sixth offering from Ross Welford (Time Travelling with a Hamster, The 1000-year-old Boy), Dreamland, tells the story of 12-year-old Malky Bell, who begrudgingly steals a pair of contraptions called Dreaminators during an ill-advised dare. These machines harness crystals and the slightly vague ‘power of the pyramids’ to allow those who sleep under them to control their dreams. It starts as fun and games for Malky and his younger brother Seb, but then one of their dreams goes awry, and the latter is left stuck in a coma. With the Dreaminators confiscated by his sceptical but concerned parents, Malky enlists the help of his friend Susan and her eccentric grandmother – who has her own way of walking the dreamworld through Tibetan Buddhist meditation – to find his way back into his unconscious mind to retrieve Seb.
These shenanigans in the subconscious further complicate Malky’s already chaotic life. He has a dire reputation at school for his behaviour and is deeply struggling with his parents’ divorce. As a result, he tends to lash out, particularly at his brother but at others around him too, making him an initially less than sympathetic character. Even when he breaks down outside of the hospital after seeing the coma-stricken Seb, the feelings behind his anguish are largely self-serving. However, by exorcising his demons through the events of his dreams, he does begin to make positive changes by the end of the book. It is always interesting for children to see their worse moments reflected in a book, to help them reflect on them, rather than having protagonists always being paragons of virtue. By the end, Malky’s flaws make you root for him all the more.
Dreamland touches on some dark concepts, from Susan’s father being a political prisoner to Malky’s dad’s drug addiction and mental health crisis and from the use of Adolf Hitler as a bad guy to the commodification of spirituality. The one possible issue with the book is that these ideas are all nodded to without ever being thoroughly explored. Perhaps a book with such a generally light tone is not the place for them to be dissected, but the worry is that their superficial inclusion could leave difficult questions hanging in the air or even make the topics seem flippant.
This is in contrast to some themes that are investigated in depth. One of the most interesting is the place of the crocodile Cuthbert in Malky’s dreams, a vicious reptile who has prowled his mind for years. It immediately conjures obvious connections to Peter Pan. However, rather than symbolising stalking time, Cuthbert’s true meaning is revealed – in fact, gruesomely cut out of him – by Malky towards the end of the book. It transpires that Cuthbert, who has long blocked Malky’s progress and whose teeth marks he carries from the dream world to the real one, represents his relationship with this father, or more specifically, his fear that his father’s addiction and departure from the family home means he doesn’t love him. When this fear is understood to be simultaneously motivating and paralysing for Malky, many of his early selfish actions can be understood more empathetically.
The second fascinating theme is the idea of shared sub-consciousness. It is explained from the get-go that people can co-habit dreams (although the dream remains in the subconscious of one person, rather than being a joint construction). However, in the final sequence, characters that Malky knows of only tangentially appear and interact with the various sojourners in his subconscious. It’s never explained whether these are fabrications on Malky’s part, whether they are the real people entering the dream or whether they are bleeding in from the subconscious minds of other characters. Whatever the answer, their presence poses interesting questions to ponder.
This book could be enjoyed independently by children in years five and six (although, at 400 pages, it is longer than the usual text aimed at this age bracket) and read aloud to year four. It can be engaged with on different levels, as a fun and zany adventure or, more deeply, as a look at the battles being waged, often unseen, within our hearts, minds and souls and how the fallout from these can spill over into our waking lives. Many links can be made to psychological, cultural and spiritual concepts, making When We Got Lost in Dreamland a rich book to study and discuss.
Ross Welford talked to Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner about the magic or writing science fiction.
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