Hilary McKay and feel-good books

by Sherwood Smith

For me, what better way to start off a fresh year than by talking about feel good things? In this case, books.

There is a new Hilary McKay coming out in March for USAn readers. I have craved another ever since Forever Rose was published. For American readers unfamiliar with McKay’s work, the
basic premise is the story of a family of creative types, centering around Rose, the youngest. The parents are painters, and they don’t live together through most of the books. Their children are named after colors–Cadmium, Indigo, Rose, with Saffy, who may or may not be a half sister, but certainly is adopted.

The family is unusual in many of the ways creative families are, their interactions with others are as orthogonal as such can frequently be, and their relations with one another are also often orthogonal to what they mean, what they understand, and what they intend. McKay is writing for a young audience, so she doesn’t delve deeply into alternative thinking, but certain passages made me wonder if at least some of the Cassons are synesthetes; whether they are or are not really doesn’t matter. What does is that the stories are what I think of as “feel good” books.

I put my courtesy cut there because I know that the phrase “feel good” is an automatic turnoff for many, just as “a detailed and realistic examination of hopelessness and despair” is an automatic turnoff for me. I don’t know if anyone wants to talk about “feel good” stories, but in case there might be someone besides me, here are some thoughts.

There are a lot of different kinds of feel good stories. The ones I like have those zing! moments of experiential truth, or insight, and thus banish the boundaries of time, space, ego. The idea of sharing that moment with other people thunderstrikes me right down to the bone marrow. It doesn’t last, it can’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

When I was younger, I thought I was the only one who got those moments, and I was embarrassed, because they usually cause a spring of tears, a closed throat, gulping. But when I was nineteen, I was at a friend’s house. Her mother entered the conversation, I don’t remember why, and she told us about the time she was a girl back in Appalachia. She was from a dirt-poor family–she never had shoes until she was fifteen, and got married. Education was regarded as useless, especially for girls, and the kids were encouraged to hide the few times officials came around to check on the number of kids, and whether or not they were getting schooling. One day she was roaming the hills, and had climbed out of their little valley, and just kept climbing, she did not know why. But all of a sudden she burst out of the thick foliage, and discovered she was high on a ridge, looking out over the Shenandoah Valley in the clear late afternoon light. The sight overwhelmed her with such passionate happiness and surprise that she threw her arms out and laughed and danced because at that moment she knew everything. Everything.

I can still hear her voice saying the word “everything”–the second time it was just a whisper, and her expression reflected that exaltation, just a little bit, in the narrowing of her eyes, and the corners of her mouth. She said that the feeling went away with the sunlight, but she never forgot it, and it changed her life because she resolved to get herself a different life. Somehow.

And she did. She wasn’t a maker, and her goals were modest. Mainly having to do with getting out of that situation, and living among artists. She achieved that goal, and also her goal of living in sight of the ocean. I admired her–here was someone who despite tough early circumstances had lived among remarkable people, had danced until dawn on beach terraces to the singing of Frank Sinatra. (If I remember right, he also played the piano, she said.)

We don’t have a word for that in English, though joy comes close. Joy can be explosive, almost blinding, but I want the word that expresses that flinging wide of the arms, the embracing of the universe, that sense of symbiosis. Nabokov expressed this sensation in terms of the zing of truth in reading: The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist. It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the nonego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner–who is already dancing in the open.

The thing is, not everyone’s moment matches everyone else’s. For me, pure wish fulfillment–the substitution of sentiment, often labeled wisdom or truth, but it reads more like artificially intensified emotion–doesn’t work, but it does for many readers. The (jut to pick an obvious example) poor orphaned outcast who is handed the keys to the universe just because she suffered isn’t a trope that works for me. Neither is the poor orphaned outcast whose misery is instantly cured by a single touch, no matter how omnipowerful the other characters try to tell me the toucher is. But good money is being made left and right by stories with just those tropes. Obviously it works for some.

I like the McKays not just because they express such generosity of spirit, which is rare enough, but because (except in one of the stories, and she makes it work) the choice of mercy, generosity, of believing the best of people doesn’t automatically whisk away all problems and leave everyone grinning ever after. The father lives away from the family with a girlfriend in a couple of stories. McKay doesn’t opt for the easy out by making the dad conveniently hate-worthy. What she does is show the consequences of choices, incident by incident, always with a light touch, for these are novels aimed at the twelve year old audience.

If I had read these as a child I would have cried hard just because I couldn’t contain or even express that intense and hopeful swoop of joy that the reading experience would have given me. How sharply drawn the characters’ emotions are while never sacrificing that generous spirit and sense of mercy breathing through the whole! C.S. Lewis once said that myth is a lie breathed through silver. I think books like these McKays, and Antonia Forest’s books, and small stories like D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book are emotional and creative truth breathed through silver. They are about human potential in all its variation.

If you want to try McKay, you could pick up the storyline here (these are aimed at maybe sixth through eighth grades in reading level, with some uncompromisingly sophisticated words here and there) but for the best experience, do begin with Saffy’s Angel.

(icon “Permanent Rose”  taken from Hilary McKay’s website)

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Hilary McKay and feel-good books — 12 Comments

  1. Oh, I love the Casson books SO much! I wish I could have read them as a kid, but even discovering them as an adult, they’re some of my favorite books in the world. They’re ‘feel-good’ in the best sense of the word, because they’re not shallow or flippant – they don’t side-step deep emotions or difficult issues, they’re emotional and honest AND they’re deeply joyful and funny, too. Just lovely! She’s one of the writers I most admire.

  2. Oh, what a wonderful way to start the new year. *Thank you*

    And echoing Stephanie Burgis: I love that the affection between the characters in Hilary McKay’s books aren’t run through a filter of flippant sarcasm–there’s straight-up affection and humor that’s kindly and warm without being soppy.

  3. There are a few other authors who talk about it – in M Montgomery’s Emily stories, Emily has the “flash”, her names for those moments of joy in beauty.

    CS Lewis talks about it a lot, and beautifully, in “Surprised by Joy”. The thing that disappoints me the most in all of his works is not even the problem of Susan, but the part in that book where, after he converts, he dismisses the value of those moments by saying that all his yearning for and experience of joy was merely a shadow of God (and the desire for Him) and not at all important in their own right. If he’d said that those moments were an experience of communion with God I’d have been all right with it, but to just disavow something that had clearly been the best thing in his life and the shaping of his soul – no.

  4. A beautiful way to start out the New Year! I have experienced such moments myself–and as you say the feeling does not last, but the change it engenders often does.

  5. Also, I just read Kat, Incorrigible, and I think its got some similar things to say about family as McKay’s books. Kat doesn’t get along with her sisters quite as well as Saffy does with her sibs, but there’s the same clear-eyed understanding of each one’s strengths and weaknesses and the same utter reliance on each other. I’m looking forward to sequels in both series. (In the Casson books, the star of each new bok I read became my favorite of the family, in turn.)

  6. I share your intense pleasure with the experience of reading the Casson books. I loved them from a few chapters in to Saffy’s Angel, when I thought it was a one-off–and I was so glad when it wasn’t.

    What I enjoy so much about the series is how individual each voice is, and yet how thoroughly each character understands how the others will (most likely) respond to a given situation. It feels so much like eavesdropping on the family next door, or getting to live with them for a bit.

    When it comes to moments of experiential truth, though, all I can think of is the night maybe 10 years ago now when we had an incredible aurora borealis, one that covered most of the sky. I called everyone out to see it, but while I stood and watched, my daughter (about 12) danced and danced and danced to the shifting colors. Her response took my breath away.

  7. @dichroic – I can’t imagine any compliment that could make me feel happier than having KAT, INCORRIGIBLE compared to the Casson family books. Thank you!

  8. I’ve liked the word transfiguration to describe these moments. Though most people associate it with a particularly Christian religious concept, it doesn’t have to be specifically Christian, it seems to me, but equally aplicable to a momentary pan-spriitual awareness that incorporates everything, including the material.

    Love, C.