Children’s books fall, for me, into one of several categories. First, there are the ones where magical children do magical things. These include the Harry Potter series, The Dark is Rising, and the His Dark Materials trilogy: children with special powers using them to special effect. Then you have ordinary children doing magical things. This is the category first perfected by E. Nesbit, whose normal, bickering, generous children have surprising encounters with amulets, Psammeads, and treasure. Other books in this category would be Edward Eager’s books (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, etc), and, arguably, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Finally, there’s the category where many of my very favorite books reside: ordinary children doing ordinary things. No magic here, nothing that can’t be explained by love and effort and imagination. Here we find the Little House books, Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family books, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, Eleanor Estes’s Ginger Pye, Harriet the Spy, the Betsy-Tacy books, and hundreds of others.
It’s into that last category that Saffy’s Angel falls, and falls so deliciously that you almost forget that there’s no actual angel, no heavenly magic to make everything come right in the end. Hilary McKay begins her novel with an introduction to the artistic, chaotic Casson family: Eve and Bill, the parents, who are both painters (though Bill considers his own art much more important than Eve’s and therefore lives in London during the week, where he can Really Concentrate); Cadmium, the eldest daughter (Caddy for short), who is continually failing exams and has been given one last chance to take them all; Indigo, who wants to be a polar explorer but is terrified of everything; Rose, the youngest, who is a true artist and has absolutely no time for anything else, including sparing others’ feelings. And, of course, Saffy herself. Saffron. Who, as soon as she learns to read, discovers that, unlike Cadmium and Indigo and Rose, Saffron is not a color on the paint chart. And she discovers why she wasn’t named from the paint chart, too: she was adopted when Eve’s sister died in a car crash and left her tiny daughter alone in the world.
This results in a fierce loneliness for Saffy. In a house where the only approach to normal is being one of the pack, she is suddenly an outsider. Her only comfort is that her grandfather — as much her grandfather as everyone else’s — left her something in his will: an angel, a stone angel in an unnamed garden. Distant memories tell her that the angel must be in Siena, Italy, where she was born, and she sees no way to find it. But a friendship with an incredibly determined girl down the street changes the odds, and Saffy begins to believe that she can find her angel — and her place in the Casson family.
I read about this book on Jenny’s blog over at Jenny’s Books, and her description made it sound like just the sort of thing I’d like, even though I’d never heard of Hilary McKay. In fact, I loved it. The writing was just the right mixture of funny, wry and tender, treating a serious subject seriously but not heavy-handedly. McKay doesn’t make the mistake of making everyone in the book lovable, either. I found the father of the family infuriating. But (and this is the good part) he’s part of the family. His exasperating attitude may not be lovable, but it’s beloved. Part of the point of the book is that, in a family, everyone belongs, no matter how they got there or how odd it may seem. This point isn’t spelled out and driven home with mallets. Instead, it’s told as part of a real, charming, lovely story. Each character is fleshed out. As I read, I laughed with pleasure, and hoped there were more books with this family in them. If you’ve got a ten-to-twelve-year-old, buy this for him or her, or just for yourself. You deserve a treat.