The publication of a new book by Victoria Williamson is always a reason to celebrate, and I am honoured to join the blog tour for her latest MG novel, The Pawnshop of Stolen Dreams. I was entranced by this illustrated, fantasy novel, which I would summarise as Pinocchio meets Sweeney Todd via Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, blended with the author’s trademark sense of social justice. The quirky illustrations by James Brown are the icing on a delectable treat.
The story is set in the little village of Witchetty Hollow in a land where adults have to rent children from Storkhouse Services as no babies have been born for many years due to the pollution caused by the notorious Gobbelino Corporation. The main protagonist, Florizel, has been rented by poor widow Gammer Oakenshaw for the past eleven years and despite the privations of life in their small cottage, it is clearly a loving home. Sadly, the rent charged for children is dependent on many factors, including their academic performance, and when a family can no longer afford the rent payments the child can be coldly reclaimed by the child collectors from Storkhouse Services and redeployed to another family. Florizel, against all her instincts, has to hide her intelligence at school and deliberately fail every test to ensure that she is not on the list for re-collection. Her presumed lack of intellect combined with impoverishment make her a target for the bullies at school. However when the Gobbelino siblings expand their rapacious empire into Witchetty Hollow, she will need every spark of her bright mind to outwit their cut-throat enterprise.
Florizel is the first of the villagers to spot the arrival of Grimalkin, Griselda and Grendel Gobbelino, as well as an escapee from a recycling trailer that is being towed behind their luxurious carriage. Burble is a sack boy, manufactured by the Gobbelinos for families who cannot afford to rent real children. As Florizel is the only child in the village who shows him any kindness, he tells her about “the strangeness” that occurs whenever the Gobbelinos establish their dastardly three-pronged business model in any town or village. As the stakes rise, these two outsiders need to pool their resources to bring down an exploitative conglomerate. I will not reveal any further plot details as I do not with to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this beautifully crafted fable. It is a delicious feast of a story, with so many layers to savour.
Victoria Williamson is a writer who can transport the reader into an alternative reality with her perfectly constructed characters and settings, lighten the darkness with moments of levity and elicit an understanding of important issues without ever verging into dogma. In this book, Florizel captures your heart immediately with her curiosity, her kindness and her clear-sighted appreciation of her situation and desire to make the most of it. Burble the sack boy absolutely comes alive in your imagination and the Gobbelino siblings are rendered as unscrupulous predators, profiting from the misery of others:
Griselda had her younger brother dangled by the scruff of his neck and was battering him round the head with a lace fan for good measure, when the carriage door opened and a third figure stepped out. At the appearance of their elder brother, the younger Gobbelinos seemed to grow very silent and still.
Despite the stooped shoulders that were so skeletal they threatened to burst through the mottled skin of his dark-green overcoat, Grimalkin Gobbelino towered over them. He was made taller still by the stovepipe hat drawn low over his pale eyes, wisps of white hair escaping from underneath to frame his withered face. The cavernous nostrils in his long hooked nose flared menacingly as he growled, “What seems to be the problem?”page 17
I thought that the ease with which individuals can be swept up into consumerism, distracted from important human and existential concerns, and descend into addiction was brilliantly imagined for a young readership. The narrative also makes the reader think deeply about the fate of the children of addicts. Additionally, the reminder that unlike Griselda, we should respect and value life in all its diversity rather than rejecting those who do not meet a judgemental “norm” was gently but meaningfully delivered. I strongly encourage you to buy this book for anyone of 9 years and over, it is beautifully illustrated by James Brown and at less than 250 pages, a length that is an achievable independent read for the majority of Year 5 and Year 6 pupils. I was pleased to see that the book is printed on a light cream paper, which I know can be kinder to dyslexic readers. What’s more, 20% of the author’s royalties will be donated to a children’s literacy charity, CharCharLiteracy, in Malawi.
I am most grateful to author Victoria Williamson and publishers Andrews UK for providing me with a review copy of The Pawnshop of Stolen Dreams in exchange for my honest opinion. Do check out the other stops on the Blog Tour by some fabulous children’s books reviewers.