I started reading The Secret Railway to my seven-year-old daughter, but she stopped me at the end of the introduction. ‘You can’t read on, Mummy, you’re not allowed. You’re married.’
See, Wendy Meddour has done this introduction which carefully weeds out the people who ‘aren’t 100% child’ by means of a questionnaire. No matter that I have never bought a bungalow or worried about the size of my bottom – I cannot take a ride on the secret railway because I answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Are you married?’ ‘But I write children’s books!’ I protested. ‘I stick out my tongue at people! I like lollipops! I’m sure I qualify!’ My daughter gave me a stern look, and took the book away.
So I had to nick it back out of her room when she went to sleep.
The Secret Railway is the story of brother and sister Leo and Ella Leggit, who move into a new house and discover a portal to a different world in the workshop behind it. That’s me in, right there – veteran of The Enchanted Wood, Narnia et al. Secret railways – yup, no problem. Bartholomew Buckle, director of the train, even refers to Leo and Ella as Warm Hearts (instead of Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve) – and before the two of them know it, they’re off on an adventure they didn’t sign up for, to return a magical magnifying glass to the Chief Snarkarian at the Great Grand Library of Snarks in the Kingdom of Izzambard whilst two squirrels of noble birth shovel coal into the train’s boiler, and an evil Clockmaker called Griselda tries to stop them with steel vines and mechanical birds.
I think, probably, that my daughter was quite right when she told me I shouldn’t read the book. As a grown-up, I felt a bit lost in some places due to the huge number of crazy occurrences and characters – jumping through an oak table into the past, a talking vacuum cleaner, heronites, a Sleeping Key, whizzle-ade… I confess that my brain buzzed like a confused bee from time to time!
But my daughter seemed to have no trouble at all and pronounced the book ‘really, really good’, which just proves that sometimes adults shouldn’t give any opinions on children’s books at all because their brains are clearly not up to the job.
I will say, though, I absolutely adored Ella (who can sing Twinkle Twinkle in French, backwards) and Leo (who dreams he is electricity – LOVE THIS IMAGE) and their wonderfully positive brother-and-sister relationship. Speaking as a sister of a brother, it felt very real and true, and I just know that if, as children, my brother and I had been caught up in a story like this, we would have supported each other in very much the same way as Leo and Ella. Sam Usher’s delightful illustrations really bring the chaotic excitement to life, especially this, my favourite picture from the story:
Oh – and I’d like to try whizzle-ade, please.
The Secret Railway (published by OUP) is out now and suitable for any child who can read (and if they can’t read, you can read it to them) and is the first in a series. The second, The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves, is out in July.