Monday, 14 August 2017

Moondial by Helen Cresswell

Moondial by Helen Cresswell. Review for primary teachers.

Moondial is a ghost story, a time travel novel and a book about contemporary issues all rolled into one. It will appeal to readers aged 9+ and would work well as a class novel for children in years 4 or 5.

The protagonist of the novel is Minty, short for Araminta. She has been sent to  stay with her aunt over the summer as her recently widowed mother had to work. Her aunt lives across the road from a former manor house which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. 

Minty believes herself to be a witch, 'or something very like it.' She is aware of her own sensitivity: to the 'pocket of cold air on the landing of the back stairs', 'She had woken at night to see shadowy presences gliding across the floor.'. So, she is not really surprised when the sundial/moondial in the garden of the old house takes her back in time. She visits 19th century 'suntime' where she meets Tom (a young boy who suffers from tuberculosis and longs to be reunited with his sister) and 18th century 'moontime' where she meets Sarah who is tormented and bullied by others because she has a birthmark and is known as the 'Devil's child'. Throughout the book,Minty faces two challenges; 1) she feels she needs to save the children and 2) she needs to bring her mother out of a coma.

The book is listed as having an ATOS book level of 4.4, and therefore could be read independently by most children half way through year 5. The story is beautifully written and many of the descriptive passages could be used to develop children's own writing. e.g. the personification on p 151 "The little icy tongues of wind licked her face..."; the alliteration on pa 162 "the lazily falling flocks of snow" and the description of the scene on p 193 could be used as a model for children's own descriptions. 

"The street was thinly washed with gold and the shadows were icy. A cockerel crowed from the farm beyond the church, tearing the dawn hush. The graveyard was drenched with dew and littered with cats, strayed from the night."

The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Minty. We get a clear insight into her thoughts as she endeavors to fulfill her missions.
There are a couple of questions raised in the story which don't have clear answers. We are never told were the children from the past go to nor is it clear who the mysterious and ominous Miss Raven is. Nevertheless, these provide opportunities for pupils to come up with their own ideas which could provide a stimulus for writing activities.

The themes in the story are family and friendship, loneliness, bullying (the way in which Sarah is taunted and labelled because of her birthmark)

The story would work well alongside a topic on the Victorians. The differences between Minty's time and Tom's time are interesting to compare and contrast. The story is set in the National Trust owned Belton House and for those within travelling distance a visit to the property would be interesting as the features of the property described by Minty including the garden, the sundial, the orangery and the yellow room are all there. Helen Cresswell was asked to write a story set in one of the National Trust's properties and she chose Belton House. There are some activity notes for teachers based on the sundial which were inspired by the National Gallery's Take One Picture Programme. Click on the image of the sundial to take you through to this link.

For those not close enough to visit Belton House, the story could still be used as a model/stimulus for children to write their own story based in another National Trust property. 

The story is reminiscent of other time travel classics such as 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce and 'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley. The book was serialised for television by the BBC soon after it was published and the complete series is now available on DVD.

Published by Faber & Faber
Originally published: 1987
ISBN: 978-0-571-32290-9


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