This weekend I finished listening to I, Coriander, by Sally Gardner. This book won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize in December 2005, and was also recommended to me by Kim at Kim's Book Blog. I found the book so compelling that I almost didn't mind cleaning my house this weekend, as long as I had the book to listen to while I did so (I downloaded it from Audible.com).
But seriously, I, Coriander is mostly a historical novel, with a sprinkling of magic thrown in to keep things from getting too dark. Coriander Hobie is the daughter of a 17th century London silk merchant, and grows up in a beautiful house adjacent to the Thames. Her mother is a "cunning woman" who grows herbs, and helps the locals with her potions. Coriander wears beautiful dresses, and learns to read (unusual for a young girl of the time). Coriander's young life is idyllic until a pair of mysterious silver shoes appear on her doorstep, and change everything.
Before much time passes, Coriander finds herself living under the repressive rule of black-hearted Puritans, people who perform cruel acts, and suck the joy out of life, all in the name of God. She also visits a parallel world, her mother's world, populated by fairies, and discovers an evil authority figure there, too. Coriander must pass back and forth between the two worlds, and find a way to recover a lost family treasure, save the life of a prince, save the life of a human family member, understand the secret of the silver shoes, and defeat her Puritan oppressors. No small set of tasks for a young 17th century girl.
I found Coriander's Puritan oppressors particularly disturbing. The unfairness of their behavior had me practically sputtering aloud, as they performed outrage after outrage. The book reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond (which also features a free-spirited girl whom Puritans attempt to quench). There is a scene in which the local constable searches a house, and indulges in wanton destruction (again in the name of God), that made me positively cringe.
But I think that it says good things about the book, that I was so disturbed by portions of it. Sally Gardner brings Oliver Cromwell's London vividly to life in I, Coriander. And Coriander herself is a multi-faceted character whom I cared about a great deal by the end of the book. The supporting characters are not quite so well fleshed out, but still enjoyable.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to older kids who are fans of historical novels. I think that certain parts of the book might be too dark for most younger children (say, under 10). The magical elements of the book will likely draw in other readers, but for me, the real-world scenes are what make the book stand out.
The Guardian Unlimited published an excellent article about Sally Gardner back in December. The article said that writing books was a particularly big achievement for Ms. Gardner because she is dyslexic, didn't learn to read until she was fourteen, and even attended a school for "unteachable" kids when she was a child. The article says that Gardner was "bowled over and completely flabbergasted" by her Nestlé Children's Book Prize win. But I say that she deserves it 100%. I, Coriander is a book that I'll remember for a long time. Happy Reading! -- Jen
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.