First published in Holland in 1967 and now expertly translated by Laura Watkinson, this book is both a treasure and a tonic. A gentle story, written entirely without the sense of menace never far away from most British fantasy stories today, its hero is a young village schoolmaster – how unusual is that? Starting by telling increasingly prophetic stories to his devoted pupils he then along with the rest of his class becomes the key player in the adventures that follow. Much mystery is still to come but this is always good-humoured and easily assimilated. Ending his story with his hair temporarily turned green is the only minor inconvenience our hero suffers throughout his tale.
The author Tonke Dragt, now aged 86, also wrote The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood, both now in translation too. Illustrating her work in atmospheric pen and ink vignettes, she creates a benign type of tension that keeps her stories and their Gothic settings interesting without ever turning upsetting. Her nearest equivalent over here is the equally brilliant fantasy writer and near contemporary Diana Wynne Jones. They were both children’s authors who talked to young readers not as potential adults but as possessors of a still golden time in their own imagination. They were then, in turn, presented with imaginary worlds where everything can still seem possible but always within safe enough bounds, given that villains normally come over as grumpy rather than wicked while the forces for good usually remain more or less in control throughout. Pushkin Children’s Books have done British children a huge favour in allowing them now to share stories that have been entertaining their Dutch counterparts so richly for the last 50 years.