Everyone has certain ‘milestone’ books in their lives. They’re the first book they ever read, the first book that made them cry, the first book that made them laugh, and so on. The Wind Singer was a major book in my childhood. It was the first fantasy book I ever read and it’s the book that made me want to write novels. So, when I found it in a second hand store, I pounced.
The Wind Singer is the first book in a trilogy by William Nicholson, aimed at children. I always find it fascinating to read children’s books as an adult, particularly ones I read when I was young. Now, with more experience and awareness, I could see where the book could have been stronger and what kept it from being more renowned. As a child, I was oblivious to it all.
I’ll start with the negatives, which are few and mostly irksome from a technical standpoint. Both the narration and the dialogue is very British. While this is less jarring in the narration, as it takes a fairy tale approach, it really stunts the dialogue. Seeing as this is a fantasy world with many races and societies, it’s strange to have such familiar phrases used. This is, however, offset by the people using their own swear words which are still kid friendly. “Pompa, pompaprune!” The clash of familiar terms and made up, creative ones is very clashing and makes it a little difficult to fully immerse in the world. Adding to this, the two main characters often sound a lot older in their speech than they actually are.
The ending of the novel is very abrupt and, although effective, could have been fleshed out somewhat. It’s a very fast paced book with plenty to tell in just over 300 pages and it’s a real achievement to fit so much in with such short space, yet still doing justice to all of the creations. Unfortunately, it was a case of so close but so far for the ending. An extra chapter, maybe, or even a few pages, that’s all it needed to wrap it up and clarify a few answers. For a novel with such innovation and creativity, it raises a lot of questions with a lack of answers. In some places, this left it an unsatisfying end.
Once you move past the above, though, you’re left with a colourful and imaginative adventure. The trio of children – Kestrel, Bowman and Mumpo – are on a quest to retrieve the voice of the Wind Singer, a powerful and mythical structure that can ward of the impending army of the Zars. Their adventure is exciting, dangerous, educational and at times, downright creepy. One of the constant presences is an army of “old children”, terrifying creations that sap your energy upon touch and turn you into one of them. They’re like zombies, but less aggressive, and their passivity adds to the terror. They are something that haunted my childhood and re-reading the book now, they still gave me chills.
This is a novel that can really unlock the reader’s imagination, with every location having its own rules and ideas. Everything has a history and a meaning, most of which the characters learn about as they go on. It is as exciting as it is interesting.
On top of all that, it patches a moral and philosophical punch that is as poignant now as it was in my childhood. It is a classic tale of repressive governments and restrictive societies, with a particular focus on critiquing the current education and examination systems. It raises questions that should be raised and now, more than ten years since its publication, they are questions that are still raised and not satisfyingly answered. Most importantly, the book does not aim to provide an answer. Nicholson is clearly not at ease with the current systems, but he acknowledges their uses and suggests that, at the very least, we consider alternatives.
The Wind Singer is an interesting and engaging read for children and adults. However, it is maybe more fitting as a children’s book and not one of those occasions where it is as good, or better, for adult readers. Still, I would highly recommend it for all children and even for parents to read with them. It is an important reminder to always question things and to never accept things for the way they are.