Review – Breaking the Spell: Stories of Magic and Mystery from Scotland by Lari Don and Cate James

Breaking the Spell: Stories of Magic and Mystery from Scotland, by Lari Don, illustrated by Cate James (Frances Lincoln)

Breaking the Spell: Stories of Magic and Mystery from Scotland
written by Lari Don, illustrated by Cate James
(Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2013 (UK)/ 2014 (US))

Scottish folklore is filled with stories that emerge from the landscape – shape-shifting seal-folk selkies along the coast and malevolent water-horse kelpies around the lochs; people turned to stone (or giants here in ‘The Ring of Brodgar’, and I love their hairy feet and long finger and toe nails!), or kidnapped by the fairy folk who live deep in the darkest woodland… Breaking the Spell brings together some of these stories from all over Scotland, from the Borders to the Highlands and Islands, up to the Orkneys.

Lari Don (Drawing a Veil, Mind Blind)  travels all over Scotland, telling and gathering stories. In the back-matter she gives the stories’ written sources, but as she points out, these stories are alive and have evolved as she has told them into the form written down here.  Her retellings are beautifully crafted and beg to be read aloud and shared.  Each story builds in suspense, using rhythm, pauses, word patterns or questions to draw in its audience and her timing is impeccable.

There are ten stories altogether.  They are filled with resourceful girls and boys (the apprentice boy in ‘The King of the Black Art’, the ‘girl who swept the ashes’ in ‘The Three Questions’, Janet in ‘Breaking the Spell: The Story of Tam Linn’ – probably my favourite, and as it happens, Lari Don’s too); evocative names such as Skiach, Utha and Cuchullin in ‘School for Heroes’ and the eponymous Whuppity Stoorie who shares certain characteristics with the Brothers Grimm’s Rumplestiltskin.  We love monster stories in our household and ‘The Monster of Raasay’ here is no exception.  This is a monster story that challenges stereotypes, however: in the end, who is the real monster – the very hairy, monster-like monsters or the crofter who separates the baby monster from his mother?  I won’t give the ending away, but it is unexpected and joyous.  Don says in her Note that she always keeps one eye on the mothers at the back of the room when she’s telling this story and I can see why.  In fact, as with all good stories steeped in their landscape, these tales are inter-generational.  Cate Jones’ illustrations compliment the stories by blending tradition (most notably in the characters’ dress) with a contemporary feel – little framed vignettes have the air of posed photographs, for example.  Her palette evokes the Scottish landscape, and the use of digital collage brings out the textures of Scottish textiles – wool, tartan and tweed.

It is possible to discern cautionary roots to some of the stories (‘Don’t go near the water!’ – so in folklore there are kelpies), but of course turning the warnings into unforgettable, magical tales is so much more effective at getting the message across… or maybe the cause and effect is the other way round – there really are kelpies so absolutely do not go near the water!  Lari Don alludes to these ideas in her Notes, but leaves the possibilities hanging deliciously open.  All the stories are guaranteed to provide a frisson of excitement, and Breaking the Spell is the perfect book for offering a taste of Scotland’s rich folklore to children everywhere.

Marjorie Coughlan
October 2014


As well as her own blog, Lari Don contributes to An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, a great group blog of authors, including Miriam Halahmy, who featured in an MWD interview recently.

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