My children are now eleven, nearly thirteen, and nearly fifteen. In the early years of our family, read-aloud was more than just a daily staple in my home. It was something that happened multiple times per day every day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for several years I was reading aloud for three or more hours a day on most days. And when I wasn’t reading aloud, someone was listening to something on Audible. We are a family who feasts on stories daily.
As my kids got older, their school needs increased. A move to the country gave us a new neighborhood ripe with neighbor friends to play with, retired neighbors to visit with, and woods in our backyard to explore. And, as is probably the case with most families at this stage, despite my best efforts to keep our calendar neutral and uncomplicated, church and social commitments crept in. With all of these things pressing in on our way of life, reading aloud became a luxury instead of a staple and, sadly, a luxury I often felt I could not afford.
“But Brother Fir said nothing, and Urchin knew that the priest felt as he did himself. It was too breathtaking for speech. The beauty and terror of it had reached into Urchin’s heart, and he could not speak for fear of breaking the spell*. He stayed at the window where the chill night air still seemed sparkling with starlight . . . ”(*This is poetic language, it is not referring to witchcraft.)
My younger two children and I began reading Urchin of the Riding Stars one evening when my older son and my husband were at an event. We were instantly captivated. The opening was interesting, the characters were delightful, the writing was elegant, and it was a joy to read aloud. It did not take long for us to realize that we would enjoy many more reading sessions together as we sat by the fire sipping tea and following Urchin into the palace, and then out on his adventures.
This story is set on a mystical (not magical) island that is populated by talking animals. It is a beautiful place where squirrels, hedgehogs, otters, and moles live in relative harmony and equality. Urchin is a foundling squirrel who was born on a momentous night – a night of riding stars (many shooting stars filling up the sky). When the story begins, the island is about to be challenged by an attack from within. A good animal will be falsely accused and banished from the island, and the rest of our friends will work to uncover the truth, protect the king, and save the island from a growing and hidden evil.
“May the Heart keep you, Urchin of the Riding Star . . . May the Heart guide you, guard you, nourish you, enlighten you. And may the great love of the Heart bring you safely back . . .”
In addition to good old-fashioned high-quality writing, this story has a pure and bright soul which stole my heart. The author, Margaret McAllister, is married to a minister, and her inclusion of religion into the culture of her characters is artfully done. A little like the religion in Narnia, the religion in this series centers on a deity that is generic in name, “Heart,” but is clearly Good and Beautiful. Also, the religion of Mistmantle is clearly liturgical:
“We have ignored it for too long . . . It must be prayed in. And it needs to be blessed with light. Candles.”
What surprised me the most was how this particular book renewed my commitment to regularly reading aloud with my children. Because of the beauty of the language, the complexity of the story, the moral struggle between good and evil, the humor of Padra, and the delightful storytelling, my kids were clamoring for me to read and read and read. They were happy to tell their friends that they could not play, and they chattered away about the story during chores and meal times. I rediscovered how good it was for our family culture to get lost in a world together that we all loved being in. And, I remembered how short the time is that I have them in this home. And how quickly it might be coming to an end. I decided that this was too special not to safeguard, so I reorganized our daily schedule to include at least a 20-minute session every school day for the rest of the semester.
“Ever since Urchin of the Riding Stars first appeared in 2005, readers have written lovely letters and emails about the series. Lately they’ve been telling me ‘I loved these books when I was young and I want to buy them for my children,’ or ‘I loved Mistmantle when I was a child and I want to read them again as an adult.’ Here you are, then, thanks to Purple House Press keeping books out in the world where they belong. And thank you to Christine Enright for bringing the Mistmantle animals and their beautiful island to a new generation of readers.”Margaret McAllister, Preface to the 2021 Purple House Press Reprint
Urchin of the Riding Stars is the first book in a beloved series that first debuted in 2005 called The Mistmantle Chronicles by Margaret McAllister. Sadly, the series went out of print. The last time I looked, copies of the final book in the series are starting at $220 on eBay, and are over $1,000 on Amazon. In 2021, Purple House Press reprinted this first book as well as the second, titled Urchin and the Heartstone, with gorgeous new covers and delightful new illustrations. The preface to the 2021 edition was penned by the author, and is completely charming all on its own.
“Something was moving in the water, gliding under the bridge. It might have been a pike, but could it possibly be an otter? We rushed to the other side of the bridge to see it emerge. The thing that might have been a pike swam to the shore, climbed out, shook itself, and as we watched, the otter ran along the bank. I think we forgot to breathe. From that moment I knew the otter had to be in the book. I immediately knew his name. Padra.”Margaret McAllister, Preface to the 2021 Purple House Press Reprint
I have a penchant for books with talking animals. Both the Watership Down kind (rabbits behaving like rabbits, but talking so we humans can follow along) and the Narnia kind (animals talking and acting like humans who wear clothes and have Christmas teas). I know some readers dislike talking-animal books, but when they are done well, I find them to be appealing and maybe even a little magical. This one was done extremely well.
I am shocked that I never knew of these books until recently. I do not know why they are not more commonly known, and I think that so many families would benefit from these. I passionately recommend doing these as a read-aloud if possible. As you will see below, there are some challenging or dark themes that would benefit from family discussion.
There are a good number of characters to keep track of in this story. The author, Margaret McAllister, and Jill Morgan of Purple House Press, thought that readers would appreciate a character list to help them keep it all straight and so they added it to the 2021 reprint. On my first reading, I saw the list but didn’t think too much of it. As we started reading the second book, I noticed the list right away and wondered if there had been one in the first. I am drawing your attention to it here so that you don’t miss it and because you may enjoy seeing the delightful names of the characters.
Special Note for Adoptive Parents:
Urchin is an orphan. His mother dies in the first chapter and he is found on the beach by squirrel Captain Crispin and squirrel Brother Fir (the priest). Urchin is adopted by a dear foster mother, squirrel Apple, who loves him fiercely and raises him well. When he comes of age, Captain Crispin takes Urchin as a page, and later on the otter Padra becomes like a father to him. In future books in the series, other adoptees are also featured.
Despite the talking animals, this book is not the stuff of Paddington Bear or Winnie the Pooh. It is not for young or sensitive readers who may be easily frightened. I think readers of the Green Ember books by S. D. Smith will agree that these are similar in style and substance to those.
“Even the Heart that made Mistmantle had to break with love for us. That is how it gave us the mists. But it does not stay broken. The Heart still beats, still loves us, still holds us. A true heart survives the breaking.”
The beauty in this book comes, in part, from its contrast against the evil that is very present on the island of Mistmantle. Like good Christian fiction, the religion of Mistmantle is based on a good and loving creator and the free will of creation. Most of the characters are grateful for the Heart that made and loves them. Some, however, made an act of will to choose evil, then repeated that choice often enough that they became wild and corrupted by the evil.
“Long ago, before the moles built the Old Palace, there was an evil king in Mistmantle, a squirrel. He and his followers did not understand the Heart. They worshiped the darkness in themselves. They honored all that destroys. They took joy in death, not in life. It was said that they had a dungeon under the rocks of the shore so dark and so hidden that no animal taken there could hope to see daylight again. Dead or alive, victims were thrown down a pit into darkness. The place became so evil that even the king feared it, and committed murder there as a sacrifice to it.”
Parents of sensitive readers may wish to know that the character in Mistmantle who has been corrupted by evil has found the place mentioned in the quote above and has been worshiping there. We do not witness his worship, but we do hear about the murders he has committed, the evil he has done, and we watch him slowly but surely become deranged by the darkness he has enshrined in his heart. A friend said that her mom described it as Shakepearean, and I would agree.
“It was a laugh with no laughter in it, more like a shriek of despair. [His] voice was barely recognizable, but he was laughing. Instead of joy there was cruelty, insanity, and evil in the laugh.”
“[He] knew he was in his own bed, but the nightmare was still there. He felt the deathly cold of it. If he shut his eyes, even only to blink, he saw it again. In his nightmare the dead [victim] crawled out from the darkness and scuffled through the tunnels that led to the dungeon, covered in dust and cobwebs, bloodstained, turning his head in the dark, sniffing for him, seeking him out . . . ”
But, again, the good is truly good.
“Its evil has festered all these years, waiting for someone . . . he nourished it, and it nourished him . . . As soon as I found it, I set about cleansing it with light and prayer. It will still take days and nights of light and prayer, until it is cleansed of its past.”
Parents may especially wish to know that the murderous villain convinced the king to enact a culling law before the story begins. Any animal born with any kind of deformity was to be “mercifully” killed so that they would not suffer and they would not be a burden to the island. As the story goes on, the villain tries to expand that law to include the elderly who are no longer productive. This horrendous law is actively opposed by all of the heroes – even at the risk of their own lives. Like those who hid Jews in German-occupied countries during WWII, there is a robust underground network that rescues many of the babies, hides them, and protects them. This evil law is a central feature in the resistance of evil throughout the story, and it resolves magnificently.