• Landscapes in Children's Literature No 2

    Mary Hoffman, author of the compelling Stravaganza series of young adult books, shares the inside story on the settings of her novels.  Intriguingly, each of the six books is set in a fictionalised version of a real Italian city back in the 16th century. Mary also reveals how her favourite childhood read, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings influenced her writing. 

    Mary Hoffman's Tales of the City

     When Clare Lewis (who I’m proud to say is my cousin!) suggested I might contribute something to this series, I realised that both in the books I read as a child and in the books I now write for teenagers, it was cityscapes rather than landscapes that made the biggest impression.

    In fact my Stravaganza series for teenagers (Bloomsbury), has six titles which all begin "City of....", which tells you something! Each one took a city in Italy, beginning with Venice, and transferred it to the sixteenth century, in a parallel universe.

    It was important for me that each city should become a character in the book. Here's a little taste of City of Masks, the first book, where "Bellezza" = Venice. 

    “The crowd in the square was getting merry with wine and the sheer pleasure of a three-day holiday. The Bellezzans and islanders knew how to enjoy themselves. Now they were dancing in ragged circles, arms linked, singing the bawdy songs that traditionally accompanied the Marriage with the Sea. The climax of the evening was coming. Rodolfo’s mandola had been spotted making for the wooden raft floating in the mouth of the Great Canal, which was loaded with crates and boxes. Everyone was expecting something special for the Duchessa’s twenty-fifth Sposalizio – her Silver Wedding.

    They were not disappointed. The display began with the usual showers of shooting stars, rockets, Reman candles and Catherine wheels. The faces of the Bellezzans in the square turned green and red and gold with the reflected light from the display in the sky over the water. All eyes were now turned away from the Palazzo and from the silver-masked figure watching at the window. …

    After a pause, the dark blue sky began to brighten with the fire-pictures of Rodolfo’s set pieces. First a giant brazen bull pawing the sky, then a blue and green wave of the sea, out of which grew a glittering serpent. Then a winged horse flying above them andseeming to sweep down into the water of the canal, where it disappeared. Finally, a silver ram seemed to emerge from the sea and grew massively large above the watchers below before it dissolved into a thousand stars.”

    Here I was trying to convey the feeling of Bellezza without actually describing the city itself. There are no set pieces in which I say what the city looked like; the reader picks it up from the mention of bridges and little canals and squares and sottoportegos.

    When I was a kid, the books that most affected me were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and my favourite – then and now – was The Two Towers. I fell in love with Minas Tirith, the great city of Gondor, and it thrilled me to the marrow to see Peter Jackson’s recreation of it in the film he made.

    I can distinctly remember having a pair of studded sandals that made me feel like Pippin, one of the Gondor Citadel Guard and playing that game all day. And that’s not because I didn’t find the Forest of Mirkwood or the treehouses of Lothlorien attractive. It was just that Minas Tirith was a city, made by and inhabited by people. And I felt then, as now that we interact with our built surroundings and the influences go both ways.

    Here is a description of Minas Tirith:

    “Minas Tirith was situated on the Hill of Guard – the "out-thrust knee" of Mount Mindolliun, connected to the main mass of the mountain by a narrow 'shoulder'. It faces eastward towards Osgiliath, over the Pelennor Fields surrounding the city, fertile townlands stretching from the walls of the city proper to the Rammas Echor. 

    The city was built on the hill with seven concentric tiers cut on the hill culminating in the Citadel at the summit. The outer wall was called the City Wall and was black, of the same material used in Orthanc. The City Wall was vulnerable only to earthquakes capable of rending the ground where it stood.

    Each of the seven levels stood 100 feet higher than the one below it and was surrounded by a white wall. Each wall held a gate, and each gate faced a different direction: only the great gate and that of the seventh level faced east; the gate to the second level faced southeast, and that to the third faced northeast; so altering between the two such that the path up through the levels wound to and fro rather than following a straight line. An outcropping of rock as high as the seventh level bisected all the lower levels except the lowest on the line of the Great Gate. The winding path through the city therefore passed through tunnels in this 'keel' five times.”

    A very thorough piece of world-building, I think you’ll agree.

    Maybe that’s it. The glories of nature are there ready-made and I enjoy them on my weekly Nordic walks. But what moves and involves me in a book is something created by the writer, not described. An environment in which the characters, equally well conceived move and live and act out whatever destiny the author has prepared for them.

    I’d love to know what are your favourite fictional cities.





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