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If most writers were to write a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, I should look at them doubtfully, over my glasses, and try to be polite in the face of my doubts, and worry about whether or not to read the thing, and so on.

But this is Hilary McKay, and she wrote Saffy's Angel. Which is one of the best children's books of the past decade or so and stands proudly with writers like Elizabeth Enright.

So I knew that this would be a good book, as indeed it is. What I didn't know was whether it would be a reasonable sequel to its predecessor, whether it would have anything to do in tone and character development with the things that happen in that book.

Yes and no.

This is a story about what happens at Miss Minchin's Seminary after Sara Crewe leaves it behind. Because she had friends and enemies there, and left them lacking a scullery maid, and went off very suddenly, and this is the sort of event that changes a place forever. Things cannot go back to the same dull round after you have had A Plot Occur.

And indeed, in this book they do not. Ermengarde, who was Sara's particular friend, misses her and is greatly distressed by having been left out of the last bit of the plot of the previous (which I hadn't really noticed, but, indeed she was). Lottie, who was Sara's particular charge, can no longer be told what to do by anyone or anything. Lavinia, who was Sara's particular enemy, sees her as having managed a jailbreak, which means that the school is a jail: and in looking around for ways out of the jail the thought that occurs to her is labeled, in grand colors, Oxford.

It's a book about mourning, and wondering whether one was really ever necessary to the person one mourns for, and coming to life again in the ashes. As that, it works, and it follows its model, for A Little Princess is very much a novel of and about grief, and the stages of grief, and coming back from that.

It is, also, in an approximation of Burnett's style which is reasonable without containing the preachy aphorisms Burnett goes off into sometimes. But McKay does not have Burnett's gift for the single exact enlivening sentence-- at least not with the Victorian sort of adjectives she is here required to use, for that is a gift I have seen her have elsewhere, with contemporary language.

The thing is, though-- look.

I am a feminist. I am fond of books about women. I am fond of books about women and girls learning who they are and what they can be. This book is full of that. I enjoy it wildly.

In fact it is, for the time it takes place, possibly unconvincingly full of that. I know it's a children's book, I know it's meant to end happily, but this is a book in which every woman of any interest to the reader sees whether she is in a trap and if so figures a way out of it, every single one of them. In short, this is not a tragedy at all: and in the original, there is still death. I look at the way things work out in this book, and the plot, and the plot says 'hard work will make everything absolutely fine', and that is not what the first book says; it says 'hard work and kindness will make everything fine, except what is by nature unfixable'. In the world in which these young women go to seminary, the trap of the female role was, sometimes, unfixable despite rage and pain and all the work in the world. I would have liked that acknowledged, because if I had read this particular book as a girl myself, I would have thought that if things weren't coming right that meant I wasn't working hard enough. Sometimes all the hard work and all the dreams and all the kindness in the world do not change a reality that is a harsh one. Sara's father really died. In McKay, even Miss Minchin breaks her chains, finally.

In short, the first, despite having been written in a notably sentimental age by the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, is darker, and I think a great children's book needs at least an undertone of darkness. The reason A Little Princess lasts is the darkness, the loneliness, the grief, and the attic, and the portrait of what kindness can and cannot do for those.

Which McKay has known before, in her Casson books, and will probably know again. It is difficult to have things come out ambiguously or complicatedly when you are working with material you have loved as a child. This is perhaps why I do not like her Sara. Her Sara is, well, not enough older; hurt has its aftereffects, doesn't it? Not as much here.

So I would say this is very good, and very readable, and does not make me wish to throw things, but it is not a Great Novel as the first was (not that one expected a Great Novel, but one could hope). Still, it is nice to know what happened to and at Miss Minchin's, at the end.

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