A celebration of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s The Stone Cage

This piece of mine, about one of my favourite childhood books, was published in the wonderful books magazine, Slightly Foxed, in issue 18, in 2008. I know a lot of people share the same fond memory of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s gorgeous book, The Stone Cage(and his other lovely works) so thought I would republish it here, as a new year’s gift. Hope you enjoy!

Nicholas Stuart Gray

by Sophie Masson

first published in Slightly Foxed, issue 18, 2008.

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family or school or public events, but in stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly remember picking them up from the shelf—an ordinary act—and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. The pure pleasure of it, the immediate liberation. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, stepping through the borders into another world, where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility. And I found my own calling as a writer.

It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories, as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.

The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but because they were also so influential on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades was one of those magical moments that made me rediscover not only my childhood self, but also the reason why the book stands out in my memory. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn the witch’s cat:

Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure—what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes—but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had—a dog’s life.

I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.

And what a witch! Bad-tempered old —! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.

A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship, and is forced to pay a terrible price for his presumption, as he must give up his only child to the witch. And so the poor child is taken from her parents and put into a world where no-one trusts anyone else, love isn’t allowed to exist, and bitterness and cruelty reign. But all is not lost, for this is a very special child indeed, who will achieve an extraordinary miracle, greater than the greatest of spells, greater even than the most malevolent hatred.

As I read, I was swept along, just as in childhood, on the irresistible tide of a gripping story that for all its wit, humour, accessibility and clarity is also a compassionate, tender and complex evocation of the transforming power of love. But it’s certainly not all sweetness and light. Going way beyond a mere retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel, on which it’s based, The Stone Cage reaches deep into the darkest, most painful aspects of life, as well as its most beautiful and joyous. In the way of the best children’s literature, it attains a profundity that’s all the more remarkable because of its sheer lucidity and unpretentiousness.

I finished The Stone Cage exactly as I’d done all those years ago: with tears in my eyes, and a thrilling heart, for the book also ends in one of the most perfectly judged, moving yet unsentimental scenes of its kind. Allied to my renewed love was a keenly increased admiration for the artistry of the author, which had easily stood the test of time. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue crisp, the pace good, the combination of light and dark subtly achieved. And the beauty of the style! Fluid, graceful, it is humble—in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and yet it’s fresh, distinctive, individual. The Stone Cage had been so important to me because everything in it worked. It was all so natural, so flowing, so multi-layered, its world richly imagined, yet delicately evoked. It was a real masterpiece, a novel just about perfect both in concept and execution, and timeless in its appeal, a novel that should have just as many young readers now as it did back then.

Aye, there’s the rub. For The Stone Cage is out of print, and has been for a long time. In fact, and rather astonishingly, in a culture like Britain’s that generally does value its children’s literature, all of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s books are presently out of print. Beautiful, original and accessible though The Stone Cage, Mainly in Moonlight, Grimbold’s Other World, Down in the Cellar, The Seventh Swan, and his other works are, they are unobtainable except through second-hand shops and the Internet, although some are still in libraries. It’s not as if modern children don’t like them, or don’t understand them, either; I know of lots of  young readers who, introduced to Gray’s books by their parents, have loved them just as much, and have found them just as easy to read. It’s not as if there’s anything dated or offensive in them, no obvious or hidden misogyny or racism or class stuff or anything like that. There is nothing really to properly explain this puzzling situation, other than that they’ve simply been overlooked.

And yet, Gray’s work has deeply influenced many of today’s writers working in the fields of children’s literature and of fantasy—Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman and Cecila Dart-Thornton, for instance. I’m certainly not the only reader-turned-writer to remember Gray’s books with great love and respect. Australian children’s novelist Cassandra Golds, author of the acclaimed Clair de Lune, wrote to me about the huge impact on her of one of Gray’s books, Down in the Cellar :’I will never forget the Sunday afternoon on which I finished reading it. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I’d finished reading it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I KNEW I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children’s author myself.’  As an eighteen year old, Cassandra had written the author a fan letter, and she still treasures his modest, graceful reply, in which he said, amongst other things: ‘As all my books and plays are only written for myself and not for any imagined audiences, readers, age-groups, publishers, etc, it is always a delightful surprise to get proof that anyone BUT myself ever reads or sees them..’

Perhaps that answer gives a clue as to why Gray’s work is not recognised as it should be. This was not a man who blew his own trumpet, not a writer who sought publicity, but one who loved his work and felt privileged to be doing it, and who was too humble to thrust himself forward. Who was perhaps also at heart a rather private, reserved, even secretive person, despite his long association with theatre, which many people would consider the home of trumpet-blowing, egotistical extroverts. Certainly, when I went to research his life, I found precious little information.

Nicholas Stuart Gray was a Highland Scot, born in 1922, the eldest of four children. As a child, he wrote stories and plays for his siblings. Not one to bend easily to the routines of school, he left at the age of fifteen, to become an actor. He kept writing as well, and his first play was produced two years later. His first children’s play to be published was Beauty and the Beast(1951), and from then, he wrote and produced a good many plays for children, before turning his hand to novels and short stories(where I think his true gifts flowered).   Some of his novels, like The Stone Cage (1963), he also adapted for the stage: he told Cassandra Golds that he himself played Tomlyn in the play’s premiere at the Edinburgh Festival and its subsequent successful seasons in London and on tour. (That would have been something to see! ) He never married or had children. His plays fell out of fashion, but his novels and short stories continued to be published until his untimely death from cancer in 1980, and right into the late 80’s, we were still seeing frequent reprintings of his books.

But in the last fifteen years or so, there have been no more new editions. In this new Golden Age of children’s literature, it’s more than time to bring his books back so that a whole new generation can fall under their spell. Any publishers out there listening?

As a present-day coda to the end of my piece: as I mentioned in the article, second-hand copies of The Stone Cage are not easy to track down–and I’m certainly hanging onto my own beautiful hardcover copy, found by chance in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford some years ago . So it always astonished me that The Stone Cage hasn’t been republished, but when, five years ago, on behalf of the little publishing house I’m involved in, I made enquiries as to who might own the rights, it appeared that no-one was actually sure what had happened to them. Gray had no direct descendants, though he did have extended family, but a letter to an address I was kindly given by the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) in the UK went unanswered.

Great review of Inside Story in Magpies!

Delighted to see a wonderful review of Inside Story (for which I was one of the principal writers and compilers) in the latest issue of the prestigious children’s literature publication, Magpies Magazine. See below.

There’s also, in the same issue, a three-page interview with me and Kathy Creamer, another of the main writers/compilers, about how the book was created and produced. Not available online, but you can check out Magpies Magazine subscriptions here: for anyone interested in Australian and New Zealand children’s books, Magpies is an absolute must!

Great first review for Four Up In Lights!

There’s a great first review for Four Up In Lights in Buzz Words. Here’s a short extract:

Award-winning author of over 70 books, Sophie Masson has clearly had a lot of fun creating these four endearing characters, putting them in all sorts of trouble and helping them find their way out with plenty of chuckles and adventure along the way.

Cheryl Orsini’s fun illustrations bring the characters to life and capture both the tension and celebration of the story as it unfolds.

Perfect for young readers, aged 5–8, Maxie, Flash, Fergie, and Lady once again demonstrate the importance of friendship and the joy of adventure. With a hot-wheeling pace, Four Up in Lights will keep readers engaged and wanting to read the story in one sitting. 

You can read the whole review here.

Lovely first review for Magical Tales from French Camelot

There’s a lovely first review of Magical Tales from French Camelot, by the fantastic book blogger Ashleigh Meikle, on The Book Muse.

Here’s a couple of bits from the review:

Sophie’s retellings are lyrical and emotive, and as she explains in her rationale at the end of each tale, she chose the most powerful moments in each tale to retell, leaving off where she needed to, and at times, explaining the rest of the story and its context within the French canon as well as its relationship to the British stories. Doing this gave an extra layer to the book, and it is the same process Kate Forsyth uses for her Long Lost Fairytales collections as well. In giving readers a history of the tale and letting us know what they have done, Sophie, like Kate, invites us into her world and writing process….

These stories bring part of the Arthurian legends and myth cycle to life for adult and young adult readers, and I loved reading them, loved feeling like I was part of the world that they came from, and loved the beautiful illustrations by Lorena, created with many different aspects digitally to tell the stories just as much as the words did. I find it hard to put her illustrations into words because I think they are the kind of illustrations you have to experience for yourself – they’re just that magical!

You can read the whole review here.

First review for Inside Story!

And it’s a cracker! By Dianne Bates, it was published in Buzz Words magazine today, May 23 2022.

Here’s the full review:

Inside Story: The Wonderful World of Writing, Illustrating and Publishing Children’s Books compiled by Sophie Masson, Kathy Creamer, Beattie Alvarez, and Peter Creamer, edited by Jen Scanlan and Sharnee Rawson (United Publishers of Armidale) PB RRP $29.99 ISBN9780648815457

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Here is an invaluable resource and reference book for aspiring writers, illustrators, editors and designers or anyone interested in Australian children’s books. It is the first publication by the newly formed UPA, a collaboration between two independent publishing houses: Christmas Press and Little Pink Dogs, in association with the New England Writers’ Centre. And what a comprehensive and beautifully designed and presented book it is! Designed by Rae Ainsworth, the book covers all aspects of writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books. It includes a section on what happens in the publishing process, how to pitch to publishers, alternative publishing models, useful organisations, and resources.

On each page there are coloured photographs and graphics, break-out boxes, and information (and advice) from a wide range of industry workers. Colourful double-page spreads introduce each topic, and there are also numerous lists of children’s books under headings such as picture books, illustrated storybooks, fiction anthologies, graphic novels, and more. Any inspiring author would benefit from the advice and tips offered by authors, agents, editors, publishers, and illustrators such as Stephen Axelsen, Pippa Masson, Ian Irvine, Jenny Blackford, and dozens more.

There is, as one would suspect, a clear bias towards books published by Christmas Press and Little Pink Dog Books, but other publishers shine in the book, too. It’s gratifying to see that the compilers have included poetry collections and anthologies, with advice from editors and compilers. Ursula Dubosarsky, Richard Tulloch and Duncan Ball share information and tips for writing plays, with Ball sharing his discoveries as former editor of The School Magazine.

In the tail end of this very engaging book is a list of useful organisations and resources for everyone, including editors, designers, and publishers. Numerous publishers have granted permission to use images from their titles, and there is a page of acknowledgements to the many people who have contributed material (and crowdfunding income). Interestingly, there’s a double page spread at the end of the book with photographs and biographies of the compilers, editors, and book designers.

There are many hours of interesting reading in this comprehensive book. Highly recommended!

Lovely first review for Sydney Under Attack

Just seen the first review of Sydney Under Attack, and it’s great! It’s by Ashleigh Meikle on the Book Muse blog. Here’s a short extract:

2022 marks the 80th anniversary of these attacks – which makes novels like this poignant and important. They remind us that everyone was touched by the war in some way – whether on the home front, on the battle fields, or through knowing someone affected by events far from where they lived, such as Mrs Stein being unable to help her family escape persecution in Europe. Sophie Masson not only touches on how Nick and his family are affected, but how Jewish people are affected, how people who have family stuck in other theatres of war were affected, and how assumptions about someone based on appearance can change when you get to know the person and understand them, and find out that they’re just a normal person, not a spy at all.

You can read the whole review here.

A new review, and the day of the launch of Butterfly

Today, at 6pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, we are launching A Hundred Words for Butterfly online, with interviews, reading, cocktails and pintxos, games and more! It’s going to be such fun! If you’d like to attend, you can simply join via the Spineless Wonders Facebook page, or register here to get the link. (It’s all free). It’s going to be such fun!

And as a lovely lead-in to tonight’s festivities, there’s another fabulous review of the book, this time on Google Play. It’s by writer Claudia R. Barnett. Here’s a short extract:

Like a flavoursome, aromatic Basque soup, this immersive tale leaves you wanting more. In part, this is due to the dialogue. It sounds authentic – as though you were eavesdropping on a friend’s conversation. And it is brought to life by Sarah Kennedy’s exquisite narration. But the real charm of Masson’s story are her engaging, relatable characters.

You can read the whole review here. And watch the lovely trailer for the book here.

And now, I’m off to start putting together ingredients for the pintxos I’ll be making for tonight, to have with a couple of those celebratory cocktails!

First review of A Hundred Words for Butterfly!

Delighted to say that the first review of A Hundred Words for Butterfly has just appeared, on the Kobo website, which is one of the retailers where you can buy the book. It’s an absolutely lovely review by the fantastic artist Lorena Carrington. Here’s a short extract:

Sophie Masson’s A Hundred Words for Butterfly is a wonderful listen. The relationship and tension between twins Helen and Alex felt very real, and the gently unfurling relationship between Helen and Tony was refreshing and so lovely. And of course the wonderful descriptions of the towns and countryside – and food! – made me feel an intense longing for the Basque Country...

You can read the whole review on the Australian Kobo site and the US Kobo site.

Two great new reviews of The Ghost Squad!

It’s always wonderful for a writer with a new book out to know that readers are enjoying it, and so I’m really delighted to find two new lovely reviews of The Ghost Squad this week. One is at Ashleigh Meikle’s Book Muse blog; the other at Claire Holderness’ Claire’s Reads and Reviews blog.

Here’s an extract from The Book Muse review:

Filled with secrecy and cover-ups, and with characters who have  varying degrees of trustworthiness throughout the novel, to the point where you don’t know who you can trust other than Polly, Kel and Swan.

These relatable characters who are human and flawed drive the narrative, and invite us into their world. It is up to Polly and Swan to find out how to prevent the clandestine factions from controlling people more than they should, and how they go about it and returning to their lives as best they can is told with great gusto and flair, as their world starts to change forever. A great young adult read for teens aged 14 and over.

You can read the whole review here.

And here’s an extract from the review in Claire’s Reads and Reviews :

This book was full of twists and turns, conspiracies, relationships, secrets, danger and action. I really couldn’t foretell anything that was going to happen and it wasn’t always clear who to trust or who to believe. There were plenty of people and factions to be wary of along the way and there were some unexpected allies too.

I recommend this if you are looking for something engaging and different.

You can read the whole review here.