When I set out to write a children’s story about a festival, a small, local, usually disastrous village festival that is visited once every hundred years by the Good Folk from beyond the Isle Of Lisashee, I wanted to write it from the inside, from the point of view of people involved in the organizing, the arranging, the lifting and the carrying, all the thankless voluntary drudgery that goes in to creating small local events. This is tough for dedicated adults, it can be tougher still for reluctant kids. Nonetheless, you often find them there, in the background, running around as gofers and dogsbodies, some eager, some resentful some with no idea of what they’re supposed to be doing. They help set up the podiums, erect the marquees, arrange the chairs, look after the stalls, guide the traffic, fetch the cow.
The Knockmealldown Festival Committee Junior Action (Cow-fetching) Sub-group presents an unlikely trio.
Brian is the point of view protagonist. He’s what tends to get called a blow-in, a recent arrival to a community, having difficulty fitting in and finding his way, not always treated kindly by the locals. It’s especially difficult to be a young blow-in in a place like Knockmealldown, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, plagued by years of bad luck, whose beauty spots are now blighted and polluted. Most of the locals are a bit miserable and bad-tempered at the best of times. Worse still, Brian’s parents are the sort of can-do get-involved-give-something-back-with-enthusiasm-and-energy types that can get right up other people’s noses. Naturally, they drag Brian along with them whether he wants to go or not.
Derek is a local through and through. His parents own the local shop, and they’re a bit like Brian’s parents only more embedded in the life of the locality. They’re involved in everything from sports to tidy towns to local drama and, of course, in organising the doomed and benighted festival. Derek is a bit of a rebel, a tough-talking apparently mean-spirited bully, punished for a spate of bicycle thievery by being forced to help out on the festival committee. Mostly, though, Derek is kicking out against the constraints of life in a rather sad and misfortunate village, where every effort seems wasted and useless. It doesn’t help Junior Committee relations that one of the bicycles stolen and wrecked by Derek was Brian’s beloved Backahatchi 3000.
Helen is also a local, but from outside the village. Her parents are farmers and she is into horses and horseriding in a big way. Bright, energetic, well-meaning and full of innocent but heedless enthusiasm, she has decided that the festival desperately needs her help and input. On any normal festival committee, she’d be a delight and an asset. On the Knockmealldown Festival Committee, she’s regarded as something like an alien life form. Helen can be a bit of a know-all, but the fact is she does know a lot. Just as with Brian’s moroseness and Derek’s bullishness, Helen’s almost aggressive cheerfulness conceals someone a lot more thoughtful and sensible underneath, the sort of person you’re glad to have on your side when things get spectacularly, magically, weird and dangerous.
These are my three kids, utterly unsympathetic and even resentful towards each other, forced together, first to help out at a small, creaky, cranky local summer festival where everything always goes wrong, and then, when suddenly the fairy ring on the Isle of Lisashee opens, to keep a Great Festival going to entertain some very bad-tempered Other Folk, and to rescue a Princess by performing four Feats. They have to put aside their differences, work together and maybe, just maybe, become friends.
Because that’s how it happens. You got roped in to something, a sports event or a Christmas concert, or a sponsored walk, and suddenly all these other kids are working with you and around you. You barely know them, or if you do, you’ve rarely spoken, or you simply don’t get on with them. Through all the effort, the practice, the rehearsal, the training, the long slog along the road, you come together in a shared experience. You rest in exhaustion or boredom on the grass under the sun, sitting on bales of hay, or waiting backstage in your costumes and make-up, and you find yourselves laughing and joking, warm and natural together in a way you would never have expected.
For me, that was always the real magic of those community efforts, those little festivals. You made friends. It didn’t matter who they were. You were all in it together. Maybe the friendship lasted, maybe it didn’t, but you never forgot the feeling. That’s the real heart of The Cloak Of Feathers, in all the chaos and the madness. Three unlikely kids making friends.
There is a fourth person helping them out, one of the Other Folk, a strange-looking creature called Fester, and maybe she can guide them through the strange rules and rituals of the Great Festival, and help them find the pieces of the Cloak of Feathers. And perhaps she’ll be their friend, too.
Nigel Quinlan is the author of The Cloak Of Feathers, just published by Orion Children’s. His first book for children was The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox. He lives in a small town in the middle of Ireland, and sometimes he likes to help out with the local festivals. He tweets from @Nigellicus.