Helen Cresswell's Moondial is still one of the best books for kids and teens

Helen Cresswell's Moondial is still one of the best books for kids and teens

By Helen Cresswell 
Published by Faber and Faber 
ISBN 978 0 571 32290 9

A sundial is a device that was used for telling the time before watches and clocks were invented. It's a flat surface, with numbers arranged in a circle around a thin piece of metal sticking up in the middle. The metal rod casts a shadow over different numbers as the sun moves from east to west.

A sundial cannot work at night because the moon, unlike the sun, is rarely bright enough to create shadows. So what happens when the moon rises? It's as if the ordinary rules of time no longer apply, and the dial takes on special properties. That is what Minty Cane discovers when she comes across a moondial in the grounds of Belton House, a grand mansion tucked away in the English countryside.

Helen Cresswell's children's classic Moondial was first published back in 1987, and now has been republished for a whole new generation to discover. Is this a time travel tale or a ghost story? It's a bit of both, and thoroughly deserves its reputation as a classic children's book.

It all starts off normally enough. Minty sometimes feels cold pockets in the air, and sees shapes and shadows that cannot be explained. This doesn't bother her - she's used to it. One summer holiday, she is sent to stay with her aunt because her mother can't take time off work. Aunt Mary lives near a stately mansion called Belton House that is now a tourist attraction.

Minty has just begun to settle in when she is told that her mother has been involved in a car accident and is now in a coma in hospital. Soon after receiving this devastating news, Minty is inexplicably drawn into the grounds of Belton at night, and finds herself walking in the shadows to what she thinks is a sundial. The moon is shining, and as Minty approaches the dial, something dramatic happens.

There is a sudden blast of wind and Minty is pulled back through time to Belton House 100 years ago. She meets one of the mansion's kitchen boys, who has also managed to use the moondial to pass through time. Both of them sense that there is something very sad and wrong back in time in Belton's history. Together they decide to investigate the mystery of Belton House.

Beautifully written and packed with shadows and shivers, Moondial is atmospheric and mysterious as a ghost story should be. Cresswell, with more than 40 children's books under her belt, was an expert storyteller, and this is her shining and imaginative best.

John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Ghosts and time travel combine in brilliant harmony


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