Rosemary Sutcliff is the premire 20th-century author of historical fiction for children. Her books about Roman Britain, in particular, are absolutely must reading. The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950), which I'm talking about today because it starts at Midsummer, is one of Sutcliff's youngest books, and one of her first. It's the only one, as far as I know, in which there is an element of real magic (her one picture book aside).
"...Perdita was born just as the brass-faced clock in the Rector's study struck half-past eleven on Midsummer's Eve; and as everyone knows--or if they do not, they ought to--anyone born on Midsummer's Eve, especially towards midnight, will be sure to see fairies..." (page 12) And so, near midnight on Perdita's eighth birthday, the fairies summon her to receive a birthday wish. Whisking her off to the Broomhill they tell her to wish on the Grey Maiden, the tall grey stone standing at its crest. "I wish to see Queen Elizabeth," she asks. "I wish to see her so close I could put out my hand and touch her." (page 32).
From then on, the fairies fade into the background...but Perdita's story still is magical. It tells how she and her older brother Robin, and Robin's friend Adam, the young heir to the manor, meet the Queen one glorious day. But before that happens, the small doings of life in Elizabethan England are brought to lovely life, made into large happenings through the enthusiasm of young Perdita. And at last her wish comes true...a large happening by any standard!
What really made this book for me, when I was young, was Adam. He was my first book love ( I was nine), and I am awfully fond of him still. He is lame, but so gallant and kind that Perdita doesn't notice it...and in a scene I especially love, he invites a sad and lonely Perdita to a private banquet at the manor, where he makes the lords and ladies of a tapestry come alive for her in a glorious magical wonderful-ness.
There are a couple of stories within the story, that, as a grown-up reader, I find break the flow of the book as a whole. But despite that flaw, it is a lovely book, full of thick description and vivid character and history made real. And its magic is aided and abetted by the wonderful drawings of C. Walter Hodges, my favorite children's book illustrator.
(sorry for the slightly wonky cover image--my own copy doesn't have a dust jacket, or I would have scanned it to make a better image available on line...)