By J.K. Rowling
With illustrations by the winners of The Ickabog Illustration Competition
It’s been 13 years since J. K. Rowling published her final “Harry Potter” book, ending a series that transformed a generation of children into readers and reminded a generation of parents how exciting it was to be a child. I read the books aloud to my kids, but I also raced through them alone in great greedy gulps late into the night, desperate to find out what happened next.
How thrilling, then, to learn that Rowling has used her pandemic time to produce a new, non-Potter children’s book. (She has been busy along the way with other projects, of course, and recently waded into a messy public argument about transgender rights.)
At first, “The Ickabog” seems like a conventional fairy tale, charming but slight. It is set in Cornucopia, a pleasant kingdom ruled by the vain but harmless King Fred the Fearless. (He dubbed himself Fearless “because it sounded nice with ‘Fred,’ but also because he’d once managed to catch and kill a wasp all by himself, if you didn’t count five footmen and the boot boy.”)
Rowling loves words and delights in aptronyms for places and people. She has named Cornucopia’s regions after their culinary specialties: Chouxville for pastry, Kurdsburg for cheese, Baronstown for meat, Jeroboam for wine. To the north are the scrubby, rather unpleasant Marshlands, home to sickly sheep and a fearsome creature known as the Ickabog. No one seems to have seen it — its appearance and monstrous powers vary depending on the whims of the storyteller — but it is the bogeyman that keeps children in line and haunts their dreams at night.
The kingdom’s peaceful equilibrium is shattered when Fred’s chief seamstress dies of overwork, an unfortunate event with snowballing consequences that “history books of Cornucopia would later record as the beginning of all the troubles.” And troubles they are. Power falls into the hands of two diabolical courtiers, Lord Spittleworth (the lean, cunning one) and Lord Flapoon (the bibulous, sycophantic one), who spread discord by perpetuating the lie that the Ickabog is real and that the only way to protect the populace is by imposing martial law. In no time at all, Cornucopia becomes a place of violence and fear in which dissenters are imprisoned, children are separated from their families and citizens are forced to participate in a mass delusion to prop up a corrupt regime.
If anything sounds familiar, it is coincidence, Rowling explains in her foreword; she began the book years ago as a bedtime story for her children. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that she pulled the half-written manuscript from the attic and started to work on it again, trying out new material on her now-teenagers and releasing it (free, initially) in serialized form on her website. The chapters are short; the story lends itself to being read aloud; and the experience is greatly enhanced by winsome illustrations contributed by children aged 7-12 who won a contest this summer.
Rowling has kept her excellent sense of humor and prodigious imagination, but she has become a clearer and more disciplined writer over the years, less inclined to lard her narrative with extraneous exposition. The story is scary at times, but she leavens it with a light touch and a sense of moral rectitude that lead us to suspect (correctly, as it turns out) that all will come right in the end.
What elevates “The Ickabog” beyond a famous writer’s fanciful tale is the wondrous plot twist that comes toward the end, and the sheer delight that follows. I read this book at home in November, with the cold drawing in and ambulance sirens in the distance, a harbinger of a hard winter to come. It made me weep with joy.
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