The other week, as I was walking down the street near the store, a customer greeted me warmly and gave me a kiss. "Saffy's Angel!" she said. "Thank you for her" -- gesturing to her ten-or-so year-old daughter -- "and thank you for me."
I've been selling kids' books for more than ten years now, but this was the first time I've ever received a kiss for a good recommendation. And
Saffy's Angel is a spectacular book, definitely worthy of such high praise. It's one of those books aimed at "middle grades" -- third or fourth to sixth or seventh grades. But as the mother in question amply proved, it's a wonderful book at any age. Written by Hilary McKay in 2001, it won the Whitbread Children's Book Award in England -- their Newbery Medal equivalent.
It's a very moving story, but the thing that makes it so special are the wonderful eccentric characters, each lovingly portrayed. There's plenty of real emotional turmoil, and there's also a fair amount of hilarity. Eve and Bill Casson have four children, named Cadmium (Caddy), Saffron, Indigo, and Permanent Rose. Saffy has always been told their names come from the color chart that hangs on the kitchen wall (both parents are artists). But when she's eight and finally reads it, she discovers saffron isn't there. This leads to the long-overdue revelation that she is actually her siblings' cousin, daughter of the mother's twin sister who lived in Italy and was killed in a car accident when Saffy was three. Saffy trudges on through life feeling slightly detached from her loving family, and with a fairly sizable chip on her shoulder.
The main action of the book takes place about five years later. Rose is in kindergarten, resenting its structured days, Indigo spends much of his time sitting in his second-floor window, trying to overcome his fear of heights, and Caddy has a crush on Michael, her driving instructor. Our family first discovered Saffy's Angel on audio. The CD is out of print now, but I strongly recommend finding it in a library -- it hits all the right notes. Driving lessons were especially well read. In this one, Indigo and Rose have come along:
"Which way at the rotary?" Caddy asked peacefully.
"Right. Sorry, I was forgetting. You're in the wrong lane! Signal! Don't barge in front . . . there . . . missed the road . . . take no notice of him honking . . . you can't stop here! Go round again!"
Caddy went around again and managed to take the right road the next time, frightening Michael, Indigo, Rose, and a truck driver in the process.
"I can't believe you just did that," said Michael.
"That was very, very brave," agreed Rose, unclamping her fingers from the edge of the seat. "Zipping in front of that enormous truck. I'm sorry I screamed."
"Perfectly natural reaction," said Michael. "Have you seen those cyclists ahead, Cadmium?"
"No. Oh, yes. Sorry. Shut my eyes for a moment."
"Can you drive with your eyes shut?" inquired Rose, with great interest.
"No. No, I can't. Missed. Good."
"Missed what?" Michael asked.
Michael put a hand on the steering wheel and said Caddy should take the next turn on the left and then pull up and park.
Caddy pulled into a bus stop and thirteen people waved her away. Rose waved back.
They're all a little daffy, but they all understand the important things in life. Their beloved but addled grandfather dies, and a note on his will leads Saffy on a quest to find a stone angel. She finds a new friend who ultimately helps with the search. But the moment of making friends is one Saffy wants to keep to herself:
She knew quite well what would happen the moment she let Sarah meet her family. She would lose her. Sarah was just the sort of person that Caddy and Indigo and Rose would like. They would make friends immediately. Then Eve would come out of her shed and be sweet and useless and friendly, and she would like Sarah too. And sooner or later Bill would reappear from London and be efficient and handsome and make excellent jokes. Sarah would be swept away on a wave of Casson charm.
Saffron had lost her grandfather only the week before. She had lost her family twice -- the first time in Italy, and the second time when she discovered her name was not on the paint chart. She seemed to have been losing people all her life, and she had no intention of losing the first proper friend she had ever made.
Sarah and Saffy end up going in one direction to solve the mystery of the angel, and Saffy's siblings try something else. Ultimately the search is what heals her, and pulls her back into the family again. It's great.
McKay has written four sequels to Saffy. They're all quite good, and the reader has that wonderful warmth of being back with characters one knows and loves. But Saffy is without doubt the best.