You will not be surprised to learn that when I was a little girl, I loved to play pretend. It didn’t matter if I had friends to play with or if I was on my own. Until I was eleven, I lived in my head. I was constantly imagining the world to be even just slightly different than it was. Fueled by movies like Labyrinth and books like The Song of the Lioness Quartet, even the most mundane days were filled with magic for me. Anything went and most of my pretend world was a mashup of everything I was interested in at the time. All except Wise Child and Juniper, and I’m not entirely certain why.
I read both of Monica Furlong’s books multiple times. The spines of my copies are well worn and the pages are clearly well-loved, but I never pretended to be Juniper or Wise Child. I never played at being a doran and maybe it’s because they felt too real, maybe a little part of my child brain worried that if I pretended to be a doran, I might actually make something happen. Though I loved Wise Child, and I hope you’ll read it (and its sequel, Colman), it’s Juniper that affected me most.
Juniper takes place in medieval Cornwall. Juniper (called Ninnoc at the start of the story), is the daughter of King Mark and she is so spoiled at the start of the book. When she is asked to live with her godmother Euny, her life takes an unexpected turn. Euny, is a wisewoman/witch known as a doran and she has promised to teach Juniper to be one as well, but the journey doesn’t turn out the way Juniper expects.
Instead of learning to levitate or move things with her mind, Euny forces Juniper to kill a pig and count birds on a walk. She makes her sleep on the hard floor and they don’t always eat as well as Juniper is used to. Life is hard for the once pampered princess and she is pretty damn unhappy about it, but Euny has her reasons. The conflict of the story comes about when Juniper finds that her Aunt Meroot is working black magic to attempt to gain control of the kingdom.
Juniper is forced to grow in ways she didn’t know she could to save her homeland and her cousin, Gamal, from Meroot, but that part of Juniper’s story has always been less exciting to me than how she becomes a doran. It was that process that kept me from playing “Juniper” — something about it seemed so, so real. I think I thought that if I could find Euny, I too could learn to fly. It didn’t feel like something you pretended to me.
It’s strange, because I (and apparently everyone on Goodreads) read this as a kid, but when I re-read it, it holds up. Furlong’s writing is solid and sophisticated and I don’t feel like I’m reading a child’s book. However, it’s not like some (more adult) books that I read when I was younger, where when I read it now I understand more of the story because I needed an adult brain to do so. It’s one of those rare books that is right for lots of ages.
People ask me a lot if I have recommendations for kids books and this is definitely one, though this isn’t a “kids book” to me. All the messages I got when I was a girl about power and hard work have affected me my whole life. From Juniper, I learned that paying attention to what happens around you is important. I learned that as a woman, your intuition is real and that you should heed it. I was a pretty privileged little girl, with a lot of hard years in front of her when I read this book for the first time and its lessons stuck with me. I still turn to it from time to time when I need to remember that being a girl doesn’t mean being weak and that simply continuing when things are difficult is its own kind of magic.
Whether you’re a mother with a daughter who loves historical fantasy, an auntie who wants to pass on the messages I spoke of to her niece or just a lady looking for a good book, I think Juniper will appeal to you. Be forewarned, just about everybody who reads this book leaves it wishing they knew how to use a loom, so that’s in your future.
The amount of books on herbal lore in Allison Carr Waechter’s home library are a direct result of reading books like Juniper. Come over and she’ll read your cards and talk plants with you. If you can’t make it for tea, tweet at her.