Feb 18, 2010

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay

Saffy’s Angel is the first of Hilary McKay’s books about the Casson family, a family of eccentric, creative, and mostly lovable people. The parents, Eve and Bill, are both artists, and they named each of their children from the colour chart that hangs in their living room: Cadmium, Indigo, Saffron, and Rose. It’s Saffron’s realisation that her name is not on the colour chart after all that leads to a discovery about her past, and later on to a quest to find the stone garden angel her grandfather wanted her to have.

The main reason why I loved Saffy’s Angel so much is because it’s such a kind book. This isn’t to say that everyone is nice, that the characters are permanently content, or that only good things ever happen—not at all. The kindness is there because this is a book about a (mostly) really nice family, who truly care about one another and whose interactions constantly made me smile. There’s also a degree of warmth and humour in the storytelling itself that really add to this general feeling of kindness. Saffy’s Angel is such a happiness-inducing book. Just thinking about it makes me happy again.

I’m saying the family are “mostly” kind, by the way, because I didn’t really like Bill, the children’s father. It’s perfectly clear that the narrator doesn’t really means us to, as the passages concerning him are written with delicious irony. The result is very funny, but it’s also a commentary on gender roles and on the unfairness of the kind of social pressure and expectations that allow a man to get away with— indeed, to justify as only right and proper—what would be unthinkable for a woman.

As a reader, I feel that I’m on a permanent quest for more imaginary friends, by which I meant that I’m always on the lookout for the kind of characters I hate to part from; the kind whose company I enjoy so much that I always want to spend more time with them. Saffy’s Angel is one such book, and the good news is that, although it works perfectly as a standalone, there are five other books about these characters. I couldn’t be happier.

One of my favourite scenes was the one in which Saffy makes friends with Sarah, a girl her age she had never spoken to before even though they’d been living in the same street all their lives. This is because Sarah is in a wheelchair, and the Casson family were too busy politely trying not to see the wheelchair to see Sarah herself at all. We’re told that once, when she was little, Saffy pointed at Sarah, but she was immediately told by her parents never to do that again, preferably not to look at Sarah’s at all—a kind of chastisement obviously based on the assumption that she was staring and pointing at the wheelchair. She couldn’t possibly be looking at Sarah stood and seeing a person her age that she would perhaps like to be friend with.

But then Saffy bumps into Sarah and is forced to see her at last, after which the two do make friends—and Sarah turns out to be every bit as lively and interesting as the Cassons themselves. The scene I've just described and the gender thing are examples of another thing I loved about Saffy’s Angel: it’s subtly subversive, and there’s more to it than meets the eye. With kindness, with irony, and without ever hitting readers over the head with them, Hilary McKay asks the kind of questions the world at large should be asking more often.

Saffy’s Angel is funny, wise and warm. It also has excellent dialogue, and it’s filled with characters I want to see more of. What else could I ask for?

Reviewed at:
Jenny’s books
Shelf Love
Book Nut
Library Queue
Necromancy Never Pays

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Love the sound of this one. I'm enjoying a few 'happy' books these days... Daddy-Long-Legs (that you recced), Miss Read books, and so on. I think I suddenly realised that every book you read doesn't have to be challenging or include frightening concepts. Much as I like those too, it's nice to mix and match.

  2. That almost makes me sad when I hear about characters that are so enjoyable, you want to make them your imaginary friends! I don't even remember the last character I felt that much love for. I want an imaginary friend! I could name a half dozen characters I find entertaining but I don't think I would like them very much in person. What a delightful read. I can't wait to hear about the series!

  3. It's so sad when parents misunderstand children like that scene where Saffy points to Sarah. I have a very similar scene from my early childhood, actually, except it had to do with someone who was overweight not in a wheelchair, and I was very young (like 3).

  4. I remember reading Indigo Star a few years back, which is also by Hilary Mckay, but looks at Indigo's life. I remember really enjoying it, but I never got around to reading the rest. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention.

  5. This sounds like a delightful book. And I totally understand about imaginary character friends. :)

    I'll have to look for these books. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  6. Your review has left me really curious about Saffron's name and her past.

  7. I like it that you read a great variety of books, including many of those I have not heard before. That's one reason why I enjoy skulking round your blog! :D

    Anyway, I just did a search online for Saffy's Angel and noticed some covers that are really different from one another. The cover that you have (the watercolour painting look) seems kind of haunting and mysterious. Then there's also the pinkish, girly cover. I wouldn't be able to associate both books together.

    Oh well, I'll still be looking out for this book. Thanks for the review. :)

  8. I loved this book so very much; it made me laugh, but was also wistful. I hope you'll go on and read the rest of the series. I'd not spotted this cover before - very different to my pink version.

  9. I'm so glad you liked this as I was going to buy my daughter the set of these.

  10. So, all the kids are named after colors on the chart, but then one kid's name isn't on the chart and this sets everything in motion? What an odd premise for a book!

  11. This sounds like just the sort of book I need in February. When the weather's nasty, we all need kindness more than usual.

  12. De-lurking to say: I love this book! And its sequel, Indigo's Star, is one of the most beautiful children's books I've ever read. The whole series is great, really! I'd recommend trying to find the original British editions, though (yes, the ones with those ghastly cartoony covers), because the American editions contain all sorts of irritating and unnecessary Americanizations. And yes, Bill is delightfully awful! I know so many people like him in real life.

    (Love your blog, btw!)

  13. I love that this story is so "kind". This is definitely the kind of book we should all read. There are so few of these kinds of novels around.

  14. I've meet plenty of fathers like that...

  15. This sounds like a delightful read, Ana! I like how it that the characters' names are named after colours. Saffron intrigues me so I'll have to check out this book. :)

  16. This is a popular author at my library with the middle school kids!!

  17. **I feel that I’m on a permanent quest for more imaginary friend**

    Me too!!!!
    I would totally love to read this book. It is something I NEED now!! I am definitely going to look out for this one! Thank You!

  18. <3 I want this! It sounds like such a <3 worthy book and I've never even heard of it before. Must gets it.

  19. Never read this series (terrible redone, modern covers have kept me away), but I love Mckay's Exiles books which are about a similarly kind family with a much nicer dad.

    Your comment about looking for imaginary friends is so cute and true. It's fine to meet and treasure characters you don't like, but it's always wonderful to find people you'd want to hang out with.

  20. Oh I like the sound of this one! Sometimes a kind book is just the right thing.

  21. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much! The subsequent books are equally delightful - the second one is probably my favorite, but they are all wonderful. I love it in Saffy's Angel when Rose is writing the signs - oh, and when poor Caddy's revising for her exams.

  22. Late, late, late, and I'm not going to read all the comments, but I'm SO, SO, SO glad you liked this book. It's one of my absolute favorites -- isn't Rose a dear? You'll love her in the later books. And you're right, Bill's a cad, but he does eventually redeem himself. I want to move in with the Cassons. Or maybe next door.

    Anyway. Enough gushing. Do read the rest. :-)

  23. Cath: I've been enjoying happy books as well lately :) It's definitely important to balance them. And plus I believe that happy things can be just as meaningful and thoughtful as sad ones.

    Sandy: I go through long periods without finding any too - I'm sure you'll make an imaginary friend sooner or later!

    Amanda: Yes, isn't it? :\ I guess sometimes they forget that children haven't necessarily absorbed society's prejudices.

    Vivienne: Indigo's Star is the second in the series, but I don't think they have to be read in order. In any case, I've already ordered it :P

    Anna: I think both you and The Girl would enjoy these a lot!

    Kathy: It's a neat story :) But it's really the characters that make the book, I think.

    Josette: Aw, thank you! :D And yes, I noticed that about the covers too...they really are very different!

    Verity: I'll definitely read the rest! Indigo's Star is already on its way to me :)

    Gaskella: Do! And then borrow them from her ;)

    J.T: Oldfield: lol! That does sound rather strange, but I promise that in the book it all makes sense.

    Jeanne: Exactly! Not a fan of February. But - one month to go for Spring!

    Liz: Hello, and thank you for delurking :D I've gone ahead and ordered Indigo's Star from The Book Depository, so it will be a British edition for sure. Normally I get all my books from them, but this one came from Bookmooch. Anyway, I'm really looking forward to it, especially after what you said!

  24. Kathleen: They seem to be harder to find than the gloomy ones, don't they?

    Lenore: Sadly they abound :\

    Melody, I think you'd enjoy it a lot!

    Staci: Clearly they have good taste ;)

    Veens, you're most welcome! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :D

    Chris: I hadn't either until Jenny reviewed it, but it's a complete delight :)

    Jodie: Don't let the covers scare you away, though! They really are worth it.

    Beth: Exactly :) We all need them sometimes.

    Jenny: I loved Caddy and her rodents and driving lessons :D I loved them all, really. I'll be sure to read the whole series. Thank you for recommending this to me!

    Andreea: yay! Enjoy :)

    Melissa: She is! And I look forward to Bill's redemption :P I'll be sure to read Indigo's Star soon.

  25. I like the kindness you describe in this book and have put it on my wish list. It sounds like just the type of book I would love, so thanks for the awesome review. I probably would have never heard about this book elsewhere, so thank you!

  26. Ooh - sounds great! On my list. Thanks!

  27. I don't remember why I first found your blog, but when I did I browsed around a while, and came across this. The review piqued my interest sufficiently to make me order this book, and I've just finished it. What a wonderful story this is - I do love thoughtful teenage fiction, and will be recommending it to various friends who borrow books from me. Thanks SO much for this review... I will soon be ordering 'Indigo's Star' as well since I see that you liked that even better :-)

  28. good book.had 2 read this 4 home work.

  29. I absolutely love this series! I have read it over and over again; it is such a warm and funny yet thoughtful series. It is actually Rose who points to Sarah in Saffy's Angel but yes it is the same idea. I also loved The Exiles which I read first, and laughed hard at, but I'd say that the Casson series is better, as it seems warmer and more relatable. But it is a difficult choice. All Mckay's books are amazing.


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