Blog / Review by Francis Phillips in the online edition of the Catholic Herald

This World War Two time travel story offers children an alternative to vampires and Harry Potter

Mixing war, smartphones and the legend of Glastonbury, The Secret of Glaston Tor is an exciting tale

I am always on the look-out for good children’s reading material. Apart from the obvious classics, such as CS Lewis’s Narnia books and Tolkien, most of the books I read to my own children when they were young were the old Puffin Book series, produced by Penguin, which I discovered in charity shops. They were often splendid discoveries, but generally had a pace, style and atmosphere quite different from the literature found in the children’s section of public libraries today.

Donal Foley, the publisher of Theotokos Books, has written his own adventure novel for children. Titled The Secret of Glaston Tor, it is the first in a series to be called “The Glaston Chronicles”. He has pitched it for ages 11-14 and it involves the legend of Glastonbury, a dangerous mission in France during World War Two, time travel and suspense. It is an exciting yarn (though having read it I would put the age range at perhaps 10-12.)

I asked Foley what gave him the idea for the story. He tells me that he didn’t like the kind of books he saw children reading when he was a supply teacher, so decided to write his own, appealing especially to boys. Thus he includes smart phones, computers and World War Two, as it is in the schools’ history curriculum. “The idea just developed of a mission to help refugees escape from wartime Europe and it became a practical matter of how this could be done.”

But why does he link the story also to Glastonbury Tor? He relates that he stayed there some years ago and read Geoffrey Ashe’s well-known book, King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. “The Tor was the site of the martyrdom of the Abbott of Glastonbury and two of his monks during the Reformation but it is also a place with pagan associations. So I saw it as a particularly suitable ‘gateway’ into the past/future.”

Does he have a special interest in the Second World War? Foley replies that the war “seems to be a more clear-cut case of a war between ‘good and evil’ than often seems to be the case nowadays”, adding that it “brought out the best and worst of human nature – for example, the heroism of the pilots during the Battle of Britain, but also places like Auschwitz.”

Foley is wary of some of the content of modern children’s books, such as the Harry Potter series and vampire-themed books. He comments: “There is a potentially harmful aspect to this type of book, in which things which were formerly regarded as evil, such as witches and vampires etc, are now portrayed as being good.”

Pursuing this, I wonder if there a temptation, in trying to counter the morally and spiritually ambivalent aspects of some modern children’s books, of being too “preachy”? Foley hopes this isn’t the case, saying he has tried to present religion in a natural way, in a real life context. “For example, I thought of having the people hiding from the Nazis in the French farmhouse pray the rosary with the old grandmother, as this would seem natural for the time.” Likewise, the discussion about the existence of God later in the story “is a realistic way of dealing with such questions during wartime, when the possibility of death is very much a reality.”

How did he set about creating the characters? Foley tells me that Emil, the emotionally scarred teenager, was hard “as it was difficult to grasp what his inner motivation might be.” He also struggled initially with the character of Matt, the main character, but comments that “once a character becomes established in the story, they take on a life of their own and this makes it much easier.”

Future books in the series, he tells me, will include as a theme the dangers of dabbling in the occult and a story set in America, Matt’s home country, “plus other possibilities I would like to explore, such as going back to the time of Joseph of Arimathea, who has legendarily been linked to Glastonbury.