Pam Smy was already much respected as an illustrator of other people’s work before her debut illustrated novel, Thornhill, found her shortlisted for both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards in 2018. She had illustrated fiction by many esteemed authors, including Siobhan Dowd, Julia Donaldson and Linda Newberry, as well as some classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe
Thornhill is a dual narrative told by the main protagonists who are separated by thirty plus years but interconnect, through illustrations in the contemporary story, and written diary entries for the eerie past. Although it is a bleak Gothic ghost story with disturbing themes of loss, loneliness, mutism, neglect and bullying, and there is certainly no conventional happy ending, friendship and kindness also feature at its heart. Unusually and welcome, all the significant characters in this book are girls or women. The darkness of the tale is emphasised not just through chilling imagery in Smy’s powerful illustrations - a haunted house, tangled creepers, crows, spiders, creepy puppets, barbed wire - but by the number of completely black spreads which close each chapter, creating spaces in the narrative. They could be seen as eloquent metaphors for silence in harmony with the mute central character.
Using flat layers of emulsion paint with black acrylic ink on top, Smy and her publishers, David Fickling, have produced a beautifully designed doorstep of a book which asks a lot of its readers, not least to contemplate the deep unhappiness of its child characters and the inability of the adults around them to intervene and save them from harm.
I have been fascinated by this story since Pam gave a research seminar in Cambridge some years ago when she had just started the project. Thornhill is quite simply one of the most memorable and thought-provoking publications of the last few years