Book Review: Young Fionn – Small Kid, Big Legend – reading a thrilling adventure aloud

By Ronan Moore, illustrated by Alexandra Colombo, Gill Books, 2020

At the end of August, I took my first flight since March 2020 and flew to Dublin to meet my mother and sister. I had never visited Ireland before, and Dublin was a fascinating, friendly city to visit. Amongst its delights was the Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane (conveniently close to the charming Piglet Wine Bar – yum) which had a fabulous children’s section. Their selection included many from Gill Books, a publisher I didn’t know before, but I’m now something of a fan. I came away with a little haul as presents for the kids – my son and I have just finished reading Ronan Moore and Alexandra Colombo’s Young Fionn.

In truth, I’m the one who has been reading it, out loud at bedtime. My son is coming up to 8 years old and is fascinated by myths, legends and tales of heroes but it’s a bit advanced for him to read himself. Aloud it’s a stirring, quite funny, lively book to enjoy together, and there’s a particular joy in reading to an older child, who doesn’t need you to read, but enjoys it when you do.

Young Fionn tells the story of Irish hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill (F-yun Mock Coo-al) as a child, and has a sequel, Fionn and the Fianna which I have ordered from Bookshop. Fionn’s father, the warrior Cumhall and his mother, Muirne, run away together, and throughout his childhood, Fionn is hunted by his father’s enemies, across the landscape of Ireland. When asked, my son said he liked it for the battles with monsters – and there are some good battles. But as we read, he’d been calling out for Fionn, who spends much of the book in hiding, to declare himself, so the thrill in the room was palpable when we got to the last chapter and Fionn finally stands before the High King: ‘I am Fionn, son of Cumhall …. I am Fionn, son of Muirne…’ As close to cheering as you get while lying in bed.

I struggled and stumbled over the pronunciations, but there’s a good name guide at the front – I kept my finger in it as I read. And it’s full of half-familiar names, and stories I’d heard part of before, such as the Salmon of Knowledge, all woven into a fun adventure. I don’t know the myths well enough myself to know how much variation Moore had built in to the telling but it was a pleasure to read an ancient adventure story with such strong, active girls and women. Fionn’s mother, Muirne (Mwir-na) beats Cumhall (Cool-al) at archery and bests him in a contest of endurance by making it a contest of wits. Fionn’s friends and close allies include Cana (Khan-a), a girl who becomes a hurling champion and Cnes (Kin-ass), whose deductions and speed help Fionn defeat an evil boar. And Fionn’s foster mothers, Bodhmall (Bow-mul)and Breac (Brack), who had fallen in love and escaped to be together, are hunters and trackers and warriors and fight to protect Fionn.

This book gave us plenty of characters to root for, Fionn and his allies, his family, and also the High King, Conn of the Hundred Battles, who’s a mixture of good and bad, but we liked for his fabulous name. There are also some wonderfully evil villains – we agree that Luachra (Luah-khir) is the worst – Alexandra Colombo’s vivid drawings capture him perfectly. This book has been an exciting way to discover a legend I ought to know better – and a reminder of the mutual joy there is in reading aloud, even when he could read it for himself.

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