'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' by Neil Gaiman does what all the best fantasy writing does; it takes the real world and makes you feel that there are things about it that are unknowable, that fantastic things can happen right here not just in far away imaginary worlds. Not that you would want this kind of thing to happen, it was pretty scary, but I am a wimp and very easily scared so don't let that put you off.
Life has been quite normal for our unnamed protagonist but things take a real world turn for the worst with the suicide of their lodger. To remove him from a situation that children are not supposed to see he ends up at the farmhouse at the end of the lane being watched over by a trio of strange women. The Hempstock's farm appears to exist in the real world, they have porridge for breakfast and everything, but things are not what they seem, and when Lettie befriends their young neighbour he unwittingly becomes the way in for a creature from another place. The creature then takes human form and begins to inveigle its way into his family. I like the fact that Neil Gaiman doesn't try and give any kind of reasonable or logical explanation for its behaviour, you just have to go with the flow. In spite of the increasing menace the boy draws on courage he didn't know he had faces up to responsibilities far beyond his years. The magic of the place protects him from the horror that he experiences, delivering him back to his family with only the vaguest notion of events, and it is only when he comes back in later life to sit by the 'ocean' that he can recall and thus agonise over whether he is responsible for what happened.
Not really a book for children, but a book about childhood, and how it is a separate kind of existence from adulthood. I think that Neil Gaiman has a deep affinity for the child's point of view. The boy in the story really has no understanding of, or even interest in, the things that happen in the adult world, even while being aware of how any change might be a threat.
When he is forced to give it up due to family economics the boy explains why his room is so important:
"the room was above the kitchen, and immediately up the stairs from the television room, so at night I could hear the comforting buzz of adult conversation up the stairs, through the half-open door, and I did not feel alone. Also, in my bedroom, nobody minded if I kept the hall door half open, allowing in enough light that I was not scared of the dark, and, just as important, allowing me to read secretly, after my bedtime, in the dim hallway light, if I needed to. I always needed to." (p.17-8)
And that porridge I mentioned earlier:
" She gave me a china bowl filled with warm porridge from the stove top, with a lump of home-made blackberry jam, my favourite, in the middle of the porridge, then she poured cream on it. I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as i have ever been about anything. It tasted perfect." (p.27)
Lovely enigmatic exchange between the boy and Lettie; I just like the way children accept what they are told and make their own sense of it:
" 'How do you know?'
She shrugged. 'Once you've been around for a bit, you get to know stuff.'
I kicked a stone. 'By "a bit", do you mean "a really long time"?'
'How old are you really?' I asked.
I thought for a while. Then I asked, 'How long have you been eleven for?'
She smiled at me." (p.40)
This final one seems to sum up childhood so perfectly. Children trust people because they have to, because they have so little control in their lives, and, to a certain extent, the happiness of a childhood is founded on that trust being well placed:
"I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock." (p.199)
Neil Gaiman doesn't try and create whole worlds like some 'fantasy' writers, he just makes little corners that capture your imagination and haunt you after you have finished reading.