This is a little bit like Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, a little bit like Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, a little bit like the Will Ferrell movie, "Stranger Than Fiction," and a fairly tale rolled into one. The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley is the name of this book and it is also the name of the book that the characters in the book are part of. It's also the name of the book that gets written at the end of the story. Confused yet? The story within the story within the story plot is hard to follow at times, but Townley threads his narratives together gently enough to pull the reader along, unknowing, until all becomes clear. And, while this is a small book and relatively short, this is one of the longer reviews I have written because the plot is a bit complex.
There are two main plots. The story of Sylvie, the princess and heroine of The Great Good Thing, who, when told at the age of twelve she must marry the horrid Prince Riggeloff, who has everything, declares that she, too has everything and does not need him. She sets of to do great, good things, such as rescue a blind owl, a giant tortoise and an invisible fish, all of whom return at various points in the story to help Sylvie out of a rough spot. However, the main story involving Sylvie occurs when her book is closed and she and the other characters are free to wander through the pages of the book, the illustrations and the independent clauses. When a reader opens the book, birds, frogs and other wildlife in the story trumpet the news and the characters run back to the pages and paragraphs in which they make their first appearances - if the reader starts at the beginning of the book. Sometimes, the reader starts in the middle and the characters have to pick up elsewhere.
The second plot involves Claire, who is a bit younger than Sylvie when we first meet her. Claire is the granddaughter of the original owner of The Great Good Thing. Claire's grandmother is known to the characters in the book as the girl who is the "first reader." When we meet Claire, she is struggling to read this book that is treasured by her grandmother and has been given to her especially. The next time we meet her, her grandmother is dying and Claire is reading the book out loud to her as she lays in her hospital bed. After her grandmother's death, Claire reads the book often and the characters are kept very busy for a while. Sometimes Claire falls asleep while reading in bed and Sylvie discovers that, when this happens, she can travel from the edge of The Great Good Thing over a blank white space like the margin of a page and enter into the forest at the edge of Claire's dreams. Sylvie lives for these adventures, not content with her own story only. This is where she meets the "first reader," Claire's grandmother, again, as a memory of Claire's. Having seen a picture of her grandmother as a girl, she lives on in Claire's dreams as this young girl, the girl that Sylvie recognizes.
When Ricky, Claire's jealous brother, sets fire to the book, the characters from The Great Good Thing, led by Sylvie, run from the flames to the edge of Claire's dreams, where they live on as memories. Here, they begin life anew and find a way to survive in the land that is Claire's subconscious dreamworld. As Claire grows into an adult and the content of her dreams shifts, the characters from the book are no longer needed and they decide to venture off into the other unused countries of Claire's subconscious and rebuild their story. However, things don't go quite as planned and Sylvie is called away by the first reader to assist Claire, now the mother of Lily, in telling a bedtime story - the story of The Great Good Thing, a story she can not even remember the name of. Sylvie stands at Lily's bedside next to Claire and whispers the story into her ear and the characters are given a new life for a while.
Eventually, Sylvie is called upon again, this time to make the leap from Claire's dreamland to the now adult Lily's. Claire is on her deathbed and the characters will die with her if Sylvie cannot cross over and convince Lily, a struggling writer, to recreate them. Not only does Sylvie manage this, but she also manages to wander Lily's dreams with her and convince her to write the story of The Great Good Thing, a book that Lily futilely searched the country for as her mother was dying. Lily does, with Sylvie's help every step of the way, and the book is a great success.
This book was haunting in an adult way, but not one that I think kids will pick up on. The way the story and the love of the story is passed from generation to generation, and the visible way that the characters in the story are kept alive by this love is very moving. The fairy tale story of Sylvie and the other characters, although comprising less than a third of the plot, is well written and entertaining, so much so I wished for a little bit more of it in the story. Townley has one truly brilliant plot device involving the populace of Claire's dreamworld that is no longer in play, one of whom is her old teacher, Mr Fangl. He has died since Claire knew him but has managed to live on in Claire's dreams as a memory. However, as his days out of play increase, he finds a small patch of rust appearing on his temple. King Walther, Sylvie's father, also finds the rust creeping up on him, rust that will eventually consume him and wipe him from Claire's memories forever. Without use, even memories can rust and crumble.
I recommend this book for kids who really love to read, fantasy especially. It may be tough to catch on at first, but it it worth the effort. This would also make a great read out loud to a younger child, as you can discuss it while reading. There are also some good discussion questions in the back of the book for book groups or parents and children to think about.