You might have noticed that I like to do things thematically and I like alliteration as well. A few months back I finally got around to re-reading one of my favorite books and that led me to a frenzied stock piling of reviews of books of a similar genre.
I dabbled with the idea of turning "Fairy Tale Fridays" into "Time Travel Thursdays" but decided that I didn't want to alter my Monday-Wednesday-Friday review schedule just so I could slap a cool label on a post. Therefore, I am pleased to bring to you, for the next several Fridays, reviews of young adult books that involve time travel as part of the plot. I'll be kicking off the extravaganza with a review of a childhood favorite of mine that was a groundbreaking book in the world of children's literature when it was first published in 1962 in so many ways.
I have enjoyed reading and re-reading every one of the featured books and have also realized that there seem to be two distinct ways to write about time travel. With the first, characters travel forward or backward in linear, historical time to definite places. With the second, the characters travel to other dimensions in time and space or travel within time itself.
I hope I introduce you to some books you've never heard of and inspire you (and your kids, of course) to read, read read!
Max Disaster #1 Alien Eraser to the Rescue & #2 Alien Eraser Unravels the Mystery of the Pyramids written & illustrated by Marissa Moss RL 3
Marissa Moss, author of the Amelia's Notebooks series, first published in 1995, featured in the American Girl Magazine and now totaling more than twenty titles, brings us the boy version, sort of. As Max himself says, "There's a girl in my class who keeps a notebook about EVERYTHING in her life. SUPER BORING!" Max's notebook, which he found mysteriously tucked under his pillow one morning, is "perfect for writing scientific stuff in... I have so many great ideas, I need a place to record them. I don't want to forget ANY of my cool inventions or experiments. My mom and dad are real scientists and I'm going to be one, too." A combination of Alien Eraser comic strips, drawings, photographs, experiments and inventions, Max's notebook also weaves multiple plot threads throughout the story. The main plot line in Max Disaster #1, Alien Eraser to the Rescue, involves the escalating fights between Max's parents that result in their separation and Dad moving into his own apartment by the end of the book. Max's feelings about this and his attempts to make sense of it are is a subtle theme that carries on into Book #2 and, I suspect will do so for the course of the series.
At first I was thrown by this development. On the surface, this book seemed to be about a boy who likes to draw comics and explode marshmallows in the microwave under the guise of the term "science experiment." And, because the main character is a boy and we all know that boys do not experience emotions or notice the emotions of others, I expected this to be a straightforwardly funny story with the typical gross things like boogers or farts thrown in here and there. The dissolution of a marriage and how it effects the children seemed to be wildly out of place, both for the target age target gender of the book. But, I do know, boy do I know after parenting two very sensitive, emotional boys, that boys do feel as well as think and they are concerned about the welfare of others, even if it is generally most often in direct proportion to how someone else's happiness will affect their own state of well being. And, based of the books I have read in an effort to expand my horizonal experience of the world of children's literature, books with boys as main characters can be well written, entertaining and thoughtful AND sell well - all at the same time! The first that comes to mind, written at a slightly lower reading level, is Megan McDonald's excellent series, Stink, now up to book #4 and published by Candlewick Press, who also brings us the Max Disaster series, among other great books.
The other wonderfully creative thread in the fabric of this already very creative story is the Alien Eraser himself. The front and end pages of each book feature comics in which the Alien Eraser is an independent being who has come to earth on a mission to, as he puts it, "find an unsuspecting host - someone who will think that he's invented me and will draw stories about me... someone I can use to recount my glorious deeds." Alien Eraser comes Max's and slips a notebook under his pillow as he sleeps. Within the pages of the notebook are comics that Max writes and illustrates about Alien Eraser after he and his best friend Omar decorate dozens of pencil topping erasers to look like people, villagers fleeing a volcano eruption (this during a moment of boredom at having to perform the same old vinegar and baking soda experiment again in class), military guys and aliens. Max even makes a happy family of erasers that he wishes would replace his arguing parents and mean older brother.
The experiments and inventions included in the book are very do-able for a kid with some adult supervision and actually seem pretty cool. In Book #1, Invention #4 is a glitter jar and Experiment #4 is a look at how how hot water and cold water react to each other. I have never seen this one before and plan to try it out as soon as I can find two empty jars in my cupboards. Book #2, Alien Eraser Unravels the Mystery of the Pyramids is even better because Experiment #2 is a recipe for a modern version of an ancient love potion (which Max hopes will make his parents change their minds about separating.) If my son has not already concocted something like this (but not for the same reasons...) without my knowledge, I am sure he will be stirring up the toenail clippings, honey and birthday candle as soon as he reads this book. I especially like Book #2, in which Max and Omar team up to do a school report on Ancient Egypt because Moss includes facts about Egypt that I never knew and avoids the typical type of information found in kid's books. I also loved the scene in the beginning of the book when Max hurts his mother's feelings by calling his Dad to ask him about pyramid power instead of asking her. Max confides in his notebook, "Here's why I didn't ask Mom: As soon as she heard I was studying Egypt she gave me a HUGE pile of books. The whole point of asking a parent a question is so that you don't have to slog through so many books to find the answer yourself." As a mom who has been known to throw a book at any assignment/problem my kids bring to me, I had to laugh. Thank you, Marissa Moss, for cluing me in as to why my kids are so secretive about their school work these days!!
Actually, I had lots of laugh-out-loud moments and even more snickering-to-myself moments when reading these two remarkable books. Marissa Moss first wrote about Max in 2003, but I could not find out where or in what format. He may have made an appearance in one of Amelia's Notebooks. Either way, I think the time is ripe for his reappearance. With the rising popularity of graphic novels and manga in general, as well as the phenomenal success of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, a very funny journal of middle schooler Greg Heffley, the shelves at the book store definitely have room for a book series that is rich visually, humorous and thoughtful. Bravo Marissa Moss!
The Max Disaster books will not be available for purchase until May 12, but, when they are published they will be sold simultaneously in hardcover (for $15.99) and in paperback (for the very reasonable, considering all of the color illustrations, $6.99). I think that, in a time when books for young readers like The Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones, which were previously released initially in paperback for a reasonable $3.99 and are now coming out exclusively in hardcover for $11.99, this is a bold and smart move on the part of the publisher.
Stink series by Megan McDonald with illustrations by the superb Peter H Reynolds.
The Fog Mound Trilogy brilliantly written and illustrated by Susan Schade and Jon Buller.
And, for those of you who home school or have kid's interested in history, don't miss Marissa Moss' excellent historical books on time periods raging from Ancient Rome to the Great Depression.
There seems to be a serious problem in the publishing industry when it comes to marketing a smart, thoughtful, engaging book for young readers that is based on a traditional fairy tale. For some reason, the people who choose the cover art, and even the titles in this case, have a problem matching the outside with what's inside... I have complained in the past when reviewing Gail Carson Levine's superb retelling of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted and, with Wendy Mass' excellent contribution to the genre, I think I have an even stronger case to make.
Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair (Twice Upon a Time Series) by Wendy Mass is a winsome new look at an old story. In fact, it is one of those rare young adult books that I actually wish was longer, as opposed to the 500+ page doorstops that hit the shelves monthly. However, if this book were any longer it would threaten to move into a higher reading level and it is so perfectly suited for fourth graders and especially younger children reading above their grade level that I wouldn't want to risk losing that aspect of the book. Intended as a series, but so far the only up to #2 which is titled Sleeping Beauty: The One Who Took the Really Long Nap, these books by Mass are marketed, both by title and cartoonish cover art, to be humorous retellings of fairy tales by characters with attitude. With alternating narration by the main characters, prince and princess, or commoner and prince, in the case of Rapunzel, these could be a sassy tweener version of a "he said, she said" story. However, I found Rapunzel to be more along the lines, albeit at a slightly lower reading and maturity level, of Ella Enchanted and Robin McKinley's excellent retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty.
The story begins with Rapunzel on the morning of her twelfth birthday. Before she even gets to eat the special honey almond pies her mother has made for her birthday and receive the ceremonial "first haircut" given to girls when they turn twelve, a witch storms into her father's rampion (or rapunzel) garden, which is also the family's livelihood, demanding payment for their deal. She carries the girl off to a tower where she waits idly as her hair grows longer and thicker. But, a prince hears her singing as he rides through the forest one day and, after watching the witch enter the tower then leave, follows her lead and comes face to face with the girl. He promises to rescue her, but the witch intercepts him and leaves him blinded and stumbling through the forest with Rapunzel, now banished for her betrayal, trapped in a thorny hedge-cage. The two manage to find each other again and, with teamwork, help each other out of their difficulties and find their way back to the kingdom on a white horse named Snowflake.
I know, it sounds pretty much like the original. What I left out are the new plot threads and details that Mass adds to the tale. Mystified as to how the witch enters the tower and feeds her, Rapunzel, with the help of a hidden hand mirror, discovers that she is being tended to by a reptilian green man who is treating her quite well. Lonely and homesick, she hides a note for him on her food tray one night which leads to a secret meeting. Steven, yes, that is the green man's name, although he longs for a more dashing one, tells Rapunzel of how the witch saved his son Stevie from choking to death by removing a huge beetle from his throat. Thus indebted to her, Steven agrees to work for her as a cook and a sentry and is surprised to find himself ensconced in the attic of a tower, the prisoner in a room below him. With the help of sleeping potion he has managed to keep his existence a secret, but, unable to believe that the young girl he is guarding is really a thief, as the witch has told him, he gives her treats and gifts in an effort to ease her sorrows. When Rapunzel figures out a plan of escape for the two, as well as the reason why Steven and her parents should be released from their debts to Mother Gothel (the traditional name of the witch in the story and also the German word for godmother), as the witch insists on being called, the two break free but only Steven gets away.
Meanwhile, Prince Benjamin is leading a somewhat sheltered life in the castle. A glasses wearing (and losing) animal lover, he finds himself in the village and among peasants one day when he gets lost trying to find a hare that he chased in anger and wishes to apologize to. Instead, he meets a boy roughly his own age also named Benjamin and learns that every boy born within three years of the birth of the Prince has been named Benjamin. Other Benjamin, as the Prince thinks of him, reckons there must for at least fifty boys in the village with the same name. The Prince is overwhelmed by this information, but even more amazed when Other Benjamin's father is able to mend his broken glasses with great skill and delicacy. The Prince wonders why such a master works at cleaning dung heaps rather than as a spectacle maker. When Other Benjamin's father tells him that cleaning dung heaps is a more certain line of work, the Prince vows to himself that he will one day help this man, feeling a "newfound respect for the villagers who clean dung heaps instead of following their dreams because it is best for their family." The Prince must also contend with his obnoxious cousin Elkin, who is visiting for the summer and find time for his best friend in the castle, the page Andrew who is training to be a knight. When Andrew tells the Prince of a treasure that is hidden in a cave in the forest and guarded by a troll, the two hatch a plan to retrieve the treasure and improve the lives of the villagers. How the paths of the Prince and Rapunzel cross, how Elkin reveals a sensitive side to his otherwise boorish self and how a hermit with a remarkable talent for cave painting unfold in the story is yours to discover, along with a few other treats. And, in perfect tune with the content of the story, the book does not end with a wedding, even though arranged marriages are part of the plot.
Maybe the fact that both the Prince and Rapunzel notice, with dread, that they each have a pimple at some point in the story, caused the marketing team to decide to go the direction it did with this book. Maybe the other few nods to contemporary life like passing gas and a toddler who runs through the castle yelling, "Poopy bottom poopy poo!" made them think they should play up the tween angle. If their decisions inspired a few readers who are normally inclined to choose books with splashy pink covers and titles like, "How I Survived Middle School" to give Wendy Mass' great fairy tale remake a try, then maybe it's worth the (sort of) false advertising. I just hope that readers who normally shy away from books with this kind of cover are willing to give it a try also. Any reader who loves fairy tales will get caught up in it and want more!
I first listened to Clemency Pogue: Fairy Killer on audio a few years ago and thought it was a great story and a brilliant twist on a familiar idea. While reading and writing reviews for my Peter Pan (and related books) week I was reminded of this great story and pulled it off the shelf - and listened to it again. LJ Ganser, the best ever narrator of books without a British accent, reads Clemency Pogue as well as the spectacular Sisters Grimm series. JT Petty and Michael Buckly both share a wry sense of humor and are skilled at creating thoughtful, brave, girl characters as well as the wicked and wickedly funny fairy tale creations who sometimes torment and sometimes help them. Interestingly enough, Clemency Pogue: Fairy Killer was first published in May of 2005, a mere two months before Daphne and Sabrina Grimm hit the bookshelves!
The prologue of Clemency Pogue: Fairy Killer begins with a very funny treatise on the nature of good, bad and exceptions to the rule. Newborn mammals are invariably all good. "Bees, however, are all bad. If you are a bee sympathizer and find yourself insulted by the above remark, you can petition for the refund of the cost of this book." Options go on from there, ending with the author of the book reporting you to the authorities as a "bee sympathizer, obviously insane, and in need of either treatment or imprisonment before you can do yourself or others harm." As the prologue, and even the title of the book suggests, there is some serious silliness going on. And not the obtuse, adult oriented, tongue-in-cheek humor of Lemony Snickett's Series of Unfortunate Events, but something kids will laugh out loud at, when they get it, and they will in the end. And, speaking of the end, the narrator finishes the epilogue eating his words and offering bee sympathizers a full refund.
"Clemency Pogue was child who listened to the stories she was told. It was a quality that saved her life once and started her on a great adventure." So begins the first chapter of the book. Clem lives an idyllic life on the edge of the forest which she wanders freely by day. At night, she returns to her family's cozy cottage to a comforting meal, a delicious dessert and a plentitude of stories, some old, some new, told by her adoring parents. When Mr Pogue tells the story of JM Barrie's Peter Pan, specifically the part when Peter informs Wendy that she has "disbelieved" Tinkerbell to death, Clem is listening, and this saves her life more than once.
The very next day as she is searching for sassafras saplings to use in her sassafras tea, wearing her homemade burlap pants that are a point of pride for Clem, she finds herself being stung by a flying insect. When she cannot swat or chase the bug away, she runs. As she is about to be stung on the tip of her nose, Clem gets a good look at the bug and realizes she is looking at a very tiny fairy, that has a "sweet-potato pallor, its skin the vibrant orange of cooked yams. From its back, four dragonfly wings whirred and buzzed like water spattering on a hot griddle," and is holding a with a searing orange tip. When the fairy pursues her over the edge of a cliff, the massive roots of the trees keeping Clem from falling to her death, she knows the fairy will not stop until she is dead. She remembers the story of Peter Pan and Wendy and says, out loud, "I don't believe in fairies." She has to say it seven times before the fairy falls over dead.
As she clambers back to to the top of the of the cliff she is met with a geyser of dirt from which emerges a hobgoblin. I would love to list every marvelous detail Petty's description of this hilarious, ugly but lovable creature, but I think I am in danger of transcribing the entire book. Every inventive, creative, uproarious detail leads to another and another. I'll just tell you this, though, since I thought it was pretty unique, the hobgoblin has two sets of ears, one of pig's ears and one of rabbits, and a very mocking, slightly jumbled, sardonic manner of speaking. He arrives, presumably, to let Clem know she has killed seven fairies. Among them are the Fairy of Noninvasive Surgery who is about to retrieve a pea that a little girl in bleakest Runssia has stupidly shoved into her ear canal, a Fire Fairy who keeps re-lighting the candles on a little girl's birthday cake, thus denying her the wish she is due and the Fairy of Random Prodding who is tormenting a herd of cows in Texas. Distraught over the destruction she has wrought, Clem asks if there is any way she can fix things and remembers Wendy's solution. She manages, much to the despair of the herd of cows, to bring the Fairy of Random Prodding back to life before the hobgoblin stops her, telling her that she has no control over which fairies she returns to life and, if she re-animates the Fairy of Frequent and Painful Pointless Antagonism she will hunt Clem down in a matter of minutes and sting her to death for sure.
After giving Clem a brief lecture on the power (and impossibility) of knowing a fairy's name, the hobgoblin turns, about to head for Java. He says his goodbyes and compliments Clem on her stylish burlap pants, noting that he has some "potato friends who will wear nothing less." She thanks him in turn and replies, "That's true. But they chafe me so." This causes the hobgoblin to stop in his tracks. He falls instantly under Clem's power. It turns out his name is Chaphesmeeso. From that point on, like it or not, the two are a team. With a combination of innocent, good intentions, a sharp mind and the speedy mode of travel and knowledge of the fairy world that Chaphesmeeso offers, the two travel all over the world trying to right wrongs, or at least remove peas from ears. In the process, Clem finds out some interesting information about fairies, has very funny run-in with a spoiled, lonely boy, a beloved dog, one too many cups of tea and a folding sofa bed as well as a climactic battle on the frozen steppes of Russia with the Fairy of Frequent and Painful Pointless Antagonism.
This book was so innovative, so entertaining, I just wish it was longer! However, I definitely appreciate JT Petty's skill at writing a concise, entertaining, hilarious story that can be read over the course of a few bedtimes. And, fortunately for me (and you) there are two other books that follow the exploits of Clem and Chaphesmeeso!
Don't miss Clemency Pogue and the Hobgoblin Proxy and Clemency Pogue and the Scrivener of Bees (review to follow...)
I read all of Alison Lester's marvelous horse books back-to-back and feel like I have just spent the week on horseback in the rural Australian outback. I can almost smell the dry, dusty roads, the hay and the manure. Horse Crazy, her series for young readers, is playful and gentle with relatively well behaved horses and only little tidbits of danger here and there. The Quicksand Pony, for slightly older readers, introduces a higher level of danger and a more emotionally complex story that is resolved with a happy ending. The Snow Pony, while slightly under two hundred pages, is an emotionally tense, gripping story of young girls growing up and learning that sometimes they can't trust the adults in their lives as well as a harrowing, at times, account of the hardships, dangers and tragedies that come from working with and earning a living off animals and the land.
Set in a landscape similar to that of The Quicksand Pony, The Snow Pony is the story of Dusty Riley and the brumby (wild horse) who comes into her life. When we first meet her, Dusty is about ten years old and her world is almost perfect. She is brave and strong, helping her father with his cattle farming business. He even refers to her as his "right hand man." Dusty's younger brother, Stewie, who almost died when he was an infant, spends most of his time inside with his mother creating art projects. Jack Riley is a fourth generation rancher on his inherited land called The Willows, near the town of Banjo, Australia, and proud of his knowledge and success. Every year at the start of summer the Rileys take three days to walk their cattle up to the lush clover fields some fifty kilometers away to their property in the mountains they refer to as The Plains so that they could spend the summer grazing and growing fat. Each autumn, before the snows came, they muster up the three hundred heads of cattle and drive them back down the mountain to The Willows. It is while they are up at The Plains that Dusty first sees the Snow Pony. When her father brings the mare home for her and she Dusty is beside herself with excitement, then pride when proves to be the only rider the beautiful horse will accept.
Time passes and, while the Snow Pony allows herself to be ridden and even trained to jump by Rita, Dusty's mother who was once a champion jumper herself, the mare still has unpredictable moments that bring pain and worse to Dusty and her family. As the taming, training and showing of the Snow Pony is unfolds, Dusty's father Jack is slowly unravelling. A prolonged drought is depleting his bank account and dwindling the herd cows that are his main source of income. Dusty, now fourteen, notices the changes in her father as well as the distance he keeps from her and the horse shows that allow her to win much needed money that now helps feed the family and farm. Dusty's relationship with her father is complex and evolving, moving from a young girl's admiration of her super-hero like father to the realization that he is human and capable of frustration, shame and weakness. She witnesses him drunk and verbally abusive but she also hears him make the call to get help for his alcoholism. She sees him in moments of strength and weakness, both physically and emotionally and takes it all in, sometimes protecting herself by turning her back on him, sometimes trying to reach out to him and her mother. Lester does not shy away from the realities of adult responsibility (and the shirking of it) nor does she shy away from the sometimes brutal realities of the lives of animals in nature and the cruelties that humans sometimes inflict on them and each other.
The drought has made her homes life tense and, when her best friend Sally goes off to boarding school, Dusty's social life deteriorates also. Lacking the money to join Sally at boarding school as she always thought she would, Dusty is bused, an hour each way, to the nearest high school. Without friends and feeling like a hick at times, she keeps her nose in a book and tries to ignore the names the other kids call her. She continues to jump the Snow Pony and rise in the rankings, all the while earning money for the family. When Jack finally snaps and his wife confronts him, he gets help and the family begins to heal. Jack, Dusty and Stewie plan to ride out to The Plains together to drive the cattle down the mountain. At this point, another thread in the story unwinds and we get a glimpse into the life of Jade, a fifteen year oldf, also a loner at the high school Dusty attends. Jade's mother is a dreadlocked free spirit who doesn't always make the right choices and rarely puts the needs of her children before her own. When she heads off to Melbourne to take care of her sister's kids, as well as have some fun in the city, she leaves fifteen year old Jade in the care of her older brother Travis and his questionable, thirty year old friend Horse. Travis and Horse decide to go on a hunting/drinking trip along with Horse's friend Neville and his dogs and force Jade to come along. The group finds themselves camped at The Plains, drunk and shooting up a storm as Jack, Dusty and Stewie are driving the cow home to the paddock. The animals spook and a stampede ensues. Before calm is returned, Stewie is knocked off his horse and unconscious. Jack confronts the group and stands them down, warning them to get off the mountain before the snowstorm that is on it's way breaks, making the roads impassible. The group drive off, leaving Dusty with the feeling that she should have done something to help Jade, but overwhelmed by the situation and social barriers.
However, Jade manages to help herself. Uncomfortable and wary from the start, sickened by the violence and drunkenness of the men, Jade launches herself out of the speeding truck when Neville makes a move on her and threatens to kill Horse if he tries to stop him. She then runs to safety, along with a hunting dog who has been thrown out of the truck, back to The Plains, sixteen kilometers, in a snow storm. This part of the book was disturbing to me. The men Jade was traveling with seemed truly menacing and violent, toward Jade and animals they encountered. At times, I felt like I was reading an adult book and was reminded of why I stopped reading adult books - I no longer want to experience the emotional brutality or violence humans inflict on each other and the world around them. I struggled with whether to write a review of this book at all, wondering if it contains more mature content than parents are willing to expose their children to. Then I asked myself this question. Having read this book, and been both moved and horrified by the events of the story, but coming away at the end feeling like I had been somewhere and seen something important, would I let my daughter read it? She is almost sixteen now, so the answer is "Yes." Would I have let her read it when she was 10? Possibly. 11 or 12? Yes. I would let her read it. One thing I have learned as a parent is that I can't always shield my children from my emotional moments, whether I am sad or angry. I can't always box myself up at those times to keep them from seeing my pain. Some parents can, and that is a wonderful thing. Some parents can shield their children from the messiness and loudness of adulthood for many, many years and I think that is great also. I have never had the foresight or self-restraint to do that so I have to come up with justifications for exposing my children to the world of adults. What I tell myself is this, "One day this (adulthood) will be their domain and I don't want it to be mysterious when they enter it. I want them to know that people can be unkind and thoughtless to each other on a daily basis so I will let them read glimpses of this when it pops up in a children's book." On those grounds, I feel that it would be acceptable for my 11 year old daughter to read a book in which a girl slightly older than her sees her father fall apart and drink to excess, a book in which she sees characters behaving in an ignorant and brutal manner towards animals and teenage girls, a book in which, because of an accident, a young girl must step up and take on the responsibilities of an adult.
As if the horrors of the drunken hunters and Jade's escape aren't enough, Jack is injured the next day as the group tries to prepare to drove the cattle back down the mountain, through the snow, to The Willows. While splinting the leg of a calf who was injured in the stampede caused by the hunters, Jack is battered by the calf's crazy mother. The kids manage to get him out of the paddock and into the house, but they know they have very little time to get him the medical help he needs. Jack tells Dusty and Jade, who has never ridden a horse and scared of them, that they must drive the cattle down the mountain to the nearest town and get help. How the girls do this and survive an encounter with the Snow Pony's old herd of brumbies makes up the last part of the book. I realize I gave away most of the plot, but I felt like, in light of the mature incidents that occur, I want parents to know all the details before they hand this book over to their daughters - let's be honest, I can't imagine a boy reading this book. Like I said in my review of The Quicksand Pony, stories with animals in danger, especially animals who have acts of cruelty inflicted upon them by humans, are verboten on my bookshelves. I have only recently begun to read books with these themes because I want to be able to review a wide range of books for all interests. And, while this story might have made me cringe, gasp and gulp in parts, I do not regret the time I devoted to reading it for a minute. Especially as it is the fourth and final chapter book by Alison Lester I read in a row. It was fascinating to observe her craft as she told the stories of girls and their horses, first in a gentle and playful manner, then gradually adding layers of emotional and character depth onto her plots, increasing the potential for danger and loss, ending with a well written, masterfully wrought story of a young girl growing up, learning to love, trust and lead.
I hope I have provided you enough information to make an informed decision in regards to who should read this book and when. If not, I strongly encourage you to read The Snow Pony yourself. It is a gripping, fast read with complex human and animal characters you will be drawn to.
Author and illustrator of many magnificent picture books for children, native Australian Alison Lester has written a series of books for new readers titled Horse Crazy as well as two books for slightly older readers. Written in 1997, The Quicksand Pony reads almost like a fairy tale on the right side of reality. There is a grief stricken young woman who disappears with her baby, a wild dog who allows himself to be tamed and a beautiful pony named Bella who appears to have been magically rescued from a quicksand bog. But, Lester's telling of the story of Biddy, Joe and Bella is so vivid and straightforward I felt like I could almost smell the sea air and feel a chill as I read.
Set on a remote coastal headland in Australia, The Quicksand Pony tells the story of people who live in the wilds and off the wilds that surround them. They tale begins on a windy night nine years earlier when a girl and her baby set out in a boat and only the boat reaches land. The story picks up again with Biddy, almost ten and anxious to go on the annual cattle drive with her parents. She and her horse Bella prove their worth when the help round up some new cows who get spooked as they are being unloaded at the farm one night. Before the big trip, Biddy and her best friend Irene spend the afternoon braiding each other's hair and sharing stories. Biddy tells Irene that she is named after a real woman named Biddy who was a convict who, along with a few others, escaped prison and wrecked on the headlands. As the sole survivor Biddy lived of the land (and it's bugs) for a year or so until a local family took her in as a cook and eventually arranged for the governor to pardon her. Biddy's mum reckons that if she grows up to have half the guts of the convict Biddy she'll be all right. Irene tells Biddy a story about her Aunt Joycie and her baby who disappeared nine years ago. Although not much was known about them, Irene thinks that they are still alive and living wild in a remote area of the headlands.
The first day of Biddy's first cattle drive goes well and she relishes her time on the headlands with Bella. She and her parents round up 175 heads leaving only thirty-three to track down the next day. They drive the cattle to a holding yard on the headlands built by drovers may years ago and camp out near by. When they wake in the morning their bacon has been stolen and the horses manes and tails are all braided. Biddy's parents think she and the dogs had something to do with it, but Biddy thinks that Joycie and her son Joe might have had a hand. Not wanting to argue, Biddy and her parents start the drive home along the beach. The drive goes well until, herding a straggle of steers who wandered into the surf, Bella gallops into a sinkhole, a quicksand bog. Almost instantly she is buried up to her neck. With the high tide due in a few hours, Biddy works frantically to rescue her but to no avail. Her mother tries to comfort her, telling her the story of Taffy, another horse who was stuck in the quicksand and made it home safely when the high tide came in and loosened and he broke free as a way to comfort her when, finally, they have to continue the to drive the cattle home and leave Bella behind.
If you read my review of Ann M Martin's thoughtful and moving tale A Dog's Life, which is narrated by a homeless dog, then you know that I get a knot in my throat just thinking about an animal in danger and generally avoid books and especially movies that portray anything even remotely like that. However, I believe in suffering for my art and, while the title of this book definitely implies danger and injury, I forced my way through it so I could write a review for readers who do not have a similar weakness... Also, being a kid's book, I felt certain that Bella would be rescued and I was not disappointed. By who and how is what makes this story so interesting and fairy-tale like. Lester's descriptions of the terrain and how a person could survive on the land (almost) alone are fascinating and, in the most gentle way possible, she presents the reader with the realities of working with animals and doing work that relies on animals for a livelihood. In many ways, the life that Biddy's family lives is similar to the lives of ranchers living 100 years ago and The Quicksand Pony is an important glimpse into this kind of life and the hardships that come with it. You do not have to be a horse enthusiast or a girl to enjoy Alison Lester's compelling book.
The Silver Horse Switch (Horse Crazy Series #1) by Alison Lester, illustrations by Roland Harvey, 62 pp, RL 2
Native Australian Alison Lester is one of my top five favorite picture book illustrator/authors. Sadly, most of her picture books are not available in the United States, but if you are lucky your library will have a couple on the shelf. Of those available for purchase here, my favorites are Are We There Yet? : A Journey Around Australia, which is about a family's winter-long (which is summer down under) car trip driving around the perimeter of Australia and is only available in hardcover. Magic Beach is a poetic, sunny romp through a child's family vacation at a beach house. Imagine is the perfect rainy day book in which a sister and brother play dress-up while imagining themselves in various animal habitats that include the rain forest, the Australian outback, the African plains, the Arctic and a jurassic setting. Lester provides a list of the all the animals that appear in each detailed illustration in the back of the book. Both of these titles are available in paperback and I suggest you rush out and buy them for your children immediately.
With Horse Crazy, Lester brings us a superbly written series of stories for emerging readers that are beautifully illustrated, in a style very similar to her own, by Roland Harvey. In Australia, the series is titled Bonnie and Sam and there is a great website for the books including section devoted to all the horses who appear in the series. I was not one of those girls who loved horses as a child, so I am not familiar with the cannon of horse stories in children's literature. On a very basic level, I know that horses are noble, hard working, intelligent animals who can express varying levels of personality. In her books, Alison Lester does a magnificent job of bringing the characters of each horse she writes about to life. And they all are different characters. Even though the Horse Crazy book are slightly more than 60 pages long, I came away from both books feeling like I understood more about the nature of horses and the different kinds of work they do with and for humans and because of this I think these books will be interesting to children, whether they have a pre-existing love of horses or not.
Much to my delight, the first two pages in each book in the series are taken up with a wonderful map of the rural town of Currawong Creek where the stories are set. The map also includes a list of all the paddocks and horses in town. Sam and Bonnie are two best friends who share a love of horses above all else. Sam is the owner of a very intelligent dog named Pants, short for Smartie Pants and her father is Bill Cooper, the town police man. Bonnie, who claims she can speak a secret horse language, lives just outside the town with her parents Woo and Chester on Peppermint Plain, a ranch that is big enough to house a horse, but doesn't. When the girls are not with horses they are thinking about them, drawing pictures of them and making scrapbooks devoted to them. Because neither of them own a horse, they are very well acquainted with the horses in town since they volunteer to exercise all of them regularly.
Lester begins the book with the names and descriptions of all nine horses in the girls spend time with then tells the story of the new horse, Drover, and how she came to be Officer Cooper's police horse. Although she is fine horse when she is out of the paddock and being ridden by Officer Cooper, Drover is anxious and fidgety when she is in her paddock. She does not even let Sam and Bonnie get close enough to feed her a treat. Drover was born a brumby, a wild horse (each book has a glossary with definitions for Australian terms like "mate," "brumby," and "double-dinking") but was caught and tamed. One night a herd of brumbies gallops past Drover's paddock and one stops to look at her. The horse is the mirror image of Drover and her history is almost Drover's in reverse. Shadow, as she is called, was born on a farm but became a brumby when her mother escaped through a break in the fence. Scared of thunder and lightning, Shadow years for the safety of a paddock and an owner. When Shadow and Drover switch places, only Bonnie and Sam figure out what has happened. Secretly, they brush the tangles out of Shadow's mane, file down her hooves and have Bonnie's Aunt Birdy give her a few lessons in manners. Soon Shadow, or the New Drover as the girls call her, is working hard for Officer Cooper and enjoying the attentions of Sam and Bonnie. The story ends in a climax that involves a missing toddler, a train and the race to save her. There is even a chapter at the end titled, "One Year Later," in which the girls, double-dinking (riding two to a horse) on Shadow, are wandering through the mountains when they see the herd of brumbies. Drover leaves the group to nuzzle Shadow and the girls notice the black foal at her side.
The Silver Horse Switch was so great I went on to read The Circus Horse, book two in the series. Bonnie and Sam want to perform in the town talent show and spend hours practicing trick riding on Tricky, a very expensive horse who was once owned by the State Games Champion and is now owned (and unappreciated by) local spoiled brat, Michael. Michael lets Bonnie and Sam exercise Tricky who, like his black and white coat, can be either very good or very bad. Tricky loves Bonnie and she adores him and the girls decide to plan a routine for Bonnie and Tricky to perform in the talent show. Things go bad when, after hours and hours of practice, Michael informs the girls that animals are not allowed in the show for insurance reasons and that he intends to win for a second year in a row with his violin playing. However, Bonnie and Tricky get their chance to perform in front of the whole town when Circo Circus rolls into town and Bella Donna, the star trick rider, injures her ankle and desperately needs a replacement to fill in for her. The only thing is, it all has to be a secret and the audience must believe they are watching Bella Donna and Jet, not Bonnie and Tricky, perform in the center ring...
There are two more books in the Horse Crazy series and I think they will be released later this year. Alison lester also has two short yourng adult novels, The Quicksand Pony, available only in hardcover, and the Snow Pony, available in paperback. I hope you will be inspired to seek out the works of Alison Lester. With her work she achieves what all great children's book authors should - she entertains with her engaging illustrations (when she illustrates) and humorous, distinct style of story telling while she exposes readers to something new and something familiar at the same time so that a little stealth learning goes on.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd, 96 pp, RL 5
Winner of the 2008 Newbery Award, Laura Amy Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village is unique in so many ways. While I cannot see it being read as a stand-alone book, but rather as part of a lesson plan, a drama project or in conjunction with other set in medieval England, this does not detract from its value and importance.
As she says in her forward to the book, Schlitz wrote "these plays for a group of students at the Park School, where I was a librarian." The students were studying the Middle Ages and experimenting with building catapults and miniature castles, baking bread, tending herbs, composing music and illuminating manuscripts. Schlitz wanted them to have something to perform so she wrote these "miniature plays," nineteen monologues and two dialogues so that each student would have a substantial part to perform. For this very reason, this book begs to be read aloud in a group. If this is not possible, make sure you find a copy of the audio version which includes a cast of seven superb readers and music from the piece Carmina Burana, a cantata composed in 1936 by Carl Orff that is based on twenty-four of the poems from the medieval manuscript of the same name. The writing is vivid and the verse often rhymes, but, when reading silently, there are distractions, albeit helpful ones, on the page in the form of footnotes that provide information word usage and definitions. There are also six sections titled "A Little Background," and they provide prose information on topics such as the three-field system of farming, Medieval Pilgrimages, Falconry and Jews in Medieval society. Robert Byrd's illustrations further enhance this magnificent book with a map of the village, full page illustrations and thumbnail portraits that accompany each voice.
Set in the year 1255, the first monologue is given to Hugo, the lord's nephew and the last is saved for Giles, the beggar. Schiltz writes in her forward that her characters are all children varying in age between ten and fifteen. While Schlitz says you can read the pieces in any order, they often are interconnected, one speaker mentioning the next and offering a different perspective on a situation, giving the pieces the feel of a story unfolding. Three of the stories, Will the lowboy, Pask the runaway and Nelly the snigger (eel catcher) are told in prose. And, between these verse and prose pieces, Schiltz manages to pack in a considerable amount of detail and plot. Among my favorites are Barbary, the mud slinger, who's dialogue tells of an overworked, wretched stepmother, worn down by her infant twins and expecting again. She begs Barbary to take the twins to the market to buy with him and as he walks and tries to make sense of the situation and manage the unruly babies who, "don't sleep at night./ They still puke out/ most of what you scoop into them." The sight of the lord's daughter, clean and waiting on by her maid, sends Barbary over the edge and he slings a handful of muck at her dress. But, he does not enjoy it and stops by the church on the way home to pray for forgiveness and ask that his step-mother not die or bear twins again.
A brilliant dialogue between Jacob Ben Salomon, the moneylender's son and Petronella, the merchant's daughter illustrates the accepted prejudice against Jews in the village and also the innocent ways in which children can sometimes overcome these prejudices. My favorite piece of all is another dialogue between two sisters, Mariot and Maude, glassblower's daughters. They speak of Piers, their father's apprentice, who has just delivered the previous dialogue. As was the custom, Piers can inherit the business by waiting for the master to die or by marrying one of his daughters. The girls ponder the possibility of having Piers as a husband, initially talking to each other, but in the end the perform dual soliloquies that blend together in humorous ways. Of all the pieces in the book, this was the one that I could best hear in my head as well as visualize in my imagination while reading to myself. It was so easy to imagine two sisters on a stage, talking to the audience while imagining a future with the alternately detestable and desirable Piers.
When Schlitz won the Newbery in 2008 there was some grumbling among those having anything to do with children's books, be they parents, teachers, booksellers or librarians. To some (perhaps those who had not read it, myself included) it seemed to be an obscure format for a book on a remote subject. However, having finally read and listened to this book, and, admittedly, being a fan of the medieval time period, there is no doubt in my mind that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! deserves the Newbery and every other award and recognition given to it and I hope that you all will have the opportunity to experience this book with a child some day in some way.
If your reader liked this book I suggest these other books set in medieval England:
The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman (also a Newbery winner)
Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page by Richard Platt
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page by Richard Platt
Crispin: The Cross of Lead and Crispin: At the Edge of the World by Avi
The Book without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic by Avi
Sea of Trolls and Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer
Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry
The Door in the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli (also a Newbery winner)
Peter and the Starcatchers (Starcatchers Series #1) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, illustrations by Greg Call. 480pp, RL 4
If JM Barrie's original, unadulterated, Peter Pan is a favorite of yours, I suggest you read Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean. If you enjoy the characters and setting from the original, but are not a purist, and, if you have time to read the 1,600 pages plus (and counting, Book 4 in the series, Peter and the Sword of Mercy, is in the works) to see how Barrie's book is re-imagined then I definitely recommend Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. At times is seems like a watery shadow of the original, but, if you are a fan of Pan by way of the 1953 animated Disney classic, this series, which calls itself a prequel to the meeting of Peter and Wendy and is published by Hyperion, a subsidary of Disney, you may enjoy the non-stop action and intermittent glimpses of people and places you remember from the movie.
According to the authors, this series was conceived when, more than five years ago, after a bedtime reading of JM Barrie's book, Ridley Pearson's daughter asked him how Peter met Captain Hook. This collaboration is heavy with action and dialogue and light on description and character development and is made up of very short chapters that jump back and forth between characters more often than the trunk of starstuff in the story changes hands. At the start of the story, the Peter of Peter and the Starcatchers is just a regular old orphan boy from St Norbert's Orphanage in London, however, over the course of the books his personality develops and changes due mainly to his exposure to starstuff. It's unclear exactly when this story takes place, but there are carriages, not cars and ships, not airplanes to ferry people about. Peter is not the pleasure loving child who thinks he is the center of the universe, as Barrie's Pan is, but instead a boy who, by virtue of the fact that he can spit the farthest, is leader of his pack. Not knowing his real age, he has a habit of claiming to be one year older than the oldest kid in the room. For reasons that are not mentioned, he and four other boys are being sent, by way of a ship named The Never Land, to the country of Rundoon. We learn later that they are to be sold as slaves in this country. Leaving port at the same time is the fine sailing ship, the Wasp. Both ships have been loaded with mysterious trunks, one of which Black Stache, Hook's name before he loses his hand at the end of the book, is after. Leonard Aster, Starcatcher and guard to the contents of the trunk is on board the Wasp. For safety, presumably, his daughter Molly and her governess, a woman with a name and personality straight out of one of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books, Mrs Bumbreak, are on board the Never Land. Also on the Never Land is second in command, the captain seems addle brained, so really he's first in command, is the character with the most evocative (but of what?) name in the book, Slank. Slank is an Other and also after the contents of one of the trunks.
What are Starcatchers, Others and what's in those trunks? It's all laid out in a pretty pedestrian manner when Molly delivers and expository speech to Peter midway through the book. This is after he has discovered that the trunk contains something that can make rats fly. In an effort to keep him from handling the dangerous contents of the trunk, which, when their powers are described sound a lot like illegal drugs, Molly spills the beans in a very adult way, at one point asking him to, "Bear with me a little longer... we're almost there." Molly, the Wendy stand-in, acts much more like a knowing school marm than the twelve-year-old she is supposed to be. And, in a nod to the current trend toward girl power, she saves Peter more than once. Most disturbing of all, Peter seems to have romantic feelings for Molly, even going so far as to initiate an awkward hug at the end of the book, as well as tingly feelings for the beautiful mermaid, Teacher. I'm not a total purist, but I think it goes against the basic nature of Pan as, to give romantic feelings, even if they are only nsacent, to Peter. It brings the story too much into the 21st century and removes all of the innocence of Barrie's book that has made it a classic. What Barrie's Peter wanted was a mother, someone to tell stories and do the Spring cleaning. Not a hug. And what does it add to the story to make Peter sweet on Molly? Nothing but a few extra pages, in my opinion.
I realize that I never answered the question I posed at the top of the previous paragraph. But really, the answer to what is in the trunk and why Molly and her father, and everyone else, are after it is so unimaginative and lacking in any sense of magic that I am loathe to repeat it. But, I will tell you anyway out of a Peter Pan-like sense of fairness. Starstuff, the earthbound byproduct of certain shooting stars, falls to earth - land or water - and is retrieved by the Starcatchers, both human and dolphin, so that its powers, which ultimately turn even those trying to use it for good into bad guys, can remain unadulterated. Apparently it can do all sorts of random things and works differently on everyone. And you don't even have to think happy thoughts. After many battles at sea between the Sea Devil, Stache's ship, the Wasp and the Never Land, as well as many exchanges of hand on the island where everyone ends up, the trunk lands in a lagoon where several fish are turned into sharp-toothed, grunting, stunningly beautiful mermaids who are also eager to maintain possession of the trunk as they rightly believe it is their Creator. Peter, working with the mermaids, saves the trunk, but not without touching it and gaining the permanent ability to fly but also the inability to ever grow up. Because of this, Peter now finds himself to be a "freak," his word, and chooses to stay on the island along with his four fellow orphans and the tribe of natives. The Mollusks, Peter and the Starcatchers' version of the highly un-politically correct Injuns of the original, are now a people ennobled by their brutal encounters with the British who enslave them and mercilessly taunt the island's wildlife, thus forcing them to enact a rule that requires all visitors to the island be fed to Mr Grin, the giant crocodile. Oh, and there's Smee, who's character is drawn in the exact bumbling image of his Disney movie counterpart, is along for comic relief, I guess. Really, though, he just seemed to be there so that Stache could bellow, "IDJIT," every few pages.
So, I think I've accounted for all of the originals who wanly made their way into this book except one. Instead of the brilliant fairies, born when a baby laughs for the first time as in Barrie's book, Pearson and Barry choose to bring Tinker Bell to life when, in some misguided act of fatherly-ness, Mr Aster decides to create her by shaking up a bird in a bag of starstuff so that Peter will have protection on the island. This is Peter, the boy who just cut off Stache's hand with his own knife and kept it, the boy who has fought Slank and his dumb giant, Little Richard, the boy who has made alliances with the mermaids and the Mollusks and he needs a little fairy to protect him. In one final, nice touch, however, Peter decides to name the island (an island the Mollusks have presumably already given a name...) Never Land when he finds a board from the ruined ship wash up on shore. The last picture in the book, which has fabulous pencil illustrations by Greg Call, is of a boyish Peter watching Molly and the starstuff sail back to England, the board from the Never Land on the ground near his feet.
As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this book. I feel like Barry and Pearson could have easily written these books and made them interesting without riding on JM Barrie's coattails. And, while I have not read all three in the series and I am sure that the characters develop more over the course of the books - George Darling, (father of Wendy, John and Michael) friend of Molly, appears in books 2 & 3 - the differences in the first one sometimes feel to glaring for me to go along for the ride. And, really, why do these three books hover around the 500 page count? With Peter Pan in Scarlet, Geraldine McCaughrean manages to pack adventure, character development and links to the original into a 310 page book that far exceeds what is found in the 480 pages it takes Barry and Pearson to play out their anemic story.
BUT: I am an adult. This is my adult opinion. I would not stop my child from reading this book, but, in the interest of promoting good literature as a means to providing my child with a foundation upon which she could then make her own choices as to what is worth reading, I would insist she read Peter Pan in Scarlet and, of course, Peter Pan, if she had not already.
From an adult perspective, JM Barrie's Peter Pan is a bittersweet story. From a child's viewpoint, it must be a playful adventure. The final chapter, "When Wendy Grew Up," (which was actually an epilogue written four years after the debut of the play and performed only once in Barrie's lifetime, per his instructions) finds an adult Wendy in the nursery with her daughter and Peter crying bitterly when he realizes she has grown up. However, Peter soon decides that Wendy's daughter Jane will do just as well for a mother and Spring cleaning on Neverland and they fly out the window together. When Jane is grown Peter returns for Jane's daughter, Margaret. The final line of the book reads, "When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter's mother in turn; and so it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." At first, the word "heartless" confused me. But, after more thought I think Barrie is referring to the heartlessness that is the self-protective, selfcenteredness of children. It is heartlessness that allows Wendy to fly out the nursery window without a thought to how it will grieve her parents and Nana and the same heartlessness that allows Jane in turn to fly away. It is heartlessness that allows Peter to take Jane in Wendy's place with only a moment's thought. I suppose this is the same heartlessness that prompts a child to refuse to give a hug or a kiss when asked or run off to a play date at a friend's house without a backward glance. Without this heartlessness they would never be able to grow the wings they need to venture out in the world and develop a sense of independence and competency to survive as an adult. To compliment and support these wings, we, as parents instinctually give our children a foundation, a safe haven, the roots they need to successfully grow their wings and fly. I think that it is the tension between these two worlds, between the Nursery and Neverland, that lends Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Scarlet their sometimes somber tones.
Because of this somber tone, it would seem an impossibility to start a sequel to Peter Pan, authorized or otherwise, without the presence of tension and possibly even danger. Even Disney's animated sequel Return to Neverland begins in World War II London with Jane rushing home through devastated streets during an air raid. Peter Pan in Scarlet is the result of a 2004 contest launched by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, holders of the copyright to Peter Pan, left to them by JM Barrie, to find a writer to create a sequel. The winner, award winning British children's author Geraldine McCaughrean, captures the tone and spirit of Barrie's original (without the densely written, dated, digressions) wonderfully. True to the bittersweet nature of the original, the Neverland of Peter Pan in Scarlet has somehow progressed from a permanent state of Spring, of green shoots, flowers and renewal, to Autumn, a time of fading colors and hibernation. This change does not go unnoticed by the now grown Wendy and the Lost Boys. Nightly, they dream vividly of Neverland to awaken each morning with tangible remnants of these dreams in their beds. As McCaughrean writes, "The wardrobe was piled high with the dregs of dreams - an alarm clock, an Indian head-dress, and eye-patch, a pirate's tricorn hat." The group reassembles, minus Michael, who went away to the Big War and was Lost (a nod to Michael Llewelyn Daives, inspiration for the character of Peter Pan who died at the age of twenty in 1921), and decides that a return trip to Neverland is in order in the hopes of sorting things out. Mrs Wendy, being the most sensible and organized, instructs the Lost Boys in the capture of a fairy so that they can fly back to Neverland as well as how to return to their child-selves so that they are light enough to fly.
The imaginative way that McCaughrean describes this task is perfect and includes a return to Kensington Park, encounters with disgruntled nannies and the birth, from the first laugh of a baby, of the magnificent fairy Fireflyer. Somehow, Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be full of more creations and characters than the original, and these creations and characters seem to be more fully realized and described in more detail. Fireflyer is an obnoxious, self-centered, redheaded fairy who is constantly hungry and eats everything from buttons to scones to earwax. He is also a world-class liar and becomes immediately devoted to Slightly (so named in the original because his mother had pinned a note saying, "slightly soiled" to his pinafore, half of which was missing by the time he made it to the shores of Neverland) when he proclaims, "And I say that, for a very small person, you tell extraordinarily big lies." This flatters Fireflyer to no end. With Fireflyer and fairy dust in hand, Wendy instructs the Lost Boys to return to their youthful sizes by stealing clothes from their children and wearing them. Tootles, who has only daughters, is forced to wear little girls clothes and returns to Neverland as a girl, which adds a bit of flavor to the story. When Curly goes to grab his son's rugby shirt the puppy takes hold of the other end and winds up travelling to Neverland in Curly's pocket. Nibs, watching the sleeping faces of his children, decides he cannot imagine going anywhere without them and forgoes the journey altogether. In yet another brilliant burst of imagination, McCaughrean solves the problem of children's clothes for Slightly, a widowed, childless, clarinet player who performs in nightclubs, in this way. When he catches up with the group he jubilantly explains, "I went down to the foot of the bed, you see! Haven't done it for twenty years! Right down to the end and beyond! I remembered, you see! You can end up anywhere if you dare to go down right to the bottom!" It was a treat to be taken back to that time when I was small enough to crawl down to the foot of the bed.
The children find Neverland "totally and completely and utterly and absolutely . . . changed." The greens are now reds and browns. The sunlight is now paler and thinner, the shadows longer. They find themselves shut out of the Wendy House, much the same way Peter found the windows to his nursery shut when he tried to return home. They agree, the only thing that would ever cause anyone to shut the windows is the fog. "You know how dangerous a London fog can be to the lungs," Wendy notes. When Peter will not answer the door and Fireflyer cannot rouse him the Lost Boys wrench off one of the walls to find Peter with a ferocious scowl, sword drawn and ready to fight. "Is that any way to greet your old friends?" Wendy asks. "I have no friends who are old!" Peter retorts. Once things are sorted out, imaginations set in motion, and original reason for returning to Neverland completely forgotten in the way children will, the League of Pan decides to go on a quest to find Tootle's "heart's desire and fight deadly foe" and, as Tootle's suggests, win her hand. But, as Neverland has changed, the group does not explore through familiar land but instead finds themselves at the doors of a traveling circus run by the Ravello, the ravelling man. Mysterious, manipluative, fawning and a little bit creepy, Ravello, who seems to be clothed in or possibly composed of wooly layers that are constantly unraveling, insinuates himself into the League of Pan, serving as Peter's valet, as they plunder the crew-less Jolly Roger and prepare to hunt to treasure.
When the Jolly Roger sinks, the explorers land on Grief Reef, right at the opening to the Maze of Witches. Ravello, who is already on shore waiting for them, along with a mysterious sea chest that has the letters J.H. on the lid, explains the geography of the landscape as such,
"These mildewed and rusting hulks you see before you are all that remain of a hundred sad stories. These are the perambulators and baby carriages once pushed up and down parks and lanes and city streets by nursery maids in charge of baby boys. These are the prams those nursemaids parked up under shady trees while they dozed; or left unattended while they nipped into the post office to buy a stamp; or to flirt with their sweethearts. These are the prams that got out of control because the brake was left off, and ran away down steep hills. In short, these are the prams boys tumbled out of, never to be seen again. These are the prams that turned baby boys into Lost Boys, and started them on their long journey to Neverland."
The prams that litter the shores were rebuilt into boats by desperate nursemaids determined to search for the babies they lost. Upon mistakenly entering the Maze of Witches, the children find themselves surrounded by voices calling out, "Henry! George! Ignatius! Jack!," all in search of their lost wards. Ravello tells them that they have turned into witches and magicked their way into Neverland where they lay in wait, hoping to catch a child to roast and eat. The true identity of the witches and their reason for being in Neverland is even more satisfyingly rewarding than the thought of the Lost Boys being adopted by Mr and Mrs Darling at the end of Peter Pan, however this isn't revealed until the end of the book.
Their travels take them from the Never Wood, through Nowhereland, across Thirsty Desert and to the base of Never Mountain where they expect to find their treasure buried in snow atop Neverpeak. On their way they are set upon by factions of warring fairies and threatened by the presence of the Roarers, boy's Peter has culled from his tribe when they have upset him or begun to grow old. As the journey wears on, Peter who, at the urging and grooming of Ravello has taked to wearing Captain Hook's second best coat, begins to look and act more and more like Hook. When they finally reach Neverpeak and Peter opens the treasure chest, filled with al the explorers, including Puppy's, various hearts' desires, there are more revelations to be made. One of the best is the return of Tinker Bell, who turns out to be Fireflyer's heart's desire. And, the specter of Captain Hook, which haunts the story almost from the start, finally takes shape. and the reason for the poisoning of Neverland that caused the decline from Spring to Autumn is discovered, all tying in nicely with threads from Peter Pan. Finally, the children, some of whom have returned to their adult selves, return home to London with some very important additional passengers in the remarkable Dirty Duck, a raft like contraption built from lashing together some of the many prams that litter Grief Reef.
Whereas Peter Pan is a story populated with children, the adults, except Captain Hook, of course, playing peripheral roles, Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be a story filled with adults. Like Peter Pan, their presence bookends the story, but in Peter Pan in Scarlet they seem to seep onto the pages from every corner nonetheless. They are the nursemaid-witches on Grief Reef, Ravello and even Smee makes a jolly and welcomed return at the end of story. And, of course, there are the adult Lost Children and Wendy and the spouses and families they have left behind in their efforts to heal Neverland. Where the central image of Peter Pan is the children, the heartless children, flying away from their home, the central image of Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be that of adults reaching out to children, adults with memories and grief, the kind that don't weight down (fortunate) children. As Ravello says to the children after cutting off their shadows so as to make scaling the mountain easier, "in the unlikely event you live long enough, they will re-grow. With every grief that befalls a man, his shadow increases. Have you not seen how I trail behind me a shadow like a leak from the Quink factory? But then you have not heard my sad story, have you? Oh, you should, you should! I know how you children love stories!" I think, though, children, the turn-of-the-century children the original Peter Pan was written for, anyway, love stories with adventure and villains and heroes drawn with obvious black and white lines and no shades of gray. In a reflection of the times we live in, as well as the impact JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series with its blurring of lines between good and bad, hero and villain, McCuaghrean's story takes us to a poisoned world in decline where the battle to victory and defeat of evil is not simple a simple, clear cut one. McCaughrean's Neverland is world that has had the fabric of its existence breached by the guns and bombs of real wars. But, McCaughrean ends her book on a hopeful note, writing,
"You know how bruises fade? Black to purple, then greenish blue, and, last of all, yellow? Well Neverland healed up just like that. The snow melted and watered he Thirsty Desert. The springs welled up and refilled the rivers. Burnt Neverwood re-grew. Finally the yellow sun came out and lingered-sometimes for days on end, because it was enjoying itself too much to go to bed. The Lagoon shimmered with fish and sunlight and mermaids. Villains moored up. Lost Boys and Girls found their way to Fort Pan. Mothers came looking for them (of course)... Hand in hand, Tinker Bell and Fireflyer quarrelled their way here, there, and everywhere in Neverland, inventing new colours, playing Chinese chequers with the stars, and nibbling the knees out of WEdnesday to make it easier to spell.... As for Pan, it took an age for his shadow to grow back, because he was rarely so sad. Only when he thought of Wendy and the others did a little more darkness flap out behind him - a leg, a narrow waist, a sword-arm..."
McCaughrean proves from start to finish that she is adept as Barrie at crafting metaphors and spinning magic. No one could ever write a mirror-image sequel to Peter Pan - times have changed and the tenor would not ring true. Despite this, Peter Pan in Scarlet captures the essence of JM Barrie's classic a weaves it into something similar but new and marvelous to behold.