December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age.
My friends (occasionally readers of my blog, too) have heard me gush about how the eight weeks I spent every summer at an all-girls sleepaway camp in Vermont were some of my favorite—and most formative—parts of my childhood. But I miiiiiight gloss over the less-glamorous moments. Like the very first night, when I tried to ignore the pit of homesickness in my belly and climbed up into the top bunk, only to come nose to nose with a mouse perched on the rafter. Or the fact that I still have the scar from when, on the way back from a middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse, I tripped on a rock trying to outrun a skunk I felt sure was chasing me. And those are just the animal stories. To say nothing of the times I fought with my best friend and thought I would die from loneliness.
But then there were days when I’d walk barefooted down to the pond, linking arms with other girls and singing at the top of our voices. And oh, did I mention the singing? There was the table-thumping mealtime singing (the louder the better), followed by the quiet campfire singing on the archery field at dusk. There was waking up each morning to the cool, crisp smell of pine needles and the prospect of choice: how would I spend today?
In Be Prepared, nine-year-old Vera is tired of not fitting in during the school year (“too poor,” “too Russian,” and “too different”). Her wealthy friends have sleepover birthday parties, which Vera’s own single mother can never replicate (it’s supposed to be a Carvel ice cream cake, not a charity handout from a woman at church!). Most maddening, these girls take every occasion to brag about the posh sleepaway camps they attend in the summer.
But then Vera gets wind of a church-sponsored Russian sleepaway camp near a lake in Connecticut (crafts! canoeing! singing! bonfires!) and convinces her mom to send her and her younger brother for what turns into four weeks. At last, she will do the things her rich friends do! She packs her bags weeks before departure, and she can hardly contain her excitement when her mom turns down the private dirt road to the camp. “It felt like entering another country.”
Only nothing about Camp ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki) matches any of Vera’s fantasies. For one, there’s no candy allowed. For two, there’s wood to chop, no running water, and an outhouse nicknamed Hollywood which would scare the poop out of anyone. For three, you’re supposed to speak in Russian…and sit through long church services…and attend daily classes on Russian history. Oh, and the horseflies are as big as birds, and there are mysterious heavy footsteps outside your tent when you’re trying to sleep.
And then there are Vera’s bunkmates: two camp veterans who are best friends and four years older than her (translation: they wear bras and use maxipads).
Still, Vera—proud, resilient, and a tad feisty—is determined, not simply to grin and bear it, but to “beat” it. She will win over her obnoxious, bossy, boy-obsessed bunkmates if it’s the last thing she does (even if it means breaking a camp rule). She will steal the flag from the boys’ camp and become a legend among the other girls. She will earn top badges for her wilderness knowledge. She will figure out how to poop in that outhouse.
Only somewhere along the way, Vera begins to realize she is focused on all the wrong things. There is a true friend—a slightly younger girl, who takes an interest in Vera’s prolific sketching—right under her nose, if she would just notice her. There is a chance to appreciate, even embrace, her Russian heritage. And there are the woods, with opportunities for freedom and mystery and wonder.
Vera’s summer isn’t anything like what she envisioned. But, like the best summers, it is ripe with self-discovery, growth, and an appreciation for modern plumbing.
Published by First Second. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
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December 8, 2018 § Leave a comment
To believe or not to believe. That’s a question many elementary children struggle with—at least, if mine are any indication—especially around this time of year. Which is why Marc Tyler Nobleman’s Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real (Ages 7-10), charmingly illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, is astutely targeted toward these ages. My eight year old, having mostly outgrown her belief in, if not her affection for, fairies, hung on every word of this book the first time we read it together. She has since gone back and re-read it on her own and even asked that I purchase a copy for her classroom. It’s a book which tests your belief in magic on nearly every page. Just when you decide nope, I know this can’t be true, it introduces doubt all over again.
Fairy Spell tells the true story of an ingenious hoax (or was it?) orchestrated by nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her sixteen-year-old cousin Elsie, during a summer the two spent together in Cottingley, England, in 1917. Sunny days were spent playing and picnicking down by the “beck,” or stream. One afternoon, after Frances fell into the beck and ruined her expensive shoes, the adults in the house were furious. They were even more furious when she told them she and Elsie had been playing with fairies.
The girls intended to hoax their parents, as payback for belittling their belief in fairies, only it ended up going viral—nearly a hundred years before social media—and transfixing the entire world. Of course, the beauty of Nobleman’s telling is that, especially if you haven’t heard the story before (which, presumably, our kids have not), he is careful not to reveal that it actually was a hoax until the end. Even still, he leaves the door slightly ajar as to the possibility that it wasn’t.
To prove their beloved fairies were real, the girls borrowed Frances’s uncle’s camera and took one, then another, black-and-white photographs of themselves down by the beck. When Uncle Arthur developed the pictures, tiny winged creatures could be seen frolicking around the humans. At first, he assumed it was a joke, although he could not figure out how two novices had “faked” such a photograph. Still, if fairies lived on his property, he would have seen them. The girls’ response: “The fairies would not come out for you in a hundred years.” When the girls would not let up, Arthur became downright annoyed and forbid them from using his camera again.
The girls’ mothers, however, “begun to feel that, somehow, the girls were telling the truth.” Two years later, the mothers attended a public lecture on fairies, where they shared the girls’ photographs. After that, news of the photographs began to spread, igniting the interests of academics, photographers, and even Arthur Conan Doyle, “the author who created the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes.” Nearly everyone had a theory, but many pointed to evidence that the photos had not been doctored. Doyle eventually approached the girls’ families and asked for permission to publish the photographs, albeit under different names to protect the girls’ identities.
The girls returned to Cottingley and took even more photographs, all of which were eventually published in the newspaper, always selling out entire issues in a matter of days. “Everyone was aflutter about the photos.” In the book, the pages of critical analysis that follow—people had ideas, for example, to justify why the waterfall in the background would be blurry when the moving fairies in the foreground were not—are absolutely fascinating and read like one of Doyle’s detective novels. To believe or not to believe.
The truth did not come out until the cousins were near the end of their life, Frances seventy-five and Elsie eighty-one. What the book reveals in its concluding pages about what really went on down at the beck is both astounding and marvelous: astounding because the girls exhibited cleverness well beyond their years, and marvelous because they kept it a secret for so long. (Talk about empowering the child!)
What the story also goes on to illuminate is the real reason the girls protected their secret. They never expected the adults in their lives to fall under their “fairy spell.” When they did, the cousins realized that even adults are hard pressed to give up on the idea of magic…for good.
Review copy from Clarion Books of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).
Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month.
Exhibit A begins when my (almost) eleven year old came upon me at the kitchen counter, surveying a spread of Tupperware containers.
“Can you read Penderwicks to me and Emily?” he blurted out.
(Um, do I look like I am available for reading, you good-for-nothing…) “I have to make dinner.”
“Oh. Right. What are we having?”
“I’m going to turn these various leftover vegetables into quesadillas.”
“Wait, can I make the dinner instead? Then you could sit and read to us, and I could listen while I cook.”
You are going to WHAT?! (As much as I’d like to tell you I have kids who regularly help out with cooking, I do not have kids who regularly help out with cooking. Getting them to trim green beans can be a knock-down-drag-out fight.)
And yet, as I took my place on the couch next to my daughter, ours backs to the ensuing sounds of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen, the incredible happened. My son sautéed vegetables. He grated cheese. He filled tortillas and then flipped each one on a cast-iron skillet until it was perfectly browned. He used the pizza cutter to make equal wedge-like slices. All the time, I read from The Penderwicks in Spring. Together, we laughed and leaned in and pretended it wasn’t pouring rain outside for the umpteenth day in a row, pretended that spring was springing outside our window like it was outside the Penderwicks’ house.
The Penderwicks: a family so fun, so funny, so well-meaning, so deliciously and perfectly flawed, that they cannot fail to bring out the best in everyone who knows them.
“Are you ready for us?” I asked, turning to see three heaping plates on the counter.
“No, keep going,” JP replied. “I want to make the table look extra nice before we sit down.”
I give myself a tiny bit of credit for this. I always knew we would want to binge read The Penderwicks books (Ages 8-12), by award-winning Jeanne Birdsall, so I not only waited until the last one in the series came out (this past spring), I also waited until my kids were almost eight and eleven—the perfect ages for a series whose later books take on increasingly mature terrain, as the characters themselves age (romantic pitfalls and all).
We flew through The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street over the summer, then finished The Penderwicks at Point Mouette during the first week of school, yearning nostalgically for our own travels to Maine (Maine’s Point Mouette being the site of the Penderwicks’ two-week, unplugged summer vacation.). That left The Penderwicks in Spring and The Penderwicks at Last for September and October.
Who are these infectious creatures? While the Penderwicks family (spoiler alert) picks up some new additions as the series goes on, the spotlight initially focuses on four sisters and their affable, eccentric single father. Rosalind, the eldest, can be bossy, but she’s also fiercely protective of her younger siblings, having stepped up to care for them after their mother died of cancer (four years before the start of the first book).
Skye, next in line, may resemble her late mother’s conventionally beautifully features, but her tomboy personality, infuriating stubbornness, fondness for the soccer field, and astute mathematical mind sometimes make her feel like the “black sheep” of the family.
Then there’s hopelessly romantic Jane—the sibling who regularly elicits the most giggles from my brood—who, as an aspiring author, sees everything around her as potential fodder for her fictional series about a heroine named Sabrina Starr (although don’t count her out on the soccer field, either).
Finally, there’s Batty, just four years old when the series begins (but who stars as a fifth grader and college student in the final two books), and whose devotion to fairy wings, mishaps, and animals—including her beloved dog, Hound—wins over everyone she meets.
Who is our favorite? That answer changes faster than I can turn the page. Birdsall continuously develops her characters: they ebb and flow and keep us guessing, all the while taking up residence inside our hearts. The cast of supporting characters—most of them boys—is equally memorable.
If this is a book whose main characters are girls, does that mean it’s a girl book? YOU HUSH UP RIGHT NOW. True, my daughter now claims The Penderwicks as her second favorite series of all time, after Harry Potter. BUT ALSO, my son will tell you it is now his third favorite series, after HP and Percy Jackson. That my son’s enthusiasm matches his sister’s isn’t just high praise: it is proof positive that author Shannon Hale (a.k.a. Princess in Black) knows what she’s talking about when she says there is absolutely nothing about being a boy that predisposes you to enjoy only stories about boys—and that we as parents better stop pushing our own bias on our children.
Besides being filled with fleshed-out characters, what makes this realistic fiction so enticing, so worthy of sitting your mother down and cooking for her?! While The Penderwicks books are set in today’s time, largely in a fictional Boston suburb named Cameron, they have a charm—especially against a backdrop of increasingly “heavy” middle-grade fiction—which feels refreshingly old-fashioned. They feel like the timeless tales we remember from our own childhood, the ones which kept us warm during winter nights, which helped us pass lazy summer days on a porch swing.
Sure, the Penderwick siblings get into scrapes—but they are scrapes with bulls, or runaway rabbits, or with the prickly mother of their best friend (and “honorary sibling”) Jeffrey. These are girls who climb trees to sneak into the bedroom of a friend in need; who run off brooding to throw rocks into the ocean and almost drown trying to save a dog; who sneak into golf courses in the early dawn to spy on moose.
Sure, the Penderwick siblings are not perfect. They squander; they dig in their heels; they let misunderstandings brew and nearly swallow them up. Their relationships with one another change over time, alliances form and break apart. But they continue to abide by what they call Penderwick Family Honor. They continue to call MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) to formulate Great Plans, like how to keep their beloved father from marrying again, or how to stop a fellow sibling from running away. They continue to act with the conviction that they are stronger together.
Sure, their adventures are crafted, often hilariously so, to keep us breathless with excitement—but they are also adventures which feel alluringly like the simple, pure, pared-down essence of childhood. For our children reading these books, the Penderwicks are a harbinger of all that is good and true in this world: of curiosity, of kindness, of laughter, of resilience, of familial bonds which stand strong against the currents of time.
In short, they are exactly the thing to read when life—or twenty-four days of rain—has got you down.
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Books published by Alfred A. Knopf. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
On our first full day of summer break, I was stopped at a red light when I heard what could only be described as vigorous huffing and puffing from the backseat. My son headed off my own curiosity, turning to his sister in the seat next to him. “What in the WORLD, Emily?”
“I am blowing the red light,” she replied matter-of-factly, between huffs. “To get it to turn green.”
Her brother, never one to pass up an opportunity for correction, pounced on this. “That is NOT what it means to ‘blow a red light,’” JP said. “It means to drive through the light when it’s red.”
There were exactly two beats of silence, as my seven-year-old daughter presumably took in this information. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet but firm.
“I choose to live in a world with magic, JP.”
Cue eye roll from big brother, and a big smile from me. You see, while my youngest has always been a free spirit (“Your daughter lives in a world of her own,” my own mother is fond of saying), she has never had much patience for magic wands or fairy godmothers, for Tinker Bell or Cinderella’s mice. “I do not like fairies,” she is fond of telling me, though I am equally fond of reminding her that, while she may always trade in fairy wings for dinosaur costumes, she has also loved listening to me read The Night Fairy, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, and Snow and Rose. Her fondness for Disneyworld’s rides aside, Emily seems to object to a gendered, princess-y, commercialized depiction of magic. What she actually loves is the idea that—upon close, quiet, intimate examination—the natural world might be found to be tinged with the supernatural.
In his final line of his final children’s book, The Minpins, Roald Dahl wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
Our job as parents might be to teach our children to brush their own teeth and pack their own *$%! lunches, but it is also to nurture the believer in them. If we accomplish nothing but that our children choose to see magic in the world, I think we can rightfully throw ourselves a party.
It is likely no coincidence that this backseat exchange between my kids took place on the heels of finishing two chapter books with my daughter. Perhaps if her older brother had been on the receiving end of Granted (Ages 8-11), by John David Anderson, and Bob (Ages 7-10), co-written by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, he would not have been surprised by Emily’s newly-pronounced world view. The two storylines couldn’t be more different; and yet, in overlaying a touch of the fantastical onto real, everyday life, the books beg their readers to look more closely at the world around them, to question whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
Granted opens with a question—“The last time you blew out your birthday candles, what did you wish for?”—and then, across 322 spell-binding pages, proceeds to give us a “backstage pass” as to what actually happens when we humans offer up a silent wish into the universe, be it by birthday candle or fallen eyelash or shooting star. If our wish subsequently comes true, it could be coincidence. Or it could be the daring, painstaking, high-stakes work of a fairy—work so essential, the feydom’s very existence depends on it.
Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is a fairy, with hair “as cobalt blue as the flower she was born from.” She lives, as all North American Fairies do, in the Haven, a mostly secreted place teeming with tree-top houses and bowing to its own complex set of laws, orders, and ceremonies. From their earliest age, fairies are assigned a guild to which they dedicate their lives. In Ophelia’s case—owing to her speed, her meticulousness, and her generally type A personality—she has the most coveted job: she’s a certified field agent, otherwise known as a Granter, which means she will be called upon to move surreptitiously among humans on a mission to grant a particular wish. Each day, a lottery in the Haven decides which of the millions of human wishes from the past 24 hours will be granted. Unfortunately, the Haven’s supply of magic has been rapidly dwindling over the years, owing to fewer and fewer human believers.
On the morning the story opens, there is only enough magic to grant a shocking twelve wishes. The good news is that Ophelia is assigned to one of the wishes, a chance to put her training into action at last. The wish is for a new bicycle, made by an Ohio girl named Kasarah Quinn, whose previous bike was stolen.
Protocol requires that, in order for a wish to come true, the Grantor has to retrieve the wished-upon object—in this case, a nickel tossed into a fountain—before she (or he, because male fairies are just as prevalent, including Ophelia’s pink-haired BFF) sprinkles on the precious 100% pure fairy dust and utters the magic words. Ophelia has twelve hours (“tocks,” in fey speak) to complete her mission and get back to the Haven. She is not, under any circumstance, to become distracted by anything she sees or hears (beyond the supersonic ringing of the wished-upon object), or emotionally invested in any of the creatures she encounters.
When you are a pint-sized creature with delicate fairy wings, journeying hundreds of miles without being seen or crushed can present unlimited challenges (planes! trucks! automatic sliding doors!)—even when armed with a thermal flight suit, camouflage spray, and various miniaturized weapons cooked up by a team of Builders, Makers, and Alchemists. Even more, attempting to chase down a coin, which seems to change hands more quickly than we can say Ophelia’s full name, means that Ophelia becomes an unwitting pawn in several humans’ lives (and one adorably hapless dog’s). As Ophelia quickly discovers, the wealth of printed information about the human world, which she has poured over for years in the Haven’s Archives, doesn’t scratch the surface. As it turns out, humans (and dogs) have a unique knack for getting others to care for them. And where there is caring, there are complications.
Granted proved the perfect antidote for my fairy-skeptical daughter. In nearly every chapter, author Anderson manages to build up to a breathless cliff-hanger specific to Ophelia’s mission, while simultaneously disclosing fascinating new details about the inner-workings of the feyworld at large. Much like J.K. Rowling’s richly textured Hogwarts, it seems there is nothing that Anderson hasn’t considered. Several times while I was reading the book, I thought, “But wait…,” only to have this suspected hole filled by a subsequent chapter. (The book addresses, for example, what happens if someone were to wish for world peace…or for something criminal.)
Ironically, it is precisely her perfectly-ordered world that Ophelia begins to rebel against. By decree of fairy law, wish fulfillment must be arbitrary; and yet, aren’t some wishes more important than others? What are the consequences for valuing one person’s life over another? What should the role of magic be? And what if we’ve been doing something the same way for so long that we’ve forgotten how to question it? Ironically, it’s Ophelia’s passionate rebellion that might just be the key to rekindling the believer in all of us.
In Bob, a chapter book my daughter and I finished in two days (being both short and deliciously addictive), there may not be any wish-granting fairies, but there is a mysterious green creature wearing a clumsily-fashioned chicken suit, whose destiny turns out to be directly linked to the wish of an entire community. When ten-year-old Livy finds this creature, who calls himself Bob, in her bedroom closet at her Australian grandmother’s farmhouse, she doesn’t remember him from the last time she visited that distant continent, five years earlier. In fact, she doesn’t remember many specifics about her last visit. Bob, however, has spent the past five years shut up in a closet thinking of little else but Livy, wondering when she was going return and doing his best to stay entertained with only a LEGO pirate ship and a dictionary. (Pause. I always thought it was just me who found the name Bob amusing to pronounce when I was a child—the way it kind of blurts out of the mouth—until I caught my daughter giggling and repeating it the first few times I read it. Or maybe it’s genetic? No offense to any Bobs out there reading this.)
Who and what is this adorably eccentric Bob creature? Where did he come from, and where if not the closet is he supposed to be? Bob and Livy are equally puzzled. Bob initially worries he might be a zombie, but Livy quickly puts an end to that with the help of the dictionary. When Livy determines that no one else seems able to see or hear Bob, she questions whether he might be an imaginary friend from her younger years; and yet, how can an imaginary friend eat actual potato chips? Through chapters that alternate between Livy’s and Bob’s perspective, we begin to piece together a picture, not only of the individual backgrounds and personalities, but why their friendship was once so important to both of them—and why it still is.
Livy is a quiet, perceptive child, caught in that sticky gap between little kid and big kid. She’s too old to play with dolls—or is she? She’s too old to be nervous about her mother leaving her for two weeks with her grandmother—or is she? She’s too old to remember how Bob first came to live in her closet—or is she? Even the format of the book echoes this duality, with short chapters and the occasional sepia-toned illustration (beautifully rendered by Nicholas Gannon), exactly halfway between an early chapter book and a middle-grade novel.
Certainly, Livy is old enough to sense the sadness, worry, and helplessness in the adults around her, all of whom are struggling to support farms in the midst of a severe years-long drought. She feels equally powerless to help—that is, until the neighbor’s son goes missing. When Livy and Bob journey deep into the woods to search for the boy, they not only find him, they also discover that Bob is a clue to the drought plaguing the land. It’s a journey that no adult would understand or believe, but it’s a journey that reminds us readers that the natural world is rich with intrigue, with hidden currents, with a tinge of the supernatural. Whether Bob is real or a figment of Livy’s imagination may always be open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: occasionally, in life, there may not be a logical explanation for the amazing things we witness.
This summer, I invite you: choose a world with magic for your children. Grant some wishes. And maybe not just for them. I know a lot of adults who could use a little bit of magic right about now.
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Books published by Walden Pond Press (Harper Collins) and Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), respectively. Review copies purchased by me! All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
Last year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.
But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”
I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.
Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.
Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.
Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.
Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.
The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.
What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.
The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.
A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.
Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)
But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)
Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.
So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.
It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.
The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.
Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.
My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.
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