Life on Mars

I begin with a disclaimer: the Changeling found this book ever so slightly frightening.  Please do not let this deter you from exploring its pages; these days, she even finds books like The Paper Bag Princess scary, and I can’t figure out why.  (But she’s not scared by Outside Over There.  I’m perplexed!)  So while I normally try to limit this blog to books both she and I love (or novels I particularly enjoy), I’m going to break with the usual pattern for this one.  It’s just too good not to share.

You see, I had a lunch date with my cousin in Brookline today, and, naturally, took the opportunity to poke my head into The Children’s Book Shop to see what was new for the spring.  The lovely staff there responded beautifully when I showed up and said, “Hi, I was just in the area and wondered what was new here.”  Boy, did they ever deliver.  People, this is a great season of new books.  And one of my favourite new books was Life on Mars by Jon Agee.  We’ve met him before for Lion Lessons.

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Life on Mars is just as cute a book as Lion Lessons, and with the bonus that I didn’t have to give away my copy as soon as I had the pleasure of reading it.  They even wrapped it up for the Changeling with a sticker on the front, because the staff there are just that nice.

But what makes it so special a book that I recommend it here even without the Changeling’s wholehearted endorsement?  The answer is: Chocolate cupcakes.

Let me explain.  (I’m resisting the urge to add, “No, let me sum up.”  I’ve watched The Princess Bride a few too many times, I guess.)  The story is of an astronaut who flies his spaceship to Mars (reminding me strongly of Harold’s Trip to the Sky).  He has a very specific purpose: there are those who don’t believe in life on Mars, but our astronaut does.  His job?  To locate life on Mars and silence the unbelievers.  So off he goes to Mars, carrying a package of cupcakes as a gift for the friends he’s inevitably going to make there.  But once there, he’s dismayed: it’s so arid and rocky!  What if… what if he’s wrong and the naysayers are right?  He walks around without seeing a single sign of life until he’s even lost his way back to his spaceship.  He puts down the box of cupcakes as he roams.  But what’s that?  A flower!  Life!  And then– his box of cupcakes?  How did they get there?  Finally, he climbs a mountain to help locate his spaceship, and then off he goes.  Settled into his spaceship with his Martian flower, he opens the box of cupcakes with satisfaction– he deserves a treat!  But… wait, why are there only crumbs in the box?

You see (spoiler alert!), the whole time our astronaut has been roaming over Mars, a creature has been right behind him.  A huge, orangey-brown, Martian creature who apparently very much enjoyed the chocolate cupcakes and very neatly closed and tied the box up again.  And our astronaut, earnestly seeking life on Mars, never even noticed the creature, even when he mistook it? he? she? for a mountain and climbed it to try to locate his spaceship.

May I just indulge myself for a second?  As an academic, it is somehow extremely satisfying to watch this astronaut scaling the sides of the creature he’s looking for, totally oblivious to the fact that the whole point of his research is right there beneath his feet.  I’m surprised that I don’t find it more frustrating than satisfying, but it’s true– all I feel is satisfaction that, dear God, at least I’m not alone in sometimes (often) feeling like the whole point of my work is somewhere but I can’t find it… until I open the now-empty box of cupcakes and realize that, oh right, that was it all along.  Followed by the realization that: Dammit, I missed the cupcakes.  What I’m saying is that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize yourself in this book.  Maybe you’re not the astronaut– maybe you’re more self-aware than we are and are always on top of your research.  In that case, you probably identify with the Martian creature, patiently hanging out right nearby, just in case the astronaut will finally notice him.  Or maybe you just like chocolate cupcakes.  But I think that whoever you are, you’ll probably sympathize with some aspect of this adventure.  And maybe after recognizing this parable’s application to my own life I’ll be better on the lookout for the cupcakes.

As for children?  Despite the fact that the Changeling found the book a little bit scary when she thought it over afterwards, during the reading itself she very much enjoyed looking for the creature in each picture and was deeply concerned for the fate of the chocolate cupcakes.  In fact, hours after we’d read the story, as I was getting her ready for bed, she suddenly reminded me, “The cupcakes weren’t in the box.  They were all gone!  The creature ate them.”

To be honest, I’m not sure how much she understood about being on Mars: we haven’t done much astronomy together and she doesn’t really know about other planets.  (Give her a break: she’s not even four yet.)  But she definitely got that the astronaut had gone to a new place and was looking for something he couldn’t find.  If your child knows more about outer space and cares about planets more than she does, that would be fantastic, but even without that background I think this book is a total winner.

One warning: before you read this book either to yourself or to your child-audience, do make sure that you have cupcakes in the house.  I really want cupcakes now, and I hold the lovely owner of The Children’s Book Shop completely and totally to blame.

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Elidor

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping my main focus on my dissertation lately (I don’t think it’s going too badly, and I’m enjoying it, so that’s all good news), and that’s had an interesting effect on a lot of my other activities.  Knitting, spinning, sewing: seriously geared down, of course, though never entirely abandoned.  (You wouldn’t like to meet me if I’d completely abandoned my knitting– I get grouchy, and not the funny Oscar-type grouch, either.)  Here, I post as inspiration strikes rather than on my former schedule.  And what’s interesting is that “as inspiration strikes” in this case isn’t from any of the beautiful new publications I’ve seen, and that’s not for lack of beautiful new publications, I promise you.

The thing is that when I’m in “academic reading” mode, I find it very hard to read anything else except by specific rules: a) I only read for relaxation on Shabbat afternoons, b) I can only read very low-stress books or graphic novels.  I used to think I was broken, but then I met other people with the same experience.  Perhaps it’s a function of contrasts: my husband, a scientist, reads Proust for fun; I, a student of literature, read Susan Cooper and Alan Garner.  For me, it’s the equivalent of comfort food, but in book form.  All of that is to explain why I’m posting a review of a classic of children’s literature instead of reviewing any of the new lovely picture books I’ve got around this house.

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The story of Elidor, by Alan Garner, has fascinated me ever since I first read it, back when I was in my early teens, I think.  The story might be rather familiar in some respects.  A family of four children go into Manchester to escape the packing frenzy as their family is about to move houses.  The youngest of them, Roland, finds a map, and, on it, finds a street called Thursday Street.  Intrigued by the odd name, they go over to see the street.  Then, one at a time, they’re spirited away by a mysterious figure named Malebron to the magical, besieged land of Elidor.   Once there, they gain, and are entrusted with, four Treasures which hold the light of Elidor.  Pursued by the powers of darkness in Elidor, however, they have to escape back to their own world and keep the Treasures safe until it’s possible to return them to Elidor.

Now, a lot of that sounds like standard fare for fantasy buffs: children whisked away to a magical land under siege by powers of darkness?  C. S. Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many, many others have written some variant of that story.  But Alan Garner is entirely different, entirely original, and it’s taken me years to put my finger on what makes Elidor, and many of his other novels (The Moon of Gomrath springs to mind) so different.  Alan Garner pushes both the magical elements and the everyday elements to their logical extremes, and the results are beautiful.

In Elidor, for example, there’s a magical prophecy which predicts the four children coming to Elidor and rescuing the Treasures, there’s a circle of standing stones which nearly drives Roland out of his mind, and there’s the figure of Malebron (whoever he might be) who at one point communicates with Roland through a planchette.  What I’m saying is that Alan Garner really pushes and expands the range and complexity of what magical, otherworldly forces can do in children’s literature.

But that’s not the surprising thing.  It’s a distinctive feature of his work, for sure, but what really differentiates him from other authors of fantasy for children is the extent to which the magical adventures impinge on the children’s day-to-day lives.  For a simple example, when the children return from Elidor, they’re filthy.  They’re not allowed on the train in that condition, and have to smuggle themselves home, where their parents are furious with them for making extra trouble when they’re busy moving houses and so on.  Actions in Elidor have consequences in Manchester, in other words.  Even Cat Valente, in her Fairyland series, keeps the parents out of it until the very end of the third book in her series– it’s simply understood that parents get in the way of adventures, so they have to be tidied aside, one way or another, in most children’s fantasy novels.  Alan Garner doesn’t tidy anything aside; he embraces the complexity.

Thus, when Roland uses his memory of the family’s new house to help him open the doorway to a mound in Elidor, that has repercussions later as evil figures from Elidor try to reverse that magic and get into his world through his house.  Naturally, logically, his parents notice the shaking at the door, although they know nothing of Elidor.  The heated pursuit which ends the novel begins with the soldiers from Elidor overturning a cupboard full of china in the children’s very house.

While it’s true that the parents aren’t around for the pursuit and never directly encounter Elidor, it’s also true that things get messy between magical Elidor and the rigid logic of the children’s world.  In fact, they’re so messy that the three older children themselves (never Roland) try to logic themselves out of Elidor: they determine that they must have been through a mass hallucination.  This fits perfectly into their day-to-day world, which doesn’t admit Treasures or menacing standing stones, but it isn’t true.  Roland never wavers in facing, with equal logic, the truth: I was there, I saw it, I know it must be true.

What does this all add up to?  Alan Garner creates a world encompassing both the “real” world and “magical” Elidor, and its rules are relentlessly logical.  If you bring magic into the “real” world, then, yes, there will be consequences.  It will try to follow you.  You may end up with a unicorn prancing around the streets of Manchester escaping two evil soldiers from another world.  (Yeah, that happens.)  And your parents might just begin to suspect that something is going on…

The key point here is that Alan Garner’s Elidor shows him to be a master at crafting both new worlds and our own world.  So why don’t you take a little break, put up your feet, and let him introduce a bit of magic into your day-to-day life?