Fairy Spell

Do you believe in fairies?

Or maybe: “Deborah, do you believe in fairies?”

I’ve always found it a difficult question, personally. The obvious answer is, “No.” I’ve never seen a fairy (and, believe me, as a child I looked!), I’ve never held much conviction in “sensing” supernatural influences like auras or anything like that, and I found, as a young reader, that the wide variety of fairies in various books made it difficult to know what I was looking for when it came to fairy folk. Small and in the flowers? Tall and gracious? Noble? Mischievous? They came in such diversity that it was clear no one really knew what made a fairy.

But I was a lover of fairy tales and I deeply, passionately, madly loved fairies. I just didn’t know where to find them. Or really believe that they, you know, existed. But I wanted them to, and I couldn’t think of a reason why they shouldn’t exist, if only I knew what they were and where they were.

Which brings me to a book which has been sitting on my bedside table for months, waiting for me to have a chance to read it: Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

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First thing to note: I knew of the Cottingley Fairies, of course, because… fairies. As has been established, I knew and loved fairies and read all about them. Including the famous so-called hoax. I didn’t like the story, though, because it all seemed to circle around “how could Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have been taken in by a couple of girls?” Which seemed to me to be the wrong question to ask.

Second thing to note: Despite my reservations about the Cottingley Fairies story, I was at my local children’s book shop and they had this on display and I fell for it. Hard. The cover was so tender and so beautiful, and the title wasn’t calling it a hoax and seemed respectful… and, let’s be honest, this is a pretty, pretty book. I bought it.

(Newsflash: Deborah Falls in Love with Book and Buys It; Nobody Registers Surprise.)

Well, after I finished a chunk of writing, I cleared up the pile of books which have been waiting for me and this one surfaced again. I read it. And I’m totally, completely, 100% in love. This book, and I do not say so lightly, totally understands about fairies, and I’d just say that Marc Nobleman and Eliza Wheeler get it! They don’t talk down to the reader. They don’t pat those two clever girls, Elsie and Frances, at Cottingley on the head. They don’t sneer at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for believing in fairies. They get it. Add to that that the aesthetic of the book is stunning in its own right and perfectly suited to the gentle yet strong story of the two girls and the women they became, and you have, I believe, a perfect book of its kind.

The question is how Marc Nobleman wove a story which so encapsulated a famous “hoax” without ever calling it a hoax or imputing that the girls were out to make mischief while so brilliant a man as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by their machinations.

What Nobleman did which was so very, very simple, and very, very clever, was to listen to the girls and talk about them, rather than talk about the history of photography, Doyle’s peculiarities, or any of the other numerous angles I’ve seen on this story. He never once says that “fairies are real” or, conversely, that “the girls were out to hoax people,” but instead gently recounts the fun that the girls had together at Cottingley and outlines their motivation for photographing the fairies. Gradually, the story of the fairies grows, outgrowing the girls’ probable intentions, and when it reaches the ears of Doyle, it explodes. The girls stand by their story (in part, he suggests, so as not to embarrass Doyle), and only later in life, after the death of Doyle, do they explain the full story… almost. In fact, it seems that the younger of the girls, Frances, never really made it clear whether or not she maybe did believe in fairies… just a little.

I love how Nobleman treats Elsie and Frances with perfect respect, never imputing any malice or even mischievous intent to their actions. I love how the art mirrors and amplifies this respect. I love how he never looks down his nose at Doyle. I love how he builds a new story out of the old one, a story which never denigrates belief in fairies, or the desire to believe in fairies, and which even demonstrates a kind of respect for that desire. Altogether, I think this is a beautiful account of the creativity and brilliance of two little girls enjoying a summer in a lovely corner of the world– and who enjoyed playing with the fairies, whether the fairies knew it or not.

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A River

A River by Marc Martin came out in March 2017, and when it came out I snagged it at first sight from The Children’s Book Shop. At the time, though, I thought the Changeling was a bit young to appreciate it, and it slept nicely on a shelf until I hit a cracking point this week and needed a gentle, beautiful book to help me out a bit. A River did that beautifully, and today, after yet another day of terrible news (please consider first reading this and then donating here) I’m going to tell you about it in case it helps you, too.

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I encourage you to come to this book as you would to a work of art: the words are muted, gentle guides, but the true story comes through the art. A small child sits at the window, looking out to the river. The river stretches off to the distance, and the child pictures a little silver boat on the river. The boat carries the child, exploring wherever the river takes them. Off they go by cities, through jungles, over a stormy sea, and, finally, back home. The story is soft without being flaccid, and it has a core of great strength– the river itself– carrying the reader from beginning to end.

As I said, the art does the brunt of the storytelling, and it does so largely by atmosphere. Everything, from the cover and the endpapers to the story pages themselves, is marked by undulating curves and suffused with a variety of watery colours (unsurprisingly, the art is done in watercolours as well as gouache, pencils, and digital collage). As for the story pages, the opening of the child’s room is full of lush but muted, almost vintage, detail. Toys are scattered, a cat stands behind the child-artist’s chair, and various plants and decorations mark the walls and bookshelves. Then, as you turn the pages, these details come back… the toy car beside the bookcase anticipates the traffic in the city, the horse returns in a farm scene, the toucan in the jungle. Not all details map perfectly to full-page spreads as the river coils on, but there’s plenty to engage the eye– and the eye is busily engaged because the further the river flows from the city, the more luscious the landscape.

This is what I mean when I say to approach the book as artwork: first, because the art is so lush and so dynamic that it really does do the brunt of the storytelling; second, because it’s just so beautiful that turning the pages without being distracted by many words elicits both emotional and rational thought: “Vivid–deep–dangerous” might be the sequence of instinctive responses as you go from jungle during the day to jungle at night to sailing through the mangroves. And that tells you something, emotionally as well as intellectually.

As for me? My chief response, oddly, was peace. Sure, there’s a lot going on beyond peacefulness: the animals in the jungle are surely dangerous, and the stormy seas certainly aren’t peaceful, but relinquishing rational, analytical thought for a moment and allowing my mind just to pulse with responses to beautiful art– that’s peaceful, just like the quiet thoughtfulness of a museum (I wonder: did Delacroix paint a single peaceful painting in his life?), or that moment in between the end of a concert (be it Bach or Berlioz) and the beginning of the applause.

This is, simply put, a beautiful book, an art book. If children had coffee tables, this would be a good coffee table book for children. And if you need a quiet space around your child’s bedtime, this is the book I recommend. Take your time flipping the pages, and let your child prattle on about what they see; after all, they’re the ones voyaging on a little silver boat along the river with the child telling the story… and then coming back to go to bed. Sweet dreams.

Shelter Giveaway over!

Dear Readers,

The giveaway is over, and I’ve emailed the winner, so if you donated you should check your email!

I want to thank you for everything: for caring about this pressing issue, for your donations, for your notes and your thoughts, for your willingness to stand up against what is wrong and for embracing what is positive and helpful, and, above all, for letting me do my bit to help out. I wish I could send books to each and every one of you!

Thank you all, and check back later for some more beautiful books. I have one beside my laptop right now which I think you’ll all love.

Charity Giveaway Reminder

Hi, folks,

Your emails and entries into the Shelter Charity Giveaway have been so heartening: every little note has been meaningful to me, because each of you is the power in this giveaway.

Giving someone a book doesn’t help the children and families at the border; your donations to RAICES or the ACLU absolutely do.

You can still enter until 12 noon on Friday, July 20 by donating and then emailing me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com. And please do share this information with your family and friends: word of mouth is the best way to reach people, and I’ve gotten some lovely notes from friends of readers of the blog saying that this was the push they needed to donate.

Thank you again and again for your generosity, your donations, and for spreading good in a world which sorely needs it.

Deborah

Shelter Charity Giveaway

Dear Readers, it’s time for another giveaway here at the Children’s Bookroom! In the past, we’ve had giveaways either just because I liked a given book, or because I was given one for free, or in response to a troubling event– but I haven’t done a charity giveaway, and I think the time has come for that.

The impetus for this giveaway is that in the face of separating children from their families, losing track of them, and detaining parents and families in detention centres, I think (as ever) the response is to read books with our children which teach us to be kind, welcome the stranger, and share what you have. Let’s make sure the next generation is kinder, warmer, and more welcoming than we are. So I will be asking you to give to a charity which is standing up for sheltering the stranger, and, in return, I will give one of you a book which promotes the values of kindness, compassion, and welcoming those in need.

Which book called to me over this matter? Shelter, by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng, and one of my favourite books from 2017 (well done, Kids Can Press!).

Shelter

What are the rules? They are very simple:

1) Anyone can participate, no matter where they live; I will pay shipping worldwide. As in other giveaways, I hold that books know no boundaries!
2) To enter, the participant would simply make a donation in any amount to RAICES or the ACLU and email me that they have done so at deborah@childrensbookroom.com. I do not need to see your receipt: I trust you not to scam a giveaway about generosity and kindness.
3) This must be done between when I post the rules and Friday, July 20 at 12 noon EST.
At 12 noon July 20, I will use a random number generator to choose the winner and will email the winner to get their address. Donating more or less won’t affect the process; I know everyone will donate what they can, and that’s wonderful.
Questions? Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com. I know that you will share this widely and encourage your friends and family to donate as well. Let’s turn a grim situation into light and kindness to come.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

Hear and attend and listen, oh my Best Belov– whoops! Sorry, folks, just been reading lots of Just So Stories with the Changeling! (We’ll talk about them another day– I’d forgotten both how wonderful they are, and how much of Kipling’s racism permeates even these pretty innocent stories.)

But today we’re going to talk (relatively briefly) about another set of books: do you remember my first Saturdays post? In it I mention Maryrose Wood’s series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place? We began, way back then, with The Mysterious Howling, in which we’re introduced to the Incorrigibles, their governess (Penelope Lumley), and their home at Ashton Place. I noted then that they both played with the conventions of the Gothic and of Victoriana, but without taking themselves seriously. There was, for example, never any doubt of a happy ending.

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I admit freely that I had concerns about this final volume. I was worried that the mysteries had mounted up so high that the grand finale would be completely impossible to pull off without losing the lighthearted tone of the first five books: would it get sad and scary and– horror of horrors!– serious? In hindsight, I have no idea why I worried. Maryrose Wood had kept a consistent tone running through five novels even while the stakes got higher and higher; why would her skillful lightheartedness suddenly fall apart in the last book?

I won’t spoil the read for you by detailing every example of her beautiful balancing act between humour and an intense plot, but here are a few points to watch out for: Penelope’s harrowing escape from Plinkst, Russia (don’t feel stupid if you’ve never heard of Plinkst– it’s delightfully fictional, thank God); a ride against time in a balloon with an old friend; and a final, brilliantly dramatic seance in which– well, I can’t tell you that, can I?

But what you really want to know, I’m sure, is this: Now that I’ve finished the series, what do I think of it as a whole? And should you, new to the series, start it now that you can finish it? Is it worth reading the whole shebang?

My thoughts on the series as a whole are these: As I said above, it’s beautifully balanced between maintaining an intense plot while at the same time never falling into grim, gritty, noir drama. You will never stop smiling as you read. You will never feel worried that the next page will plunge you into melancholy.

But I worry that you think this means that the books are empty, frivolous tales; they aren’t. You consistently think, as you read, about questions of good parenting, loyalty, friendship, child-rearing, and, generally, good behaviour. You think about what it takes to be a good person, and why it is that we so love Penelope and the Incorrigibles. They just make you laugh as you think.

The only situation the series avoids is testing your thoughts by presenting the alternative: there is no use of horror to make us appreciate the gentleness on the other side. Drama, yes. Theatrics, definitely. Just no horror or darkness.

In point of fact, the closest adult equivalent might be P. G. Wodehouse: there’s the same sense of eyes twinkling behind the text, just waiting for the next page to bring you to laughter, while at the same time holding you in suspense as you await the next plot twist. The difference is that whereas P. G. Wodehouse generally hangs out with the wealthy and (affectionately) teases their excesses, Maryrose Woods, despite the wealth of the Ashtons, focuses her affections on the hard-working Penelope and her precariously situated students, the Incorrigibles. We are delighted with their ingenuity and how they maintain life and security as the world teeters around them.

So, if you’re looking for ease from these tempestuous times, I can strongly recommend these books. They’re wholesome, heartening, and funny. They’ll give you respite from harsh reality, but never, ever lose track of what’s really important in life: love and respect for one another.

And let me tell you this, too: if your reading time is limited, these are fantastic, absolutely brilliant. You can read each of these in a few hours, and while there’s a certain amount of suspense, you really can space them out without biting your nails to find out “what happens next?” Altogether, I cannot think of better summer reading. So go forth and read!

House of Dreams

I am not usually stunned to silence by, well, much of anything. I’m more likely to chatter on until I’ve sorted out my questions to my own satisfaction– in fact, I will actively seek out solitude just to preserve the rest of the world from my chattering, or write in a journal to get it all out without needing to bore my acquaintances by my navel-gazing. But being stunned to absolute silence? That doesn’t happen.

And then I read House of Dreams by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad (God, I love her).

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Here’s the thing: You may have noticed I haven’t been around here much. Partly that’s because I haven’t been reading a huge amount, mostly it’s because I’ve been in the throes of a spiral of anxiety with an added dose of depression over my dissertation. Terrible idea, that: it prevents me from working, and also prevents me from seeking out the tools I use to keep myself working (writing here, writing in my journal, knitting or spinning– anything, really). I strongly recommend not ending up in a depressive spiral if you can at all avoid it.

But then I needed to pick up some birthday presents for the Changeling’s school friends, so I went to my beloved Children’s Book Shop, and one of the books they had on display was House of Dreams. I was in a black fog from my anxiety, and nearly cried as I bought it (that’s not very indicative of anything, actually– I cried over the laundry, too). I felt it was a betrayal of my dissertation to even touch another book, even though I only planned to read it on Saturdays, as usual– but I knew it would be good to have some heart-to-heart time with an author I loved as much as L. M. Montgomery.

I was right– right and wrong, but mostly right.

Here’s the thing: I went into this book knowing a couple of things about L. M. Montgomery (Maud). I knew I loved her writing. I’m a Maritimer by birth, and I grew up with Anne, to a lesser degree with Emily (Emily of New Moon), and oh so very close with Jane of Jane of Lantern Hill and Valancy from The Blue Castle. Darling friends of mine, all of those bright, spunky, flawed, growing and learning young women! They were there for me all my life. And I felt they represented various aspects of Maud herself.

But I also knew that she lived with terrible misfortunes in her life, and coped with bad depression until her death.

I didn’t know just how bad it was.

My initial reaction at the end of the book was a kind of pang of guilt for not having been there: an “I didn’t know” feeling. “I didn’t know Maud committed suicide. I didn’t know the half of her family difficulties, especially with her eldest son, Chester. I didn’t know about how bad her medical situation was.”

I also didn’t know how damned strong she was: “I didn’t know how well she stood up to her unscrupulous publisher. I didn’t know how prolific she was during very dark times. I didn’t know she survived a miscarriage and a still-birth with a husband who wasn’t really there for her.”

On a practical note, then, I can tell you that if you’re a fan of her works, House of Dreams will tell you plenty that you probably didn’t already know about Maud, and it does so with clear, engaging, narrative prose. It’s a great read.

But, as I said above, it stunned me, initially, to silence. It took me a while to write to my mother about it– and if you know anything about me and my mother and the scope of our correspondence, that alone will stun you.

Here’s the thing: if you love Maud, if you feel yourself reflected in her work, and if you are the sort of person who always thought that Valancy in The Blue Castle was her way of talking about mental illness (seriously, Valancy’s not suffering from heart attacks– she’s struggling with anxiety attacks and depression, I’m dead sure of it)– if you feel intimately connected to Maud’s books and have always felt that Jane of Lantern Hill was written about your life… basically, if you’re like me: it will take you a while to process what you’ve read.

That said: do yourself a favour and read this book. You’ll get to know Maud better than you ever did before, and I guarantee that although it will cost you pangs of grief as she struggles, you will also feel pride in how she dealt with adversity, in her strength, and in her ability to continue to be a rock for others to lean on even as life is dealing her blow after blow.

You will mourn the lack of support out there for her, and you will feel gratitude that medication and therapy have come so far as they have these days. You will feel torn to bits as you read about how she self-medicated to the point that it killed her. You will wish to God that you could have been there to offer to sit with her over a cup of tea and urge her to talk openly about her struggles.

And, ultimately, you will wish you could have said these words: “What you wrote meant something to me. Thank you for your writing. You, your life, and your happiness matter to me.”

Of the books I’ve read recently, this has probably touched me more deeply than most. I am so glad I read it. It got me to write here, and I bet you anything it gets me to write more than I delete on my dissertation this week, which would be a triumph of no ordinary proportions.

Reading notes: I read this over the past two Saturdays. Grand total, I bet it took me no more than six hours to read. It took me a lot longer to process, obviously.

So, please read this book, and then come back and tell me what you think!

The Penderwicks at Last

Dear Fellow Lovers of Good Books, I have sad and happy news.

Sadly, the Penderwicks series (previously discussed here) has come to an end. In happy news, that ending is lovable, perfect, and filled with a joy you can clasp right close to you and never let go.

The characters aren’t gone and finished and done with: Jeanne Birdsall is too wise an author to end her books with utmost finality. I don’t mean to say she leaves room for the novels to continue (she sounds pretty final on that point, probably a wise choice), but that the ending doesn’t feel like a pat “happily ever after.” Rather, it’s left with musings over what’s going to happen next– and, best of all, what happens next is up to your imagination.

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I’m writing ever so briefly about this for two reasons: a) My previous post says pretty much everything that I need to say about how wonderful these books are, so I don’t need to go on at length, but b) I do want to remind you of this series, let you know that it continues beautifully to the very end, and, really, encourage you to give it a shot.

What can you expect from this series as a whole? I’d say what you get is affirmation. Perhaps another word, maybe a better one, is reassurance. People aren’t really all that bad, you come away thinking. Even when someone is all that bad, they’re so outnumbered by the tight loving-kindness of a basically good family that the selfishness or nastiness is completely counter-balanced. Negativity can never win.

I’m struggling here not to give away any of the plot twists, but I’ll say that even the Penderwicks aren’t perfect. The children overstep, they come up with plans which are less than totally advisable, and yet the basic decency underlying everything their family has to offer results in teachable moments rather than leading to descents into harrowing negativity. Even the harshest moments are handled so deftly and sensitively by Jeanne Birdsall that negativity never really gets a grip on the story. And in an era of the grim and the gritty, I appreciate this reassuring, life-affirming sort of text.

So, yes, I encourage you to go forth and read! Read about the Penderwicks and your life will be just a little stauncher, a little more committed to life and beauty and music. Enjoy it– I know I did!

And, because I can’t resist: yes, I went to Jeanne Birdsall’s event and signing hosted by the Children’s Book Shop (I’m so glad I live near there now!). And, dork that I am, I got my picture taken with her. It’s terribly unflattering of both of us, but I don’t care. Here’s evidence that I met and spoke with Jeanne Birdsall, author of the Penderwicks. I couldn’t be happier, so who cares about whatever the hell’s going on with my chin(s???) and hair!

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Jeanne Birdsall? Thank you for writing. I hope that you continue to write with joy, sensitivity, and hope. I love your books, and will read them all, forever. I can’t wait until my Changeling is old enough to read them with me.

The rest of you? Really, I don’t know what else I can say. Go forth and read!

SWAN revisited

Hi! I don’t have a long post for you today, or even a new book. Frankly, I’m just having trouble switching my brain from “moving into a new house” to “writing a dissertation” mode, and I need your help to get my writing muscles moving. Also, I’m just so excited about the book I just bought– even though I’ve bought it, oh, about a thousand times so far.

Which book? Swan, by Laurel Snyder. (Chronicle Books link, which is great, they have excellent service,  but I got mine through my beloved Children’s Book Shop.)

Swan

It’s a book which is precious to me for several reasons, and I just wanted to share those reasons with you:

  • First of all, it’s the first book I wrote about on this blog: Swan. I hate reading over my own writing– I’m always convinced that it’s going to have turned into a rotting slag heap of compost since the last time I looked at it– but here I have to say two things: 1) I still agree with myself: it’s a book which elicits a lot of emotion in adults as well as children; 2) I feel like the start of blogging here was good for me, and I’m glad that I started with such a great book.
  • I didn’t mention this back in my old entry, but I love ballet. The Changeling started ballet lessons this past year, and she loves it, too. She loves watching it, reading about it, dancing it– it’s become a point of bonding between us, and that makes me happy. This book is part of that bonding, and that means it feels somehow intimate to me, even though I’ve shared it with about a million other people in the past couple of years.
  • The book isn’t just about ballet or talent or genius or hard work: it’s about leaving the world a better and more beautiful place– which is precisely what this book does, incidentally.

The reason I revisited this book was because my Changeling is just finishing up her year’s ballet lessons, and I thought it would be nice to give her teacher a copy. I still think so. We love Miss Rachel, and she’s turned my Changeling into a happy little dancer. I think Swan is going to make her happy, too. Chronicle Books? You done good, and the pairing of Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad was absolutely perfect.

Saturdays Again

I have been writing my fingers off for hours, dear Readers, but I’m so pepped up on adrenaline left over from my dissertation that I decided I’d have a chat with you this morning!

First things first, my thanks to those of you who wrote to me about my brainstorming post: the Changeling and I are having an absolute ball and I look forward to trying out some of your suggestions once we’re settled in our new place and have, you know, bookcases again. In the meantime we’re making do with those books which aren’t yet packed: she reads This Is Not My Hat to me, and I read The Little Bookroom to her (my sneaky way of getting some Eleanor Farjeon into my life after all). It’s so wonderful to share the reading: I’d anticipated that it would be fun, but I had no idea it would feel so special.

What this means, though, is that most of what I read with the Changeling right now is pretty repetitive– mostly books I’ve already written about here, or ones like This Is Not My Hat, which are already pretty well-known. (You know it, right? It’s a fun one. Highly recommended, especially when read aloud by a charming Changeling of your own.) I’m looking forward to sharing more picture books with you soon, but right now, as we prepare to move, well… how about some more Saturday books?

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The first book I want to share is not new, but is new to me. Somehow I grew up without reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I can still see the exact place on my mother’s bookshelf where this book sat: I remember the spine and everything. And it has “witch” in the title, and that’s a word which would have attracted my notice, and, basically, I cannot explain what ridiculous turn of events prevented me from reading a book that was right there and did everything it could to attract me. I just don’t know.

Then the owner of The Children’s Book Shop mentioned it to me and my mind flew right back to that spot on my mother’s shelves, and next thing I knew I was wandering along beside the Changeling over Passover with the book in my pocket, ready to read it while she played at the park.

Fellow readers, this is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager or pre-teen, so if you have a pre-teen or teenager in your life, do try to ensure that a copy is hanging around where they might see it.

This is not a “suspense!” type of book so I’m not worried about spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of book where the how it happens supersedes the what happens. So, be warned, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to discover the what happens without having the least detail spoiled: I am planning to spoil some bits of the plot below. For you, I’ll just say that this book is about home and belonging and how you get there. For the rest of you, let’s dive in a bit more deeply.

Ready? OK.

Kit Tyler is a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in her literate, wealthy grandfather’s home in Barbados in the late seventeenth century. When her beloved grandfather dies, circumstances force her to rush without any warning to her aunt’s home in a Puritan settlement in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Think of it as a change in hue– and, indeed, Elizabeth George Speare certainly emphasizes that sensory experience: Barbados is bright, it is warm, it is jewel tones; Wethersfield is dark, it is cold, it is all natural hues. Barbados is silk, Wethersfield is wool.

Which is better?

This is a question Kit has to answer for herself. In Wethersfield, she has, initially, enormous difficulty fitting in. Her impulsive, independent nature, nurtured by her highly educated grandfather who taught her to read literature, is utterly out of place in stern Wethersfield where the highest virtue is obedience and the only book to read is the Bible. Kit gradually fits herself in, but she just can’t get the hang of obedience in the face of what she considers the right thing to do: befriending a taboo Quaker woman and teaching a neglected child to read. This brings her into high trouble… and, ultimately, out of it. Rather than squashing herself to fit in, she learns to absorb the virtues of Wethersfield and the beauty of Barbados in equal parts, and, thus, makes two homes for herself without in any fashion compromising her own identity.

Get why I wanted this when I was sixteen? I’ll bet you do! Let’s make a pact to keep this available to every sixteen-year-old child who may need its lessons: Don’t change who you are, but also don’t dismiss every new experience out of hand. Adaptability, I think in hindsight, is the key to adolescence, and that’s what Kit Tyler has to teach us.

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The next book I want to tell you about is a debut novel, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by one insanely talented Jessica Townsend. (Hey, Jessica? All of those expletives I muttered as I read your basically-perfect first novel? Please don’t take them personally! You’re amazing, and I’m just a tad bit jealous of your extraordinary level of skill for a first novel!!!)

Nevermoor is as different from The Witch of Blackbird Pond as you can get– at first glance, at least. Blackbird Pond is history and realism, Nevermoor is fantasy and whimsy. Blackbird Pond is stern and ruthlessly structured, Nevermoor is giddy and sprawling. Blackbird Pond is short, Nevermoor is nearly twice as long.

And yet…

Nevermoor may be fantasy, full of magic and fun, whimsical and sprawling in nature, and quite long, but let’s talk about that a little. A book like Blackbird Pond wears its heart and structure on its sleeve; Nevermoor? Not so much. So I want to posit that it is, despite being a whimsical fantasy novel– realistic! It is also masterfully structured in its own sense, following a very careful narrative arc. Finally, it may be longer than Blackbird Pond— I mean, it is, that’s not up for debate, the page count is 480 while Blackbird Pond is 249– but it doesn’t feel long. It’s still pretty tight (there’s that structure at work) and I’d be hard pressed to point to a chapter or other section and say, “Cut this.”

I’m going on about this for two reasons: I’m frankly fed up with reading opinion pieces or otherwise talking to folks about a fantasy novel (or sci fi, horror, or other genre) and having them sort of pat them on the head: “Yes, I’m sure it was entertaining and good… for a fantasy novel.” Hear me now, loud and clear: FANTASY DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT GOOD. This here? It’s a first novel by a skilled novelist who, I’ll bet you anything, is just going to get better at her craft, and she knows what she’s doing. It’s good stuff, and deserves the accolades it got from Publisher’s Weekly and lots of other notable places. So, even though it’s apples to oranges, yes, I’m comparing it to Blackbird Pond. And I mean it, too.

Oh– the second reason I’m talking about structure, voice, length, etc? Unlike in the case of Blackbird Pond, I’m really leery of spoiling the plot for you.

So, then, let’s talk about the elements that go to make Nevermoor, in its own way, quite as skilled as a classic like Blackbird Pond. (Note: I said skilled, not “as good as” or “you’re wrong if you don’t like it” or anything else implying a moral issue here: just that it’s well-structured and should be up for as much serious discussion as a realist classic of children’s lit. Your personal taste is your own, however, and up to you.)

I started by talking about realism. You may think that, because Nevermoor is fantasy, that it’s not grounded in realistic characteristics of life lived: Kit Tyler faced real life issues in Barbados which caused her to make her way to Connecticut, where she faced more realistic life issues. What about Morrigan, the female protagonist of Nevermoor? She was born at a cursed time and is therefore believed to carry a curse by her community and her family. Not so realistic. Except–

Well, remember that Kit Tyler is earmarked as “different” with her bright clothing, swimming skills, and impulsive nature? She’s marked out and doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to handle that situation. Morrigan is marked out, can have no friends (she’s cursed) or place in her community (that curse again) and doesn’t even fit in with her own family (her father resents her curse for making life difficult for him, for example). Until, that is, she makes her own big trip to a place where– well I won’t give away the plot, but, trust me, there’s something very real and human about her seeking her own tribe, as it were, and slowly finding people and creatures who seem to understand her– as well as discovering that nowhere and no one is perfect.

Thus much for “realism” and “fantasy,” but I think we need to talk a bit about structure and length now.

On the one hand, I’ve noticed books creeping longer in length over the past while– I’m not going to call out ones that felt long to me, but I think it’s generally the case that the books which have survived to be classics (Blackbird Pond, Alan Garner, The Perilous Gard, I could go on) dwell in the area of 250 pages, give or take. More recent books, especially perhaps fantasy?, are creeping up towards 450 pages. Think of the Harry Potter books, which started fairly short and crept up towards– what was Order of the Phoenix? Over 500 pages? And maybe that one was a bit longer than necessary? It’s hard for me to say anything negative about those books, though– they were so formative for me and I remember the thrilling wait for each one as it emerged from J. K. Rowling’s brain into my hands in book form… I feel a bit sorry for the Changeling, who will get to plow through them all straight away without waiting in line at midnight for each book to come out!

My point is: I think longer books are becoming more acceptable in MG fiction, and I don’t know that this is entirely a bad thing. On the one hand, oh, those deliciously concise books where every word is weighed in the balance and only placed if truly necessary! On the other hand– Cat Valente, anyone? The Glass Town Game was pretty damned good, with its long sentences, plot rising like dough in a warm spot in your kitchen, and generally fabulous characters. So, I’d say it all comes down to the skill of the author (and the keen eye and ear of the editors)– is this a book which can comfortably occupy 400+ pages, or is it better pared down a little? Is this a style which would work better in a concise format or with rolling, delicious prose? That is, I trust Cat Valente to use every page well, but other authors work better in a tight, succinct format (I can’t imagine Alan Garner writing a longer text, for example: he’s so good at keeping it trimmed down and elegant).

I’ll admit: the length of Nevermoor did truly give me pause initially, not because I’m afraid of long books (one of my all-time favourites being Tom Jones, so, you know, I’m used to lengthy reads), but because of my Saturday constraints. I didn’t want to embark on a long read, get totally hooked, and have to either: a) sneakily read it during the week when I should be working, or b) actually have to wait a week to find out what the [expletive] HAPPENS!!! (Yeah, I was one of the kids who got the latest Harry Potter book at midnight and started reading it while walking home from the bookstore. Instant gratification takes too long.)

I’m so glad I fell down hard and read this anyway. It turns out to be a great balance of suspense and well-crafted writing which it was a pleasure to savour. I read it all over two Saturdays and enjoyed the week-long break in between. I simply thought about Morrigan Crow on occasion, wondering, “What will happen next?” and “I wonder if Plot Point X is going to come back?” I was into it, but it wasn’t torture to be made to wait a while. It was like eating half a slice of a really good pie, and then being called to a conversation with a charming friend before you can finish– you really want the rest of that pie, but no one’s life is in danger if you wait to get back to it. Maybe I’d have felt differently ten years ago, but speaking from the ripe old age of 31*, I enjoyed the slight suspense without being totally immersed in concerns for Morrigan. Frankly, I think this had a lot to do with character design: I trusted Morrigan to get through anything.

So, folks, there you go. Two splendid books, both well-written, both with engaging characters and lessons about persistence and adaptability, both carrying you along with a narrative which was imaginative while at the same time being grounded in excellent characters with real-life applications. And both being exactly the length that was right for them.

*This reminds me that I never shared my wonderful birthday gifts from my charming husband. I suspect you’d enjoy them, but that will have to wait until we move.