Sunday, May 20, 2007

Choice kidlit and other yearnings

With all the books that have been coming into the house recently, I've been doing a bit more reading. Yes, I read constantly online, but it's like feasting on cotton candy in many ways; online reading is somehow less substantial than a good book.

Much of the books that have been coming in aren't new; they're copies of books I read and loved as a child (I love children's literature), or ones that I've heard of but never gotten around to reading. My sister Jenny, being a well-read sixth grade teacher, is the go-to resource for good kidlit. The last time we talked about it, she recommended several that I stuck on the ol' Amazon wish list and then promptly forgot. (They tend to make their way here somehow.)

Just recently, though, I serendipitously stumbled upon a couple of delicious books that I think will need to be shared with Jen. They are Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk, and The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley. Both are rich and satisfying in different ways; both make good, but not heavyhanded, use of symbolism; both have strong-willed female protagonists; both use a kind of alternate reality as the basis for the story. That's pretty much where the similarities end, though.

The Great Good Thing is a book-within-a-book story, based on the conceit that the characters in books -- you know, the ones who appear in your mind's eye as you read -- are real and alive and present the story just as actors present a play. Princess Sylvie, the main character of the fairy tale book "The Great Good Thing," is growing weary of her exciting-but-predictable life, not to mention the fact that nobody seems to read her story any more. One day she does something specifically forbidden to a character -- she looks up at the Reader. Sylvie's storybook tale is never wholly told, but that's because it's primarily an outline for what happens when the characters from stories start interacting with human beings in the real world. Sylvie has experiences with three generations of Readers, and they help her as much as she helps them. Although I wasn't sure whether the book would be as good as the premise -- metafictional ideas like this can be uncomfortably self-aware in execution -- the book is not only funny, but surprisingly quite touching.

Midnight Blue begins in a rather squalid urban neighborhood where Bonnie, a girl of about ten or twelve, and her young mother Maybelle live in a small apartment. Life would be good for them if not for Grandbag, Maybelle's cruel and domineering mother who has raised Bonnie practically all her life and is not willing to let her go. When Grandbag moves in unannounced, telling Maybelle what to do and trying to run Bonnie's life again, Bonnie runs away. She meets a strange man who is building an unusual deep-blue balloon to fly to a world "beyond the sky," but it is Bonnie who gets into the basket and flies away. She finds herself in a strange parallel world, among a strange yet familiar family where the mother looks like Maybelle, the father looks like the balloon-builder, and the daughter looks just like herself. This world has its own strange rules, its comforts, and also its magical dangers for Bonnie to determine and outwit. The story is atmospheric and beautifully told, with some similarities to A Wrinkle in Time and symbolic details reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. Good stuff!

This book has a gorgeous opening paragraph:
It began as it always did with sweet, solitary notes of music that called to her from somewhere beyond the sky, a single piper's cry that reached down for her and scooped her over roof tops and streets, office blocks and electric pylons, railway stations, shops, and parks. The world faded beneath her. It was a hot, clear day and she flew up till she could see none of it any more. As she rose the sun rose with her, as if they were racing for the top of the sky. Its warmth welcomed her, caressed her skin. Above her the music of the lonely pipe, the only sound left in the whole world, drew her on until she prepared to hit the very roof of the sky itself. Then the smooth sky puckered into cloth-of-blue and drew aside for her, like curtains parting. The music called again and she passed straight through.
Is that not one of the better examples of sweet yearning in children's fiction?

Other yearnings: I want to go to Snoqualmie Falls in the worst way. It's been quite a few years now since the last visit, and it's not that far of a drive. A Monday visit may be in order, and possibly some snapshots.


natural attrill said...

Wow, that waterfall looks fantastic, I'd like to go there!

tlc illustration said...

Thanks for the book reviews and recommendations. After I get through my teetering stack by my bedside (ahem...), I'll see what I can do. :-)

Soozcat said...

Penny--Snoqualmie Falls is best known outside the area as the waterfall featured in the TV series "Twin Peaks." I can't vouch for the series, but the falls are absolutely beautiful. They are breathtaking in a different way every day of the year.