Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes


Hold on to the Milk

Take one dad, add a bottle of milk, a flying saucer, and a helpful time-traveling dino-scientist, and you’ll have the ingredients for one rowdy tale. Fortunately, the Milk is Neil Gaiman’s odd, delightful recipe for read-aloud fun, especially between father and son. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman and illus by Skottie Young

Mom has left for a conference, and Dad makes mugs of hot chocolate for the kids. Unfortunately, he uses all the milk, so breakfast the next morning seems awfully dry. Dad sets off to remedy the situation by buying milk, but his return is delayed by an unexpected abduction by green aliens from outer space.

What fun Skottie Young must have had illustrating this boisterous novel. His pen-and-ink drawings show spikey-haired Dad with his elongated scarf, a flying saucer as big as a ballpark, and a barrage of quirky aliens, monsters, and vampires. That’s one way to ensure that giggles will erupt from beginning to end.

The other way, of course, is with a plot that is silly beyond belief, an aspect that supplies a frisson of pleasure so often denied to children in their stressed-out, structured world. By employing such crazy elements, Gaiman gives us permission to unleash our own imagination, to juxtapose unlikely objects and events, to experiment with stories. In fact, the pace and style of Fortunately, the Milk perfectly mimic the approach a parent might take when seizing random elements along with the children’s own favorites (pirates, prancing ponies, etc.) and concocting a tale to entertain an antsy child.

Gaiman’s gift to us all is his implication that you can find magic in the simplest ingredients. And isn’t that one reason we are grateful for a good story?

For great Thanksgiving possibilities, see my prior post.

A Squirrel With a Poet’s Heart

“There is just no predicting what kind of sentences you might say, thought Flora. For instance, who would ever think you would shout, ‘You’re going to vacuum up that squirrel!’?”  Flora & Ulysses

Despite Flora’s warning, the next door neighbor did indeed swallow a squirrel with her powerful new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner. That bizarre accident serves to launch a unique novel—and to transform its characters’ lives.

The acclaimed author of beloved children’s books (The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie), Ms. DiCamillo once again serves readers a rich banquet dripping with choice words, seemingly random combinations of outsider characters, wise asides, and an irresistibly endearing animal.

In Flora & Ulysses we meet a ten-year-old self-proclaimed cynic who is on guard all the time; after all, the unexpected could happen any moment. In the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, Flora retreats to her bedroom, where she can revel in her beloved, predictably thrilling detective comic book series, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!

As a result, Flora knows superheroes “were born of ridiculous and unlikely circumstances: spider bites, chemical spills, planetary dislocation, and, in the case of Alfred T. Slipper, from accidental submersion in an industrial-size vat of cleaning solution called Incandesto!” She is thus equipped to handle the case when the squirrel she saves (in a hilarious scene in which she administers CPR to the rodent) somehow transforms into a super squirrel.

She arrives at the perfect name for her new companion: Ulysses. The squirrel shows himself to be super strong—he lifts the vacuum cleaner to devour the crackers! He can fly! He can even understand what Flora says to him.

In charming short chapters, readers gain insight into the squirrel’s fantastic transformation. “His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.”

Just how large is that rodent’s brain? Suspense builds as Flora and next door neighbor and fellow outcast William Spiver watch Ulysses in action at the typewriter where Flora’s self-absorbed mom writes her vapid romance novels.

“It was beautiful to the squirrel to see a letter appear out of nowhere.” One letter leads to another, and suddenly, the squirrel composes a funny little poem, confounding William Spiver’s expectations and confirming Flora’s assessment that Ulysses is a squirrel magnifique and a squirrel to keep, despite her mom’s disapproval.

At such key dramatic events, illustrator K. G. Campbell provides delightful, expressive pencil drawings that highlight the quirky circumstances of this high-flying fantasy. On top of those visual enticements, the novel sparkles with perfectly placed changes in fonts: comic-book–like fonts for the words of the Amazing Incandesto, an old-fashioned typewriter font for Ulysses’ poems, and numerous comic-book panels with bubbles containing dialogue in all caps.

Within the span of just a few days, Flora and the squirrel travel a great distance as the author treks those strange beating things we call hearts. Flora’s isolation and pessimism shift to a worldview where companionship and hope can enter. In the aftermath of proclaiming her mother an archenemy and announcing she wants to go live with her passive, comic-book loving father, she discovers her mother, despite her shortcomings, actually does love her.

Who would have predicted one superhero squirrel could lead a child to such crucial inner growth, to forgiveness, to hope? As Flora would say, Holy bagumba! Here’s a novel that should fly off the shelves and into the waiting hearts of young readers.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also …

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamilloTale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamilloMiraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Do You Believe in Magic?

Known for her sprightly novels inspired by fairy tales (The Frog Princess series), E. D. Baker dips her pen into the strange Russian fairy tales of the bony old murderous Baba Yaga and brings forth a fresh, engaging tale brightened by humor and by an inquisitive, resourceful young protagonist.    Question of Magic

Twelve-year-old Serafina receives a letter from a mysterious great-aunt informing her she intends to give the girl a life-changing legacy. The unknown relative neglects to specify what she’s bequeathing or why she’s chosen Serafina instead of her two older sisters. As any spunky heroine would do, ’Fina soon sets off to claim her inheritance.

Upon arriving at the proposed site for receiving her inheritance, she encounters a bizarre environment: a cottage that can fly, a book that writes its own words, and a trunk full of squabbling skulls. Worst of all, there appears to be no way out.

Serafina quickly begins to question the value of this gift and longs to return home to her family and her dear Alek, whom she envisions marrying someday. Alas, reality has morphed: “Either she was losing her mind or all those people who had told her that things like magic and fairies weren’t real were actually wrong.”

Magic abounds in this well-paced novel. Yet Ms. Baker eschews the darkest elements of the old Baba Yaga tales: the capricious hag who kidnaps children; the hut’s ominous fence made of human bones, topped by human skulls; the woman’s ravenous appetite for tender human flesh. Nor does this author delineate a protagonist rejected by a hateful stepmother and her two heinous daughters. Instead A Question of Magic, with its vaguely Eastern European medieval setting, celebrates an unorthodox (for the era) heroine with plenty of curiosity, intelligence, and literacy, who dons the mantle of Baba Yaga and manages to help others rather than kill them.

As Baba Yaga, Serafina finds herself compelled to answer one, and only one, question from anyone who poses it. In precise detail, she is able to reveal the future, to solve crimes, or locate lost items—all in a voice that is not her own, but that of the wise Baba Yaga. Each time she responds, though, she grows a little older. Serafina cannot simply return home, as she does not know how to rid herself of this “gift” and must find a way to stop the aging before it’s too late.

The dramatic tension builds as Serafina inevitably grows lonelier, older, and with her increasing notoriety more vulnerable. She wonders if she’ll ever see her family and her beau again. If that sounds gloomy, fear not.

One of the novel’s major themes highlights the importance of helping others and helping oneself. The skulls, rather than threatening her become friendly and frequently comedic after Serafina cleans and polishes them. Her kindness to a talking cat results in her gaining crucial information; and after she befriends a giant, he returns to vanquish the enemies of her family and friends. Her ability and willingness to teach a friend to read, in turn plays a surprising part in enabling her to pass the Baba Yaga role on to another.

A Question of Magic, with its likable heroine, its swiftly moving plot, and a romantic resolution will no doubt get passed along from one preteen girl to many another.

Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Fairy Tale Comics: “Baba Yaga” (
and my review of The Cabinet of Earths and of Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems.

Hoban’s Wild Terrain

In a bracing mash-up of magic realism set in the far North of the author’s fierce imagination, Russell Hoban traverses the wild terrain of life, death, and regeneration and unearths the intrinsic duality of human existence.

With Soonchild, his quick-paced, often startling last novel, Mr. Hoban, who died last year, once more eschews conventional expectations in favor of the precarious role of a shape shifter. The author creates his story by fusing a storm of discordant elements: genres (Is this a young-adult novel? an extended modern fable? a graphic novel for adults?); the physical world and the spiritual; and language, mingling traditional motifs of Inuit folk literature with colloquialisms bred by a modern, consumerist society. The territory Mr. Hoban explores is ultimately internal, as each human contains a world within worlds.

The protagonist of Soonchild is a shaman so full of fear he has 16 faces, not nearly enough to deal with all the dangers out there. Sixteen-Face John has taken to ignoring the unruly spirit world by settling into an ordinary life of a little hunting, fishing, carving, and trapping with a skiddoo instead of a dogsled. When John’s not doing whatever it takes to survive, he plops in front of the TV, drinks a Coke and peruses magazines with centerfolds. The spirits still whisper in his head, but he makes sure there’s “always a lot of other noise on top of it.”

The impending first child, however, manages to pull John from his mundane distractions. His wife, No Problem, warns him the baby they call Soonchild is refusing to leave her womb. Their daughter’s problem, the shaman learns, is that she cannot hear the World Songs, so she refuses to believe in an existence other than the one she already knows.

Thus, the bumbling father sets out on an unlikely quest to stake claim to the Master Song that contains all the songs of the world. His perilous journey demands that he confront demons both external and internal, morph into myriad shapes, enter deep trances, and create his own songs. Fortunately and unfortunately, John is not always alone in his undertaking. He encounters not only terrors but also a motley cast of vital spirit helpers, ranging from his poker-playing, deceased great-grandmother to the ice bear Nanuq.

The most significant assistance, however, comes from Old Man Raven, drawn from the Inuits’ mythical trickster figure credited with creating the world. Raven, who “speaks his word of black,” can blink John into his eye and defy time, fear, and gravity, thereby enabling the shaman to rescue the song that will convince Soonchild to join her parents.

The reader’s experience of this singular novel is enriched by Alexis Deacon’s powerful charcoal and pencil drawings of eerie, significant images: the ice bear’s fierce claws, the owl-woman’s watchful eyes, the snoring ton of walrus, the fangs of ghost wolves. These illustrations, combined with the author’s lyrical language, engage the reader in a magical, thought-provoking expedition.

Like the wolves, Soonchild tracks “the paths of the living, the paths of the dead,” leaving readers a legacy of hard-won wisdom.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

And see these intriguing posts from artist/writer/blogger Anne E. G. Nydam:

Inuit Stone Block Prints” and “Transformations.”


Oh, Pinocchio, Say It Isn’t So

How we crave our stories of magic, those heady tales of endless possibilities. Once upon a time, Carlo Collodi created a character made of wood but with the big heart and unbridled desires of a child. In The Adventures of Pinocchiothe wily Italian author turns our expectations inside out, inviting us to examine the dual nature of fantasy and of freedom — in other words, to grow up.

We Americans, so accustomed to seeing the cute popular images of Pinocchio, are unprepared for Collodi’s opening description of … “a piece of wood. It wasn’t expensive wood, just the ordinary kind that we take from a woodpile in the winter and put in the stove or the fireplace in order to get a fire going … .” Right away, the author is warning us that this will be no traditional fairy story.

Enrico Mazzanti illustration from Wikipedia

Yes, magic feeds the plot. The plain wood, after all, somehow springs to life after old Geppetto carves his puppet. And interestingly enough, the first miraculous growth of that famous nose occurs as the carpenter shapes it: “Poor Geppetto kept struggling to cut it back; but the more he cut and shortened it, the longer that impudent nose became.”

You might wonder, Who is in control here? Ah, that is the question Collodi goes on to explore. Immediately, Geppetto’s creation turns on him, snatching the old man’s wig and mocking him by putting it on his own head. “Scamp of a child, you aren’t even finished and you’re already beginning to lack respect for your father!”

Pinocchio, it turns out, will not consider himself finished until he becomes a real boy, with all the advantages and disadvantages that condition entails. On the other hand, he is lured by the fantasy that he can escape the drudgery, the diligence, and discipline required to be a student and later, a working adult.  The puppet will do exactly as he pleases.

Illustrations from "Le avventure di Pinoc...

Illustrations from “Le avventure di Pinocchio, storia di un burattino”, Carlo Collodi, Bemporad & figlio, Firenze 1902 (Drawings and engravings by Carlo Chiostri, and A. Bongini) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or not. A multitude of troubles await the imp, as he scorns the advice of wiser voices, those who try to steer him toward being a “good” boy, one who is industrious, honest, dutiful. When the Talking Cricket tells him he feels sorry for him because he has a wooden head, he smashes the cricket with a mallet. This, my friends, is not what you would call a gentle story. Pinocchio’s journey involves abandoning his doting father and later, the strange blue-haired fairy he loves and considers a mother. He endures hunger, humiliation, loneliness, and near-death. Each episode of suffering brings on an overwhelming sense of regret — until, of course, he strays again.

It’s not just Pinocchio’s impulsive nature that unleashes peril and persecution, but his gullibility, as well. He believes the Fox and the Cat when they describe a Field of Miracles where his gold coins will multiply if he buries them there. He is deceived by his jealous classmates when they persuade him to skip school to join them at the beach. And even when he is about to have his wish come true at last, that he become a real boy, he decides to run away with his pal Lampwick, to a place where there are no schools, no teachers, no books. “The days go by in play and good times from morning till night. Then at night you go to bed, and the next morning you begin all over again,” his friend says.

The Story of a Puppet, or: The Adventures of P...

The Story of a Puppet, or: The Adventures of Pinocchio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The adventures at Funland usher in some of the darkest passages of the novel. The boys who sought a world of all play and no work, in time find themselves transformed into beasts of burden, abused, underfed, and overworked until they die.

Where did all that freedom go? Collodi displays the intricate connections between freedom and responsibility, between fantasy and reality. The puppet indeed is a blockhead, as he does not really think for himself; again and again, he reacts. Others dictate the path he follows. He is left to suffer the consequences, as do those who really care for him.

The author’s ending is one that satisfies children, who typically (at least, if my daughters’ experiences hold true) have laughed at the puppet’s string of ridiculous mistakes, all the while believing he will, at last, become a good boy, a real boy. Yet, for adults, it is a somewhat sobering conclusion, as the child seems too dandified and self-satisfied. We can only trust the price of being real is worth it, for, as we have seen, the alternative is so much worse.

And when we return to the question, Who’s in control of one’s life? we come face-to-face with a simple and troubling answer: no one. To believe otherwise, Collodi implies, is to indulge in a fantasy bound to bring us sorrow.

Work Cited

Collodi, Carlo. Le Avventure di Pinocchio/The Adventures of Pinocchio: Story of a Puppet. Trans., Nicolas J. Perella. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

On the Wing with William Joyce

“Every story has its upsets,” as one man discovers in William Joyce’s radiant new picture book, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

It didn’t take a hurricane for the title character to appreciate reading, but the storm does uncover a world where books show their true colors. Ironically, this lively, expressive book about books began as an animated short, which garnered the Academy Award in that category.

While I love the imaginative little film, I am also in awe of the lovely language in Joyce’s picture book. “Each book was whispering an invitation to adventure,” it says. And what an adventure for us  readers. The man whose books are blown away by a hurricane (echoes of Katrina and The Wizard of Oz) traverses a bleak land until he encounters a woman flying with books in the bright sky. It seems he, too, can wing it with the book he’s picked up.

Joyce has packed this book with literary references (Mother Goose’s Humpty Dumpty and Pop Goes the Weasel), film references (the protagonist strongly resembles Buster Keaton), and fully develops the idea that books enable us, like birds, to travel far and wide. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming message for all ages, a theme that promises to sustain our continued literary feats, as the book reassures us that “everyone’s story matters.”

Either the book, the interactive app, or the 15-minute film (or all) would make for an inspiring classroom experience. After seeing the film, children could discuss the many ways in which books enrich our lives. Whatever the format, this story lovingly explores such significant roles as …

1. Books inspire us.

2. Books comfort and heal us.

3. Books are companions.

4. Books help us develop intellectually, spiritually, emotionally.

5. Books help us discern, clarify, and appreciate our own emotions and beliefs.

6. Books help us perceive our relationship to the world.

7. Books help us see the wider world — including its geography, its ethnic and racial diversity, its colors, climates, and conceptions.

8. Books enrich our experiences — past, current, and future.

9. Books transcend time by connecting us to a range of people, places, thoughts, theories, events, and eras.

10. Books give us a silent space for wild growth. For freedom.

All that in a silent film! But don’t miss the book, either!

Also see these fanciful books by William Joyce:

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