by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+
Rizka is a clever, spirited gypsy girl whose mother died and whose father left her alone at an early age, promising someday to return. She lives in a caravan, or vardo, on the outskirts of the backwater town of Greater Dunitsa, where the main attractions are a town clock that doesn't run, a town square with a horse trough in the middle, a town council full of bickering fools, and a town hero who never really fought in a war - nobody believes he did, but they never let on even as "General" Hatvan promotes himself up the ranks and says "hup, hup" a lot.
Rizka lives by her wits, but because she has quick ones, she lives well. This book relates a whole series of her merry pranks, including the time she hoodwinked a gormless traveler into being happy the inn's bedding gave him fleas, the time she got her cat acquitted of stealing the chief councilor's chicken, and the time she tricked that same councilor - the nasty Sharpnack - into letting her stick feathers all over him. She leads the town clerk on a tour of Ali Baba's cave, where he falls head-first into a simmering pool of mud; she convinces the whole town the clock tower is haunted, then exorcises the ghost; she gives General Hatvan a hilarious cure for stupidity that results in all the village's dogs following him around; and at one point, she contrives to be appointed mayor.
Sometimes the hilarity is the result of Rizka's howlingly funny pranks. Sometimes she has to intervene in problems created by the silliness of the Greater Dunitsa town fathers. Sometimes she comes to the rescue of people who cry out for help, such as lovesick couples and a litter of adorable kittens. Often she is seconded by an "apprentice demon" who is actually one of the mayor's daughters, or by a gang of rowdy youths, or by the kindly blacksmith who has watched over her since she was very small. But her biggest dilemma will roll into town with the other gypsies, who propose to take her away from all this "gorgio" foolishness - and so, silly or not, from the only family she really has.
Everything about this book pleased me, from the lighthearted episodes to the emotionally touching payoff at the end. I especially appreciated, on behalf of clever young readers, the fact that its tone never talks down to them and how it continually challenges them to build vocabulary. It has a lot of tongue-in-cheek wordplay, such as when the town constable confused the words "obsequious" and "ubiquitous" - giving kids a chance to laugh, learn, and feel smart at the same time. And of course, Rizka herself is a heroine to cherish.
This was only the 16th book I have read by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), an American writer whose output ranged from a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea to the Newbery Medal-winning conclusion to the Prydain Chronicles, The High King. If I read just the Westmark trilogy and the six-book Vesper Holly series, that will make 25; but those aren't the only interesting titles of his that remain in store for me. For an author to keep surprising and giving pleasure after so many books, he must be onto something. Something like, maybe, a top-ten list of best American juvenile fiction writers of all time. I'm just saying.