Thursday, February 7, 2008

Anna Dale

Dawn Undercover
by Anna Dale
Recommended Age: 10+

The author of Whispering to Witches brings us this endearingly funny tale about a girl who is functionally invisible. Dawn is so hard to notice that a recruiter for the spy agency P.S.S.T. notices her at once. Even at the age of eleven, she has a talent that her country needs, especially at a time when a mysterious enemy has “blown the covers” of Her Majesty’s best agents. Two spies have been injured, and one has disappeared.

Dawn quickly accepts her new destiny as a pre-teen spy. After a very brief training, she goes undercover to the British countryside, putting her newfound sleuthing skills to work. Staying undercover proves harder than expected, however. Her pretend “mother” is actually an image-obsessed secretary who can’t stand the dowdy role she has been handed. Even worse, the grandson of the missing agent stows away on their mission. When Felix and his dog aren’t interfering with Dawn’s snooping, they are becoming her friends — which, in effect, unpicks Dawn’s cloak of invisibility. This enables the villain to lure Dawn into a trap from which only a faithful friend’s brave sacrifice can save her.

In my opinion, Anna Dale has accomplished something marvelous in this book. She has made a plain, quiet, unremarkable girl into a hero, without being ham-fisted about it. She has captured the magical moment between childhood (when your stuffed donkey talks back to you) and adolescence, without getting syrupy. And she has introduced a secret world of espionage which is goofy enough to have agencies named S.H.H., P.U.F.F., and A.H.E.M., while also making room for danger, melodrama, and creepy mystery.

Whispering to Witches
by Anna Dale
Recommended Age: 12+

Here is a funny, scary, and exciting story about a lonely boy who rides a train into the middle of a magical adventure with good and bad witches. If this sounds like a description of Harry Potter, you may be in for a surprise. Apart from some standard witch equipment such as brooms and a similar flair for creating character names, the similarities between this story and the Harry Potter books go no further.

The boy on the train is named Joe Binks. He is alone on the train from London to Canterbury, not because he doesn’t have any family, but because his father had to go to Scotland on short notice and so Joe must spend the Christmas holidays with his mother, stepfather, and seven-year-old half-sister. The adventure begins before he gets off the train, thanks to a magical duel between several of the other passengers, and then a ride on an enchanted tricycle which leads him straight to the Dead-nettle Coven.

Even though Joe himself has no magical talent, he is soon thrust into the role of hero. For an evil witch is trying to gain control of a terrible power that was long considered lost. A mysterious burglar is breaking into one coven after another, swiping the strangest things. And only Joe and a young, beginning witch named Twiggy have a clue what’s going on. This puts them in great danger, first of all. It forces Joe to choose between saving his father, who has become lost in a blizzard, and helping Twiggy, for seconds. And in the end it seems the whole future of witchery lies in the hands of a bitter enemy.

I think you will find this book a refreshing alternative to Harry Potter. The magic has a similar quirkiness, yet in its details it is quite different. From a broomstick that needs therapy, to a game called the Spillikins of Doom; from a midnight market for magic folk, to a National Museum of Witchcraft; from a race of nearly invisible wind sprites to some adorable and adoring cats, the book abounds in wonderful details, all linked together by friendship, adventure, and mystery.

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