Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gail Carson Levine

Dave at Night
by Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Age: 11+

This novel by the author of Ella Enchanted is loosely based on her father's boyhood. Set in the Harlem (Upper Manhattan) Renaissance of the late 1920s, it concerns the adventures of a delightful rascal named Dave Caros, who finds himself at the Hebrew Home for Boys at the age of eleven.

His mother died giving birth to him. His father, a true artist in the woodworking line, has just been killed in a construction accident. His genius brother Gideon has gone to live with an uncle in Chicago, and his stepmother Ida has decided to give him up as an orphan. Or at least, a three-quarters orphan.

The HHB turns out to stand for a lot of things, such as "Hell Hole for Brats" and "Heatless House of Bloom." Mr. Bloom, also known as Mr. Doom, is the sociopathic head of the Hebrew Home for Boys, and he and young Dave start on a very wrong footing. Throw in a nebbishy, greedy proctor named Meltzer, and a whiny, useless teacher named Gluck (or Cluck), and a cafeteria where most of the elevens' nearly inedible food is stolen from them by bullies, and you'll soon see that Dave has a lot to be sad about. Especially since the only thing he has to remember his father by is locked in a curio cabinet in Mr. Doom's office.

But there are joys in Dave's life too. He and the other elevens become true buddies, from fidgety Mike who always draws violins, to consumptive Alfie, to the freckly redheaded twins called (guess what) Fred and Jeff. And so on and so on. Much as he would like to get his Papa's work of art and run away, Dave doesn't want to leave his buddies. Nor does he want to lose the art lessons from a weird but wonderful teacher who recognizes Dave's gift.

On the other hand, there's a whole night life full of fun and excitement in the streets of Harlem, and Dave soon finds ways of getting out of HHB to partake of it. He befriends a "gonif" whose parrot speaks Yiddish and who tells fortunes at rent parties. He goes crazy over a pretty, rich girl-of-color named Irma Lee. And he experiences jazz, and art, and literature, and the company of people who make those things happen. Which world will he choose? And will it have room for a runaway orphan?

This is a wonderful book for learning about the culture, history, and all around "what it was like"-ness of Manhattan in the 1920s. It is also a brave, moving story of friendship, loss, adventure, and discovery that I think readers of any age will enjoy.

Ella Enchanted
by Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Age: 10+

Ms. Levine's first children's novel is this 1997 Newbery Honor Book, which has was made into a movie in 2004. (NOTE: The movie really stinks.) And in a way, it's nothing new. It's another version of the classic Cinderella tale, which has been made into countless movies (like Ever After), books (like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and even operas (La Cenerentola by Rossini). But this version has some fascinating twists that make it quite its own tale, and its heroine will win you over.

Young Ella (full name, Eleanor) is cursed. Actually the curse was meant as a blessing by the dangerously foolish fairy named Lucinda who appeared at her birth. The result is that, whenever someone gives her a direct command, she must obey. The "gift of obedience" sounds nice at first, but it soon palls when the people around you thoughtlessly use the Imperative Mood. But it gets worse.

First, Ella's lovely mother dies after ordering Ella never to tell anyone about the curse. Then her nasty, selfish father sends her to a finishing school where her worst enemy in the world soon learns her secret and how to use it against her. Then, having run away from school in an effort to track down Lucinda and demand that she take back her "gift," Ella is set upon by man-eating ogres who have a natural gift of persuasion, with or without the aid of a christening curse. And after Ella is rescued, her hopes of being un-cursed are dashed, her father becomes even more hideous, and Ella finds herself stuck with the most horrible stepmother and ugly stepsisters you can imagine... and forced to be their servant.

But the worst comes when she and the handsome prince fall in love with each other, and it is her curse that must separate them forever. If you thought the bit about the coach turning into a pumpkin and the prince looking for the foot to fit a glass slipper was the climax of the Cinderella story, you haven't read this version. For Ella realizes that her curse would put the prince she loves, and the kingdom he will rule, in unspeakable danger. How can she live with her own broken heart, when she must break his to save him? And how can she avoid being given the most awful and at the same time most desirable command: "Marry me"?

The suspense is exquisite. The young lovers suffer so beautifully. And the curse is enough to drive anyone crazy... except the reader, who will be delighted. Besides all that, it is a smooth and clear read: it rewards the effort of reading so richly, that it seems like no effort at all. So don't just watch the film (or better yet, don't watch it). Do read this book!

Care of Magical Creatures advisory: This story abounds in magical beings, such as elves, gnomes, ogres, and giants. But the one that will come as the biggest surprise to Harry Potter fans is the centaur.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre
by Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Age: 10+

The author of Ella Enchanted and several other fairy tales re-told (prominently, the "Princess Tales") comes through again with this tale of two devoted sisters living in the magical land of Bamarre.

I don't know exactly where Bamarre is located, but it (along with its neighboring countries) floats on top of a deep ocean under a vast starry sky. It is a kingdom populated mainly by not-very valiant humans, though they treasure the legends of the great hero Drualt and the memory of a brave king named Willard. The humans don't have the place to themselves, of course. There are also sorcerers, elves, dwarves, and fairies on the one hand, ogres, dragons, specters, and bloodthirsty gryphons on the other.

But worst of all, the land is haunted by a disease known as the Gray Death.

King Lionel is a coward and a widower. He has two daughters. Meryl is the brave one who wants to have adventures, slay monsters, and find a cure for the Gray Death. Addie, on the other hand, is shy, scared of spiders and practically everything else, and comforted by the protecting shadow of her sister. Yet it is Meryl who is struck down by the Gray Death, and Addie who must go on perilous adventures to find a cure before her time runs out.

With the aid of a magic tablecloth, a pair of seven-league boots, a magic spyglass, a bundle of moily herbs, and her gift for embroidery, Addie sets out. Befriended by a sorcerer and an invisible presence, menaced by every kind of monster, she overcomes her own fears for the love of Meryl. She seeks the cure for the Gray Death through field and forest, desert and mountain, racing against time. Meanwhile the world seems bursting with specters seeking to lead her astray, gryphons wanting to drink her blood, rock-throwing ogres, and the most interesting dragon character I have ever met (Vollys would make an excellent subject for a psychological case study).

She does not conquer her fears, but she learns to deal with them. She also experiences love, grief, hope, despair, and... well, a lot of things that stand to make quite a hero out of her. But the end of her adventure is something else again-- unexpected, and raising the whole story to a completely new level that reminds one suddenly of Madeleine L'Engle or C.S. Lewis.

Being 99.44% "all boy" in my reading preferences (hawk, spit), I can think of no better way to recommend this book than by saying that I look forward to reading the rest of Levine's "Princess Tales."

UPDATE: Further titles by G.C.L. include Fairest, The Wish, The Princess Test, The Fairy's Mistake, The Fairy's Return, and Ever.

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