Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Milne-O'Brian-Paterson-Vande Velde-Yolen

Now We Are Six
When We Were Very Young
by A. A. Milne
Recommended Age: 8+ (3+ if being read to)

These slender books of children's poetry are often boxed together with Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner as a set. There is some sense in this. Among the lighthearted "decorations" by Ernest H. Shepard are several pictures of a well-known toy bear. There is also mention of a bear (whose name is sometimes, but not always, Pooh) and of a Pooh (who is sometimes, but not always, a bear). And all of it looks at the world through the eyes of a small, active child (sometimes, but not always, Christopher Robin), a child between the ages of three and six whose mind is full of questions and games and make-believe.

To be sure, not all of it is poetry of the highest calibre. Some may find their unvarying tone of infantile sweetness rather cloying. Dorothy Parker, for instance, reviewing one of Milne's books in her "Constant Reader" column in The New Yorker, observed: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." And while I am digressing, here is part of the poem Parker wrote in response to being called "America's A. A. Milne":

Dotty had a
Great Big
Snifter of
And that (said Dotty)
Is that.

This poem isn't in these books, however. What you will find in When We Were Very Young is 45 brief verses colored by sentimentality, fatherly indulgence, and a love of childhood. Most of the poems would make excellent bedtime reading for a child up to 5 years of age, though only a few of them will often be requested as encores. Among the standouts are "Happiness" (because the above poem by Dorothy Parker spoofs it), "Disobedience" (starring James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree), "Teddy Bear" (featuring Edward Bear, better known to us as Pooh), and "Bad Sir Brian Botany" (about a bully's comeuppance). The final poem of this collection, "Vespers" (in which Christopher Robin says his bedtime prayers) is apparently the property of the Library of the Queen's Doll's House. So there.

In the 35 poems of Now We Are Six, Milne continues his versifying observations of childhood. In "King John's Christmas" a silly king wishes for nothing more than an India rubber ball. "Binker" relates the lifestyle of an imaginary friend. "The Knight Whose Armor Didn't Squeak" makes light of chivalrous cowardice. "Us Two" and "The Friend" are further Christopher-and-Pooh poems. "King Hilary and the Beggarman" is a verse-fable about how a beggar-man took the place of the Lord High Chancellor. As in the companion book, the rest is filled up with the imaginative notions of a small, well-brought-up English boy.

If these verses turn out to be just the thing your Little Jane or Billy Moon wants read to her or him before lights-out, I would further recommend A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and perhaps some of Christina Rossetti's verses, which have been published under various titles.

The Yellow Admiral
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

A critic's endorsement on the cover of this book compares Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, heroes of this long series of historical novels, to Holmes and Watson. What devoted readers of this series will find astonishing is not the aptness of the comparison, nor yet its flattery of O'Brian's characters, but frankly the paleness of Holmes and Watson overagainst Aubrey and Maturin.

Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character and no mistake; but he was never portrayed in anything like the psychological detail of Jack Aubrey. Watson, on his part, is a mere cypher who tags along and asks the great detective opportune questions; Maturin, meanwhile, is so far from being a sidekick that at times he seems to be the central protagonist of the series - a figure of immense complexity, whose many parts are hard to describe or even summarize without the use of several commas and one or two semicolons.

Classic whodunits they may be, but the omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes adventures is still in the same edition as the one I sold at a garage sale in 1987; it resides, moreover, on the clearance table at Barnes & Noble. Meanwhile the Aubrey-Maturin adventures, which God preserve from an omnibus edition, have been shouted up as companions to Jane Austen's novels: a brilliant, colorful, thrilling, moving portrait of the early 1800s that has already taken its place among modern literary masterworks.

Most amazing of all, this 18th book in the series sustains the same high-quality storytelling, historical detail, nuances of character, and compulsively readable adventure as all its predecessors - perhaps surpasses them. Conan Doyle had his occasional off-days; but when has Patrick O'Brian ever missed his stays? Conan Doyle so tired of Holmes that he killed his hero off; only death prevented O'Brian from completing a 21st Aubrey-Maturin adventure. Some comparison!

All right, I've just written four paragraphs in response to a single sentence-fragment on the front cover of this book. So I'll have to be brief in explaining why I think you might enjoy The Yellow Admiral. As Jack Aubrey moves up the Royal Navy's list of post-captains, only death or disgrace can prevent him, in the course of time, from becoming an Admiral. It is simply a matter of seniority. However, a senior captain in bad odor with the government - for example, because of political stands he has taken as a Member of Parliament - runs the risk of being "yellowed." Which is to say, he could be formally promoted as an Admiral, but not assigned a command - a disgrace tantamount to being cashiered out of the service.

Jack Aubrey now faces this unpleasant prospect, thanks to the probability that the war will end soon and put most of the navy out of work, to say nothing of the political enemies Jack has made both in Parliament and in the Admiralty. One of his deadliest enemies is Admiral Lord Stanraer, who commands the blockade of Brest in which Jack serves. Under the advice of naval intelligence head Sir Joseph Blaine, Stephen Maturin urges his friend to consider an alternative that may save his reputation and his career. Reluctantly, Jack agrees to accept a temporary suspension from the Royal Navy and the command of a hydrographic survey ship off the coast of Chile. This, in turn, will give Stephen an opportunity to lend covert support to Chile's struggle for independence from Spain.

Between these developments, Jack and Stephen spend a good deal of time on land. This gives Jack an opportunity to inform Stephen (and us) of how the partitioning and enclosing of the common lands in the early 19th century radically changed the British way of life. It enables us to witness a crisis in Jack's marriage, an idyllic moment in Stephen's family life (though with a foreshadowing of tragedy to come), a brilliant spy caper that may have you cheering aloud, and a spectacular, bare-fisted boxing match that has unexpectedly wide-ranging consequences.

The other half of the story takes place on the water, where Jack bears up nobly under the vicious enmity of his commanding officer; Stephen carries out cutting-edge (for his time) medical maneuvers, as well as a crucial, intelligence-related rendezvous; and Jack's ship Bellona plays a decisive (but historically unsung) role in a shoot-out with French blockade-runners. Alas, Napoleon's surrender forces Jack to commit to an entirely different lifestyle afloat - sailing without midshipmen, marines, or the Articles of War - for the first time in some twenty years. But take heart; in the final pages news of Napoleon's escape from Elba reaches Jack and Stephen in the middle of a family pleasure cruise, promising at least one more moment of wartime glory in Book 19, The Hundred Days.

The Great Gilly Hopkins
by Katherine Paterson
Recommended Age: 11+

1979 was a very good year for Katherine Paterson. In that year she won her first Newbery Medal (for Bridge to Terabithia) and her second National Book Award in Children's Literature (for this book, also a Newbery Honor Book). Like Paterson's other Newbery Medal winner (1980's Jacob Have I Loved), this book begins by introducing us to a hard-to-love girl and ends by making us love her. Like Bridge to Terabithia, this book - inspired by Paterson's own children - threatens to be nothing more than an amusing succession of youthful pranks and adventures (some of them, in this case, making you squirm), but in the end proves useful for cleaning out your tear ducts.

Gilly, short for Galadriel, is the toughest foster-child in the Washington, D.C. area. She has chewed up and spit out two or three foster families, partly because of what she learned from being chewed up and spat out herself. What did she learn? When the first foster family, which had started to feel like a real home, picked up and moved to Florida and left her behind, Gilly learned not to give her heart to people, and to rely on no one but herself. Since then she has been driving foster-parents and teachers crazy.

Miss Ellis, Gilly's social worker, hints that this may be her last chance: the messy home of Mrs. Trotter (also known, simply, as Trotter), an obese, religious widow who has doted over other people's children for some 20 years. Trotter already has her hands full with a painfully shy, easily-cowed squirt named William Ernest. Now she has to protect W.E. from Gilly - and Gilly from herself - while the girl tries lying, stealing, disruptive behavior, and other sophisticated techniques to escape from the foster-care system and get her estranged mother - an unwed flower child on the West Coast - to come back for her. How her attempts backfire, how she unwittingly opens her heart to Trotter and W.E. and even the blind old black man next door (against her racist upbringing), and how she moves on from the painful consequences of her actions, is the stuff that gives the last several chapters of this short novel its superlative "nasal decongestant" qualities. If the last page alone doesn't require you to blow your nose, you may need help.

A word about Katherine Paterson. People who have read a few of her books, particularly the ones named in this review, may be surprised to learn that she is a Presbyterian Christian. In fact, she was born to a missionary couple in China (before the revolution) and spent several years in Japan as a missionary herself. The fact that her books do not have an explicitly "Christian message" is so marked that certain ill-informed fanatics have pegged her as an anti-Christian author. I think, however, that it is Paterson's ability to sympathize with the most unsympathetic characters, without judgment and without regard for their religious beliefs, that fills her work with such humanity. If you are a child of any age and you sometimes find it hard to be charitable toward those who seem unlikeable, difficult, and different, these books can encourage you and even inspire you.

Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird
by Vivian Vande Velde
Recommended Age: 9+

The back cover of this book describes "How to Fracture a Fairy Tale: 1. Make the villain a hero. 2. Make the hero a villain. 3. Tell what really happened. 4. All of the above." Vande Velde does just this with 13 of the best-known fairy tales, transforming familiar (but sometimes puzzling) stories into something quite new. Often the tale is turned around, looked at from another point of view, and given a new, surprise ending. Traditional happy endings become wistful lessons-learned. Laughs, romance, and horror turn up in unexpected places. And youthful minds, by processing the stories they know in a new way, may be exercised in their own creativity. It's a success all around!

First, as the miller's daughter is forced to spin "Straw into Gold," we get to reconsider who really is the monster of the tale. Next, in "Frog," a transformed prince learns more from his encounter with a spoiled princess than she does. A short verse titled "All Points Bulletin" puts the crimes of Goldilocks in proportion. Tick, tick, tick, down go your preconceived notions of Red Riding Hood, the Pied Piper, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. The Billy Goats Gruff is a surprisingly faithful retelling of the well-known tale - until the very end. In "Rated PG-13," Vande Velde throws out a list of synopses of "fairy-tale endings you are not likely to see," though I think Jasper Fforde may have picked up on one of them. The Princess and the Pea becomes a cautionary tale, Hansel and Gretel a "Village of the Damned" chiller; and at last, after briefly reconsidering the motivations of Cinderella's stepmother, Vande Velde wraps things up with an otherwise faithful rendition of Beauty and the Beast told from the Beast's point of view.

I have enjoyed some of Vande Velde's books, and several other authors' collections of "fractured fairy tales," but so far I think this is the one that may please children best. It renews my interest in reading further works by this author, including A Hidden Magic, A Well-Timed Enchantment, Magic Can Be Murder, and Heir Apparent.

The Wizard's Map
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

This first book of the Tartan Magic trilogy begins with three American children arriving in Scotland for a family visit. Older siblings Peter and Jennifer - twins who couldn't be less alike - may be surprised to find their mother's hometown stuffed with real magic, but three-year-old Molly isn't surprised at all.

Unfortunately, it is Molly who discovers a map belonging to the evil sorcerer Michael Scot. Though they scarcely believe that magic is real, the twins realize that it is up to them - mostly, up to Jennifer - to save their sister, and their whole family, from a wizard who needs only the map to unleash his terrible power on the world.

Yolen pays out her yarn in rapid, lean, no-nonsense style, while at the same time filling the imagination with threatening woods, strange creatures, spooky apparitions, and a family's love - particularly the love between close twin siblings who are, just now, really beginning to grow apart. Learn from my mistake, however. Don't let yourself get caught up in the momentum before you can secure the remaining two books of the trilogy: The Pictish Child and The Bagpiper's Ghost.

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