Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: A

From the back cover:
A celebrated playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde also penned incomparable nonfiction and fiction—and lovely gem-like fairy tales. Filled with princes and nightingales, mermaids, giants, and kings, his tales carry the mark of his signature irony and subtle eroticism. This volume brings together all the stories found in Wilde’s two collections, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. Published here alongside their evocative original illustrations, these fairy tales, as Wilde himself explained, were written “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”

I was first made aware of the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Fry, whose recording of six of the stories is nothing short of delightful. This print edition has its charms, too, including three additional tales as well as illustrations and a great introduction that acquaints readers with not only the tragedies of Wilde’s life but with the fond recollections of his friends. I’d say it’s worthwhile to invest in both.

Wilde published two collections of children’s stories and both, obviously, are included here. On one level, the stories are amusing and imaginative, featuring a bevy of talking animals—whom Wilde often uses for satirical purposes, as with the mother duck in “The Devoted Friend” who frets that her children will never be in “the best society” unless they can stand on their heads—and even a sentient firework with delusions of grandeur. Often, though, a surprising degree of darkness is also present, as various characters die, realize the suffering they have caused others, commit valiant acts of self-sacrifice for ultimately no purpose whatsoever, and persist in their misguided ways despite the best attempts of others to show them the light.

In these stories, Wilde mingles the fantastic with the quotidian and the heartwarming with the bittersweet in a way that really appeals to me. Here are my three favorite examples (spoilers ahead):

In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale overhears a student bewailing his plight: the woman he loves has agreed to dance with him at an upcoming event if he brings her a red rose. Alas, there are no red roses in his garden. The bird, believing him to be the very embodiment of true love, which she is always singing about, tries everything in her power to procure such a flower for him, ultimately deciding that it’s worth sacrificing her own life for the sake of love. And what is the recipient’s reaction to the rose when it is presented to her? “I’m afraid it will not go with my dress.” It ends up in the street and is promptly run over by a cart. The end.

A similarly awesome ending can be found in “The Star-Child.” One winter, a pair of poor woodcutters are returning to their homes when they see what appears to be a falling star land nearby. When they get there, they find a baby, and one of the men takes it home. The boy grows up fair and comely and becomes vain and cruel because he is convinced of his own lofty origins. One day, a beggar woman shows up to claim him as her son, but he rejects her. This action renders him ugly, and he spends the next three years in search of the woman to beg her forgiveness, learning mercy and pity along the way and sincerely repenting of his former actions. A happy ending seems imminent when he not only gets his looks back but is revealed to be a prince, but Wilde concludes the story (and A House of Pomegranates as a whole) with the following paragraph:

Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly.

The end. Is that not amazing?

My very, very favorite story, though, is “The Happy Prince.” Once upon a time there was a prince, and he was happy while he lived in his isolated palace and remained ignorant of the world outside. After his death, the townspeople erected a beautiful, gilded statue in his honor and set it on a tall column, from where he can see (with his sapphire eyes) all the misery in the city that he could not see before. One day, a swallow—delayed in departing for warmer climes because of his devotion to a fickle reed (“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows. “She has no money and far too many relations.”)—lands near his feet and becomes the messenger for the Happy Prince, plucking out his jewels and stripping off his gold and delivering them to the poor and needy.

The swallow eventually succumbs to the cold, but not before sharing a kiss with the statue he loves. The mayor, once he notices how shabby the statue has become, decides that one of himself would do much better and pulls it down. Here, instead of a wholly sad ending, Wilde offers up a sweeter alternative that sees both the statue and the bird rewarded for their benevolence. It’s an immensely satisfying tale that also portrays pure love between two males, though they be not human; I like it immensely.

The one author of whom I was reminded while reading these stories is Neil Gaiman. I’m now convinced he was at least partly inspired by Wilde, so, if you’re a fan of his short stories, you might like these as well!

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers: B-

From the back cover:
“Frankly, I’m not fond of surprises, as ones around here tend to be rather wicked.”

For poor Theodosia, however, surprises abound. She spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. There, all the artifacts that her parents dig up around the world are put on display and studied. But what her parents can’t see—and what Theodosia can—is the curses and black magic still attached to the ancient pieces. And it’s up to Theo to keep it all under control. Quite a task for an eleven-year-old girl!

Then Theo’s mother brings home the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb. Theodosia’s skills will certainly be put to the test, for the curse attached to it is so vile and so black, it threatens to bring down the entire British Empire! Theodosia will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is like a sandwich. You might assume I mean that it starts and ends strong but has a disappointing middle, but I actually mean just the opposite.

1906, London. Theodosia Throckmorton, age eleven, is cleverer than most. Her parents work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, specializing in Egyptian artifacts. Theodosia claims many of these items are cursed, though no one else ever notices this fact, and describes the spell preparations she uses to nullify the curses before they do any damage. For a while, I regarded her as an unreliable narrator because I couldn’t tell whether we were supposed to believe that this was all true or if it was all an elaborate game of make-believe devised by an intelligent, lonely girl; many of her spells involve rather mundane ingredients like bits of string, after all.

When confirmation of the existence of curses as well as Theodosia’s talent for detecting them comes from adults in The Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, I began to enjoy the story much more. She gets involved with the Brotherhood after tracking men whom she suspects of having stolen the valuable artifact the Heart of Egypt from her parents’ museum. It turns out that this artifact brings a curse upon the nation responsible for removing it from its tomb and that Germans facilitated its removal by Theodosia’s mother in order to bring chaos upon Britain. To forestall plagues, famine, and the like it must be returned to its original resting place. The whole middle section, in which Theodosia enlists the aid of her little brother and a pickpocket named Sticky Will to get back the Heart of Egypt is pretty entertaining, if improbable.

Alas, things take a turn for the ridiculous when the leader of The Brotherhood asks the eleven-year-old Theodosia to convince her parents to take her to Egypt so that she can put the Heart of Egypt back where it belongs. And she can’t tell them what’s up or have any backup, since all the other Brotherhood agents are injured or elsewhere. Nevermind that a group of murderous Germans wants it back or anything. The final few chapters are pretty tiresome, full of scenes of evading the bad guys and Theodosia reminding readers over and over of her assigned task. Everything wraps up exactly as one would expect, of course.

Another thing that bothered me a lot at first was the writing. A superfluous mention of “frocks and pinafores” gave off the distinctive aroma of “someone trying really hard to sound British,” so I checked and, yes, LaFevers is an American. After a while it ceased to bother me as much, but every time Theodosia said “smashing” I did cringe a bit inside.

I went from being dubious, to being pleased, to being rather bored throughout the course of this story. There are currently two more books in the series, with a fourth due out next spring, and at first I thought I wouldn’t bother with them, then I thought I would, and now I am not sure. There’s definitely a lot of potential here, but the execution is uneven. Perhaps what is needed is for Theodosia to have a team to work with; those parts were much more interesting than when she was alone. Now that she’s become an honorary member of the Brotherhood and grown closer to her brother, such an outcome seems possible. I suppose this means I’ve convinced myself to read at least one more and see how it goes.

More reviews of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos can be found at Triple Take.

Geek Chic: The Zoey Zone by Margie Palatini: C

From the back cover:
Age: Eleven. Well, almost eleven. Backspace. Halfway to eleven.
Factoid: 198 days to sixth grade.
Problem: Coolability (see glossary inside).
Connect the dots: A bad hair situation… Growing earlobes…

1. A fairy godmother.
2. A molto chic makeover [molto = very in Italian].
3. A seat at the primo lunch table. [Primo is also Italian. It means best.]

Tune in!

Ten-year-old Zoey Zinevich is interested in all kinds of things, like big words, frogs, and presidential trivia. Mostly, though, she’s obsessed with the idea of achieving coolness by the start of sixth grade, and convinced that having better hair and the ability to accessorize like her popular classmates Brittany and Ashley will make her dreams come true. In this somewhat scatterbrained semi-journal, Zoey tells the story about how she managed to become cool without sacrificing her individuality.

It’s a decent message, but on the whole, I found the book to be annoying. Here are some possible reasons why.

1. I am way beyond the target age for this book. In fact, I am so old I could have given birth to someone old enough to babysit members of the intended audience.

2. Though I remember that prissy pretty girls were fairly abundant once I got to sixth grade and made me feel inadequate and schlubby, I still think it’s really sad that a ten-year-old is obsessing about her hair.

3. The writing style reminds me of my own pretentious high school journals, except where mine would devote a whole page to the word “gurg” or a drawing of a fish, Geek Chic employs the same technique using the word “Hair!” (with a spiky aura for emphasis). Palatini has many, many of these space-killing pages. At least this makes for an extremely quick read.

I don’t know. Maybe a geeky fifth-grader who’s insecure and wishing to be like everyone else might take something valuable away from this book. At my age, it’s the inherent charm of a children’s book that really gets me (see Betsy-Tacy), and that’s a quality in which Geek Chic is lacking.

More reviews of Geek Chic: The Zoey Zone can be found at Triple Take.

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace: A

From the back cover:
There are lots of children on Hill Street, but no little girls Betsy’s age. So when a new family moves into the house across the street, Betsy hopes they will have a little girl she can play with. Sure enough, they do—a little girl named Tacy. And from the moment they meet at Betsy’s fifth birthday party, Betsy and Tacy become such good friends that everyone starts to think of them as one person—Betsy-Tacy.

Betsy and Tacy have lots of fun together. They make a playhouse from a piano box, have a sand store, and dress up and go calling. And one day, they come home to a wonderful surprise—a new friend named Tib.

Although I’ve been meaning to read the Betsy-Tacy series for several years, I didn’t really know what to expect. That is, I knew it was the story of two life-long friends, but I didn’t know that it would be written so fondly, so amusingly, or depict life as anything but rosy for these two girls.

Betsy Ray has no girls her age to play with until bashful Tacy Kelly moves in across the street. Tacy’s shyness prevents them from becoming friends immediately, but once they bond at Betsy’s fifth birthday party, they’re inseparable. A lot of the book is devoted to the various imaginative ideas they come up with to entertain themselves, whether it’s coloring sand to sell to other children or pretending to drive the family surrey to the exotic realm of… Milwaukee.

Much of the book is quite amusing, especially the stories Betsy makes up. I’m particularly fond of the one featuring a talking horse with a hankering for some doughnuts. I was pleasantly surprised when things took a more serious turn: Tacy is one of many children and the youngest, “Baby Bee,” dies after an illness. There’s a really wonderful scene where Betsy’s storytelling abilities help cheer Tacy up. Later, when Betsy is upset over the birth of a new, “perfectly unnecessary” sibling, Tacy takes up the role of comforter. It might not sound like much by way of drama, but both instances manage to be charming and a little bittersweet at the same time.

Betsy-Tacy would be a great book to read aloud to elementary students, particularly an audience comprised of girls. My brother and his fiancée need to hurry up and give me a niece so I can read this to her.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl: C

charlieelevatorFrom the back cover:
Now that he’s won the chocolate factory, what’s next for Charlie? Last seen flying through the sky in a giant elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket’s back for another adventure. When the giant elevator picks up speed, Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the gang are sent hurtling through space and time. Visiting the world’s first space hotel, battling the dreaded Vermicious Knids, and saving the world are only a few stops along this remarkable, intergalactic joyride.

This reminds me a lot of what happened when I read The Neverending Story. Its film version (the original, thank you!) debuted around the same time I discovered Willy Wonka, actually, and I loved it just as much. I read the book about ten years ago, but the portion that was filmed ended about halfway through. The rest, as far as I remember, was a psychedelic story about a lion and wishes and multi-colored sand. It wasn’t bad, but neither was it the story I loved.

Similarly, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator continues where the first book left off and yet fails to achieve the magic of its predecessor. Mr. Wonka and Charlie’s family are taking the elevator back to the factory Charlie has just won, but Charlie’s three bedridden grandparents—who will fulfill the role of trouble-causing brats throughout the book—prevent Wonka from pressing a certain button at the right time and the elevator ends up entering orbit. So, essentially, you’ve got an eccentric guy in funny clothes piloting a box through space with some regular humans in tow for companionship. Sounds familiar…

Misadventures in space ensue, primarily caused by Wonka being somewhat of an ass and the grandparents being morons. I felt bad for Charlie on several occasions, because it seemed he wasn’t having very much fun. Eventually they get back to the factory, and the grandparents are at it again; the final quarter of the book is spent on de-aging them with the benefit of one pill and then re-aging them with a sort of magic oil. It’s pointless and not at all enjoyable. Add to this some potty humor and an unfunny incompetent president and you come up with a book that I will probably never read again.

If you love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and want to preserve your warm and fuzzy memories of same, do yourself a favor and avoid the sequel.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: A-

charliechocolateFrom the back cover:
Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory is opening at last! But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!

I’m not sure why we spent what seemed to be the entire last week of fourth grade sprawled on the carpet of the media center wearing out one of those new-fangled videotapes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by watching it over and over again, but sprawl and watch we did. I don’t remember anyone complaining when, after the movie ended, it was immediately begun again, but perhaps my recollection is clouded by how much I loved (and still do) the film. Until now, however, I had never actually read the original book though I’ve owned it for several years.

As most people probably know, this is the story of humble and poor Charlie Bucket who loves chocolate very much but must be content with nightly meals of watery cabbage soup. As luck would have it, a huge and world-famous chocolate factory is on his way to school and every day he pauses to sniff the air near Wonka’s Factory, though his family is so poor they can only afford to give him one bar of chocolate each year on his birthday.

When Wonka announces his Golden Ticket contest—in which five Golden Tickets are hidden in Wonka chocolates, each entitling one child to a tour of the facilities and a life-time supply of candy—Charlie tries not to get his hopes up, but is nonetheless disappointed when his birthday bar fails to contain the golden prize. A second bar paid for from his Grandpa Joe’s secret fund yields the same results, and Charlie has almost given up hope when a lucky dollar found on the sidewalk buys him a bar containing the fifth and final Golden Ticket. The next day, Charlie and Grandpa Joe join four other children and their parents in a tour of the fantastic factory. Each of the other children has a flaw—eating too much, being spoiled, chewing gum constantly, and watching too much television—and is disqualified along the way by some means connected to it. In the end, only Charlie remains and it’s a happy ending for the well-deserving child.

Although the basic flow of the plot is the same and indeed, some lines of dialogue are used verbatim in the film (“Violet, you’re turning violet, Violet!”) there are some differences. No one in the book sings except for the Oompa Loompas (who are not orange and are sometimes female), and their songs are not nearly as catchy in print form. Charlie and Grandpa Joe do not commit the grievous sin of sampling fizzy lifting drinks, although the beverages and the method to combat their lifting powers are discussed, and Veruca’s exit is facilitated by nut-evaluating squirrels rather than an egg meter. I seem to recall that Tim Burton’s film version (which is pretty awful) keeps the squirrels, so perhaps special effects in 1971 were simply not up to the task of bringing them to life on the screen. Most importantly, there’s neither Mr. Slugworth nor any testing of Charlie to see whether he will protect Wonka’s secrets. When I was a kid I didn’t like that part because Wonka was mean to Charlie, but now that it’s gone, I find I miss it. In the book, Charlie is an observer who wins mostly by process of elimination, but in the film he’s required to prove his goodness and is a more interesting character.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is thoroughly charming and is undoubtedly a classic of children’s fiction. The fact remains, however, that I still like the movie more. Gene Wilder brings so much to the role of Willy Wonka, retaining his eccentricities but also endowing him with both warmth and menace, that even the original pales by comparison. Add to this the film’s more fleshed-out portrayal of Charlie and my choice is clear.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: A

matildaFrom the back cover:
Matilda is a genius. Before she was three years old she was reading the newspaper. By the age of four, Matilda was reading classics by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. By the time Matilda becomes a student at Crunchem Hall, she’s bored stiff. When Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, tries to get her moved up a few grades she runs up against the Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull—two hundred pounds of mean, nasty, kid-hating bully.

Can even a genius like Matilda survive the rampages of Miss Trunchbull—or should she come up with a crafty plan to rid the school of the bully once and for all?

Matilda Wormwood is a genius, though her idiotic parents are completely incapable of recognizing this fact. Just when she’s about to start school, her father badmouths her to the cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who thereafter persists in having a negative opinion of Matilda, even after the girl’s teacher, Miss Honey, describes what a phenomenal child she is. When Matilda discovers that she possesses the ability to help the desperately poor Miss Honey and get back at Miss Trunchbull simultaneously, she leaps at the chance.

I really do think Dahl is remarkable among writers of children’s fiction for being able to craft stories that are equally appealing to children and adults. For example, although Matilda is moved to seek revenge against some odious adults in her life, grown-ups in general are not portrayed as villains, since her closest confidante is Miss Honey. And though the humor is clearly geared for children, it’s never stupid or crude and Matilda is generally polite and thoughtful. Probably a lot of this has to do with Dahl’s being British; I’ve seen plenty of obnoxious American tales about smug children humiliating adults and Matilda is nothing like them.

That said, how I wish I had discovered Matilda when I was ten! Like the lead character, I was the bookish daughter of TV-inclined parents, though at least mine were generally encouraging. I also had a dreadful experience in fourth grade of being presumed guilty by a teacher of something I didn’t do simply because I was away in Gifted class at the time and, unlike all of my other classmates, had not been given the opportunity to deny the accusations. Reading about Matilda and the similar plight in which she finds herself probably would’ve buoyed my spirits enormously at the time and made me feel less powerless.

I’ve now read and enjoyed two books by Dahl, which has spurred me to consider embarking on a more comprehensive effort. Stay tuned!

M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman: A-

misformagicFrom the back cover:
Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a breathtaking collection of tales for younger readers that may chill or amuse, but that always embrace the unexpected:

* Humpty Dumpty’s sister hires a private detective to investigate her brother’s death.

* A teenage boy who has trouble talking to girls finds himself at a rather unusual party.

* A boy raised in a graveyard makes a discovery, and confronts the much more troubling world of the living.

In the style of Ray Bradbury, who collected selected short stories for a younger audience into the anthologies R is for Rocket and S is for Space, Neil Gaiman presents M is for Magic. Most of the stories are available in other compilations—namely Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things—but there are a few exceptions. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, from fairy tails to Arthurian legend, from graveyard denizens to awkward teens, and employ a variety of styles, like the hard-boiled detective narrative of “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” or the story-within-a-story structure of “October in the Chair.”

I don’t consider myself much of a fan of short stories, so it was no surprise when some of these failed to thrill me. The aforementioned hard-boiled story was not a favorite, for example, since I don’t much care for that genre and stories that try to be clever by citing lots of fairy tales irritate me for some reason. I also found “Sunbird,” the tale of an Epicurean club in pursuit of meat they’ve not yet tasted, to be rather long and boring, even though its ending very nearly made up for that.

Some, though, are really great, and I’ll take them in ascending order of awesomeness.

1. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
Shy Enn and his more suave friend, Vic, are on their way to a party, but they’ve left the directions behind. They end up finding a party, though it’s not the one they’d wanted, and Vic encourages Enn to chat up some girls, which he tries to do. This story’s fantastic twist is that each girl seems to be the embodiment of a concept, like “the universe” or “poetry,” but it also works as a metaphor for how incomprehensible the world of girls can seem to an inept teenage boy. I particularly like the bits where one girl is going on about being an alien tourist or something, and the whole time Enn’s just wondering if he should dare to put his arm around her.

2. “Troll Bridge”
At the age of seven, a young boy encounters a troll who announces his intention to eat the boy’s life. The boy bargains for his release, promising to return once he has experienced more of life. The boy encounters the troll twice more and the culmination of their final meeting is great. I admire that Gaiman allows the protagonist of this one to be a bit of a jerk, offering his first love to the troll in exchange for himself and eventually realizing that he’s incapable of loving anyone. As in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” Gaiman works human truth and keen observations into his fantastic works.

3. “Chivalry”
A widow makes a weekly pilgrimage to the Oxfam shop, and one day picks up a golden goblet that would look swell upon her mantel. Shortly thereafter, she’s visited by a knight on horseback, who claims to be Galahad on a quest for the Holy Grail. He offers many treasures in exchange for the grail, but none would look so fine upon the mantel in the widow’s eyes, so she refuses. Eventually, he tempts her with a fruit that would promise eternal youth and, wanting him to go away, she finally accepts some very powerful stones that would make lovely knicknacks and sends him away. I love this one for the subtlety of the widow’s reaction to the promise of the fruit and her quiet decision to resist it and continue to pursue her quiet existence.

4. “October in the Chair”
The first description of this story that comes to mind is “bloody brilliant.” We begin with a gathering of the twelve months of the year, sitting around a bonfire and telling each other stories. Each month has got a particular personality, like February, who’s a stickler for the rules, or April, who’s both cruel and sensitive. When it’s his turn, October, who is in charge this month, tells a story of a boy who’s teased by his brothers, runs away and encounters a ghost, and then possibly chooses to live a ghostly life himself. October’s story has no definitive end, which may bother some, but I thought both tales were excellent. The concept itself is supremely creative, too, and reminds me a bit of the Sandman comics.

Even though there were a few stories that didn’t do it for me, on the whole, the collection is so good that I’ll probably be checking out the compilations from which these stories were selected. I guess if anyone could make me into a short story fan, it’d be Neil Gaiman.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: A

witchesFrom the back cover:
Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches are the most dangerous of all living creatures on earth. There’s nothing they hate so much as children, and they work all kinds of terrifying spells to get rid of them. Her grandson listens closely to Grandmamma’s stories—but nothing can prepare him for the day he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself!

Though I’ve counted Willy Wonky and the Chocolate Factory among my favorite movies for 25 years now (side note: holy crap, I am so old), I’d never actually read any of Roald Dahl’s books before The Witches, though I own several. Rest assured that I shall now be rectifying this deplorable failing forthwith.

The Witches is the story of an unnamed boy who loves to listen to his grandmamma’s tales about witches. She tells him all about how to spot a witch (even when she’s masquerading as an ordinary woman) as well as their burning desire to exterminate children, and so the boy is well able to realize his predicament when a holiday in Bournemouth coincides with the annual meeting of all the witches in England. Trapped in a ballroom with the witches as they discuss a cunning plan to turn all the children in Britain into mice, he is eventually found out and turned into a mouse himself.

Does the story end there? No, it does not. He and his grandmamma (Dahl does love these grandparent/grandkid pairings, doesn’t he?) execute a cunning plan of their own, save the children, and end up with a new quest to keep them busy for the rest of their admittedly limited life spans.

What a perfect children’s book! It’s certainly imaginative, and comes with many amusing illustrations by Quentin Blake. It avoids familiar pitfalls, like a tedious interim wherein the mouse-boy must struggle to make himself understood by humans; Dahl dispenses with this entirely by allowing the mouse to speak normally. It doesn’t shirk from darkness—the boy remains a mouse and, as such, his life expectancy is dramatically reduced. And lastly, it’s just plain riveting, for an adult as well as a kid.

Sometimes children’s fiction just doesn’t click with me, even if I like the concept, but that wasn’t a problem whatsoever with The Witches. No wonder Dahl is so beloved; turns out he’s earned every bit of it.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: B

headlesscupidFrom the back cover:
Eleven-year-old David is about to meet his new stepsister, Amanda, who is only one year older than he is. Amanda arrives at their big old house wearing a huge tattered shawl and carrying a sharp-eyed crow in a cage. She is hardly what David expects. Before long, she introduces David to a strange world of witchcraft and the occult.

At first, spells and potions are fun. He enjoys the spooky chants and smoky seances. Even his younger brother and sisters join in, making sure their parents suspect nothing. But when rocks of all sizes start flying around the house and strange things go crash in the night, David begins to fear the strange forces at work.

When the Stanley siblings meet their new stepsister, who has mastered the art of disdain and claims to be well-versed in the occult, they all fall under her spell to various degrees. They undergo various ordeals to become qualified wizards (annoying their parents a good deal in the process), conduct a séance, and endure a mysterious pelting of rocks throughout the house. The truth about these incidents, long obvious to the reader, eventually becomes clear and what seems on its surface to be a supernatural tale is really a story about the effects of divorce on children.

Rated for readers age twelve and up, The Headless Cupid skews a bit younger than that, and for a time its theme seems to be, “Gee, siblings are the pits.” Gradually, it heads into more subtle territory, particularly as regards Amanda’s complicated feelings towards the adults in her life. Still, as an adult, there were no surprises in the narrative for me and I admit to being somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t genuinely spookier.

It’s a pretty fun read, though, and the best thing that can be said about it is that the children are by no means idealized. Amanda is possessed of the surly, affected boredom of a twelve-year-old and the younger kids are often rambunctious and a bit rude. David is the only one that comes off as a bit too good, but he does take some ribbing for this and laments his inability to ever be cool, so that’s alright.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this to adults in general, and maybe not to any teens who’ve already achieved the surly stage themselves, but I bet it’d be great fun to read to a kid about nine or ten.