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Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

Whispering to Witches, Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats, and The Big House

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Anna Dale.
Whispering to Witches.

Bloomsbury. 2004.
Ages 8-13

I've seen Whispering to Witches referred to as "Harry Potter for the younger set" by some reviewers, and while that is by no means a bad comparison, I think it is not at all accurate. There is magic, there is a young boy, there is a broomstick, but really, that does not make Whispering a cheap side trip from Hogwarts. I think you can read Harry Potter at the age of eight, and you can also read Whispering to Witches. The only substantive thing they have in common is magic, and any young person who sets out to read every juvenile title with magic in it would be busy for, oh, say the next couple of decades. Anna Dale has crafted a funny and sweet and smart and thrilling book all on her own. Comparisons to JK Rowling are nice, but not at all necessary.

The story begins with no big surprises. Joe Binks lives in London with his father where he is a very happy boy. Because of a sudden family illness in Scotland, however, his father has to leave, and Joe must stay with his mother and stepfather in Kent over the Christmas holidays. He doesn't want to go because they don't seem to understand him, but he has no choice. Along the way he sees something odd on the train, something that doesn't seem right. The lights are suddenly darkened, and there might be a fight with a glamorous but terrifying woman, and something might happen to two of the people in his carriage, and then he gets off the train at the wrong stop and is all alone. No Mom, no stepdad. And then it gets really exciting!

Joe does make it to his mother's house, but along the way he sees more things that make him wonder just what kind of strangeness he seems to have dropped into. He meets some witches, definitely some witches, and one of them is a young girl named Twiggy who is very determined to believe as dangerous truth all the things that Joe is still hoping might have just been nothing. Meeting Twiggy is how Joe ends up on a broomstick and in the center of a witch war. He also meets an interesting librarian, gets to know his younger half sister, and finds out that his mother and stepfather are really not all that bad. There are also some four legged creatures to contend with, some powerful spells to rescue, and Joe's beloved father, who proves to be the source of the book's scariest moments of all.

Whispering to Witches has a great mystery, proper villains, plenty of twists and turns, and a fair share of startling revelations. Dale does not do any of the cheap, trite plot devices here, however. I was so happy to see Joe's mother and stepfather written as normal people and not the traditional monster-parents all too many authors rely on. And Joe and Twiggy are smart and engaging heroes. They are believable and endearing, along with the rest of their motley crew of "good witches." All in all, this is a great adventure and well worth the time and effort for any curious reader. How does it stack up against Harry Potter? Who cares? It's a good book all on its own, and that should be enough for anyone.

 

Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, and The Children's Museum, Boston.
Illustrated by Meilo So
Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats.

Gulliver Books. 2002.
Ages 6-12

Teaching a child about the traditions and cultures of other countries is one of the more important things that can be done in the new "global" world we live in today. Americans in particular are bad at this type of education. We still suffer from a thought process that insists western ideas are better, or at the very least, more significant, than those from around the world. It is a root cause for many of the diplomatic crises that the world currently suffers from and must be changed for future generations—of all countries—to survive. None of us can keep doing business as usual.

But this is a children's book review, so enough politics. Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats is an exploration of five major Chinese festivals. It includes descriptions of the festivals themselves and then traditional stories associated with them and recipes and activities that young children may take part in. It manages to succeed on several levels, both as a delightfully illustrated storybook as well as a goldmine for crafters and cooks. While adult help is necessary for younger children when tackling the recipes, most of the book can be enjoyed again and again by those who are interested not only in learning but also in doing. Doing makes the festivals come alive in a much easier and more effective manner then simply reading about them or watching a television special.

The really cool thing about Moonbeams is the genial way in which the authors impart an enormous amount of history to their young audience. While reading about the Chinese New Year, for example, you will learn about fireworks and that gunpowder was invented in China. The Chinese zodiac is detailed and explained, providing readers with a great way to find out what animal they were born under. (Just so you know, my son is a snake—I'm waiting for signs of that great wisdom to appear!) There is kite flying and dragon boat racing and puppet shows to construct and participate in. And while little hands are busy, the stories behind each festival are readily available and can be shared by willing readers. The package is perfect, tailor-made to push curious minds in the direction of maps and atlases, as well as other storybooks that will only increase their knowledge of the East.

So, will Moonbeams change the world? It's hard to say, but the more we know about each other, all of us, the less inclined we will be to believe that we are so different that peace is impossible, that reason must be abandoned. I'm sure that the authors didn't have aspirations of changing world with the publication of their fun and colorful book. If they happen to do so, then it will just be our good fortune. I think the world could use a little luck today though, so if building a kite and telling my son he is a snake will help propel us in the direction of future peace, then I'm all for it. I'm for anything that will safeguard his tomorrows.

 

Carolyn Coman
Illustrated by Rob Shepperson
The Big House.

Front Street. 2004.
Ages 8-12

In The Big House, Carolyn Coman has set out to write a breezy little mystery for the younger crowd. She opens with the unexpected bang of the gavel as the heroes, Ray and Ivy, see their parents sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for committing fraud. The bigger shock, if you can imagine, comes immediately afterward when the judge turns custody of the children over to the very same people that their parents are accused of robbing. This sends the two out into the countryside to the titular "big house" where they must now live with the elderly Nolands, their chauffer Andrew, and the constantly crying maid Sissy. Of course the children are not happy with their predicament and are determined to both escape and prove their parents innocent. As Marietta Noland is a particularly malevolent old lady, it is not hard to see where the plot is going. She is clearly the villain, the kids are smart and cute as can be, and there are enough startling discoveries along the way to make it clear that some dastardly deed has been committed to help send their parents to jail. Ivy and Ray just have to sort everything out, expose a few lies and hold a mock trial before the truth can be revealed.

Coman does provide some surprises. The children dedicate themselves to exploring, like children will, but they also plan an exciting midnight run under the full moon and create a message system for making plans after everyone has gone to bed. They get to the root of Sissy's endless tears and also make a good friend with Andrew. There is a mysterious painting, a well-preserved wedding cake, and a copy of Crime and Punishment to propel the action along and help keep the kids focused on their goal of freedom for all. Rob Shepperson's outstanding illustrations raise this book up above the standard and provide plenty of pictures for young readers to pore over. He captures all of the characters beautifully and is a major asset to the story.

The only thing I found odd was that there is never any question of the parents' guilt. It is clear from the very beginning that they have made a lifetime of running small cons and gambling, that they are not completely innocent of the charges that sent them to jail. While there is certainly more to the story then the judge was aware (and the children determinately uncover), I was confused as to why the parents had to be so unsympathetic. I'm all for removing the sugar and saccharine from the world of children's literature, but in this case the parents just didn't seem to ring true. They are sentenced to twenty-five years in prison but never contact their children after they are led away. They barely even say goodbye. Although it is appropriate to keep this type of book light (no need for a middle grade prison exposé), their behavior just did not seem believable on any level. That doesn't mean the average eight year-old won't eat this up with a spoon, but I think it could have been a little more honest and thus, a little bit better.

 

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