January 21, 2010


Magic Tree House #43: Leprechaun in Late Winter. By Mary Pope Osborne. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Research Guide: Leprechauns and Irish Folklore. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Random House. $4.99.

Betraying Season. By Marissa Doyle. Henry Holt. $16.99.

     The Emerald Isle has importance in literature and legend far beyond its small size and long-impoverished people. From Jonathan Swift to William Butler Yeats, it has produced far more than its share of great writers and poets – and from the banshee (originally, in Irish, bean sídhe) to the aes sídhe or aos sí (sometimes wrongly called the sidhe), it has produced more than its share of supernatural beings. One standout among those is the leprechaun (spelled leipreachán in Irish), a solitary fairy rather than one preferring life in a group. Leprechauns spend most of their time mending shoes, and they enjoy practical jokes – and there is some of the latter interest, if not the former, in the latest Magic Tree House book, which has Jack and Annie travel to Ireland in 1862 to meet a literary figure who is more obscure than many of the people they have encountered during earlier adventures. Leprechaun in Late Winter is the third of four books in which the young travelers, at magician Merlin’s behest, are helping inspire creative people. There is less derring-do and a lower adventure component in these books than in many of the earlier Magic Tree House entries, and there is a certain sameness to the stories that may become tedious even for young readers (the books are intended for ages 7-12, but a more likely age range is 6-10). Still, Jack and Annie’s time with a rather dull young girl named Augusta is enlivened by their encounter with a leprechaun and, later, with a whole host of the fairies that Osborne calls Shee (which is how is pronounced). It is thanks to the fairies that Augusta develops an interest in preserving Irish heritage – and that sets her on the path that will eventually lead her, as Lady Augusta Gregory, to co-found the Abbey Theatre with Yeats and to write 40 plays of her own. There is no major “revelation” of Jack and Annie’s importance in this book – nothing comparable to Jack’s comment, “We put the smile on the Mona Lisa’s face, remember?” But there is some pleasant interaction here with Irish mythology.

     The accompanying Magic Tree House Research Guide discusses that mythology in greater depth and, as usual, makes a nice companion to the fictional volume for readers interested in learning a little more. This is the first Research Guide that does not bear a number: it is actually No. 21, but at this point those numbers are rather confusing, since they do not match the numbers of the books (the Research Guide series started long after the fictional one was well under way). Leprechauns and Irish Folklore is especially interesting for exploring some less-known supernatural creatures, such as clurichauns – relatives of leprechauns who like to dress up and, unlike their more famous cousins, hate to work. Pookas, dullahans (the Irish version of headless horsemen), grogochs, ballybogs and other fairies are here, along with suggestions on how to protect yourself against them. And there is some history, too – plus information on the people who helped preserve Irish heritage.

     There is magic in Ireland in Betraying Season as well, and this story too is set in the 19th century, but this teen-oriented tale is a complications-of-love story as well as a complications-of-magic one. The central character is Penelope Leland, witch and twin sister of Persy – who, in Marissa Doyle’s previous book, Bewitching Season, proved to be the more adept of the two at magic. Penelope (Pen) sets out to prove herself in this companion novel, and along the way meets and falls in love with Niall Keating, to whom she feels she must reveal her magical abilities to be sure they will not scare him away: “Well, it’s just that…I’m a witch. …and I decided that I had to tell you now, even though as a rule witches never tell anyone, because last year my sister and her husband – well, before he was her husband – she was afraid he wouldn’t love her if he knew she was a witch, and I didn’t want to ever have the same problem. So I’m telling you now, because I – because I do love you.” But to that breathless confession, Niall reacts not with horror but with considerable equanimity, telling Pen that “Ireland is not like the rest of the world” when it comes to magic. It turns out that he should know: he has been courting Pen on orders from his mother, a sorceress with evil plans of her own. But then Niall really does fall in love with Pen, and now, instead of betraying her, he needs to betray his mother; and all the while, Pen’s less-potent magic is growing in strength. And thus the plot thickens, with never a shred of believability but with plenty of heartthrobs and heartaches: “Why did he still have to be so good-looking even when disheveled? Even worse, why did she still notice?” Of course, Pen and Niall do get together – in matrimony before anything else, this being the Victorian age – and Pen’s mother’s nefarious scheme is thwarted, and so on and so forth. This is all harmless fun that, if it does nothing to elucidate Irish lore, does little to make it any less interesting.

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