March 24, 2011

(+++) TALL TALES OF SEVERAL TYPES

Tall Story. By Candy Gourlay. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Daddy-Long-Legs. By Jean Webster. Random House. $10.99.

Four Seasons. By Jane Breskin Zalben. Knopf. $15.99.

     The tall tale – essentially an elaborate bit of clever folkloric lying – may have become less popular in recent years, but stories in which something or someone is unusually tall continue to attract writers and readers. Take Tall Story, for example. A family story with a twist, intended for ages 10 and up, Candy Gourlay’s novel is about a short English girl named Amandolina (Andi) who wishes her Philippine half-brother, Bernardo, would come live in London. And he does. And he turns out to be eight feet tall. This could become a bonding-over-basketball book – Andi, despite her height, has long dreamed of being on the school basketball team – but Gourlay initially takes it in a different direction, although basketball does figure importantly after a while. Bernardo, it turns out, has a glandular condition called gigantism, and believes that things in his own past are the cause of his height. The novel is told in alternating chapters by Andi and Bernardo, who share perspectives that differ not only because of their different sizes but also because of their differing cultures. Bernardo remembers being the victim of a gang of girl bullies, led by the daughter of a witch, and Andi remembers all the time she spent wishing she and Bernardo could play basketball together, and how things all seem to have gone wrong: “If someone eight foot tall with sincere brown eyes ever makes you wish upon a stone – don’t. Even if you don’t believe in magic anyway – don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Spare yourself the aggravation of something opposite coming true.” But Andi’s worries pale beside Bernardo’s, which are deep-seated and intimately bound up with his culture. And Bernardo has significant real-world issues as well – health matters that eventually combine, at the book’s climax, with an earthquake in the Philippines for which Bernardo feels he is somehow responsible. The threads of the story weave together into a somewhat forced but certainly satisfying happy ending for everyone, with a reaffirmation of family values the key to the conclusion. Tall Story is, in fact, something of a tall tale for modern readers, but it is a well-told one that holds up nicely as long as readers do not question its premises and structure too closely.

     Daddy-Long-Legs is a much older story, originally published nearly a century ago, in 1912. It is an epistolary novel – a book consisting of letters. That form is nearly obsolete in a modern culture in which writing actual “snail mail” letters is nearly unheard-of for young people in this book’s target age range of 8-12. But it is not a difficult form to follow, and the use of letters keeps individual segments of this once-famous book short and easy to follow. The author, Jean Webster (1876-1916), was a grandniece of Mark Twain and a strong advocate of women’s rights, and she possesses some of Twain’s sense of humor and willingness to shake up stereotypes and conventional thinking. The new Random House edition of Daddy-Long-Legs, which features an introduction by Anne M. Martin, author of The Baby-Sitters Club series, has the potential to interest a new generation of girls in this story of orphan Judy Abbott, who finds herself with a wealthy benefactor who will pay for her further education – provided that she sends him letters about all the good and bad things of college life. Much of Judy’s writing will appeal to equally spunky girls today, even though changes in language in the past century may make some passages a bit harder going than Webster intended them to be: “It’s really awfully queer not to know what one is – sort of exciting and romantic. There are such a lot of possibilities. Maybe I’m not American; lots of people aren’t. I may be straight descended from the ancient Romans, or I may be a Viking’s daughter, or I may be the child of a Russian exile and belong by rights in a Siberian prison, or maybe I’m a Gipsy – I think perhaps I am. I have a very wandering spirit, though I haven’t as yet had much chance to develop it.” This being a coming-of-age tale – and it is amazing how little those have changed in the past hundred years – there is sure to be romance as well as learning at college, and modern readers will surely relate to that, even if the romantic elements are na├»ve and quite innocent by today’s standards. Also, Judy’s sunny optimism may be a bit much for some readers today: “The world is full of happiness, and plenty to go round, if you are only willing to take the kind that comes your way. The whole secret is in being pliable. …I’ve discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live in the now. And references to being a Socialist or Plutocrat certainly have a long-outdated feel to them. But if the book is overly sentimental and in some ways a fairy tale (that is, a type of tall tale) that is very much of its time, in other ways it tells the sort of story that continues to resonate – and tells it very well indeed.

     Four Seasons, for ages 10 and up, is both a tall tale and a realistic novel, being based in part on the experiences of Jane Breskin Zalben’s son at the Juilliard School in New York City. The title is taken from the famous set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, and the book is told in sections called Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. This book too is a coming-of-age story, but unlike Judy Abbott, who comes across as a smart but otherwise typical child of her time, Allegra Katz in Four Seasons is a prodigy who has played piano since she was four years old and is clearly destined for a great career. If she wants it, that is, and if she can handle the unending pressure of competing with other super-high-achievers at Juilliard. This is a book for driven preteens and young teenagers, who – even if their particular passion is not music, or not classical music – will identify with Allegra’s hyper-scheduled life and the intensity of her practice requirements, school assignments and all the other must-do elements of her existence. Not surprisingly, Allegra comes in time to have some self-doubts and uncertainties about the way her entire world has been structured by her parents, who are a professional violinist and a singer and who, Allegra is sure, cannot conceive of their daughter being anything but a musician. The pressures mount on Allegra – both those from the grueling schedule at Juilliard and those from within – and she realizes after a time that she is going to have a huge decision to make about who she is and where her future lies. The story arc here is nothing special, including some young love with a boy named Brad, a number of internal back-and-forth moments, and the eventual discovery that “any doubts I had were cured like a bad case of chicken pox – like Grandma said, with maybe a scar or two left as a reminder. And with time, scars can sometimes heal.” The specifics of the theme are what set this book apart, not the telling of the tale. And the birthday-cake recipe at the end is a nice touch. Still, the novel is not for everyone – only young people who know how it feels to be driven, and to drive themselves, will fully appreciate Allegra’s worries, her doubts, and her ultimate confrontation with herself.

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