September 01, 2016


Mitchell on the Moon. By R.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99.

Annabelle at the South Pole. By R.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99.

     Now that R.W. Alley has concluded his series about four siblings and their marvelous adventures just the other side of everyday reality, it has become clear that in addition to telling wonderful little stories and illustrating them with exuberant delight, Alley has been taking young readers on a tour of the four seasons. Clark in the Deep Sea was a springtime tale, rain-drenched and featuring Clark as an intrepid underwater teddy-bear rescuer. Gretchen Over the Beach, featuring the youngest child in the family, was a summertime story, in which the girl and her ever-faithful roly-polys (little egg-shaped toys with perpetual smiles) flew to the clouds while the other siblings were busy ignoring everything but themselves. Now comes Mitchell on the Moon, an autumn story set at Halloween, where Gretchen and the roly-polys play a supporting role as Mitchell, “the Sorcerer of Space,” sets out to “save the moon,” which has gone behind some clouds – or rather, in Alley’s wonderfully imaginative exploration of childhood fantasizing, has been attacked by Jack O’Jerks that are nibbling it away piece by piece. Intrepid Mitchell climbs “the Moon Ladder of Magic and Mystery,” and the old wooden ladder in the home’s yard immediately becomes a spacebound magical vehicle carrying the boy on his rescue mission – while, unknown to him, Gretchen and the roly-polys (now transformed into stars) hang on and try not to fall off. The Jack O’Jerks, huge pumpkins with insatiable appetites, are munching on the moon when Gretchen suddenly reveals her presence to the Sorcerer of Space, who “didn’t know I had a sidekick.” But since this is Mitchell’s story, Gretchen is soon in danger and needs to be rescued by “Mitchell’s lightning wand,” after which there is a triumphant return to Earth and a re-transformation of the nighttime fantasy scene into the ordinary one of a leaf-strewn back yard and a snack of roasted pumpkin seeds. Alley’s work here is wonderful on so many levels: the book is filled with little touches of delight, such as the fact that one roly-poly has not returned to its original form at the book’s end but has stayed in star shape, smiling down on the four children as they walk along beneath a moon no longer shrouded in clouds. Like the books featuring Clark and Gretchen, Mitchell on the Moon stands entirely on its own but gains a great deal, in many ways, if read as part of a series focused both on a four-child family and on the passage of the seasons.

     And so we come to winter, and to Annabelle at the South Pole. Annabelle is reading quietly one snowy day when Mitchell, still (or again) in wizard garb, declares her “a scheming sorceress,” Clark looks alarmed, and Gretchen fears for the safety of her roly-polys. Annabelle does not want to be pestered and announces that she is going to the South Pole, despite Mitchell’s warning that no one can escape “the Wizard of the World.” Sure enough, Annabelle dons her snow gear, leaps over the sled in the yard as the roly-polys tumble out of the door behind her, and finds herself in the bleak Antarctic – accompanied by four penguins. An Abominable Snow Giant attacks, but Annabelle throws a snowball that knocks his head right off, so he promises to be good, and Annabelle and the penguins put him back together and go with him to the South Pole – where, sure enough, they encounter Annabelle’s three siblings brewing something in a cauldron. As the frightened Snow Giant runs away, the Wizard of the World declares that he will melt the South Pole with his concoction, but “Annabelle was not afraid” and simply grabs the whole pot and drinks the entire potion “in one ginormous gulp.” She then thanks the Wizard of the World (“your potion is tasty”) and heads back to base camp, which means she grabs the sled in the yard and trudges back through reality to the home’s porch, where everyone has hot chocolate and the roly-polys return to their usual form, except for the one that remains a penguin. That one, on the book’s very last page, adjusts the head of the Snow Giant – that is, the ordinary snowman the kids have built – because it has somehow gotten knocked askew. Somehow. These four Alley books are something rare in the seamless way they connect the real and imaginary/imaginative worlds of children, and Alley has done a superb job of making sure each book stands entirely on its own while also guaranteeing that families captivated by the charms of one will be wafted pleasantly to the next, the next and the next.

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