January 11, 2018
(++++) LANDS STRANGE AND FAMILIAR
Wed Wabbit. By Lissa Evans. David Fickling Books. $17.99.
Shards #1: Sisters of Glass. By Naomi Cyprus. Harper. $16.99.
Preteen readers, ages 8-12, have many fictional lands they can visit and many fictional journeys and adventures they can have in them – with many different things to learn and many different ways of learning them. This is true even though the stories’ outcomes are, by and large, fairly similar in their level of uplift and in the way they conclude with protagonists learning about their strengths and weaknesses. Just how different the tales can be is shown in comparing a hilarious and inventive new book by Lissa Evans with a much more serious and much more formulaic one by Naomi Cyprus. Evans’ is called Wed Wabbit and revolves around a red rabbit, sounded out with the “w” sound by four-year-old Minnie (short for Minerva), sister of the central almost-11-year-old character, Fidge (short for Iphigenia). Fidge’s dad, whom she resembles physically and in her neat, orderly and organized personality, has died, so the family includes only the two girls and their decidedly ditzy mom, whom Minnie resembles. Minnie is obsessed with book-and-toy characters called Wimbley Woos, garbage-can-shaped things that come in various colors with differing personalities and abilities: “Yellow are timid. Blue are strong./ Gray are wise and rarely wrong.” And so on through green, pink, orange and purple – seven colors in all. The Wimbley Woos speak only in verse, just one irritant for Fidge when she meets them. Yes, meets them. Minnie is injured in a car accident (not terribly seriously), so Fidge has to go live for a time with Uncle Simon and Auntie Ruth, whose son, Graham – Fidge’s cousin – is an extreme hypochondriac, hilariously spoiled, very smart in an in-your-face way, and altogether unpleasant. At Graham’s house, Fidge soon falls down some cellar steps – along with Graham himself – and the two find themselves in the actual land of the Wimbley Woos. Yes, this sounds like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it does have some of that resonance, but it is much funnier in a slapstick way (if less thoughtful and elaborate). The Wimbley Woos, it soon develops, need Fidge to rescue them from something – which turns out to be an exaggerated, evil version of Wed Wabbit. While Fidge struggles to figure out what is going on, Graham – separated from Fidge after the cellar-steps incident – is dealing with his “transitional object,” a rather rigid and dogmatic (but sensible) plastic carrot from a supermarket giveaway that calls itself “Dr. Carrot” because the small platform on which it stands says “DR” (standing for the store, “Douglas Retail”). The Lewis Carroll elements of Wed Wabbit merge surprisingly well with some from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Graham (who, of course, eventually learns the error of his intelligent-but-misguided spoiled-brat ways) and the sensible, clever Fidge try to understand their predicament and figure a way out of it. The charming stuffed Ella Elephant, rather given to over-dramatization, adds additional humor to the proceedings, and the Wimbley Woos’ riddles prove crucial to the plot: Fidge and Graham need to solve them and deal with Wed Wabbit in order to get home. The oddity of the Wimbley Woos, the well-balanced characterizations of Fidge and Graham, and the consistently funny writing and sure pacing of Evans’ book make Wed Wabbit weally wonderful.
Also well-written but much more conventional in plot – and more strongly directed at preteen girls rather than at both girls and boys – Cyprus’ Sisters of Glass is the first entry in a series called Shard. The sequence’s title makes perfect sense, since it is a shard of glass – in the form of a mirror – that lies at the heart of a traditional prince (here, princess) and pauper, good-vs.-evil plot. Princess Halan is heir to a kingdom where magic is crucial – it is even called the Magi Kingdom, no reference to Disney apparently intended – but she herself lacks magical powers, even though every ruler before her has had them. She dreams of escape from the palace and of living somewhere where she will not constantly feel the pressure of her inadequacies and inabilities. Into her life, quite unexpectedly, comes Nalah Bardak, a Thauma (magic user) who lives in a land where magic is strictly outlawed on pain of penalties ranging up to death. Like other Thauma, Nalah lives quietly: she helps her father make glass knickknacks to sell at a local market. But these are not as well-crafted as the ones made by the family of her friend Marcus Cutter, because his family is rich and has connections that allow them to use some magic to produce beautiful Thauma crafts. Hoping to better her own family’s lot, Nalah secretly accepts a commission from an old family friend named Zachary Tam, who wants an illegal mirror to be re-created. Nalah succeeds – but as soon as he gets the mirror, Tam kidnaps Nalah’s father and escapes to another place through it. So Nalah, aided by Marcus, goes after Tam on a rescue mission. This is how Nalah and Halan meet – their names being a reversal of each other is an overly obvious clue to their intertwined importance and to what is going on in their worlds. The tale is told in alternating chapters, but the voices of Nalah and Halan do not sound sufficiently different for this common device to be particularly effective: the girls’ backgrounds stand in for any genuinely differing personalities that Cyprus might otherwise need to develop. On the other hand, the determination and independence that both girls possess will be attractive for the intended readership, and Cyprus does a good job of creating settings that differ from the usual vaguely medieval European ones so common in fantasies for young readers: here there is a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor to the geography. But the basic story of similar characters from two different worlds, joined by unexpected events and needing to fight the good fight for their respective homes, is nothing new, and Cyprus handles it competently but without any really unusual angles. Sisters of Glass is an effective enough genre entry to deserve a (+++) rating, but it breaks no new ground and is content to remain in the same action/adventure territory where many fantasy novels for preteens, and indeed for adults, reside comfortably but without much distinction or distinctiveness.