November 10, 2005


The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrations by John O’Brien. Harcourt. $17.

Three Good Deeds. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $16.

     Eleanor Estes’ tale of Jimmy McGee was one of her last works, written in 1987, the year before she died.  But it retains, for better and worse, the sensibilities of earlier decades – times in which she wrote of the Moffats (1940s), Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye (1950s), and other characters much beloved in their time but now seeming a trifle fusty.  The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee is a sequel to The Witch Family, which dates back to 1960.  Amy and Clarissa, the two little girls from the earlier book, return in this one; but it is Amy’s doll, Little Lydia, who is a central character – more so than Amy herself.  More central still is Jimmy McGee, a magical and curious little fellow, for sure, thought of as a plumber with wrenches and pipes and bolts but especially lightning bolts, which he catches in his thunder and lightning bolt box.  Jimmy experiences the wave, Monstrous, and the hurricane, Lobelia, and in the best scene of the book goes through a variety of zany antics with Badger and Snakey and Owl and Frog and Cardinal Bird and other animals.  At the center of that scene is Little Lydia, who has been exposed to the lightning that Jimmy McGee likes to catch and therefore has a case of the zoomie-zoomies, which are a fine sort of magic for Jimmy himself but create all sorts of trouble for the doll and everyone around her.  Jimmy eventually gets Little Lydia de-magicked and back to Amy, who declares Jimmy a HERO, in capital letters.  This is a fairy tale of considerable charm and an even greater dose of naïveté.  It is nicely written and thoroughly pleasant, but its old-fashioned feel means it will likely appeal to only a small percentage of today’s children ages eight and up, who are the book’s target audience.

     Vivian Vande Velde’s spare, to-the-point writing is far more up-to-date than Estes’, and Three Good Deeds – a fairy tale, like Jimmy McGee’s story – has the potential to be fun for many eight-to-12-year-olds.  It is not, however, one of Vande Velde’s better books: she rarely leaves as many plot holes as she does here.  A boy, Howard, teases the geese in his town once too often, and is turned into a goose by the geese’s guardian, who happens to be a witch.  The spell will release him, the witch says, only after he does three good deeds – but this is a tall order for someone who can only make honking noises, no longer has hands, and tends to fly into things when he manages to get airborne.  It is a foregone conclusion in a story like this that Howard, after many misadventures, will eventually become human again.  But the misadventures themselves are not up to Vande Velde’s usual standard; Howard himself is not a very interesting character; and the notion that many months would pass without a police search for Howard or more than a single cursory visit by his parents to Goose Pond strains credulity too much – even for a fairy tale.  A few scenes here are fun, and the names the geese give each other are amusing, but this is minor Vande Velde at best.

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