May 18, 2006


Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation. By Avi. Harcourt. $15.

     The protagonists of the five stories in Avi’s Strange Happenings are not particularly admirable people.  Most of the stories are dark fairy tales with twists here and there – and with greater or lesser degrees of darkness.  Because the book is intended for readers ages 8-12, there is no dwelling on violence and little outright fright – less, in fact, than in Bruce Coville’s scary stories, which Avi’s somewhat resemble.  But the underlying assumptions of these tales are rather unpleasant, and sensitive readers may find them scarier than a plot overview would indicate.

     The first tale, Bored Tom, inspired the excellent cover art by Greg Swearingen, which shows a cat looking into the water, where its reflection shows a boy.  The protagonist spends all his time being bored, is envious of cats for their lives of constant rest and relaxation, and wishes he could become one – until he finds out the true cost of the change.

     In the second tale, Babette the Beautiful, we are firmly in fairyland, with a childless royal couple and a queen’s intense wish for a flawless daughter.  That would be Babette – but for a person to be seen as flawless, it turns out, she must not be seen at all.  There’s an old crone here moving the action, as in many fairy stories, but the conclusion comes more from a twist on Lewis Carroll than from the Grimm brothers.

     The third story, Curious, starts out with an amusing premise: just what are all those weird mascots seen at sports events?  Who is inside the strange costumes?  This tale takes an ugly turn at the end, though – and even readers who anticipate the climax (there will be many) may find it somewhat overdone.

     The fourth story, The Shoemaker and Old Scratch, places us once again firmly in fairyland, with a hint of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” but a much less satisfying conclusion for the protagonist.  A cat is a major character here, as in Bored Tom, but Avi leaves the exact connection between this cat and the Devil unexplained – a weakness in what is otherwise a well-done tale of revenge and the importance of keeping your end of a bargain.

     The final story, Simon, is also a fairytale of sorts, but it is a rather grim one until a happy ending that comes pretty much out of nowhere.  It is all about a self-absorbed, extremely vain young man who becomes a highly successful hunter, until one of his hunts causes a transformation that gives him more attention than he wants.

     Avi’s pacing of the stories is expert, and if there are plot holes here and there, most readers in the target age group will not notice them, or will not care: there is enough fascination in the tales to make up for occasional narrative lapses.  And the cautionary message of several stories comes through clearly, though it is never overtly stated: it’s best to be satisfied with who and what you are, because becoming something else may have consequences you would rather not have to face.

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