June 29, 2006


Now You See It… By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

A Well-Timed Enchantment. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

     Preteen and young teenage readers looking for summer reading that isn’t 100% fluff and nonsense will have a great time with these paperbacks of Vivian Vande Velde fantasies.  These only seem to be 100% fluff and nonsense – there is thoughtfulness not far beneath the surface, and some really interesting questions about identity, love and the meaning of life are buried only a layer or two deeper.

     Now You See It… first appeared last year.  Intended for ages 12 and up, it’s a fine example of a work in which, as W.S. Gilbert put it, “Things are seldom what they seem.”  And they are seldom what you see as well – or at least what 15-year-old Wendy sees.  Wendy wears glasses – thick glasses – and is doomed to keep wearing them for at least three more years, because her mother won’t let her get contact lenses until Wendy is 18.  Wendy’s vision is really very poor, so when her new glasses break, she is in big trouble – until she finds a pair of rather spectacularly dorky sunglasses on her lawn.  And they just happen to be exactly her prescription.  And that’s just the start of this romp into weirdness, because when Wendy puts the sunglasses on, she sees perfectly.  Too perfectly.  She sees things that aren’t there (little blue men, happy dead people) and things that are there but shouldn’t look like what they look like through these lenses (a cheerleader is an ancient crone; a nerdy boy has pointy ears).  Readers will quickly figure out that the glasses are magic, the strange sights and strange changes in people’s appearance are connected, and Wendy has hold of something much more powerful than she realizes.  She does realize it, in time, as she finds herself the object of some very unwelcome supernatural attention.  Watching Wendy come into her own is only part of the fun here.  The chapter titles are another part, some parodying famed fantasy works (“The Fellowship of the Lens”) and some being just for fun (“Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Didn’t Include Bad Relatives”).  And then there is the underlying seriousness, as Wendy deals with her parents’ divorce, her beloved grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and some other real-life issues not entirely solvable, even by magic.

     For slightly younger readers – ages 10 and up – A Well-Timed Enchantment provides a different take on a story that is, in some ways, similar.  The heroine here, Deanna, also has divorced parents, and she too is lonely and unsure where she fits in.  But she doesn’t find magic glasses – she finds a cat.  It’s a black cat that keeps following her around the home of relatives who live in the French countryside – relatives Deanna has never met before, but with whom she has to stay because of her parents’ breakup.  Deanna keeps wishing things would change, and as often happens in Vande Velde’s books, she gets her wish…and as always happens after one gets a wish, it doesn’t turn out quite as Deanna thought it would.  Vande Velde mixes more slapstick into this book than she uses in Now You See It…  There’s the sequence, for example, in which Deanna drops her watch into an old well, and a hand pulls her in after the watch, and the well turns out to be a time portal, and Deanna finds herself back in medieval France, trying to prevent history from being upended by the discovery of the wristwatch hundreds of years before it could possibly have existed.  All the usual suspects in magical fantasy show up in this book, which has worn quite well since its initial release in 1990: a wizard, two jealous brothers, and assorted magical creatures.  Oh – and then there’s that cat, who turns into Deanna’s companion and helper in medieval times and about whom she needs to make a crucial decision at the book’s end.  The ambiguity of the ending is one of the many pieces of deliciousness here.  Vande Velde is worth reading anytime, but these particular books seem especially well-suited to lazy days and warm nights.

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