September 14, 2006


Far-Flung Adventures: No. 1, Fergus Crane; No. 2, Corby Flood. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $14.95 each.

The Van Gogh Café. By Cynthia Rylant. Harcourt. $5.95.

     In their 10-volume set, The Edge Chronicles – the first seven volumes of which are currently available in the United States – Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell created a grandly sweeping, intense adventure story for preteens and young teenagers (although Riddell’s outstanding illustrations can be appreciated by older teens and adults, too).  Far-Flung Adventures bring the same skill, but a great deal more lightheartedness, to adventure stories for younger readers – around ages 8-12.

     In Fergus Crane, wonder follows oddity follows surprise in the story of a young boy whose father has gone missing while on a dangerous ocean voyage. Fergus is now being peculiarly schooled aboard a ship – by some very strange and decidedly unacademic instructors.  The boy’s well-meaning but rather dim mother works in a bakery, where she expertly makes delicacies that sometimes include icing in the shape of penguins (a fact that becomes important as the book progresses).  Also included here are a map of the Scorpion Archipelago, which appears within the book and, in a larger version, when you remove the book jacket and fold it out; a set of ingenious but mysterious mechanical contrivances, including several that fly; a long-lost uncle; some hastily described schoolmates who make good foils for the young hero; and a lot of other offbeat stuff of the sort one would expect from this authorial team.  The style of the copious illustrations will be instantly familiar to anyone whose knows The Edge Chronicles, and some characters – notably Fergus’ mother – have faces that could have been lifted from that longer series.  But there is an underlying gentleness here that is absent in the stories of The Edge.  Someone who has lost the use of his legs simply invents marvelous mechanisms so he can cope – and make his life better than ever.  The bad guys who must eventually be destroyed are removed quickly and bloodlessly, and in a way that is 100% their own fault.  And Fergus remains throughout a nicely heroic character, polite and cheerful and just the right person to restore happiness to his family in the end.

     Corby Flood is very much of the same type, even to the design in which the cover becomes a fold-out map – here, of the coast of Dalcretia, to which Corby’s far-flung adventure flings her.  Among the oddball characters here – in addition to Corby’s family, which includes her parents, “four energetic brothers,” and Corby’s older sister, Serena – are Mr. and Mrs. Hattenswiller (whose matching hats appear to be about three feet tall); the mysterious Man from Cabin 21, who sits on deck in the same place every day; and “the five sinister gentlemen in their smart suits and bottle-green hats,” who are especially concerned with how their luggage is handled.  All these people are supposedly on an innocent voyage aboard the S.S. Euphonia, a ship that has seen better days.  Of course, the trip proves anything but innocent, and eight-year-old Corby chronicles everything within the pages of Hoffendinck’s Guide, a book that describes the Dalcretian coast and leaves ample room for notes – room that Corby fills with comments on fellow passengers and onboard occurrences.  It takes more pluck than magic to figure out who is doing what here, and why, but although there are no wands waved or spells cast in Corby Flood, the book’s good humor casts a gently magical spell of its own.

     The magic is exceedingly gentle in The Van Gogh Café as well.  This short book, originally published in 1995 and now available in paperback, is simply a set of vignettes involving out-of-the-ordinary occurrences at an apparently super-ordinary café in the town of Flowers, Kansas.  The café is run by Marc and his daughter, Clara – Clara’s mom lives far away, apparently after a divorce, although the book is too sweet to dwell on the circumstances – and small magics keep happening from time to time.  There’s the possum that appears in a tree outside and seems to make it easier for townspeople to be nice to each other; the lightning strike that turns Marc into a poet and results temporarily in the food cooking itself; the mini-muffins left behind by a customer, which magically increase in number until they are really needed; and so on.  Somehow, Cynthia Rylant gives everything that happens in this café a veneer of calm, even when there is an accident – and even when, in a different vignette, someone dies.  This is, above all, a peaceful book, a pleasant fantasy of the sort that readers ages 8-12 may wish could be true, if they just find the right restaurant in the right small town off the right interstate highway, somewhere in the middle of the country…

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