June 11, 2009


The Touchstone Trilogy, Book Three: Winter Wood. By Steve Augarde. David Fickling Books. $17.99.

The Beef Princess of Practical County. By Michelle Houts. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Love, Stargirl. By Jerry Spinelli. Knopf. $8.99.

     First came The Various, then Celandine, and now Winter Wood, in which 11-year-old Midge Walters must undertake a quest to Celandine in order to save the Various – a well-knit structure not only for this trilogy but also for its titles. The Various, a tribe of fairies that only Midge can see, will perish unless Midge recovers an object called the Orbis, which was last seen in the possession of Midge’s great-great-aunt, Celandine. The names are gently evocative, and the characters’ thinking equally expressive, as when Tadgemole of the Various says the tribe wants “to be gone from here, maid. We must find what we have lost, and so return to our own.” It is the quality of Steve Augarde’s language, more than anything inherent in his plot, that sets Winter Wood and its predecessors above other coming-of-age fantasies for preteens. The books are, quite simply, beautiful to read. Midge knows nothing about the Orbis until Tadgemole mentions it, but “then came a picture, a memory. She sat by water – a pool or fountain – and held some object in her hand, felt the cool weight of it, the smooth curve of the metal against her palm. …‘I…remember it.’” And so Midge, not even knowing whether Celandine still lives – she would be “a hundred fourseasons” if she does – sets off to find her relative…and does so quite quickly. For another charm of Augarde’s trilogy is that he does not spin things out unnecessarily. The book is barely one-fifth old – it runs more than 500 pages – when Midge and Celandine meet, but this is only the start of Midge’s adventure. For Celandine eventually remembers, in fits and starts, that she did indeed receive the Orbis, but she cannot remember what she did with it, and although “Midge had suffered so many setbacks in this quest that she had almost grown used to it,” this is a very great disappointment indeed. But, again, at this point we are but halfway through the book. Augarde piles adventure upon adventure, character upon character, event upon event, and deepens the relationship between Midge and the Various through it all, as clues lead in unexpected directions and treachery within the Various hampers the search for the Orbis – which, it turns out, is not all that must be found. Winter Wood is an unusually thoughtful fantasy, a particularly well-written one, and a most satisfying conclusion to its trilogy.

     The setting of The Beef Princess of Practical County will be just as exotic as that of Winter Wood for many readers: this is a story about competitive livestock showing in the American heartland. It is also a coming-of-age tale, and one told with both warmth and humor. The central character is 12-year-old Libby Ryan, a ranch girl who understands that animals are raised for meat but is having a lot of trouble reconciling that fact with her increasing closeness to two young steers, Piggy and Mule – which Libby has raised on her own. After a showing at the Practical County Fair, Piggy and Mule will be auctioned off, and Libby is far from sure how she feels about that. Nor is she sure why she has entered the Beef Princess beauty pageant, a decision that puts her in direct competition with the nasty Darling sisters. Well, actually, Libby does know why she entered – her mother pressured her – but she is not quite sure what to do now that she is a contestant. Michelle Houts’ first novel has a ring of authenticity and some nicely drawn characters, but it also tries just a little too hard to make its points – not only by naming the nasty characters Darling (and giving them the first names Precious, Lil and Ohma) but also by having Libby’s hometown called Nowhere, Indiana (Libby actually lives “fourteen and a half miles from Nowhere”). Yet even though Houts lays things on a bit too thickly at times, her novel gets a (+++) rating for its endearing protagonist – for whom it is impossible not to root.

     Jerry Spinelli’s Love, Stargirl gets a (+++) rating, too. First published in 2007 and now available in paperback, this companion book to Spinelli’s original Stargirl will be immediately endearing to fans of that earlier book – but there is nothing much really new in it. Yes, it takes place a year after Stargirl has moved to Pennsylvania, and yes, Stargirl has made some new friends (from a quirky five-year-old to a man who spends his time by his wife’s grave – “even in death, Grace was all he needed”). But the things that Stargirl fans will like the most about this book are exactly the ones that make it not quite as good as the original. Stargirl’s circumstances may be different, but she is just the same as she always was, complete with ukulele and rat. The book is written as “the world’s longest letter” to Leo, starting on January 1 and continuing to the following year’s January 2. This is a tale of small discoveries and small adventures, of Stargirl’s ever-so-slightly-skewed perceptions, of friendship and neighborliness and perhaps just a little bit about growing up. It is charming in its way – perhaps even a touch too much so – and those who love Stargirl just as she was in Spinelli’s original Stargirl will be delighted to have even more of her. It is, though, essentially more of the same.

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