May 26, 2011


A Tale of Two Castles. By Gail Carson Levine. Harper. $16.99.

The Door in the Forest. By Roderick Townley. Knopf. $16.99.

The Unseen World of Poppy Malone: A Gaggle of Goblins. By Suzanne Harper. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Golden Ghost. By Marion Dane Bauer. Illustrated by Peter Ferguson. Random House. $12.99.

     Fantasies continue to enthrall young readers, certainly up to their teen years and even (in somewhat different form) into teenage life and young adulthood. There are some books that use traditional fairy-tale elements, some that create new forms of fantasy (or try to), some that opt for a humorous approach, some that take themselves very seriously indeed, some that are scary, some that are light – well, there are some of just about all types, as readers will see in this new crop. A Tale of Two Castles has a title that does not parallel that of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, because Two Castles is in fact just one town: Two Castles is its name. And the name of the heroine is Elodie, and she is smack dab in the middle of a world filled with ogres and dragons, noble and commoners, and mysteries. Elodie wants to become a mansioner – Gail Carson Levine’s clever name for an actress in this world – but is turned away by the master of the troupe she wants to join. This turns out to be a good thing, since it starts Elodie on a series of adventures involving the town’s most hated ogre; the local dragon detective, who takes Elodie on as an apprentice and whom Elodie always calls IT; a greedy king and rather ditzy princess; and, perhaps most improbably of all to feline fanciers, a cat trainer (and a handsome one, too). Levine keeps things light through most of the expected twists and turns of this coming-of-age tale (which also has some unexpected nooks and crannies). The language, usually straightforward, nevertheless has many charms: “The guests and their children numbered sixty-eight, and I saw twine jewelry on twenty-four of the adults. I counted eighteen cats, but more may have been out of sight under the table.” A transformed monkey, a transforming count, an imaginary moonsnake, a missing dog (the ogre’s), and other fascinating characters tumble over each other in bids for the reader’s attention. And there is a real threat to Elodie here, in the form of “eastern wasp powder [that] acted in an hour or two [and] caused chills, fever, tremors, a tight throat, and death [but] no sharp pain, no agony.” But why? Whom can Elodie trust? Who is for her and who against? And, again, why? The tale is well woven, if on rather familiar ground, but the characters keep it interesting and the conclusion knits everything neatly together.

     The Door in the Forest has a fairy-tale feeling about it, too. Roderick Townley tells of an unapproachable island in the middle of the forest, at the junction of three towns and the center of three streams – the geography alone bespeaks fairy tale. Daniel, who cannot lie, and his friend, Emily, who mother was taken away by the government and whose grandmother reads the future in bubble-bath bubbles, are determined to get to the island despite the poisonous snakes that protect it and the quicksand that encircles it. But the government’s soldiers are determined, too – and why? Captain Sloper, their leader, is after something in Daniel’s small town – perhaps a map, perhaps the island or something on it, perhaps the girl Emily. Sloper is the one-dimensional villain of the book (“I have no wish to harm your friend here, but she picked the wrong bloodline”); the other characters have more solidity, if substantially less menace. The narrative states the impossible matter-of-factly: “He felt shy to be talking to a dead person.” The one-word section titles – “There,” “Here,” “Now” – turn out to have meaning and resonance well beyond what readers might expect, and the eventual climax of the book, mixing rebellion (which seems real enough) with transfiguration (right out of fairy tales), is effective and clever – although the book’s conclusion is not really a surprise.

     A Tale of Two Castles, The Door in the Forest and Suzanne Harper’s tale of Poppy Malone are all intended for readers ages 8-12, but the angles the books take on the supernatural are very different indeed. Poppy is nine years old, the child of paranormal investigators who have never actually found anything paranormal. So readers will figure out very quickly that Poppy will encounter the supernatural, and of course she does – in the attic of the house in Austin, Texas, to which she and her family move. Poppy sees a goblin – well, maybe – she once saw a fairy, back when she was in kindergarten, but she couldn’t prove it and got laughed at by the other students. “Every single case the Malones had investigated had turned out to have a natural and logical explanation,” thinks Poppy, so undoubtedly the goblin she thought she saw will have one, too; so she had better not tell anything to her parents until she investigates the alleged goblin thoroughly and proves, or more likely disproves, its existence. Poppy doesn’t want to have to move again – her parents keep getting asked to leave town and go somewhere else – and she may even be desperate enough to ask her siblings, Franny and Will, for help with the maybe-goblin. Harper takes somewhat too long to set up the family dynamics and the oddities of Poppy’s parents, because readers will know very early that of course Poppy did see a goblin, and the real question is going to be what the sighting means and what will happen next. Poppy soon (but not too soon) becomes convinced that the goblins are after her little brother, Rolly, and in fact (midway through the book) have taken him. So then Poppy, Will and Franny go looking for the goblins, and it doesn’t go well: “Poppy had counted sixteen new mosquito bites. Franny had flicked off three spiders [and] even Will, who normally didn’t mind bugs or dirt or getting sweaty, was beginning to look frayed around the edges.” The three eventually discover a grotto of single socks (yes, really), and meet goblins with names such as Bother, Muddle and Glitch, and the last quarter of the book proves to be a great deal more fun than much of what has gone before.

     The Golden Ghost is for younger readers, ages 6-9; it is shorter than the other books considered here, and is one of a series that has previously involved blue, red and green ghosts. It is also heartwarming, which is not something you might expect of a ghost tale. This ghost is…a dog. In the story, Delsie and Todd look through a batch of abandoned houses by their town’s old mill, and find one house unlocked – and apparently in use. This mystery turns out to have a simple, real-world solution: a homeless man is living there. But another mystery, harder to solve, turns up as well: Delsie sees a golden dog, which Todd cannot see. Maybe it is just that Delsie wants to see a dog – she desperately wants one, but her father is highly allergic and will not allow her to have one (or, for that matter, a cat, hamster, guinea pig or, really, anything). But Marion Dane Bauer soon makes it clear that there is indeed something there: sections in italics give the ghost dog’s thoughts, and Todd’s pup, Bug, can see the ghost, too. The rest of the book tells how the big dog became a ghost, what happens to the homeless man, and how the ghost dog decides to come stay with Delsie – to their mutual delight. A simply told, warm story, The Golden Ghost evades the usual questions about ghosts and skirts those about homelessness in favor of finding a way for a girl who really wants a dog to get one that is just right for her – no matter what anyone else sees, or doesn’t see.

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