February 13, 2014


Magic in the Park. By Ruth Chew. Random House. $15.99.

The Trouble with Magic. By Ruth Chew. Random House. $15.99.

A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #6: The Castle Crime. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by John Steven Gurney. Random House. $5.99.

Dog Diaries #4: Togo. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by Tim Jessell. Random House. $6.99.

     Some of the “Matter-of-Fact Magic” books, written and illustrated by Ruth Chew (1920-2010), are now available again for readers ages 7-10; it remains to be seen whether they will enchant a new generation. Magic in the Park, which dates to 1972, is about a girl named Jennifer who moves to the big city (Brooklyn, New York) but misses the countryside where she used to live. Then she meets Mike in a local park and, together, they observe an old man who feeds the birds regularly and seems to appear and disappear whenever they look away for a moment. Also, the park holds a hollow tree that seems to be in a different place every day – but only the two kids notice that. This leads to an everyday adventure, accompanied by magic, featuring a raven named Napoleon, bird transformations, and Mike’s grandmother’s memory of a man who used to feed the birds in the park when she was a young girl. There is a bit of trouble here, involving a stolen and recovered bike, but nothing too challenging and nothing too serious, and all ends happily and warmly. Similarly, The Trouble with Magic, which dates to 1976, shows that spells can be easier to do than undo. Here the central characters are a brother and sister, Barbara and Rick, who are bored in old Mrs. Cunningham’s house – until they open an old bottle and free a wizard, who comes complete with an enchanted umbrella. This is no Mary Poppins tale, though: the wizard, named Harrison Peabody, admits he is “not really a powerful wizard” and “not even a very good one,” and that his umbrella – the source of his power – obeys only when he is very polite to it. Furthermore, it only works when it is raining! Amusing complications naturally follow, but Barbara and Rick do get to make the acquaintance of a sea serpent (in a lake, so maybe a lake serpent?), and the umbrella does indeed make it possible for the kids to fly a bit, and eventually there are problems that are solved by proper politeness to the umbrella. The “Matter-of-Fact Magic” stories are thin, with Chew’s pleasant illustrations making the easy-to-read tales even simpler to follow. But the attitudes of young children toward magic are quite different now from what they were in the 1970s – whether these matter-of-fact books will catch on will likely depend on how un-Harry-Potterish today’s kids want their magic to be.

     Also intended for young readers, in this case ages 6-9, the A to Z Mysteries focus on geography and architecture rather than magic: each features a building, monument or museum in the place where the story takes place. In the case of The Castle Crime, the three central characters – Dink, Josh and Ruth Rose – are going to London, where there are many places of interest to visit and put at the heart of the story. The kids do go to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, which would seem an obvious location for a mystery, but in fact the story focuses on Windsor Castle, from which some of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels have been stolen. Scotland Yard is on the case, but with the improbability that is characteristic of Ron Roy’s series and others targeting this age group, it is the three children who are the top clue-spotters. They also just happen to run into the queen herself – which is quite impossible but, again, not out of consideration for books like this – and they have quite a pleasant chat, which helps them come up with ideas that, yes, eventually lead them to figure out where the jewels are. And Madame Tussaud’s turns out to have a part in the story after all. The Castle Crime is thoroughly unbelievable but is not meant to be taken seriously: it is a romp of a mystery – with a brief reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story, “The Purloined Letter,” thrown in to make the whole thing seem more important than it really is.

     The latest in Kate Klimo’s Dog Diaries series gets some importance by association, too. Here the association is with Balto, the sled dog famous for bringing serum to Nome, Alaska, to stem a deadly diphtheria epidemic in 1925. But the real hero of the serum story is not Balto but another dog, Togo – whose tale is told here. Both Siberians were trained by Leonhard Seppala, whose lead dog, Togo, was already well-known for prowess in racing when the Serum Run became necessary; Balto had never raced. It was Seppala and Togo to whom the officials trying to get the serum to Nome entrusted the longest and most difficult part of the trip; and indeed, Seppala and Togo covered 260 miles, including the most dangerous part of the journey, which involved crossing the ice of Norton Sound two separate times despite repeated warnings that it was unstable and should be avoided. However, the serum transport was a team effort, and as it turned out, a dog team led by Balto – also trained by Seppala – made the final 53-mile run that ended in Nome. So it was that team that got the glory; and reporters covering the event ended up confusing and conflating Balto’s history with Togo’s, attributing feats of intelligence and ability to Balto that Seppala himself said were actually Togo’s. Seppala later tried, with some success, to set the record of the Serum Run straight, and now Klimo does so, too, with this story – narrated, like all the Dog Diaries series, in the “voice” of the dog rather than that of any human. The narrative can be amusing, as when Togo first becomes lead dog and explains that he had a tendency to run in a straight line, often getting the team bogged down in snow and costing time to dig everyone out. “When Sepp [Togo’s name for Seppala] lost time, he got sad. When Sepp was sad, I was sad. When I saved Sepp time by not getting us stuck in the first place, he was happy. It didn’t take me long to learn to stick to the trail.” But by and large, this is a story of the 1925 Serum Run and “what Sepp would come to call the Balto Business.” Togo doesn’t think much of Balto: “Balto couldn’t lead a pack of fleas up a malamute’s leg.” But he also doesn’t care about the confusion between his record and Balto’s: “I was just glad to be home.” Like the other Dog Diaries books, this one mixes fact with fiction, is written at a good level for ages 7-10, and ends with an appendix – in this case, about the Siberian husky as a breed, the Iditarod race, and the pleasures and challenges of having a husky as a pet. And if the book helps correct the still-common belief that Balto rather than Togo was the hero of the Serum Run, it will have done some good beyond simple storytelling.

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