I’ve just read a novel — new last year — coming to us from New Zealand, that tingles with magical fancy. Like a windchime chinging in the distance. Jasmine drifting on a breeze. Fizzy lemonade spritzing your nose as you sip from a tall glass. That kind of magicalness.
As I groped for another work to compare it to, the one that came to mind was an old, 1951 novel, originally written in French and illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak about two little girls living on a farm who converse with a bevy of quirky animals.
Both of them have an entrancing atmosphere, ordinary children, rural settings with freedom to explore nature, and unusual, original storylines. Both can be read aloud to children around age 7.
Even better, both fit the bill for advanced young readers — readers about age 6-8 who can manage sophisticated language, crave more and more books, yet require content appropriate to their smallness.
Dappled Annie and the Tigrish, by Mary McCallum, illustrations by Annie Hayward
published in 2014 by Gecko Press
Annie, age 9, and her little brother Robbie, age 4, live in Winding Cottage on the coast of New Zealand. It’s as idyllic as it sounds. Their father helps run the lighthouse nearby while their mother knits raspberry-wool socks for winter blasts. Ahhhh.
Annie loves spending time with her father — collecting flotsam on the beach, walking quietly together just-the-two-of-them, munching sugar sandwiches in the great big easy-breathing world.
Just now, though, her father is extra-occupied by his lighthouse job. Annie is saddled with entertaining Robbie, so she introduces him to the imaginary friends she’s made. The Hedges, you see, aren’t just twigs and leaves. Annie has had fleeting glimpses of faces in this line up of shrubbery, and over time has come to know the lot of them — Mr. & Mrs. Hedge, Russell, Sprout, Hog, Manny, Sylvie, George…the lot.
Mrs. Hedge is currently sheltering a sweet nestful of baby fantails. The cheeping, naked birdlets are utterly safe with her, Mrs. Hedge declares. She’s never lost a single baby bird left in her charge.
That’s before the earthquake, though. And the strong wind that buffets the hedges. It’s before the tigrish gloams up in all his stripey mysteriousness. The strangeness of the day, the strength of the wind, converge to snatch the nest and fling them off to who-knows where.
Annie, Robbie, and the tigrish must help the Hedges find those babies, but it is quite a tricky business. There’s danger and oddity and confusion and fear in this adventure in which Annie discovers what it means to act the part of the grown-up, to “be bigger than yourself, not physically bigger…but big inside your head.”
Luscious language, exciting adventure, a fresh 9-year-old heroine, and an expansive understanding of loyalty, responsibility and family. Avoid this if you’re searching for comic, rambunctious, superhero stories, but especially for imaginative, sensitive readers, this is a gem. Spot art illustrations at the chapter headings and a few full-color paintings.
The Wonderful Farm, by Marcel Aymé, translated from the French by Norman Denny, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
published in 1951 by HarperCollins
On a farm in France live Father and Mother, Delphine and Marinette. An ordinary family on an ordinary sort of farm, set on the broad plains of France. Alongside runs a quiet road. Fields and forest surround. Quaint village in the distance. It’s an innocent time, when children can freely roam and manage themselves quite nicely.
The farm is not completely ordinary, though, because the animals can talk, making it rather a wonderful farm.
There’s a cantankerous gander, foolish rooster, vain pig. A farm dog tries to help the little girls with their mathematics and a herd of deer discuss the dangers of living in the wild. These are not cuddly, sweet animal tales, nor are they raw Jungle Book stories. They are a bit eccentric, a tinch stormy, a lot charming, sometimes skitterish, yet maintaining a gentle quality suited to young elementary children.
In 1951, Maurice Sendak was just beginning his stunning career as a children’s illustrator. This is almost his first illustrative work, I think. His pen-and-ink drawings are utterly charming and overflowing with personality.
For fans of Charlotte’s Web or Dick King-Smith’s novels, this would make a great, much-less-familiar read. A couple of my daughters, strong readers, read this independently around age 8 and love it still.