Recently I’ve been burrowing back in the library catalog, searching for fiction gems I’ve missed through the years. Today I’ve got a first sampling of what I’ve discovered, four delightfully different fantasies —
check them out for reading aloud or handing to a reader you love.
The Hippo at the End of the Hall, written and illustrated by Helen Cooper
published in 2017 in the UK; first US edition 2019 by Candlewick Press
Ben Makepeace, age about 10, has just received a tantalizing invitation, delivered, oddly, with the morning bottle of milk. Following its directions, he discovers a small, old museum plum full of quirk and curiosity, magic and mystery. Believe it or not (and really, who would believe it?) inside this obscure Gee Museum there’s a bossy chameleon, sagacious owl, busybody shrew, wise old hippo, and one tiny but very cranky witch, besides the shelves and rooms full of glass bottles, scientific instruments, speckled birds’ eggs, and all manner of other collections from the four corners of the world.
Ben also inadvertently discovers that a pair of villains are intent on taking advantage of Constance Garner-Gee, the elderly owner of the museum. They’ve got their hearts set on demolishing it and making a fortune from developing the property. But Ben has deeper ties to the museum than he originally understands, and before long he’s waist-deep in a dangerous mission to save the museum and its inhabitants from treachery.
This dream of a fantasy will especially endear itself to those who find words delicious. Cooper’s toothsome text and exquisite spot art enliven every page of a book that has been painstakingly, beautifully designed. Equal parts mystery, fantasy, and thriller, it’s perhaps most of all a love-letter to museums of all sizes. Great, unique read-aloud. Ages 8 or 9 and up.
The Sign of the Cat, written and illustrated by Lynne Jonell
published in 2015 by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Co.
Duncan, 11 years old, is whip-smart and a dab hand at swordplay, yet his mother has sternly forbidden him from ever doing his best be it in academics or fencing. Make mistakes, she says. Be average, she instructs. Don’t stand out. Likewise it is against her rules to make any sort of hullabaloo, to do anything that would draw attention to himself in their seaside town. Why?
Strangely enough, Duncan is also adept at speaking Cat, having been taught by his elderly cat, Grizel. This, too, Duncan keeps hidden, even from his mother. It’s a talent that’s about to come in mighty handily.
Irked by so many frustrating limitations, anxious to test his mettle, Duncan is easily convinced to go to sea with the hero of the land — the Earl of Merrick — when that opportunity unexpectedly presents itself. The Earl, however, is not at all what he seems and suddenly Duncan finds himself in treacherous hands and dangerous waters. Adventures and copious misadventures at sea, a shadowy past and uncertain heritage, brutish kidnappers of kittens, a long-lost princess, one temperamental tiger, and a villain as nasty as Cruella Deville combine to serve up a high-octane, danger-riddled time for all!
Jonell is a talented writer and this blend of fairy tale and pirate yarn swings along marvelously. Be warned that it gets a definite PG rating for Intense Peril to Kittens and Young Heroes so use your judgment. The bulk of the story lends itself well to ages 8 or 9 and up, and it would make a fine read-aloud for a wide age range. I personally do not love the cover image but please don’t let that dissuade you!
The Children of Green Knowe, written by L.M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston
first published in 1955; this edition 2002 by Harcourt Young Classics
Tolly, age 7, is spending his Christmas school break with his great-grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, at her venerable estate, Green Knowe. The old manor house exudes mystique, comfort, and delight as Tolly explores its handsome halls and quaint relics, takes tea in front of the roaring fireplace, and curls up with his great gran to hear her spin tales of three children who lived there hundreds of years ago. The expansive grounds, too, provide copious space for exploring with a river running alongside prone to flooding, hillsides occasionally covered with snow, fantastical topiaries, and a giant stone statue of Saint Christopher.
But Tolly’s time at Green Knowe isn’t simply a lovely sojourn in the English countryside. This is a place where the magical and real are inextricably fused, the mystical weaving in and out of the earthly without any sense of borders. This intermingling is especially evident as the three long-dead children from Mrs. Oldknow’s stories inhabit Green Knowe still, emerging from the spirit world to talk, play, tease, sing, laugh, and provide rich companionship to Tolly.
Boston writes with a sure hand so that even when we start to feel a bit tipped off balance with the comings and goings of these ancients, it quickly begins to feel perfectly normal. Our companions in the novel are a likeable lot: Tolly is a stouthearted, exceedingly imaginative, sensitive little boy; Mrs. Oldknow is a massively accepting, twinkle-eyed person, one who Anne Shirley would say has tremendous scope for the imagination; and Boggis the groundskeeper is a burly, red-cheeked fellow who knows just how much leash to let out on a little boy — a lot of leash! — and yet how to provide rescue when absolutely necessary. It’s an older and very British story and as such will be easier for children acquainted with British children’s classics such as The Secret Garden or Five Children and It. Great read-aloud for a wide age group, ages 7 and up. Independent readers ages 9 and up. It’s the first book in a series of five.
Oddfellow’s Orphanage, written and illustrated by Emily Winfield Martin
published in 2012 by Random House Children’s Books
I found this book while hunting for under-100-page reads but its page count tips the scale above what I include on those lists so I’ll add it here.
Delia has just arrived at Oddfellow’s Orphanage where she joins a small, curious family of fellow students including a hedgehog named Hugo sporting a smart vest, Imogen — a girl “whose arms and legs were covered in blue tattoos,” and even a boy with an onion for a head by the name of Ollie. Unlike most orphanages in children’s literature, Oddfellow’s is a cozy, comforting, lovely home with caretakers and teachers who lavish kindness onto their small charges.
Follow Delia through her first year, meet her compatriots, and revel in Tasha Tudor-esque activities in these episodic, small chapters. The entire book has an old-fashioned aroma despite its quirky characters, with an elevated vocabulary and slightly classical style of narration. For some of you it will read as overly twee and precious. Others of you looking for an unabashedly sweet, gentle, charming read, with only the smallest sprinkling of contrariness, will find this right up your alley. Accompanied by Martin’s delicate, whisper-soft, sepia-toned drawings, it will suit precocious readers or serve as a read-aloud for those who prefer their stories extra mild, ages 5-8.
These days I’m busy grubbing around in my gardens
and grubbing around in the library shelves for new and old gems to recommend.
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