Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

9780385389587_p0_v2_s260x420Be prepared to suspend belief and once again believe in magic with Alice Hoffman as she weaves a tale of sorcery and enchantment in Nightbird.  Although the book is targeted for middle school readers, adults need a fairy tale every now and then to remind them “to be kind and have courage.”  When Alice Hoffman tells the story, those strange happenings seem very plausible.

The sleepy New England town of Sidwell celebrates it most famous citizen, an eighteenth century witch who may have cast a spell to dry up all the lakes.  Each year, kindergartners star in a play retelling her sad story of being abandoned on the eve of her wedding.  Hoffman’s story focuses on the witch’s descendants, Twig, a quiet little girl who tries to be invisible, and her brother James, born with a strange and amazing ability, who hides away from everyone – not to be seen.  When two young girls move into the cottage next door, the old home of the notorious town witch, the interaction among the children produces a tale of friendship, caring, and magic.  Hoffman adds an innocent winged beast seen flying over the church bell tower, an endangered breeding ground in the woods targeted for development, and a frumpy Ph.D. who specializes in owls – mixes them all together – and delivers a delicious story with a message and a happy ending.

If you enjoyed Hoffman’s adult books – Practical Magic, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and her historical novel The Dovekeepers, you will relish this short book – a lovely modern fairy tale.  And, for good measure, Hoffman includes the secret recipe for Twig’s mother’s Pink Apple Pie at the back of the book – I can’t wait to bake it.

A Tale Dark and Grimm

Grimm’s fairy tales are everywhere I read these days.  In reviewing Toni Morrison’s new book God Help the Child for the New York Times, Kara Walker identified this as a child abuse story –  “a brisk modern-day fairy tale with shades of the Brothers Grimm…hungering for warmth.”  Alexandra Alter mentioned a Grimm story for older children – Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm – in her article about children’s book editor Julie Strauss-Gabel (The Barbed Pen of Best Sellers).” Gidwitz’s first book, thanks to the clever editing of Strauss-Gabel, was named a 2010 Best Children’s Book by Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and the book was followed by two more in the trilogy.

Although Gidwitz’s dark and scary tale is written for middle schoolers, like many children’s books, adults can find an abundance of relatable material. The theme of parenting – mostly bad parenting – is the focus for following Hansel and Gretel through a series of original and incredibly violent Grimm fairy tales.  The action is gruesome and scary, punctuated by the author’s sly teasing to turn away before the next horrible event – meant to goad readers to keep reading, of course.  Lessons are learned about the meaning of finding yourself, finding your home, and finding forgiveness.

“It will happen to you, Dear Reader, at some point in your life. You will face a moment very much like the one Hansel and Gretel are facing right now. In this moment, you will look at your parents and realize that – no matter what it sounds like they are saying – they are actually asking you for forgiveness.”

9780142419670_p0_v2_s260x420Hansel and Gretel are beheaded; fingers are cut off; girls are dismembered, and more…but all is well in the end – a fairy tale ending?

If you have not found this gem – and don’t mind a little blood and guts – read it with your favorite middle schooler – or alone at night when the wind is howling.

West of the Moon

9781419708961_p0_v1_s260x420A contender for the Newbery Award, Margi Preus’ West of the Moon channels the enchantment of a Norwegian fairy tale of a white bear who turns into a prince in her story of  a Norwegian girl who finds her way to the New World.  Unfortunately, the old goatherd who bargains for orphaned thirteen year old Astri is no prince, and the poor girl finds herself dreaming of freedom while shoveling out dung and keeping house among the goats.  With a mix of historical background and magical story telling, Preus weaves a tale for young readers that manages to inform while capturing the imagination.

When Astri is faced with marriage to the old goatherd, she orchestrates a daring escape, rescues her little sister from the cruel stepmother, and sails to America for a new life.  A real girl, Astri questions her own worth, as she is forced to lie and cheat to protect herself and her future, but her inner star shines through, and the reader knows she will be a success as she grows into her own.

Entertaining, informative, and a pleasure to read – West of the Moon should at least be on the short list for next year’s awards.  For me, it was a welcome respite.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

9780385753548In an afternoon, Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy carried me off to a magical world of good and evil, involved me in an adventure to save the world, made me laugh and cry, and restored my faith – in a way only a good children’s book can.  Coping with the recent death of her mother, Ophelia inadvertently becomes a major character in an updated version of the Snow Queen fairy tale three days before Christmas.

The story opens with a prelude describing the evil Queen who has captured and imprisoned the Marvelous Boy; centuries pass and Ophelia discovers the Boy locked in a room in the museum where her father, the world’s greatest expert on swords, is staging an exhibition that will open on Christmas Eve.  Through wonderful scenes of mannequins coming to life, giant birds eating sardines, and a wolf chase, Ophelia searches for the missing sword that will destroy the evil Queen who would plunge the world into misery and grief forever.  Of course, Ophelia is successful as she finally listens to her heart (and the advice of her mother’s memory) and finds the courage to help her father and sister begin their recovery from grief.

When reading this, although those analogies of inner demons freezing out hearts and the discovery of the heroine inside,  floated between the lines to my adult brain, I ignored them and thoroughly enjoyed the story as a real fairy tale.  Throughout the tale, Ophelia’s dead mother whispers advice, and I couldn’t help think how much my own dead mother’s advice is still very much there – she is still in my head too.


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On the Road with Alice

I rarely take library books when I travel – much better to download stories onto my iPhone or Kindle, and throw in a few old New Yorkers and a paperback that can be left en route.  But just as I was about to suspend my library waiting list, Alice Hoffman showed up in her new book – The Museum of Extraordinary Things.   So Alice and I are travel companions.9781451693560_p0_v2_s260x420-1

Katherine Weber’s review in the New York Times promises Hoffman’s magic in “a lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances.”  Brigitte Frase for the Star Tribune says the book “is a cunning weave of realism and fairy tale…containing suffering, betrayal and death, as well as pure love, fate and a happy ending.”  Wow – I can’t wait to settle into my seat and start reading.

Have you read any of Hoffman’s other books?  Check out my reviews for these:

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