Fantasy for Kids

By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Between the Covers

A magic book lures humans into its pages in Kristin Kladstrup's charming debut fantasy, The Book of Story Beginnings (Candlewick, $15.99). But Kladstrup's secondary creation is hardly as multiplex as Michael Ende's classic The Neverending Story (1983). That's only natural, since the whole "fictional" world here was summoned into being accidentally by adolescent amateurs.

In 1914, Oscar Martin begins to fool with a magical tome discovered in the attic of his Iowa farmhouse. Soon he is lost in the shoddy lands of his own imagination. Nearly a century later, his great-niece, 12-year-old Lucy Martin, is intent on solving the old mystery of Oscar's disappearance, and she succeeds in drawing her miraculously unaged great-uncle home. The book of power then falls into her hands, whereupon she unthinkingly grants her father magical abilities, which results in his transformation into a bird and his adoption by an eccentric fairytale queen. Armed with only a bottle of magic potion and a faith in narrative, Oscar and Lucy set out to undo the avian catastrophe.

Lucy and her family emerge as endearingly flawed individuals. The Iowa setting and the supporting natives are palpable -- so much so, in fact, that the transition to the Carrollian wackiness of the fantasy world is almost a disappointment. As if sensing this, Kladstrup ends back in Iowa with a touching meditation on the hard fate of the time-displaced Oscar.

Do stories use people, or do people use stories? Kladstrup plumps for the latter, but manages to leave open the possibility that we are all playing out the ill-considered yarns of unseen, ham-handed scribes.

Wonder Down Under

Reason Cansino faces a mortal dilemma in Magic Lessons (Razorbill, $16.99). The winningly feisty Aussie teenager first introduced in Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness (2005) is doomed to die young, either from using her inherently debilitating magical abilities or, paradoxically, from their disuse since stifling them engenders madness. Raised on the run by a mother who sought to deny the existence of all things supernatural, Reason is now in the care of her grandmother, Esmeralda, who is not to be trusted. (Any magic user surviving to adulthood, you see, has probably done so by robbing vitality from young magicians.) On the other side of a mystic portal linking Esmeralda's Sydney house directly to New York lies Reason's even more rapacious grandfather, Jason Blake. Luckily, Reason has the support of two other magic users her own age: a compatriot named Tom Yarbro and a runaway American girl, Jay-Tee Galeano. In this middle book of a trilogy, Reason learns more about the nature of her burden and curse while battling both Blake and a mysterious new player, a seemingly immortal magic user. She even has time to fall in love and lose her virginity.

Larbalestier's portrayal of magic as a curse is a refreshing alternative to the conventional depiction of young wizards as a lucky elite. A rigorous, almost science-fictional emphasis on the mechanics of magic (Reason interprets magic as a branch of mathematics) shapes the often amorphous subject matter into a fascinating discipline.

An Australian by birth, Larbalestier has a lot of fun contrasting American and Aussie cultures. Reason's skewed childhood lends her character a stranger-in-a-strange-land freshness. Vivid, bristling dialogue amongst the cast sharpens everyone's contours. Shifts in point-of-view occur with each chapter, a perhaps unnecessary tactic. But overall, this fast-paced tale delivers plenty of surprises, shadings and shocks.

Midnight's Children

The small, innocuous town of Bixby, Okla., conceals an ancient, ominous secret. Time here has a convoluted wrinkle: Every day in Bixby consists not of 24 hours, but 25. The mystery hour is "compactified," accessible only at the stroke of midnight and even then only by a select few, those lucky enough to have been born at that same second. During this timeless hour, when all other humans are frozen statues, the midnighters run free -- that is, if the sentient monsters who also occupy the midnight hour don't make a meal of them.

Such is the stunningly simple yet intricately executed proposition behind Scott Westerfeld's seductive Midnighters series, two previous volumes of which -- The Secret Hour and Touching Darkness (both 2004) -- introduced us to Jessica, Melissa, Jonathan, Dess and Rex, the five differently enabled teens who rule the night. In Blue Noon (Eos, $15.99), the quintet find that their personal playground is about to engulf the whole world. At odds among themselves in the best of times, the five prickly personalities must overcome their differences to triumph over apocalypse.

Possessing the hip rhythms and dark humor of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the creepy eldritch frissons of an H.P. Lovecraft or Fritz Leiber novel, and the dissonant outcast camaraderie of Brian Vaughan's comic book series Runaways , Westerfeld's trilogy blends pure wish-fulfillment with hard-edged physics. Unafraid to bring this invented world crashing down about his characters, Westerfeld unleashes a succession of heart-juddering climaxes right up to the very end.

From Suburbia to the Shadowlands

Contemporary milieus, historical venues, apocalyptic futures, the afterlife and fabled lands: Dreams and Visions: Fourteen Flights of Fanctasy , the new anthology edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss (Starscape, $19.95), covers an admirably wide territory.

Overall, the Weisses exhibit fine taste and editorial restraint, although their short introductions occasionally strike an overly pedagogical note. ("What do you think the author is suggesting?") And their selection of Joan Bauer's "Blocked" as the opening piece is puzzling. Taking place exclusively in a featureless bedroom, recycling the stale riff of fictional characters coming alive, couched in the most simplistic language and featuring a teen who sounds suspiciously adult ("The anthology is printed. Initial sales look strong."), it's the weakest entry in the book.

But then a challenging story such as John H. Ritter's "Baseball in Iraq (Being the True Story of the Ghost of Gunnery Sergeant T. J. McVeigh)" comes along and dispels all cant and cliché with its elegant portrayal of the reviled terrorist working out his karma.

The stories here are remarkably free of factitious, "issues"-style controversies yet manage to convey genuine lessons about life. Parents come in for frequent drubbings, showing up as evil ("Dry Spell," by Michael O. Tunnell), dictatorial ("Jameel and the House of Djinn," by Suzanne Fisher Staples), oblivious ("Depressing Acres," by Patrice Kindl) or besotted ("The Youngest One," by Nancy Springer). Such characterizations, however unbalanced, will only increase the appeal of these tales. ยท

Paul Di Filippo has been reviewing for Book World since 1993.

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