For Young Readers

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Wintersmith , by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 12-up) boasts one of the most riveting opening paragraphs since The Boxcar Children , and it doesn't even get past the weather: "When the storm came, it hit the hills like a hammer. No sky should hold as much snow as this, and because no sky could, the snow fell, fell in a wall of white." That's the poetry Pratchett is capable of. Within three paragraphs, we get the comedy: "Part of the snow moved . . . . A very small but angry blue face, with the lump of snow balanced on top of it, looked out at the sudden white wilderness. 'Ach, crivens!' it grumbled. . . . 'Tis the work o' the Wintersmith!' " It must be, muses the 13-year-old apprentice witch Tiffany Aching, because "this wasn't normal weather even for midwinter, and this was springtime. It was a challenge. Or perhaps it was just a game. . . . Only it can't be a game because the lambs are dying." Clearly, Pratchett can do pathos, as well, and fear.

It turns out that the Wintersmith, who is really winter itself, has a crush on Tiffany, the feisty heroine of Pratchett's two earlier Discworld novels for this age group, The Wee Free Men (2003) and A Hat Full of Sky (2004) and is wooing her in his own clumsy, cold-hearted way. He's a handsome fellow, too, with his purple-gray eyes and "face sculpted from freezing fog." Can Tiffany and her sundry mentors and helpers, including those fierce little blue men, save the world by holding him off until spring? Pratchett sets this drama in a frozen landscape worthy of Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen or the White Witch of Narnia, "everything glittering like tinsel," but leavens the dread with his trademark quicksilver wit. The man never met a convention -- be it witchery, mythology, education or language itself -- that he couldn't have fun with. His disquisition on cackling is alone worth Wintersmith 's price tag. Again, note the modulations from satire to solemnity and back:

"It was all too easy to become a cackler. . . . 'Cackling,' to a witch, didn't just mean nasty laughter. It meant your mind drifting away from its anchor. It meant you losing your grip. It meant loneliness and hard work and responsibility and other people's problems driving you crazy a little bit at a time, each bit so small that you'd hardly notice it, until you thought that it was normal to stop washing and wear a kettle on your head. . . . That was a bad road. At the end of that road were poisoned spinning wheels and gingerbread cottages."

A Hat Full of Sky felt slack and, in parts, silly compared to The Wee Free Men , as if Pratchett had written it at half-throttle. With Wintersmith , he gets this bewitching series brilliantly back on track.

For Middle Readers

The Silver Donkey , by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick, $15.99; ages 9-12), doesn't waste time getting started, either. "One cool spring morning in the woods close to the sea, two girls found a man curled up in the shade and, immediately guessing he must be dead, ran away shrieking delightedly, clutching each other's hands." It's the girls' delight that is the attention-getter here, a note interestingly at odds with the stately, archetypal setting and thoroughly characteristic of Hartnett, an Australian YA author admired as much for her psychological acuity as for the cut-glass delicacy of her prose. But both qualities are evident in this luminous story--really, a clutch of stories--for younger readers.

The setting is rural France during World War I, and the man in the woods is not dead but sleeping, an English soldier fleeing "the unspeakable trenches." He is also blind, a fact that fascinates the girls almost as much as the tiny silver donkey that "twinkled and glimmered" in his hand. They and their brother take care of him, and he, in return, tells them the tales of four donkeys, including the one that once carried a woman to Bethlehem. The small beasts become the book's quiet heroes, emblems of patience, trustworthiness and bravery. Self-centered Marcelle, Coco and Pascal don't remotely become saints -- the emotionally fastidious Hartnett appears to be incapable of writing a sentimental sentence -- but one closes the book sure that they have in some vague way been blessed by these revelations of the donkey's "peaceful grace." Certainly, that is an apt description of Hartnett's lapidary style.

--Elizabeth Ward (warde@washpost.com)


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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