The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

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Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (2015)

One of the cool things about the teenaged girls in my life having less-than-perfect organizational skills is that friends sometimes leave interesting things at our place rather than just piles of dirty clothes, shoes, make-up, questionable forms of former-food stuffs…

The other day I stumbled upon a graphic novel, Lumberjanes, the owner of which has apparently disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Friendships. Perfect, I said: I can read that and pass it on to the Women’s Family Shelter, which is where old clothes and reviewed books from our house go to live a second (or third) life.

Lumberjanes

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis; Illustrated by Brooke Allen; Colours by Maarta Laiho; Letters by Aubrey Aiese

I’d heard of Lumberjanes; in fact, I recall seeing it on a display table at Emerald City Comicon, but foolishly passed it by. A shame, really, as I could have got a special “Emerald City Comicon special cover”…

My daughter tells me that the novel is strongly feminist, and fun, but that really is not giving the cleverness its due. Adventures are had! Canoes are paddled! Inter-textual allusions are made! Stereotypes are overturned! Puns are constructed! Math is employed! Lumberjanes has something for everyone. Seriously. Or not.

I had to admit, though, that I was not sure if there was going to be any degree of humour as I began, nor was I sure there would be any disrupting feminist portrayals. The introduction is a very artfully constructed expression of an ideology strongly paralleling that of the Girl Guides of Canada—without the imperialist military history—and thus deeply normalized in my own experience of being a teen. The textual precursors to the graphic narrative in each chapter likewise seem to present the characteristic woodcraft challenges Girl Guides engage in (or used to) and the social and emotional development they strive towards. Sort of.

There is an underlying sarcasm to the tone of the Lumberjanes Field Manual that increases as the novel progresses. For the “Everything Under the Sum” badge, for example, Lumberjanes are expected to “map accurately and correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw the same map from memory.” She must “be able to measure the height of a tree, a telegraph pole, and a church steeple”; “to measure the width of a river estimate the distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable”; and “have a basic understanding of theoretical mathematics and the basic laws of physics.” (I wonder if this is actually taken from some archaic nautical test book?) The basic knowledge of theoretical mathematics, though, does turn out to be crucial. A bit of plot now to elucidate…

Lumberjanes Jo, Mal, Molly, April, and Ripley are infamous for sneaking off from their cabin leader, Jen, and getting into trouble. At first, on their “Up All Night” badge, they encounter a pack of demon foxes with three eyes, who tell them to “Beware the Kitten Holy…” Jo picks up an oval metal disk, like a Celtic scarf toggle, that doubtless has a role the plots of future volumes of the series. We see this symbol again when the Scouting Lads become possessed by evil powers, but that is our only hint. In their “Naval Gauging” badge, the Lumberjanes encounter a river-monster (again with three eyes); and an eagle (with three eyes) steals their chocolate bar. In trying to retrieve it, Ripley inadvertently opens a downward spiralling tunnel, which she immediately jumps into because: Tunnel. Adventure. Lumberjane. Duh.

They find themselves in a cavern with no way out but forward. This is the crux of the story, and the allusions to other adventure narratives are beginning to be unmistakable. There are of course Mal and Ripley as names (and one wonders that little bit about Jo and Louisa May Alcott). Also the trope of the spiralling descent into the underworld, and the challenges to overcome to move forward. And Molly’s echo of The Emperor’s New Groove surprised aside when she leans against a lever in the wall: “Why is that even there?” The nature of the challenges themselves are especially familiar: arrows shooting across the tunnel triggered by a step, Molly reaching back under a falling stone door to retrieve her hat, and the maze of stone pillars crossing a chasm, with numbers rather than letters that need to be jumped on in the right order. And now we are back to the “Everything Under the Sum” badge: rather than the name of Jehovah that Indiana Jones needs to recall from his classical studies, the Lumberjanes must follow the Fibonacci series, in which, Jo tells us, “each number is the last two numbers added together: zero, one, one, two, five … All the way to infinity and beyond! [!] Or in this case, 233.” This is followed by Molly sorting out an anagram carved into the wall of the cavern, which leaves them, as in childhood games, “Home free!”

But tropes are also overturned: when they steal borrow the golden bow and arrows from the plinth that is significantly not booby-trapped like the golden head in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they considerately leave a note explaining that they will return it. And in their encounter with the Scouting Lads, gender stereotypes are flipped. The adventurous girls, battle-weary, with scratches and poison-ivy stings, are brought into the homey cabin of the nurturing Scouting Lads and given tea and cookies. The Scout Master, on the other hand, is the quintessential he-man. After lambasting the boys for entertaining “womenfolk,” he slams out of the cabin: “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR.” To which April comments in stupefaction “Wow…” and Barney replies in the language of teenaged girls: “I know, right? He’s the WORST.”

In a final Indiana-Jones-worthy scene, the Lumberjanes escape the now possessed posse of Scouting Lads and achieve their “Robyn Hood” badge, shooting the anchors of a rope bridge with their “borrowed” golden arrows. They are safe for now, but the evil Scout Master is rallying his troupes for volume 2, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max.

The Line (2013), by Paula Bossio

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.2.

Bossio - LineThe title and the cover of The Line bring Crockett Johnson’s masterly Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) immediately to mind, and certainly The Line has much of the same charm; yet it is, fortunately, refreshingly different. Our line is not drawn by the protagonist, telling a story as she goes, but rather, the charcoal line lies waiting at the bottom of the page, a tool for her lively imagination. The text has no words, leaving the readers to focus exclusively on the childishly drawn girl in the simple red dress. The pages are grey with smudges of charcoal where the “child”-artist has rubbed against the edges; the line is not perfectly straight, even as it lies along the ground; and the colours of the girl’s hair and dress are scribbled, almost within the lines.

The storyline is simple but engaging: the girl picks up the line, and with the bight in her hand heads off onto the next page. There, she wiggles it up and down like a skipping rope, making waves in the air. Her story continues page to page as she slides down one of her waves, pushes a hoop, blows bubbles, swings like a monkey, and balances on her head for her line-drawn audience. The she encounters some frightening monsters and bears, who chase her across the last pages, until she is saved by a cuddly teddy bear, whom she hugs in thanks. On the back of the final page, we see the source of her line: a young boy in a blue shirt, giggling as the charcoal pencil trails behind him.

I’m not certain about the gender stereotypes inherent in the girl in the red dress following a line created and controlled by the boy in blue shirt… but for those to whom this is not problematic, The Line is a beautifully conceived and artfully executed story.

Lily and Taylor (2013), by Elise Moser

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.1.

Lily and Taylor

Moser-Lily“They stuffed her brain inside her chest” (1). With an opening like that, readers are at odds to guess even the genre of Elise Moser’s novel: science fiction? fantasy? police drama? We soon learn that Taylor is watching an autopsy. A strange activity for a teen, so readers from a privileged world might assume that this is some sort of educational experience. For Taylor, it is not; Taylor is viewing the autopsy of her sister, Tannis, killed by her boyfriend in domestic abuse. The genre is now obvious: stark realism. Taylor’s life and experiences are not those of the average teen… or maybe they are. Maybe those of us living sheltered lives have no idea of what happens to far too many individuals living below the poverty line, or on the streets, or with drug or alcohol addicted guardians, or in abusive relationships that they just don’t know how to get out of.

Taylor’s story brings home the helplessness young women might feel when they do not have the strength, or more importantly the means, to escape. Lily’s life is different, but becomes intertwined with Taylor’s when Taylor is taken to live with her grandparents after Tannis’s death. Lily is alone, looking after her brain-damaged mother, who is nonetheless proclaimed capable enough to remain Lily’s legal guardian. Lily stands outside of normal teen society, but by choice. Taylor respects Lily’s strength, her individuality, and begins to stand up to those around her. The fly in the ointment is Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, who she has left behind. She is torn between fear of Devon’s unreasonable violence, and her own need to be loved by anyone. As her friendship with Lily grows, and she begins to create a normal life for herself, Devon’s telephone calls become more frequent and more threatening. When he finally appears, the girls find themselves in a very dangerous—even life-threatening—kidnapping situation. It is here that the realism of Moser’s novel comes to the fore, because it is in no way obvious which way she will take her plot. For the next 100 pages, we are fraught by the fear the girls face, the thin line between their survival and Devon’s abuse. How each of them deals with the threat they face almost tears them apart. In the end, their affection for and understanding of each other wins out, but Moser gives them—and us—nothing for free. Such is life, she tells us, when you have so few options. For Lily and Taylor, their friendship is all that is they can cling to: but they have learned that their respect, love, and loyalty might be enough.