The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

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A Boy Called Bat (2017), by Elana K. Arnold

arnold-bayBixby Alexander Tam (aka BAT, for more than just the obvious reason) finds navigating life a bit difficult. When we are introduced to him, he is in a conundrum: he wants a snack, but has to have the fridge open to find one, but hates having the fridge open because that wastes energy. To top it all off, there is no food there to eat… which is to say that there are no vanilla yoghurts left, and he won’t eat the yoghurts with the fruit chunks on the bottom. Well, I mean, who would, right? It is a scene from our household, but apparently not everyone’s.

There’s not much action in A Boy Called Bat, but that really isn’t the point. What the novel lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in depth of understanding and characterization. The little ways that Bat responds to his world—his unique way of sorting his room; his sensitivity to smells and sounds, unless he is fascinated by something else; his inability to understand what others sometimes mean; his frustration when he knows he is not understanding—are really the essence. I wonder to what degree readers who do not have first-hand experience of children who refuse to eat mushrooms but want mushroom-flavoured ramen, or cannot focus on math but will spend hours learning the names of dinosaurs, understand what is going on in Bat’s world. At what point in the narrative do all of the little clues coalesce into understanding? Is it the opening confrontation with his sister Janie over the yoghurt? Or when he makes his mother reset the trip meter for each trip to school? Or when he “ran through the list of things he was supposed to remember to say to people?” (96)? Or when his father makes chili?

Bat didn’t like chili. Dad knew he didn’t like it. Bat didn’t like mushy foods. Except for oatmeal with brown sugar. [Which isn’t the same as mushy legumes: duh.]
“I don’t like chili,” Bat said.
“Maybe you’ll like it tonight,” Dad said. “I tried a new recipe.” (70-71)

I almost cried: his father—who of all people should—doesn’t understand that texture, not taste, is the issue. How can we expect outsiders to get it? Bat marches to the beat of a different bagpipe.

Bat is not autistic in the same way as Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), but Elana K. Arnold’s technique of letting us see the world through Bat’s eyes, rather than telling us what is going on for him, echoes the effectiveness of Haddon’s classic narrative. I’m not sure that young readers on their own would necessarily understand why Bat is different (the text is aimed at about a grade 3-5 audience). If they recognize Bat’s characteristics in some of their classmates, having seen the world through Bat’s eyes will help them empathize in a way that Bat is only himself learning to do.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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Mouse Vacation (2016), by Philip Roy

roy-mouse-vI really like Happy the Mouse. He makes me… happy. It seems impossible to read Happy’s adventures without at least a giggle or three. I was wondering, when I read Mouse Pet, the third of Philip Roy’s Happy the Pocket Mouse series, whether the humour would be sustained; it certainly has been so far. In Mouse Vacation, the fourth in the series, Happy is bored and wants to travel; John, predictably parent-like, attempts to stave him off. As in Mouse Pet, Happy’s contemplation opens the narrative:

“We never go anywhere.”
“Mmmhmm?”
“We never go anywhere, John.”
“Yes we do, Happy. We go places.”
“No, we don’t, John. When do we ever go anywhere?”
“We went to the store yesterday.”

Planning the vacation, John says, is half the fun. So the two begin to plan. John suggests local nature outings; Happy suggests exotic destinations. Andrea Torrey Balsara’s delightful illustrations make all of the suggestions highly appealing.

Happy’s very-mature-child voice will be familiar to readers of all ages, his self-confidence both engaging and humorous:

“Do you know where our neighbour Mrs. Farrell went last year, all by herself? … Alaska. She went all the way to Alaska, John. By herself.”

You can just hear the derision in his voice: adults can be so dense sometimes. But Happy, in his näiveté, fails to understand the economics of travel to the Taj Mahal, New Zealand, or Egypt. The pair do come to a compromise: Happy is excited to go on an overnight bus trip to the seashore to see the tall ships; John is pleased as a bus trip is within their budget. The pragmatics that John has to consider are a real part of family life, and Roy gives voice to both the child and parent perspective such that Happy, like the child reader, will be satisfied and engaged, even if they are not destined for Egypt.

In Mouse Vacation, Happy the Pocket Mouse learns a little more about how the real world works, with an adult who is obviously loving and considerate. Geography, though, obviously still escapes him:

“Hmmm … Hmmm … John?”
“Yes?”
“Do you think maybe we can stop at the Grand Canyon on our way home from the seashore?”

Too adorable. I want my own Pocket Mouse, almost as much as I want a House Hippo.