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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Speechless (2015), by Jennifer Mook-Sang

I really struggled with this review. The book is so simple, so refreshing, even though it is dealing with what are, to an elementary school student, major issues. It was a delight to read; I hope that comes across sufficiently.

Speechless

mook-sang-speechless“Jelly”—Joe Alton Miles, or J.A.M.—has a problem. Well, Jelly has a collection of problems, but one in particular: stage fright. It wouldn’t be a big issue except for the school speech competition, with the amazing prize of a tablet computer with enough power for online gaming. Which brings up Jelly’s next problem: Victoria, a popular but sly and manipulative classmate.

As a character, Victoria might seem to be a bit of a stereotype, but sadly, her type is all too common in our schools. I’m pretty sure you all know her: the girl who demands adoration, the one weaker classmates strive to appease because, as Jelly’s friend Samantha affirms, “if you want any friends, you have to friends with Victoria.” (Sam, notably, feels no such compulsion: “Too much drama” (50).) Victoria is the student Jelly needs to beat to win that tablet, and Victoria excels at winning. She also plays nasty: spreading rumours about Jelly, faking injury when he pushes her slightly, making snide sotto voce comments at all his efforts. Everyone who has ever suffered under unjust adult discipline will feel Jelly’s pain: he’s smart, a good kid trying to help others, and yet the adults are duped by Victoria’s manipulations.

Supported by his developing friendship with Parker’s twin sister, Sam, Jelly navigates the social quagmire of elementary school. They manage to diffuse the effect of Victoria’s rumours, but Jelly still flounders about in a tangle of playground politics. This is perhaps what I liked best about Speechless: Jennifer Mook-Sang really gives us a sense of how daunting life can be to an eleven-year-old boy. There is a simplicity to Jelly’s thought processes that belies the importance of the complex life lessons he is learning. Standing up to bullies, both physically and intellectually; missing sleep to help others because he promised; figuring out ways to succeed in spite of his insecurities and fear: all these are big life lessons, but Speechless is in no way heavy-handed. Jelly’s cheeky narrative voice and personality, at once both clueless and self-reflective, make us both smile at his youth and cheer his growing maturity.

The Servant (2013), by Fatima Sharafeddine

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 18.5.

The Servant

Sharafeddine-Servant
The Servant is aptly described on its front cover as a “Cinderella story—with more than a few twists.” The setting—war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s—presents narrative possibilities that Fatima Sharafeddine explores effectively. The story is powerful, but weakened significantly by a stilted diction in both the narration and the dialogue, and too much “telling” by the author when the characters should be “showing” us their world. Nonetheless, Sharafeddine’s short novel is well worth reading, for its moving representation of a young girl caught in a traditional world turned on its head both by conflict and by encroaching modern ideals.

The protagonist, Faten, is sent from their village to a rich family in Beirut at the age of 15. Her father arrives monthly to take her pay: Faten has roof over her head, but no freedom, no income of her own, and no hope for her future. When the young attractive Marwan moves into a neighbouring house, she cannot help but be attracted to him. In true Cinderella fashion, he is attracted to her, as well. She is practically and indentured servant; he is a rich engineering student: their path is not easy, especially when he does possess the same level of courage as Faten does in standing up to the constraints of their families and society. More important than their nascent romance, however, are Faten’s dreams of continuing her education. Marwan facilitates this through their very occasional meetings and notes passed through a friend, but eventually the duplicity required to fulfill her dreams catches up with her. It is at this juncture that we see the real strength Faten has, and we learn the answer to her earlier questioning of a traditional poem: “Should the worm be satisfied being stuck in the ground and give up on her dream of flying like the bird because she might be hunted?” (30). Faten’s choices leave her free in a way that other character’s choices have bound them within the confines of a traditionalist patriarchy, and we applaud her.

Violet (2009), by Tania Duprey Stehlik

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 15.5.

Violet

Violet is starting a new school, but is worried that she won’t have friends because she is, well, violet.  When she discovers a myriad of other-coloured students in her new class, she is only somewhat reassured: “There were red kids, yellow kids, and blue kids…” But they all have red, yellow, and blue parents.
Mixed-ethnicity is explained to the reader through the vibrant skin colours of the characters, engagingly drawn by Jovanovic to reflect a world both interesting and yet subtly disturbing, much like Violet’s experience of school.  Violet’s Dad is blue; her Mom is red; Violet is purple.  The analogy is simple and effective.  The only problem with the story is that it ends too soon.  Once Violet realizes where her own unique colour comes from—blue+red=purple—the reader would benefit from her perhaps meeting another child in similar circumstances: Hazel’s parents could be green and brown; Amber’s could be red and yellow… But the story ends abruptly with Violet’s realization of her uniqueness, which does not, I think, send a message of belonging as strongly as this very promising and imaginatively conceived story could.