From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), by E.L. Konigsburg

Feeling put-upon and ignored as the eldest sibling, Claudia takes her younger brother with her and runs away. Not liking hardship, they run to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, rather than to the woods, as Jamie first assumes. There, they encounter a statue attributed to Michelangelo, and Claudia becomes captivated, needing to discover the truth about the statue for herself.

While a little slow-paced, this novel is superb in not stretching the possibilities in two young children who have run away from home. What they do could have happened; thus, the reader is able to engage completely with the mystery and the stresses the children encounter. The ending is hidden from the reader until the end, then well resolved.

I was not so very entranced with the novel, which (despite my personal opinion) is heralded as one of the true classics of American children’s literature. It won the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature in 1968 and, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “in 2012 it was ranked number seven among all-time children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.” But then, I didn’t like Norton Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), either, despite the language play that normally would appeal. But there you have it: It’s not you; it’s me.

Conjuror (2016), by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman

Barrowman - ConjurorWho knew? Captain Jack Harness is an author in his own right, as is his sister Carole. In addition to his two memoirs, Anything Goes (2008) and I Am What I Am (2009), the pair have collaborated on previous YA fantasy novels, including The Hollow Earth trilogy (which I now feel compelled to read). I ran across Conjuror in an online book sale, and have to admit that what drew it initially was the authors’ name. These online book stores do little to help distinguish one YA fantasy from another; it is impossibly to tell from the descriptions which might be worth paying for, which not. Conjuror is.

The premise is a little reminiscent of Inkheart, in which the reading or writing of a story transports characters between our world and the phase space of the narrative. In Conjuror, the Animare can draw their way into paintings, travelling through space and time; they can create tangible articles merely by drawing them into being. Conjurors possess a similar magical ability, controlling their environments through song and music. The history of art and music thus features strongly in the novel, which provides an intellectual interest as well as grounding the fantasy in our own world. The plot, described in short, could be perceived as derivative: American Rémy is the descendant of a North African conjuror sold into slavery; Rémy is running from the magically powerful man who killed his mother and great-aunt, but failed the attempt to kill Rémy. British twins Matt and Emily are young, impetuous but potentially powerful animare who reject the Council and are recruited by the “MI6 of the Council,” the Orion, for whom they become probationers. So we have the set-up. Rémy only vaguely understands what is going on in his life, his powers having been hidden by his mother through fear for their lives. Matt and Em—on a quest to capture the rogue animare Caravaggio and bind him permanently within a painting—stumble into Rémy’s quest, finding what he is looking for and thus becoming targets for his enemies. For Rémy is (as far as we know) the last conjuror, and the prophesy of the Camarillo, a group of evil animare and sorcerers, is that only a conjuror can prevent the coming of the Second Kingdom, which will—in Tolkienesque fashion—“cover all the world in a second darkness.” While Tolkien is not quoted, intertextual allusions abound. When asked what he knows of the Spanish Inquisition, the foundation of the Camarillo, Rémy cheekily replies: “No one expects them, I can tell you that much.” “The Professor looked blank,” but the reader will not. Even better, the Professor at one point informs Rémy that “time is more wibbly wobbly that you think.” Those who have picked up this novel because of the authors’ name will feel themselves to be part of a larger geekdom of understanding. As they truly are.

The characters are not drawn in great depth, either; this is a novel about action and magic, not about deep human emotions. And it works very well as such. The machinations of the plot, the ways in which music and art, historical figures and places, weave together, create a fast-paced narrative that keeps the reader engrossed throughout. It is to the Barrowmans’ credit, too, that the story is self-contained, despite the publisher’s announcement at the end of the novel that “the next compelling installment in the Orion Chronicles will be released in spring 2017.” Dang. I have to wait that long?

Bottom line: even with some superficially stereotypic elements, Conjuror brings enough new material to the realm of fantasy literature to be welcomed into the canon with no hesitation.

The Bury Road: Tales from the Bruce Peninsula (2015), by Donna Jansen

Jansen - Bury RoadThe Bury Road Girls is “loosely based on [the author’s] own childhood experiences growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in a family with seven girls” (back cover), which does provide a satisfying degree of verisimilitude to the story. Sadly, though, there isn’t much actual story to be had. What we have, rather, is a series of vignettes loosely held together by characters and setting (Debbie’s family and the Bury road community) that present for the reader some aspects of life in a rural Ontario community in the 1960s.

Jansen tells an Owen Sound Sun Times reporter that it was her grandchildren’s love of her stories that prompted her to write the book, and I can see how the tales of a by-gone era would be engaging both to her own family and modern urban readers, who could well be fascinated learning about girls doing boys’ farmwork, haying and threshing and driving the tractor, and a time when getting the strap was still part of school discipline. I remember those days well; rural BC communities were obviously not all that different from those in Ontario.

As a text, Bury Road Girls falls properly under the genre of the short-story cycle: neither a collection of distinct short stories nor a novel with plot or intertwined plot-lines running start to finish through the course of the single narrative. What is required of the short-story cycle, though, is some form of overarching cohesion that ties the vignettes or stories together into a whole. The Bury Road does try to present this: the concluding paragraph has Debbie revisiting the main points of each incident, searching for the Big Dipper up in the sky (another iconic rural childhood activity), because “finding it made her feel safe.” This safety, the protection and camaraderie of the family unit, is perhaps the glue that holds the narrative together, but it is sufficiently well crafted to cause the narrative to glow. The narrative voice is simple and enjoyable, and the images of rural life that we are given are true-to-life and interesting, but I can envision a more engaging way of delivering the vicarious experience.

Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

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 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.