some recent(ish) reads: This Side of Magic, The Lives of Christopher Chant, & Mary Poppins

For those of you who don’t follow me on Goodreads, three short reviews of books for young people (and the rest of us, too!):

This Side of Magic (Debbie Dadey)

A great beginning for a series of short novels for early-ish readers (more involved than the books labelled “readers” at libraries but far less complex and long than what I think of as “actual novels,” these feel like parts of a book rather than complete and shapely installments).

Noah is wild for these stories, as he is about pretty much all things magic. He also laughs a lot at the little goofy moments. When we’re reading one it’s the big topic of mealtime conversation: what would he do if he were a Keyholder? how would he deal with goblins? which link would he want? Etc., etc., etc. Interestingly, although these are far on the low end of his reading level, he wants me to read them aloud before he rereads them on his own time–he really, really enjoys talking about them and having us experience the stories along with him. They’re not especially suited to reading aloud–the language is serviceable, not gorgeous–but it’s not awful, either.

Meanwhile, we’re all happy that these books seem to imagine both boy and girl readers and that they don’t fall into sexist stereotypes and assumptions, unlike so many books for young readers. Even Luke’s aversion to wearing a bracelet for fear of being teased for girliness is portrayed as bad judgment and silliness more than anything else. Bonus points for Penny pointing out that a boy can wear a tutu if he pleases, and implying that he won’t be bullied if he’s at a school that’s run properly and has a healthy culture!

The Lives of Christopher Chant (Diana Wynne Jones)

Best cat descriptions of all time. Seriously, Throgmorten is the heart and soul of this novel. The humans are also engaging and developed, and I care about them too — they just don’t hold a candle to the cats.

You know how a really good book often makes you want to go back to the beginning and start it again, or to read the next book in the series immediately if there is one? The Lives of Christopher Chant makes me want to reread the book before it in the Chrestomanci books (if you read in Jones’s preferred order rather than chronologically by either publication or story), Charmed Life. Which is just so Diana Wynne Jones, this extraordinarily satisfying sense of constantly undoing a puzzle, finding little gems of realization, things going ‘click,’ while also sure all along that there’s more to be understood and uncovered.

Mary Poppins (P.L. Travers)

In some ways, Mary Poppins is a really neat book: it’s surreal (in rather a dark way), it’s imaginative, with amusingly weird magic (I can see why the potential for colorful set pieces drew Disney), it’s not moralizing or otherwise patronizing to its young readers.

On the other hand, I found most of it really boring (I can see why Disney added a frame narrative about Mary Poppins healing the broken nuclear family, despite my huge ideological problems with that frame–at least there’s some movement!), and wow it’s a little disturbing too! Mary Poppins is freaking cold, always snapping at the children, especially if they dare ask a question or acknowledge the magical adventure she just took them on. She messes with their heads. And then she–their primary caregiver–leaves without saying goodbye. So … okay? Not exactly a nurturing or cheerful nanny.

On the other hand, my six-year-old got a big kick out of most of the magic and surrealism and wasn’t thrown by the coldness. He just figures Mary Poppins is mean.

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