Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.


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a review of Dormia, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Preamble: the usual Spoiler Alert. I don’t reveal how the story ends here, but you won’t have a hard time guessing if you read the following review.

Young Alfonso has a problem: when he sleeps, his sleeping self does amazing things that he’d never be able to do when awake. At the story’s beginning, for instance, he wakes up to discover that he has climbed a very tall tree, with no memory of how or why he got there.

Sleepwalking is quite real, of course. I can attest to that: though not a sleepwalker myself, for a short time a friend of mine stayed in my family’s house when we were both teenagers. My friend woke up one morning to discover that, in his sleep, he’d climbed through a window, out onto the roof—three stories above ground. Needless to say, he no longer slept in the top floor of our house after that!

This story employs sleepwalking and a similar condition, waking sleep or “hypnogogia,” to full effect. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski flip them from “disorders” into superpowers in their long (500+ pages) middle grade story about a boy who discovers that he is the Great Sleeper, and it is his destiny to return to a land called Dormia, set somewhere in the Ural Mountains, where he is to return a magical plant called the Dormian Bloom. Here, he learns, his ancestors have lived in secret for hundreds of years, struggling to survive against attacks by a hostile tribe, the Dragoonyans, and where only the Bloom, once planted in the ground, can protect the survivors. His uncle Hill whisks him off on a journey from Minnesota to some imaginary places, accompanied by quirky characters, until they finally arrive in the Urals. From there, the battle against the dreaded Dragoonyans takes shape.

I was definitely intrigued by the story’s premise. To their credit, the authors use super sleepwalking as both a way to build up excitement and a way to inject humor into the story. That’s because Alfonso isn’t the only one with sleeping powers—it turns out that the entire population of Somnos, Dormia’s last remaining city, also routinely falls asleep to perform certain tasks; for example, the sled driver who transports Alfonso around does so while snoring. The authors don’t overuse this technique, either, and they have great comic timing with some of the secondary characters.

That said, the novel wasn’t without some…issues. At times it strained my credulity, as its setting is both within the real world (the Bering Sea; the Urals) and in imaginary places along the way reachable only by boat. There were times when I simply couldn’t connect the dots on any kind of map in my mind. This wasn’t a terrible problem, just a distraction.

Some characters didn’t seem too well thought out. I’m thinking of a girl named Resuza, not a Dormian but a resident of a nearby remote city, who accompanies Alfonso for a while before disappearing with a mathematical clue. The narrator says that she’s dead, though I figured she’d turn up later, and sure enough she did—as a traitor. And then she claims she really wasn’t a traitor, and Alfonso believes her because…maybe he has a crush on her? It’s unclear.

Resuza’s puzzling behavior is connected to the unbelievable—and complicated—way that Alfonso discovers the secret way into Dormia. It has to do with a giant raven’s nest, and a huge root with a square hole in it (square root, get it?), and a watch with lines engraved on it that represent topographical lines on a map, and a metal egg that has to be turned in such a way that only someone like Alfonso with special hypnogogic powers can figure out how to line up that triggers the secret Dormian gate to open. What the giant raven had to do with any of this is never explained, but we do get to see Alfonso attacked and wounded by the monster—and then, in the ensuing action the wound disappears as though it never happened. It would make sense as a hallucination, but not as part of a plotline.

Finally, Alfonso makes it into Somnos just in time for it to be invaded. The authors chose to hop around different battle scenes rather than just sticking with Alfonso, and I found them to be unnecessarily long and confusing. The narrative tone throughout the entire novel is one that would appeal to readers who like tough guys, and Alfonso’s uncle Hill embodies that spirit as he wades into the fray with his .45 pistol and ancient aviator jacket. The tone is old-fashioned, but with a more modern narrative style. As an adult I found it tiresome at times, but I can imagine a 12-year-old really enjoying it.

The battles drag on (I’ve never liked long battle scenes, even in Harry Potter), some of it happening inside the huge, old, dying tree the Bloom will replace. Carnage ensues. Characters get killed, both “bad guys” and sympathetic “good guys.” The authors present cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and I kept thinking all was lost, until…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?

In sum: I give this one thumb up. After all, any story meant for preadolescents that lasts over 500 pages, and which I actually finish, has something going for it.

Postscript: I read this unaware that Dormia has two sequels to it now, though it hardly surprises me. I’m not inclined to read sequels, but make exceptions for stories that are…exceptional. Like the sequels to The Magic Compass, for instance. Speaking of which, look for my review of Philip Pullman’s first installment in his new Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage. Coming soon!

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Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.

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Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.

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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.

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While perusing a shelf in the children’s section of the downtown Berkeley Library, looking for a book by local writer Anne Nesbet (see my review of The Wrinkled Crown), my eye fell on a book next to it: Wet Magic, by E. Nesbit. Intrigued by the title, and that it was a turn-of-the-century fantasy, I whimmed it and checked it out. After I’d finished reading Anne’s The Wrinkled Crown, I decided to give Nesbit’s hundred-year-old tale a try.

I had several decidedly different reactions to this undersea adventure as I read along. In the beginning, Nesbit displays cheeky British humor in her scenes describing four young siblings on vacation as they set off to rescue a mermaid captured by a circus. A parentless boy from the circus joins them, and in a memorable scene the mermaid displays princess-like airs as the children finally release her back into the sea.

[spoilers ahead]

As a gesture of goodwill, the princess uses magic to transport the children to her underwater land. At this point the story turns into more of a standard wonder-filled collection of fantasy tropes. War erupts between competing tribes of Mer people, and of course the children all play a critical role in ending the war. Nesbit’s world here is less convincing than the interplay of her young characters, and at times I was confused about who was doing what and why. The war itself made no sense, and Nesbit would agree, for the story’s main moral is that war is meaningless, and one should do one’s best to bring peace to all parties.

One part of the war that illustrates how the author relies on humor more than plot is when she describes a sortie between the Mer people and characters who escape from a cave made entirely of books and come to life:

Then slowly, terribly, without words, the close ranks of the Book People advanced. Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. Markham, and Mrs. Barbauld led the van. Closely following came the Dragon of Wantley, the Minotaur, and the Little Man that Sintram knew. Then came Mr. Murdstone, neat in a folded white neckcloth, and clothes as black as his whiskers. Miss Murdstone was with him, every bead of her alight with gratified malice…Mrs. Markham had turned a frozen glare upon them, Mrs. Fairchild had wagged an admonitory forefinger, wave on wave of sheer stupidity swept over them [the children], and next moment they lost consciousness and sank, each with his faithful Porpoise, into the dreamless sleep of the entirely unintelligent.”

Upon reading this I laughed and thought, did children reading this back then actually know who all these characters are? Because doubtless every one of them came from actual literature, the sort that people nowadays don’t know anything about, even English majors. (I’m an English major and I recognized the Murdstones as being Dickensian, and of course I knew the Minotaur, but that was it.)

This invasion of literary demons is but a brief interlude, though, in a rather pedestrian conflict. I did rather enjoy her humor, though—as a kidult—and Ms. Nesbit is to be commended for promoting peace at a time when the world was about to explode into global war. As I finished the book I was left with a feeling that, no matter how different children’s books were back then, their writers had some of the same profound concerns that writers—and citizens of the world—do today.

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