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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

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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There is a school of thought in kidlit that the surest way to grab a reader is to create a memorable character who is so likeable, huggable, charming, and just plain nice that, once said character is placed in peril, the kid reader will glom on to him or her like a limpet to a rock. (For another example of this, see my review of Shannon Hales’ Book of a Thousand Days.) The trick is to make the character real enough to gain our trust as someone who is genuine. Because if the Dontcha Like Me character carries even a whiff of fake, the whole thing can turn a quick read into a put-it-down-and-maybe-finish-it-one-day read.

Wonder, a middle grade novel by R.J. Palacio, depends greatly on the reader having an “I heart” moment early and often with her main character, Auggie Pullman. Auggie is going into fifth grade for the first time, having been previously homeschooled. His distinguishing feature is a face that was disfigured at birth by a genetic defect. He required numerous operations just to stay alive, and the followup plastic surgery couldn’t hide the fact that his face was too shockingly bizarre for many people to look at easily. How his new classmates respond to him, and he to them in kind, makes up the preponderance of the story.

To offset his disturbing looks, Palacio gives Auggie one of the most likeable personalities of any character I’ve ever read. He’s brave, smart, doubts himself but is never judgmental—a regular kid with a keen sense of others’ feelings. His parents adore him, especially his mother, who showers him with affection and acts overprotective at times. His older sister resents him, yet loves him as well. The one boy at school who tries to make him an outcast appears petty and pathetic. In short, Auggie is the Good Guy Supreme.

For the most part, Palacio succeeds in pulling this off. I admit, by the end I had bonded with the “little dude” and found myself tearing up a bit. Helping to make it work is the narrative technique: the story is told, not just by Auggie, but by his sister, her boyfriend, and a girlfriend. All these characters, including Auggie’s classmates, come off as genuine and multifaceted. I had no trouble buying into them. Palacio’s prose is easy to read, and she’s adept at showing how people’s minds work.

Her biggest challenge, by far, is in presenting Auggie. I did have a few problems with him. His mind at times feels a bit too old—his take on others’ behavior seems too adult-like. Also, his emotional response to the ugliness around him is inconsistent at times, from pretty mature to very childish. He never lashes out at others, choosing to blame himself instead, for instance. It’s not that his behavior is unrealistic—there are plenty of children his age (ten or eleven) who are both remarkably upbeat and mature even while they also act babyish.

It’s just that, as I read along, I wanted to see him totally lose it—just once. He came close a few times, especially when a friend hurt his feelings terribly. But he bounced back in such a way that, even at the climax when he was in physical danger, I just knew he was going to prevail winningly, in a way that kidults love. A bit more suspense, or an unexpected side of his character revealed—these would make the story more intriguing. Still, I had no trouble getting through the 300 pages or so. Palascio’s style is very accessable, with short chapters that made it easy to pick up where I left off.

If Auggie Pullman does carry a whiff of fake, it would be that he’s too good to be a main character. Most of the conflict he faces is external, not internal. I would have liked him to be a bit more of a rebel, especially with his (gah!) mother. For the middle grade reading audience, though, this lack of nuance probably doesn’t matter. But what happens when Auggie gets older and has his first crush? You just know some devastation will be waiting for him, and Mama won’t be around to cushion the blows. But that’s for another day, when Auggie Pullman turns YA.

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When author Jacqueline Kelly starts The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate with a quote from Darwin’s Origin of Species, and her MC describes the Texas predawn as “a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky,” we know right off that this purported middle grade novel* is either for grownups with a literary bent, or that rare breed of preadolescent who has memorized vast sections of Webster’s Dictionary—from 1899. The ideal reader will care not a whit for story arc or plot, for this novel has precious little of either. This reader will, however, demand a sharply inquisitive female mind who is about a century ahead of her time, who has little patience for domestic chores but a sense of humor about her family, and the diction of a Ph.D. candidate in Literature. Future Kardashians can look elsewhere.

(Kelly tries to get around the sophistication of her protagonist by presenting the story as told by a future self reminiscing about her childhood. That’s fine…but the narrator does yoyo between that of an adult and that of a pre-teen girl. Now I can’t say what a pre-teen girl’s voice from 1899 Texas would be like—presumably, more formal language was employed, yo. To her credit, Kelly makes Calpurnia charming and witty enough to make accepting this gap more palatable.)

That’s not to say this somewhat lengthy (338 pp.) historical novel is a complete bore. Her charming relationship with her natural grandfather makes for fun reading, and her poor clueless brothers (six of them, though I sometimes confused them with the family cats, since some of both are named after American figures like Jim Bowie or Jesse James) bring a few chuckles here and there. Her astute observations on romance are funny because it’s perfectly obvious that she herself is still too young to be smitten. And the world that Kelly creates, while it effectively dodges the issue of racism (the family lives on a former plantation), is well-researched and convincing.

That said, I could have easily stopped reading about halfway through and gotten about as much from the book as I did after reading the entire thing. Since there is absolutely ZERO danger to anyone, the only real tension in the story concerns whether “Callie Vee” will throw off the bonds of her social fetters and blaze a trail for future female naturalists. I won’t tell you whether she does this or not, because, frankly, I still don’t know after reading the book.

In sum, this is a feel-good book that a properly educated, um, child might well curl up with on chilly evenings in order to…take a snooze, I guess. You know, given our culture’s penchant for extreme violence in literature these days, maybe that ain’t such a bad thing.

*Those who dole out awards for books like these apparently consider this novel to be Young Adult. I find that hard to believe, unless the Adult is a very young 46-year-old.

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