Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Review of Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder prefaces her new book with a quotation from one of Edward Eager’s books, Seven Day Magic: “‘The best kind of magic book,’ Barnaby was saying, ‘is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.’” Any Which Wall is more than just an homage to Edward Eager, it’s a welcome update of Eager’s approach to fantasy.

Snyder does retain the wholesomeness and old-fashioned good cheer of Eager’s books, reminding me a little of writers like Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks) and Eva Ibbotsen (Dial-a-Ghost). We live in an era when young characters on TV and in books don’t always sound like children. Here’s how I explained it in a review of Derek Landy’s book Skulduggery Pleasant on Amazon: “After an early interlude in which main kid Stephanie seems like a relatively normal child, we discover that the rest of the book is written in that dialect known as Banter, herein practiced by a preternaturally adult child character having snippy-snappy conversations with a childish adult character (Skulduggery).” I am happy to report that Any Which Wall is really the best of the old and the new—not one bit of banter, just nice kids having adventures. Furthermore, the adventures don’t involve becoming instant martial arts experts heralded by prophecy on distant worlds in order to defeat the vast forces of evil. They’re ordinary enough that readers can relate to them, yet still extraordinary enough to surprise.

In a post a few months ago, I pointed out that most fantasy requires that parents turn a blind eye on their kids’ adventures or are absent in some way, since the kind of everyday protection that the majority of parents practice would keep children from having the adventures at all. A recent Horn Book article made a similar statement, explaining wryly why mothers are often missing or dead in children’s books. (The issue is lost beneath stacks of books in my office, but as I recall, the marvelous title was something like “Why Mom Is a Buzzkill.”) Laurel Snyder—like Eager before her—creates adventures that can happen without requiring an added layer of suspension of disbelief or the wholesale removal of parents. The author does this knowingly and with good humor. She explains in her introductory note:

Some loud and full of dragons. But that magic is rare, generally reserved for scrappy orphans and misplaced princes. Some magic is mysterious, beginning with the somber tolling of a clock at midnight in the darkest corners of a graveyard. However, that magic is unlikely to include you if you don’t visit cemeteries late at night (which I don’t think you’re supposed to do). There is also magic especially for very tiny children, full of kindly rabbits and friendly old ladies with comfortable laps. It smells like sugar cookies and takes place mostly in gardens or bedrooms the pale colors of spring. But you outgrow it about the time you learn to read.

So perhaps the very best magic is the kind of magic that happens to kids just like you...when they’re paying careful attention. It’s the most common magic there is, which is why (sensibly) it’s called Common Magic.... Common Magic happens to kids who have curious friends, busy parents, and vivid imaginations, and it frequently takes place during summer vacations or on rainy weekends when you aren’t allowed to leave the house. Most important, it always starts with something that seems ordinary.
Two sets of siblings, Henry and Emma and their neighbors Roy and Susan, are pedaling their bikes through a cornfield one summer afternoon when they come across a strange wall. Pretty soon they figure out that the wall is magic, and then they have to work out the rules of that magic. After a few experiments and mishaps, the foursome journeys farther afield, encountering wizards, pirates, outlaws, and even New Yorkers in a series of adventures. As the quote from Seven Day Magic suggests, they don’t always get it quite right, but they do end up having a wonderful time.

I really love that Laurel Snyder chose a wall as a means of making magic—it’s unique and fresh, ordinary and amusing, the perfect example of Common Magic as she defines it. What’s more, the children come up with satisfyingly clever ways of using this particular magic to suit their purposes, even in the most difficult situations.

By the way, the queen Emma meets in a long-ago castle? She’s truly scary in a single brief scene, reminding me that Laurel Snyder is also the author of a deliberately creepy picture book, Inside the Slidy Diner. I also like how six-year-old Emma is allowed to shine in the castle episode.

Leuyen Pham’s illustrations for Any Which Wall are just right. Like the text, they successfully walk the line between old-fashioned and contemporary.

The only distracting thing in the whole book is that one of the characters Learns a Lesson, but the lesson is pretty painless. How many readers are going to argue with a message when it’s basically, “Lighten up and you’ll have more fun”? In addition, the author is a rather chatty presence, no more so than in “A Brief Note on the True Nature of (Fun and) Disaster,” a short chapter late in the book. In some books this technique works, in some books it doesn’t. My own feeling is that Any Which Wall is a breezy, summery book, and the author’s voice is correspondingly cheery and informal, so the occasional remark from her flows fairly well with the rest of the storytelling.

Snyder’s humor is one of the strengths of this book. Perhaps my favorite moment is when the kids have had two days’ worth of magic-related adventures involving ice cream and movies, and then Roy and Susan’s father offers to take the four of them to the movies and out for ice cream. On top of “been there, done that,” the children are on the verge of sneaking off for another magical experiment, so they are a little put out, to Mr. Levy’s astonishment. Begrudgingly, the group manages to enjoy themselves just the same:

Although nobody was exactly over the moon at the thought of another afternoon without magic, when they saw that there was a good movie starting at just the right time (a swashbuckling adventure about a pirate princess), it wasn’t so terrible, and they did manage to eat a large banana split with extra marshmallow sauce, for Mr. Levy’s sake. It was very gracious of them.
I hope that Henry, Emma, Roy, and Susan will be back with further adventures, as a certain wizard implies near the end of the book. I can honestly say that Any Which Wall is better than a large banana split with extra marshmallow sauce, even if, unlike these kids, you have not had a banana split just yesterday.

1 comment:

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