Tag Archives: Edith Nesbit

The Ogre Downstairs

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesthe ogre downstairs

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!

With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).

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The Story of the Treasure Seekers

Author: Edith Nesbitthe story of the treasure seekers

My rating: 3 of 5

The Bastable children (all six of them) are aware in a vague sense that their family’s fortunes have fallen: there isn’t pocket money for them anymore, expensive treats are missing from dinner now, they’ve been pulled out of their school on a long-term holiday, and their father seems to spend nearly all his time at work now. And being bright, clever children with lots of spare time on their hands and no mother living to keep them in check, the six siblings determine to seek out a treasure in order to restore their family’s fortunes. Only, they can’t decide quite how to go about the business. Noel thinks he should either sell poetry or marry a princess (maybe both). Oswald thinks they ought to be highwaymen, which Dora (the eldest) disapproves of very strongly. Alice wants to try using a divining rod. In short, everyone has an opinion, and no one agrees . . . and so it is decided that they will try out each of their ideas in turn to see if any of them will work.

I’ve always enjoyed Edith Nesbit’s writing, ever since I first discovered The Railway Children when I was in middle school. Her writing is, naturally enough, a bit old fashioned (being that she wrote in the late 1800’s), but her writing is just the sort of children’s adventure that always feels timely and homey. She understands children very, very well. (Not to mention that her writing was hugely influential on any number of more recent authors, including C. S. Lewis, and has thus, in a sense, passed into contemporary literature more than we’re aware.) In any case, although I generally love her writing without reserve, I am of two minds regarding The Story of the Treasure Seekers, which I just read for the first time. The premise is absolutely smashing, and her execution of it is brilliant–at once both touching and highly amusing. The Bastable children are highly developed as characters, perhaps more so than in most of her other books. And I think this is where the story got off on the wrong foot for me. Because, you see, Oswald is the one telling the story. And he’s remarkably well written. As a twelve-year-old boy who thinks rather too well of himself, who is falsely modest, and who is at times shockingly sexist. Not to mention, he’s trying to hide his identity for most of the book, only he keeps forgetting himself and referring to himself in the first person–exactly the blundering, cute attempts a kid would make, and it really is brilliant, but it’s also annoying to read. I would have enjoyed this story a lot more if, say Noel or Alice had been telling the story, especially Alice with her fierce determination and loyalty. I guess I would leave reading The Story of the Treasure Seekers up in the air regarding recommending it or not; it’s a classic, but don’t judge all of Nesbit’s writing by this one book. I’d really recommend reading Five Children and It before trying this one.

Note: Although I have a Puffin edition pictured here, this book is old enough it’s public domain. You can get an electronic copy for free at Project Gutenberg if you just want to try it before committing to anything.

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Dragons at Crumbling Castle

Dragons at Crumbling CastleAuthor: Terry Pratchett

Illustrator: Mark Beech

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Here be dragons. . . . Also pond monsters, abominable snowmen, and the dread Snorry. Within these pages, you will find brave explorers who travel great distances and brave untold dangers . . . even braving the vast inches of the Carpet and the Linoleum! You will meet knights and princes who approach their quests and tasks in, shall we say, an unconventional manner. Regardless of the adventure, you’re bound to find a sense of fun and quirky humor that’s sure to please.

I started reading Dragons at Crumbling Castle initially in memoriam to an incredible author who will be deeply missed by the literary world. While the reading was certainly bittersweet, it was also wondrously enjoyable. This book is a collection of short stories that were written and originally published in a newspaper when Pratchett was in his early twenties. The tales are delightful–full of wit, good humor, and a reckless, youthful abandon that is great fun to read. I would say the writing reminds me of other great children’s authors (Roald Dahl, Edith Nesbit, and Edward Eager in particular), although it retains Pratchett’s own unique flavor as well. I wish this book had been around when I was little. In this collection, which was just recently published, Pratchett added footnote commentary (mostly fun, slightly sarcastic side remarks to further explain or enhance the story) which is really interesting to read, showing both the development of the author over the years and the consistency of his writing throughout as well. Beech’s illustrations are a perfect fit for these stories–offbeat and quirky in a style that reminds me strongly of Quentin Blake’s work. Altogether, I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle, especially as a fun book to read aloud with the children in your life–it would be a very fun book to share together.

Note: Normally, I don’t comment on the typography of a book, but I feel this book deserves comment. The majority of the text is set in a standard serif font, nothing special. But then you have random words and phrases on the page set in all sorts of random fonts, maybe one or two times on a two-page spread. It’s really striking and dynamic!

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Emma and the Blue Genie

Author: Cornelia Funke/Translator: Oliver Latsch/Illustrator: Kerstin Meyer

One night as young Emma and her dog Tristan are walking by the ocean, they discover a shiny glass bottle. When Emma opens it–with Tristan’s full approval–out pops an impressive blue genie. Or at least, he would be impressive, if he were his normal self. Poor Karim has lost his powers because a yellow genie stole his nose ring–and his magic along with it! He looks so sad and lonely that Emma and Tristan decide to travel back to his homeland with Karim to recover his powers–and of course, have all sorts of adventures and meet all sorts of interesting people along the way.

Whenever I find a new Cornelia Funke book I haven’t read before, I just sort of light up–her books are that good. Emma and the Blue Genie was a delight to read, and definitely a Cornelia Funke story, although perhaps not what fans of her more grown up books (InkheartReckless, etc.) might expect. The main character is just a little girl–I think about eight–and the story suits readers of that age or perhaps a bit older. It’s really cute and imaginative, full of adventure and fun and interesting characters. Honestly, it reminds me a bit of some of Edith Nesbit’s books (and they’re some of my favorites!)–that sort of slightly more old-fashioned story in which a kid goes on a magical adventure. It’s the sort of story that’s clean and honest fun without having a bunch of stuff parents need to worry about mixed in. The pictures are really nice as well–they sort of remind me of The Little Prince, actually. I would certainly recommend Emma and the Blue Genie, especially to younger readers–but also to older readers, as long as they don’t come at it expecting the complexities of Fearless.

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Unnatural Creatures

Editors: Neil Gaiman & Maria Dahvana Headley

Authors: Gahan Wilson, E. Lily Yu, Frank R. Stockton, Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Saki, Edith Nesbit, Maria Dahvana Headley, Larry Niven, Samuel R. Delany, Megan Kurashige, Anthony Boucher, Nalo Hopkinson, Avram Davidson, & Peter S. Beagle

Illustrator: Briony Morrow-Cribbs

Griffins and mermaids and werewolves, oh my! You never know what sorts of unusual beings you’ll run into in this wonderful short story collection. Unnatural Creatures is a masterfully selected volume of stories about, well, unnatural creatures. It contains a nice mix of old favorites such as The Griffin and the Minor Canon and The Sunbird as well as a variety of stories and authors that were completely new to me, including a few that were original to this volume. Regardless of familiarity, I found all of the stories to be tasteful, inventive, and illuminating. Plus, some of them were just plain fun! I definitely recommend this collection, especially to anyone who likes fantasy short stories.

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Bedknob and Broomstick

bedknob and broomstickAuthor: Mary Norton

Illustrator: Erik Blegvad

My rating: 4 of 5

Siblings Carey, Charles, and Paul are staying in the country while their mother’s busy with work. What was simply a leisurely vacation becomes something much more when one day they discover the ladylike Miss Price lying in a field, injured from an accident . . . a broomstick accident! As an incentive to keep quiet about her being a witch, Miss Price enchants the knob of Paul’s bed so that the bed can take them any place, or any time in the past, if Paul wishes it. You can just imagine the adventures that ensue!

This is just the sort of classic, quaint story one would expect from the author of The Borrowers. This book actually includes two related stories, The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks. Both are absolutely charming in an old-fashioned British sort of way, which Blegvad’s line illustrations complement perfectly. Bedknob and Broomstick reminds me quite a bit of the writing of Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager. The book comes with high recommendations, for sure.

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