Children’s

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Date of Publication: 1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Number of Pages: 211

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

Review: Having only very vague memories of reading this as a child, I was pleasantly surprised this second time around. I immediately fell in love with the Murry family, especially oddball Meg, who seemed to be a mirror image of myself as an awkward adolescent. This story is completely enchanting, from the very beginning, and L’Engle’s writing totally drew me into her world. I found myself tearing up at certain, heartbreaking moments in the story (I don’t want to give anything away). Also, I found that reading it as an adult allowed me to grasp the writer’s philosophical theme. Normally, I steer clear of books with heavy Christian overtones (my one exception being The Lord of the Rings), but L’Engle masterfully weaves together science and spirituality. This is not, by strict definition, a “Christian” book. Jesus is mentioned only once as being one of many people from Earth who have battled evil throughout human history. And it somehow delightful that the most pious characters in the story are the aliens of the planet Ixchel. The three Mrs. Ws (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which) act as guardian angels (and are referred to as such by Calvin), and various mythological names and beings make appearances throughout the story, a further demonstration of the un-religious (as in specific, organized religions) spiritual theme of the book.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that teaches. It teaches the importance of love, as both a simple emotion and as a weapon against great evil. It teaches the importance of trust, as the children’s trust, in each other and in those around them, is repeatedly tested and shaken. And it teaches that the simple pleasures of family, friends, good food, and good health are all that are needed to live a good life.

I recommend this book both to children and adults, as it has lessons and delights for people of all ages.

Rating: 10/10

Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 1927 (my edition: 2000, Tuttle Classics)

Number of Pages: 141

Description: A mental patient tells his doctors about an adventure he had with the Kappas, known to most Japanese people as mythological creatures who drag children into rivers to drown them. The madman, known as Patient No. 23, tells a remarkable story, of Kappas and Kappaland, Kappa government, Kappa philosophy, Kappa friendships, Kappa culture, and the Kappa’s link to our own human world.

Review: This is an enchanting story, mostly because it doesn’t try to be. The narrator tells the story of his life with the Kappas very matter-of-factly, which is what allows readers to suspend their natural disbelief and accept the reality of Kappaland and its inhabitants. Kappas are as different from each other as humans. Some are shy, some are arrogant, some are friendly, and all are unique. The lone human is accepted into their world readily, and they are all eager to teach him about their world. He is given lessons on Kappa philosophy, Kappa culture and literature, and Kappa relationships. He befriends several of the creatures, experiences loss, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with what at first seemed like a utopia under the ground.

Most people are familiar with Akutagawa’s other works, such as Rashomon, but Kappa is a wonderful place to start if you are unfamiliar with Japanese literature. I enjoyed every page of this book, and recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales and modern adventure stories. Although the narrator is presented as a madman, it’s really left up to the reader to decide if his experience was a dream, or if it really happened. And if it did, could it happen to you?

Rating: 10/10

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Dave McKean

Date of Publication: 2002, Harper Perennial

Number of Pages: 162

Synopsis (from back cover): In Coraline’s family’s new flat there’s a locked door. On the other side is a brick wall – until Coraline unlocks the door…and finds a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only different.

The food is better there. Books have pictures that writhe about and crawl and shimmer. And there’s another mother and father there who want Coraline to be their little girl. They want to change her and keep her with them…Forever.

Review: Many people will be reading this book as we anticipate the upcoming motion picture. As a fan of Neil Gaiman, I wanted to read this book before the movie came out to really experience the story the way Gaiman intended it. It is a thoroughly frightening and engaging tale, and I read it in one sitting. Coraline is a lonely, bored girl, spending a dreary summer exploring her family’s new house. She has quirky neighbors, but it seems as if even they aren’t enough to satisfy her curiosity. When she finds the passage behind the door, everything begins innocently enough. It takes some time for Coraline to understand the grave danger she’s in, and it takes all her bravery to save herself and others from a terrible fate.

Although Coraline is a relatively short book, it is still able to imprint itself onto a reader’s imagination. I found myself thinking about the story well into the night and it even entered me dreams…very creepily. This books needs to be read during the daylight hours (although not even daylight is that safe) with someone else in the house. But for all its very frightening qualities, Coraline is a very imaginative, well-written story. Its concepts have never been presented before, and yet it seems eerily familiar. All fans of fantasy and fairy tales will love this story.

Rating: 10/10

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Date of Publication: 1937

Number of Pages (including maps): 275

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The hobbit-hole in question belongs to one Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding member of a “little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.” He is, like most of his kind, well off, well fed, and best pleased when sitting by his own fire with a pipe, a glass of good beer, and a meal to look forward to. Certainly this particular hobbit is the last person one would expect to see set off on a hazardous journey; indeed, when Gandalf the Grey stops by one morning, “looking for someone to share in an adventure,” Baggins fervently wishes the wizard elsewhere. No such luck, however; soon 13 fortune-seeking dwarves have arrived on the hobbit’s doorstep in search of a burglar, and before he can even grab his hat or an umbrella, Bilbo Baggins is swept out his door and into a dangerous adventure.

Review: The Hobbit is a prelude to the epic The Lord of the Rings, but it still stands quite well on its own. This story tells of the finding of the Ring of Power, though at the time it seems a mere piece of luck and comes in quite handy for Bilbo during his adventure. More important to this story is the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves toward their ancient home, the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug the dragon sits atop their hoard of treasure. Always, the goal of reaching the mountain and reclaiming the gold (somehow) is foremost in their minds, even though they become sidetracked several times along the way. This is a perfect adventure story, ideal for reading to children or for anyone of any age. Bilbo, a seemingly insignificant person of a seemingly insignificant race of people, is a wonderful hero, as he finds that he possesses more courage and wits than he ever imagined. This is one of those books that everyone should read, if not for its relevance to the Middle-earth saga, but also because it’s simply a wonderful story.

Rating: 10/10

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Date of Publication: 2004, Houghton Mifflin Company

Number of Pages: 111

Synopsis: “Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in strange spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches.

The letters were from Father Christmas.

They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how all the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.

Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

This updated volume contains a wealth of new material, including letters and pictures missing from early editions. No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed by the inventiveness and “authenticity” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.” ~blurb from back cover

Review: This is a charming book, full of wonderful illustrations drawn by Tolkien himself. The cast of characters is wonderfully amusing, especially North Polar Bear, who gets into all sorts of mischief every year. There are even descriptions of wars between Father Christmas and the neighboring Goblins, reminiscent of the Goblin wars depicted in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

The book is also bittersweet, as it spans almost 20 years, and Tolkien begins to address his letters to fewer and fewer children, until only his youngest, his daughter Priscilla, still awaits her letter from Father Christmas. It shows how his children have grown, and Father Christmas himself seems sad as his children stop believing in Christmas magic. The last letter is especially poignant, as Father Christmas says goodbye to the children.

This is a great book to read during the holiday season, but it can really be enjoyed any time of year. It’s funny, magical, and made me feel like a child again. I recommend this book not only to fans of Tolkien, but to anyone who wants to get into the Christmas spirit.

Rating: 10/10