“Splendors and Glooms” by Laura Amy Schlitz is a lushly written novel set in Victorian London, where the palpable fog is as dirty as the streets. Its main characters are a witch, an evil puppeteer, a poor little rich girl and two plucky orphans. It is suitable for any child intrigued by that description.
The winner of a 2013 Newbery Honor award opens on a witch who derives supernatural powers from a blood-red jewel that is also killing her. The prose is lovely, but I almost stopped reading, thinking A) how long can this description of a witch’s castle possibly go on; and B) I’ve heard this one before.
I persevered and soon was sucked in by the plight of 12-year-old Clara Wintermute — love the name! — who lives in opulence but has a dark secret.
What is up with the maid’s cryptic comments? And that distressing birthday gift? Who are “the others,” anyway?
The explanation, along with Clara’s response to it, are totally compelling. Cue the street urchins, assistants to the puppeteer you love to hate, and the reader can hardly turn the pages fast enough.
I did find some of the plot contrivances tiresome — a child trapped in a puppet’s body, for example. And those protracted descriptions got old. But any flaws are offset by the exciting plot, psychological insight and humor, including bickering orphans whose resentments reminded me of updated Punch and Judy. Parsefall’s mad at Lizzie Rose because she won’t support his ambitions, Lizzie Rose is mad because Parsefall won’t help around the hovel.
To my astonishment, the multiple award-winning “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio finished out of the money with the Newbery committee. I thought it was terrific.
Main character August Pullman was born with a severely deformed head and face. Taught at home till age 10, August finally goes to school, and the 325-page novel tells the story of his fifth-grade year from rotating points of view.
As with the previous book, “Wonder’s” main strength is its astute and convincing depiction of the characters’ relationships.
For example, in the first section narrated by August, the reader sees big sister Olivia as a near saint. When the viewpoint shifts, though, we see that much as she loves her brother, she knows the price paid by the sibling of a special-needs child: “August is the sun. Me, Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the sun ... I’m used to the way the universe works.”
In spite of the subject matter, “Wonder” is anything but grim. August’s sense of humor and the unexpected kindness shown by many of the people around him see to that. As for plot, the big fight-scene climax is entirely satisfying. Granted, I cry at flag-raising ceremonies, but I was sobbing.
Something else “Wonder” shares with “Splendors”: They are too long! Palacio not only itemizes the contents of the principal’s office, she reproduces in its entirety his graduation address to the class. If you have ever sat through a school administrator’s speech, you know to what degree this was overkill.
For middle graders who loved “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle,” consider “Privateer’s Apprentice” by Susan Verrico, a rip-roaring yarn about a 14-year-old orphan impressed into service by a legendary pirate off the coast of Charleston in 1713.
Verrico has done her research, and the shipboard detail feels authentic. I also appreciated the depiction of filth. Readers who think climbing the rigging would be fun will also be grateful for their modern-day comforts.
As for the 2013 Newbery Medal winner, “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, you have my permission to skip it and reread “Charlotte’s Web.”
Martha Freeman’s humorous First Kids mysteries for ages 7-12 are set in the White House. The latest is “The Case of the Piggybank Thief.” She lives in State College.