Why did no one ever recommend to me the fantastic novel, The Book of Story Beginnings, Kristin Kladstrup, (2006, 360 pages) a book which is like Harold and the Purple Crayon for older people? Remember Harold and the Purple Crayon? In this 1955 children’s classic, whatever Harold drew came to life. In The Book of Story Beginnings it is not drawings that come to life, but rather whatever story beginning someone writes in a magic notebook.
In The Book of Story Beginnings, Lucy’s dad has lost his job as a professor in NYC. Her family has recently inherited an old house in Iowa that has been in the family for years. It was left to them by her dad’s Aunt Lavonne who recently passed away. They need to move there so they can live rent/mortgage-free. Lucy at first doesn’t want to go. However, her dad reads her a letter that does make her intrigued. The letter is one that Lavonne sent to Lucy’s dad right before she died. In it she shares that she had a dream in which she is told “Lucy can explain” what happened to her long-lost brother. Lucy had long enjoyed hearing stories about her Great-uncle Oscar, who at age 14 in 1914, mysteriously vanished from the very house to which they are moving. Aunt Lavonne wrote that perhaps if Lucy looks at the journals Oscar wrote in, left behind when he vanished, perhaps her “fresh eyes” can find some clue as to why he disappeared.
Lucy’s family moves to Iowa, and Lucy immediately reads Oscar’s journals. She also finds and reads a notebook much older than Oscar’s other composition books which is labelled, The Book of Story Beginnings. Handwritten in it are just four paragraphs which she realizes are the opening paragraphs of four different stories. Without giving it much thought, Lucy adds one of her own story beginnings.
Great-aunt Lavonne had believed in magic and studied alchemy in the attic of the house. Settled into the house, Lucy’s dad enjoys reading her old papers on the subject and experimenting with the chemicals she left behind. He makes a magic changing potion and turns himself into a bird, probably planning to be a bird for just a few moments. But the household cat frightens him and he flies out the window. When the cat licks up some of the potion, it changes into human Oscar, still age fourteen. After Oscar has gotten over his shock of finding himself in the future, and has explained to Lucy how he happened to become a cat, Lucy enlists his help to find her dad. Thus she and Oscar embark on a magical journey that takes them far from the cornfields of Iowa.
As a reader, you slowly realize that the characters and particulars of the place they travel to match a story beginning Oscar wrote in the book so many years ago. Then, one story intersects with another story beginning, and even the story beginning Lucy wrote… As a reader, to see this unfold is delightful. If it sounds a little complicated, it is. This is a truly unique plot. I was never a huge fan of fairy tales but there is a fairy tale aspect to this story that so resonated with me that it makes me want to seek out more fairy tales.
Kladstrup is a powerful writer. At one point Lucy gets turned into a pigeon. Kladstrup’s description of what it feels like to be turned into a pigeon is the most vivid and creepy I’ve ever encountered. Okay, so I’ve never before read about being turned into a pigeon, but still.
She heard a soft cooing noise that was soothing to her nerves. She bobbed about and listened to it until she realized that it was coming from her own throat. Feeling that there was something not quite right about that, she sat down like a stone to think. In fact, the word think popped into her head, shocking her with its power. I can think! These are words! said her thoughts, and she listened as hard as she could for more words to come because she knew that words were somehow very important.
Fighting back the desire to make the soothing noise in her throat, she studied a dusting of sand and gravel on the stony surface in front of her. Then her beak came down and snapped up a speck of gravel. She swallowed it, and it was almost a minute before more words came into her mind. When they did, they hit her like a slap. I don’t eat gravel! she thought. For one second, she thought she would be sick.
Although the plot of The Book of Story Beginnings is not a common one, the vocabulary and sentence structure are relatively simple. I thought this lent the writing a feeling of purity. Because the action and emotion in this story are easy to understand I think this book could be enjoyed by a broad age range of readers.
As in the first book here reviewed, in Time for Andrew : a ghost story, Mary Downing Hahn (1994, 165 pages), a kid moves into an old house in the midwest that has been in the family for generations. In this case the home is in Missouri and Andrew, called Drew for short, is there just for the summer. He finds a photo in the attic of a boy that looks just like him. It is his great-uncle, also named Andrew. He soon meets the boy, who has time traveled to Drew’s time from 1910. Andrew is dying from diphtheria. Drew tells Andrew modern medicine could probably save him. Andrew begs Drew to switch places with him and Drew reluctantly agrees. This is a trading places time travel story with the usual numerous difficulties for both characters of adjusting to the unfamiliar time period that comes with this type of plot.
In addition to the tension inherent in a trading places time travel story that one of the time travelers might by mistake reveal his true identity, in this story there is the additional tension of Andrew not wanting to go back to his own time. Drew is trapped in the past until he can get Andrew to swap back. I didn’t quite understand why Drew let Andrew control this. Like the plot of A Doll in the Garden, also by Mary Downing Hahn, reviewed in my last post, the plot of this story was not complicated or particularly creative. But I like to imagine how I’d manage being thrust into the past while having to conceal that I was from the future, so I enjoyed it. I think most kids looking for a traditional time travel tale would enjoy it as well.