I am not a saver, and I give away books by the dozens. But since childhood, I have managed to keep several books by Ruth Chew. When I was a kid, these books were like dessert to me. I would get a new one at school from a Scholastic book order, and after getting off the schoolbus at the end of the school day, pull it out of my bookbag and read it, while walking backward to mitigate the blustery Western New York wind on the way to my house. In the days before online was a favored destination and distractions were few, I would often sit sideways in my favorite easy chair, and read one of these enchanting novels cover to cover.
Born in Minneapolis in 1920, Ruth Chew studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and as an adult, lived mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She initially wanted to be a fashion artist, but turned to illustrating children’s books, and then to writing and illustrating her own books. She and her husband had five children, raising them all in Brooklyn. She wrote twenty-nine books that were published between 1969 and 1998, most in the 1970s and 1980s by Scholastic. Most, if not all, of her books were fantasy tales about children having adventures with magic and witches. She passed away in 2010 at the age of ninety.
For the last few decades, these books were mostly or entirely out of print. Imagine my delight to recently come across several in a bookstore with new-to-me luminous covers, in a pleasing palate of purple, blue, green, and yellow. In fact, ten of Chew’s novels have been re-published in book form. Although the books have gorgeous new covers, they retain the original interior illustrations by Ruth Chew.
I love that the publishers attempted to honor the original cover illustrations, as can be seen in the old and new versions of What the Witch Left:
In addition, four books, each consisting of three short stories, have been released in Kindle Edition only:
This article by Random House succinctly explains the re-release. Elizabeth Bleumle’s Shelftalker interview of Mallory Loehr from Random House provides a fascinating and in-depth examination of how that publisher decided to re-issue several of Chew’s books. Interview excerpt:
I’ve been the Magic Tree House editor for my whole career, and when I first started working with Mary Pope Osborne on these, and it was her first time writing a young chapter book, I said, ‘You have to read the Ruth Chews, because that will tell you what second graders are reading. You don’t have to have subplots, you don’t have to have anything complicated, really, at all. Go straight forward and just keep telling your story.’
The name of the new series, Matter-of-Fact Magic Books, seems so apt to me because the phrase “matter of fact” can imply something practical and down-to-earth, and although Chew’s books deal with magic, the magic occurs in manageable pieces. In her tales ordinary everyday objects such as buttons, mirrors, binoculars, and coins become magical. Sometimes people turn into cats or birds, they may fly, or they may shrink. These themes are timeless. (Of course, some involve time travel! More about that in the ♥ section.) My preference is for magic in limited quantities in stories; I don’t like fantastical things happening all over the place. It is this quality of Chew’s “limited magic” that I think makes her books mentor books for my own soon-to-be published novel.
I have reviewed many stories for this blog, and one thorny issue that often arises when deciding whether or not to recommend a book is that the books I regard favorably now are not necessarily the ones I would have enjoyed as a kid. Ruth Chew’s books may be perfect examples of this. Nowadays, I especially love stories with a strong sense of place, and complex character development, especially when told with a unique voice. Chew’s books have none of these qualities. However, picking up a few and reading the first few pages I am immediately drawn in. I am struck with how quickly the action gets underway, and how the drawings, which really aren’t much more than sketches, are so warm and appealing. Many of the stories take place in Brooklyn which for me is just another reason to love them! I walked through delightful Prospect Park for the first time this summer, and am now a huge fan of that borough.
Lucy Day Hobor is pretty much an expert on all things Ruth Chew. The website she maintains, ruthchew.com, is the most comprehensive site on the author. She very kindly provided me with this list of Chew’s books that involve time travel, with the degree of time travel noted:
1. Last Chance for Magic – yep, time travel
2. Royal magic – the children go to Africa; nothing is said about the time period, but there are no signs of modern life
3. Summer Magic – yep, time travel
4. Magic of the Black Mirror – yep, time travel
5. Trapped in Time – obviously time travel
6. Wrong Way Around Magic – the children go to China; nothing is said about the time period, or even the name of the country, but it does not seem like contemporary China
7. The Enchanted Book – yep, time travel
8. Witch’s Cat – yep, time travel
9. Do-it-yourself Magic – the two children enter another world that resembles Medieval Europe, but it’s not a specific time or place; they get there by shrinking
10. The Wishing Tree – the two children enter another world and it happens to be spring there and not winter; I guess you could analyse this as time travel, but there are many places you can go on Earth that don’t have the same seasons at the same time, or have seasons at all (I live in Singapore, which is very near the equator)
11. The Magic Coin – yep, time travel
These are maybe “time travel” too:
The Hidden Cave – Merlin wakes up in a tree in Prospect Park; the children send him back to his own time at the end of their adventures
The Witch’s Buttons – one of the characters is a man who was turned into a button generations ago, so he’s like a time traveller from the past; he doesn’t return to the past, though
Sadly for me, none of the re-released books involve time travel. But I will try to review some of the old ones that do in a future blog post!
For links to more middle grade book reviews, check out Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.