Today I return to my “times two” roots, sharing reviews of two time travel books that have a common theme. What these two stories have in common is that the portal to the past in both is a painting. First impressions of The Painting by Charis Cotter (2017, 278 pages): I love everything about the cover, although couldn’t the author have come up with a unique title? The hardback book is also lovely to hold in the hands. It’s slightly wider than most books, with notably above average typography and paper quality.
Here’s the review from Goodreads:
Annie and her mother don’t see eye to eye. When Annie finds a painting of a lonely lighthouse in their home, she is immediately drawn to it–and her mother wishes it would stay banished in the attic. To her, art has no interest, but Annie loves drawing and painting.
When Annie’s mother slips into a coma following a car accident, strange things begin to happen to Annie. She finds herself falling into the painting and meeting Claire, a girl her own age living at the lighthouse. Claire’s mother Maisie is the artist behind the painting, and like Annie, Claire’s relationship with her mother is fraught. Annie thinks she can help them find their way back to each other, and in so doing, help mend her relationship with her own mother.
But who IS Claire? Why can Annie travel through the painting? And can Annie help her mother wake up from her coma?
I loved the interpersonal conflict between Claire and Maisie that was at the center of this book. Maisie is a loving but imperfect mom who sometimes puts her art before her children. The mothers in so many middle grade books are either perfect, or completely absent from the story, so it was nice to see this character developed. There is not a lot of action in this story, except for the psychological sort, nor is the plot swiftly moving. I like “quiet” stories so this was fine with me, but the plot might not be compelling enough to hold some readers. I always hesitate to say this for fear of supporting overly rigid gender roles but, yeah, I think the plot would appeal more to girls than boys.
There is a strong sense of place to the story. Both Annie and Claire are growing up in a lighthouse, which seems dreamy and magical in itself. It is set in Newfoundland, Canada, which seems like a special place. References to ghosts are made and I’m sure I would have loved this book in fourth grade when I was into ghosts. I liked the timeless quality of the story–it could have been penned decades ago, and there are not a lot of details to date it.
I usually appreciate when an author writes chapters from the alternate points of view of different characters, as Cotter does in this book with Claire and Annie. However, there is not a lot of contrast between the two voices, such that I sometimes got confused about whose point of view I was experiencing.
One aspect that I found a little disappointing is that The Painting is more of a time slip than time travel story. The main character falls asleep and is somehow transported back in time, but her physical body remains in the present. This poses some logical problems. Is she in two places at once? It probably goes without saying that there is nothing science fiction-y about the time travel in this book.
You might think really good books would not go out of print, but I have not found this to be true. The cover and the story of Within a Painted Past by Hazel Hutchins (1994, 160 pages) do not have as many charming elements as The Painting. However, I was more drawn into the story. It has an unusual front cover design that gives the impression of being hastily slapped together. Oddly, the cover incorporates part of the first paragraph of the story. Maybe this was on trend in 1994?
Summary from Goodreads:
Lonely and a little insecure, 12-year-old Allison steps through a magical painting and into the Rocky Mountains of 1898. While trying to solve the mystery of her time travel, she also begins to explore her emerging sense of identity.
One Goodreads reviewer said this was the book that made her want to write as a child. If that’s not a great recommendation, I don’t know what is. There are actually four paintings in this story, in the guest room of the aunt and uncle with whom twelve-year-old Allison is staying for the summer.
Hazel Hutchins, who has written oodles of books for kids, writes really well. Here’s an excerpt (ellipses in original):
There hung the four paintings–four seasons, four mountain scenes from the past. First came the cabin in winter. Second was a town with board sidewalks and newly-unfurling leaves. The third showed a broad autumn view across a valley to three mountain peaks, and the last showed a great bear emerging with swift purpose from the summer underbrush.
But only the first one… Allison leaned forward, first with outstretched hand, then with forehead, with cheek. …Only the first one snowed on her. The snow was so wonderfully real against her face, and there was more–the smell of it, and that special silence that settles on the world with the falling of it. It was then, softly at first, from the depth of that silence, that she heard a sound. Someone was crying.
Allison enters the painting, and time travels to 1898. She comes back to present time, and later time travels to the past via the other paintings as well. At times she struggles to enter the painting, and I could feel the pull this other world had on her. As in The Painting, she befriends a girl her own age. This story is also set in Canada, in Banff, Alberta, and there are a lot of great details about daily life in this rural outpost at that time. Allison also has some psychological issues to work out, but they are not as intense as in The Painting.
Although Within a Painted Past is out of print, there are lots of used copies available. For more middle grade book reviews follow the links on Greg Pattridge’s blog Always in the Middle.