This is book # 7 read for MotherReader's 2009 48 Hour Book Challenge (the 6th read start to finish). I spent one hour and fifty minutes reading it, and 45 minutes reviewing it.
Laurel Snyder is a huge fan of Edward Eager's children's books (especially Half Magic). She is, in fact, such a fan that she's organizing a backwards blog tour in Eager's honor. And, she's such a fan that she's written her second novel, Any Which Wall, as a tribute to Eager's work. And I have to say that I think her effort is completely successful.
Any Which Wall feels like a new Edward Eager novel (with a dash of E. Nesbit, and a hint of C. S. Lewis) dropped from the sky. There are a few modern references (cell phones, email), and the book is set in Iowa, but for the most part, Any Which Wall feels like a classic British children's novel. LeUyen Pham's black and white illustrations are perfect for the book, too, and seem to me to be an homage in and of themselves to famous illustrators Joe and Beth Krush.
Four children (two pairs of siblings, two boys and two girls, naturally) are experiencing a hot, dull summer. The oldest, Susan, is on the verge of losing sight of her childhood completely (remind you of any other Susan's for which such a fate occurred?). But everything changes when the children find, at the end of a long bike ride, a magical stone wall. A wall that they can use to wish themselves to other places. Places like Camelot. As in Half Magic, there are some rules as to how the wall works, and the kids experience a few mis-steps along the way. They actually reference their own expectations from the books that they've read (and that the author has, of course, read). There's a shadow of the tongue-in-cheek nature of Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys, though Any Which Wall is far more about direct homage than gentle mockery. Any Which Wall does occasionally use that narrative style by which the narrator speaks directly to the audience, but this is kept to a minimum.
Any Which Wall is about remaining childlike. It's about keeping your eyes open to glimpse potential moments of magic. it's about paying attention to how other people feel, doing the right thing, and displaying initiative and bravery. It is a return to Eager's golden age of children's literature. Honestly, I don't know how Laurel managed it. How she pulled it off, without overdoing anything, or even seeming condescending. And while keeping the characters three-dimensional. I especially liked the two youngest of the children. Six-year-old Emma is brave and determined, though she occasionally has a small tantrum. She doesn't always know how to take initiative, because she's so used to being told what to do, but she learns to think things through. Ten-year-old Roy is a little bit of a geek, and says things like "let's try to figure it out. Isolate our variables." I loved him.
And I have to tell you, Any Which Wall features one of the great librarians of children's literature, Lila, an unconventional adult who wears bright purple and orange clothing, sticks forks in her hair, and keeps her back yard as a prairie. There is a scene late in the book in which Lila explains to the kids her balance between being a grown-up and still making the choice to enjoy life, which I thought skated perilously close to being message-y, but I'm prepared to let it go because Lila serves great chocolate cake. (And, I suppose, a hint of messagey-ness might be part of the homage, too.) Lila reminded me of Mary Poppins. Now that I think about the chocolate cake, Any Which Wall has lots of descriptions of excellent meals, another nod to your classic British children's literature.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you more of a flavor for the book.
"Most people are just too busy for magic--watching TV and checking their e-mail--so it stands to reason that when something unusual happens, folks are often looking the other way... Some magic is mysterious, beginning with the somber tolling of a clock at midnight in the darkest corner of a graveyard. However, that magic is unlikely to include you if you don't visit cemeteries late at night (which I don't think you're supposed to do). (Page 2)
"That's just how parents are," Henry explained wisely as he ate the cheese off the top of his slice and wiped his greasy hand on his jeans. "They like to talk about how they used to do things or about how they plan to do things someday, but parents aren't very good at right now." (Page 6-7) [Full disclosure, this one gave me an uncomfortable little jolt of self-recognition, even though I'm not a parent]
"They were in a hurry, but not in too big a hurry to be thrilled by the experience of running at midnight. The darkness felt like a disguise, and the streets resembled old movie sets in the yellow lamplight. Not a single car passed them as they ran (as through the magic had somehow put everyone else in the world to sleep), and most of the windows they passed were dark and full of sheer blowing curtains. It was kind of spooky, with the trees casting strange shadows on the deserted sidewalks, but it was a good kind of spooky." (Page 61)
I highly recommend Any Which Wall to anyone who would like a return to reading about magic, a return to old-fashioned stories in which children ride their bikes around unsupervised and eat cake with new acquaintances. It's Laurel's gift to readers, and to the ghost of Edward Eager. I think that he'd be pleased.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 26, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.