Over the holidays, a young book-loving friend recommended a book that he was enjoying: The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean, by Alexander McCall Smith. The opening chapter made him laugh. I am always on the look-out for early chapter books that truly engage the reader, and so I took his recommendation seriously, and went out and bought myself a copy of the book. And I was not disappointed. Perhaps I can start using my young friend as a cub reporter for the blog, when he gets a bit older.
The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean is the first of a three book series written by Alexander McCall Smith, best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I don't care all that much for the No. 1 Ladies series, but it's not because I don't enjoy Smith's writing. It's because the books are too episodic for me (at least the ones that I've read), more a series of vignettes than a single plot. But I've always enjoyed his humor and characterization.
Smith's other children's books include Akimbo and the Elephants, three other Akimbo books, two books about Max and Maddy, and several others. [Side note: I was a bit put off by the fact that Smith doesn't list any of his children's books on his website in the UK. Is he not proud of writing children's books? But I digress.] Most of his children's books, including The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean, were originally published in the UK in the 1990s, and have been recently brought to the US by Bloomsbury USA.
The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean is a mystery aimed at early elementary school readers. Nine-year-old Harriet Bean lives alone with her absent-minded inventor father. One day, her father remarks: "Your aunts would like to hear about that!". This is somewhat surprising to Harriet, given that her father never mentioned the existence of aunts before. It turns out that her father had five sisters, with whom he has been out of touch for many years. He sadly shows her an unfinished portrait of himself with his five older sisters, none of their faces filled in. Being a determined sort of girl, Harriet decided to track down her missing aunts. It's not so much a mystery as a quest.
Harriet's search for her aunts is filled with over the top adventures, unusual skills, and creative problem-solving. One aunt is incredibly strong, so much so that she can pedal a caravan like a bicycle, and drive along the roads without an engine. Another aunt is a gifted voice-thrower, and a third is the bossiest woman alive. The last two can read minds. Harriet herself is intrepid and resourceful, with a streak of sentimentality. She extracts information from her father by the simple expedient of bribing him with scones. She sets off on what turns out to be a lengthy journey with not so much as a spare change of clothes, and without a word of complaint.
This book has a bit of the feel of old-fashioned adventure stories like the Boxcar Children series. Here's a sample passage:
"... we found a farmer who was happy to let us camp on his land, and we parked in a field by the side of a river.
It was a beautiful spot. In the evenings, as we waited for our dinner to be ready, we would sit and watch the cows amble back from their pasture. Then, as the shadows grew longer, Aunt Veronica would make a fire in a small ring of stones, and we would barbecue the juicy trout that we had caught in the river in the afternoon." (Page 70)
There are no cell phones or computers mentioned. There are, however, innovations like a magnifying glass that can translate French into English, and a book that automatically turns its own pages.
The Five Lost Aunts features moderate length chapters (12 pages or so), with one full-age illustration in each chapter. Laura Rankin's greyscale pencil illustrations also have an old-fashioned feel, and they add to the characterization of the story. The aunts are all distinctive, but bear an underlying family resemblance. Harriet observes whatever is going on with a keen eye. One picture shows Harriet laughing with two of her aunts, all three mouths open wide, with both differences and similarities evident between the three relatives. Their joy leaps from the page.
I recommend this book for readers who are just making the transition to non-illustrated chapter books (as the illustrations are relatively sparse). Although the main character is a girl, I think that the lively story is completely boy-friendly, too. I recommend it especially for kids who like mysteries, and kids who enjoy humor. Really, you can't go wrong with this book. I think that parents and children will both enjoy it. And in truth, I feel quite comfortable recommending, sight unseen, the two sequels: Harriet Bean and the League of Cheats and The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: April 2007 (this edition. Originally published in 1997 in the UK)
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Confessions of a Bibliovore, Chasing Ray
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.