1990 Honor: Afternoon of the Elves

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

Afternoon of the Elves is a challenging read. It’s a wee bit hard to categorize, but I’d slot it into magical realism, with an emphasis on the realism. Hillary hangs with the popular girls at school, until one day her neighbor Sarah-Jane invites her to see the elf village. Sarah-Jane lives on the fringes of society – none of her clothes fit well, her yard is unkempt, and no one sees her parents; given this, it’s shocking that she has no friends at school. Shocking, I say!

However, her acerbic invite to Hillary begins a friendship. Sarah-Jane’s incredible imagination convinces Hillary that there is a real elf village in Sarah-Jane’s overgrown back yard. Together, the girls make elf houses, construct a Ferris wheel, build a well, and put together other improvements for the elves.

Their relationship is troubled from the get-go. Sarah-Jane sometimes snaps for no reason. Then, she disappears from school. At first, Hillary believes the official story that Sarah-Jane has gone on a trip, but a chance encounter between Hillary’s father and Sarah-Jane breaks open that lie. Worried about her friend, Hillary sneaks over to her house to check on her, and enters when she finds an unlocked door. Inside, the house is nearly empty and freezing cold. As she creeps upstairs, Hillary swears there are elves in the house, even after she sees Sarah-Jane comforting her mother.

Although Sarah-Jane is initially upset at this invasion of privacy, she and Hillary soon reconcile. Hillary picks up feed for Sarah-Jane, snagging some money from her mom and shop lifting an item or two. Shortly thereafter, Hillary goes to spend lunch with Sarah-Jane on a snow day. She takes too long returning home, and her mother comes look. This leads to the discovery of Sarah-Jane’s situation, and the attendant chaos.

Sarah-Jane is removed from the house, apparently to live with relatives after a brief stint in an orphanage; her mother is sent to a facility. Hillary never sees either again, though she still feels the elf magic and salvages the elf village when Sarah-Jane’s home is being rehabbed for sale.

I’m honestly conflicted over this one. While I do think kids should read challenging books, the effort also needs to be “worth it” – backed by a strong plot. This read as a vehicle for a discussion of mental health issues and for their challenges, no matter how they’re handled. My heart broke for Sarah-Jane in both situations; no child should have to be a sole caregiver for their parent, but separation of a mother and daughter is also hard. The realistic elements were well enough executed that I did have strong opinions about characters. However, the addition of a fantasy element just made this an odd blend of moralism and fantasy, neither done well.

I can’t recommend this for many audiences. While it does accurately portray one situation in which a kid is dealing with great challenges, there are more modern, better written titles which do it better. If magical realism and social issues both appeal to you, maybe give it a try.

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1983: Dicey’s Song (The Beat of a Different Drum)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

The 1983 winner, Dicey’s Song, is the second book in a series which explores the lives of four children after their mother Liza succumbs to mental health problems. In this book, the children, led by the titular Dicey, have taken up residence with their grandmother and are adjusting to life in a new town and with a responsible adult. Their previous experiences have greatly impacted them. Dicey holds herself aloof from anyone not part of the family, James downplays his intelligence in an attempt to fit in, Sammy’s self-control in school eventually leads to fights outside of it, and Maybeth struggles academically.

Slowly, as the family builds new ties with “outsiders”, they make progress on their individual issues. Dicey makes friends with Mina, daughter of a local African-American preacher, following an incident in English in which Mina defended Dicey from charges of plagiarism. James researches how to teach reading in order to help Maybeth and in turn gains an outlet for his intellect. Sammy expends energy with a paper route, and, combined with Gran’s visit to the school to beat everyone at marbles, starts to fit in. Maybeth, with the help of Mr. Langerle the music teacher, builds her piano skills and begins to make academic gains under James’ tutelage. They also gain legal security when Gran legally adopts them.

The book concludes with Liza’s death in a psychiatric ward in Boston. Although sad, her death allows the children to move forward and to continue growing in their new home. The ending, while not exactly happy, is fairly neutral, imparting the sense that life goes on no matter what happens.

Dicey’s Song poses interesting questions about interpersonal relationships as well as about mental health. I particularly enjoyed the conversations between Ab, the grandmother, and Dicey. Ab stresses the important of holding on to people, not allowing relationships to drift away. She learned that from bitter experience, as, following the loss of one son and the daughter, she withdrew from the town and interacted minimally with the outside world. It’s gratifying to see Dicey start to take that advice. Dicey’s Song also asks whether it is better to have a mother alive but catatonic or dead; there are no easy answers, but Dicey explains to Gran that, even though they knew that Liza would never recover, it still made a difference knowing she was alive.

The main factor preventing this Newbery entry from receiving a higher rating was its over-reliance on description. This slowed down the pacing and led to some judicious skimming on my part.

Overall, this is an excellent book that sensitively covers many difficult topics. Its rich character development makes it shine; you genuinely care what happens to all of the characters, even the secondary ones. I particularly recommend this for children of parents who struggle with mental illness and those who live with someone other than their parents.