Sunday, March 25, 2012

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and The Witches

This week for Claire Helen types, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: the Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, and for Simon types, The Witches, by the inimitable Roald Dahl.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place


Fountas and Pinnell: not given

Lexile level: 1000L

Found running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia has a bark that's (usually) worse than her bite, and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels. 
Luckily Peneleope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies. 


I first noticed this book, oh, a year or two ago. It was first published in hardback in 2010, so I suppose not as long ago as I imagine, but perhaps it took up so much space in my mind that it feels like I've known about it a long time. Claire Helen was going through a mildly gothic phase; the main character's name is Penelope, and I have a soft spot for all things British. It's a series now- 3 books I think- but it wasn't at the time. I pitched it to Claire Helen (resounding no), then to our mother daughter book club (preferred something with more anthropomorphic animals and fewer spikey fences), before giving up for a while. Several months ago, we saw the whole series at a friend's house, and the little girl was so breathless in her enthusiasm that Claire Helen wanted to read it immediately.

It's good! Of course I think it's good. See above, re: main character, goth, and Britishness. As the Amazon blurb says, Penelope Lumley arrives at Ashton Place to be the new governess for three feral children who have mysteriously appeared in Lord Ashton's care. Over the course of the book, she helps the (very sweet and well intentioned) children transform from childish puppies to puppy-ish children. Penelope is a great heroine- naively righteous and strong willed, hopeful and clever.

We read this book partly aloud, and she read it partly to herself. That lexile level is usually about right for her, but I think it might be underestimated here. The language- especially the first 25 pages or so- is very hard. There is a lot of context setting about the time and place (early 20th century England), and clues we are supposed to use to learn about the characters' various classes and history which were too subtle for Claire Helen. The plot and character outlines are very appropriate for precocious early elementary readers, but the class commentary flew pretty straight over her head. It was a very enjoyable readaloud, and I know Claire Helen really enjoyed the parts she got, but it might be better suited to an older child with more context for the satirical elements and maybe some more experience with the time and place.

The Witches


This Roald Dahl classic tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven-year-old boy who has a run-in with some real-life witches! "In fairy tales witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch." Witches, as our hero learns, hate children. With the help of a friend and his somewhat-magical grandmother, our hero tries to expose the witches before they dispose of him. Ages 7-12.

Fountas and Pinnell: R

Lexile level: 740L

Every time a child goes to kindergarten in this house, I take them to California for a special trip. One of my favorite stops in their town is a tiny little used book store called Toad Hall, which still takes only cash, is at least half children's books, and the other half is mostly behind glass, seemingly deemed "too special" by the owners, for sale. A true labor of love. On this trip Simon finished the books we brought from home, I needed to get him something to get us through our car and plane trip home.

Simon is a chatty sort of person, so hit the owner up for suggestions pretty quickly. She pointed us toward a lot of great comic and picture books, which I am sure he would have loved, but I needed something to occupy him for the whole plane flight so I could do some work. He went back and forth over Hardy Boys and the Fantastic Five series, but finally settled on the Roald Dahl section. He ended up with the Witches, and I'm pleased to say it did its job. He read it on the trip home, interspersed with periods of my reading pages when it got "too scary," and then I read it myself after we got home to see if Claire Helen might also like it (no).

Anyway. The review.

It's not like you don't know who Roald Dahl is- he is an amazing storyteller, and this book is no exception. A young boy and his cigar smoking, aphorism spouting grandmother go on vacation and discover that all the witches in England are attending a convention at their hotel and are hatching a plan to rid the world of children (who smell like poop to them) by using a potion which turns children into mice. Most dastardly of all- they are putting this potion in candy, as many of them are candy shop owners. 

Roald Dahl stories are also very often gruesome, and this one is as gruesome as the come. Our narrator (never given a name) is turned into a mouse at one point, and it sounds like it hurts. The witches are terrifying creatures. The narrator is an orphan (not that unusual in the world of children's literature, but a flashpoint for many young readers). Some children die in very horrifying, tragic sorts of ways. Simon is one of those kids who is not really affected by scariness, and even he had me read bits to him so he wouldn't have to read it himself. I would not give this book to Claire Helen- the vivid descriptions of scary things would be too much for her. Still, this was a really great book that he loved reading. Despite the scary plot points, Dahl always manages to keep enough humor in the telling so that it's enjoyable for the right kid. I love the way Dahl ends books, and I won't spoil it for you, but it's the best kind of sigh. Not entirely happy, but not what you could ever call sad, either.

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