Ellen Trachtenberg

Fairy tales are, by their very nature, magical things. But something rather extraordinary happens to them after they’ve been re-imagined by Gregory Maguire: they get a loyal following. Best known as the author of the wildly popular Wicked (adapted into a Broadway musical) and its sequels, as well as books for both children (Leaping Beauty, What-the-Dickens) and adults (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror), Maguire has lent his witty, sophisticated storytelling to some of the most beloved tales in our collective consciousness, often altering our long-held and deeply felt reactions to notorious characters and infamous plotlines. While never contradicting or poking fun at the original tale, he always adds a new dimension to our interpretations.

All of which makes Maguire’s work perfectly suited to adaptation for stage, screen and, most recently, radio. Each year, NPR asks a well-known writer to create a Christmas story for broadcast, and in 2008, Maguire was tapped. The result was Matchless, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story “The Little Match Girl.” In the original work, translated from Danish in the mid-19th century, a poor young girl dies alone in the night, freezing to death in the bitter cold. At the time, her dying visions were widely interpreted as religious metaphors. In Matchless, Maguire gently shifts the focus to illuminate a seldom-considered character. Young Frederik, living through desperate times with his mother, is the nameless boy from Andersen’s tale who absconds with the match girl’s shoe just before her death. The shoe is quite a find for Frederik, who has very little in the way of material possessions. But his intention for the shoe is unexpected. He returns home with his prize and quickly retreats to the attic where he has been meticulously constructing a miniature island town, made from bits and pieces he’d collected at the docks.

“Andersen left me a little thread to pull,” Maguire says in a telephone interview. “Frederik is the only other child and he has a line: ‘Here’s a cradle for my babies.’ Therefore I felt invited to follow that. I began to realize who the boy was and what his particular hardships were. As sad as it is, it’s a beautiful story. There’s this little bit of domestic magic that re-illuminates the possibility of connection between the living and the dead.”

While “The Little Match Girl” was adored by generations past, it hasn’t reached as many 21st-century readers as Andersen’s other tales, which include “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling.” That’s one of the reasons Maguire selected it for the NPR project. “It struck me as being perfect,” he explains. “Though people of a certain age will remember the story, it has been gradually slipping away.” But writing a story—with very little lead time—intended to be read aloud before being published was a new experience for the author.

“When you’re doing a radio story, you have to let your characters have individual-sounding voices,” Maguire notes. “You have to roll the story out very quickly with just enough, but not too much, description so that the listeners can learn about the environment as well as the conditions. So it was very different for me. Sometimes I’ll have the story idea on my desk for five years before I feel like I have caught the particular cadence of how it should go.”

Published for the first time this fall in a beautifully designed gift edition, Matchless contains Maguire’s own finely detailed black-and-white drawings. These vignettes, each contained in a small circle as if viewed through a lens, show such scenes as a carriage on a cobblestone street and a cozy attic room accessed by a ladder.

Maguire’s story has the weight and solidity of a treasured folk tale, something to be handed down and retold. It’s for children at bedtime but also for their grandparents. That’s one of Maguire’s obvious strengths: the ability to write on several different levels to personally address the interests of his entire audience. He credits Andersen with a similar talent: “He had the capacity to start the story in the first sentence. He dispensed with many of the conventions of storytelling—the once-upon-a-times—and spoke colloquially.”

In Matchless, Maguire leaves open the possibility of an optimistic ending, as Frederik’s family joins together with the poor match girl’s. And with this retelling comes the possibility of renewed interest in the original story. But perhaps, too, the reading of Matchless will become a new holiday tradition for many families. “It’s something that all artists hope,” says the author, “that their work will live beyond the length of their days.”

Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children’s Literature: A Parent’s Guide. She writes from Philadelphia.

Fairy tales are, by their very nature, magical things. But something rather extraordinary happens to them after they’ve been re-imagined by Gregory Maguire: they get a loyal following. Best known as the author of the wildly popular Wicked (adapted into a Broadway musical) and its sequels, as well as books for both children (Leaping Beauty, […]

Something is lurking out there. Scarecrows are stirring, black cats are making mischief, and innocent young girls are taking to their broomsticks. It must be, it must be . . . this season’s bumper crop of fabulous Halloween picture books. By the time everyone’s favorite dress-up day arrives, there will be candy to fill young bellies and literary treats to feed imaginations. You’ll recognize many of the authors and artists—including Jane Yolen, Ed Emberley and Lois Ehlert—and a few newer storytellers have been added to the brew. This particular blend of spooky stuff will draw so much deserved attention, Frankenstein’s monster will be positively green with envy.

Mummy dearest
When you first glance at the cover of The Runaway Mummy, you may be overcome with a spooky sort of déjà-vu. In case you missed the thread that began with last year’s best-selling Goodnight Goon, Michael Rex’s latest parody is a ghoulishly gleeful take on Margaret Wise Brown’s classic, The Runaway Bunny. And while the cast of characters may not be as warm and fuzzy as in the original story, the mummy love is ever abundant. While her son morphs into a series of crazy creatures, mom is hot on his trail. “If you try to get me,” said the little mummy, “I will turn into a serpent that lurks at the bottom of the sea.” But Mother Mummy has him covered, delivering a squeeze worthy of a giant squid. Little mummy finds that independence is elusive until a surprise ending turns the story on its tail, leaving readers wondering what sort of mischief Michael Rex might make with The Big Red Barn.

Garden of delights
Sure to be another monster hit for author and artist Lois Ehlert, Boo to You! lends her impressive trademark multimedia collage style to an autumn feast for the eyes, set to rhythmic verse. A harvest party is being planned by the garden mice but a pesky cat is determined to spoil the fun. It’s really a dilemma, because “A raccoon or a squirrel might bite a veggie, but a cat loves meat, and that makes us edgy.” The crafty mice devise a plan to scare the kitty, and it unfolds with a satisfying surprise. You know Ehlert from Eating the Alphabet, Fish Eyes: A Book You Can Count On, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and many others. Her latest effort will bring jack-o-lantern grins to the faces of a whole new generation of admirers.

Monsters afoot
The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme is an exuberant collection of poems about monsters of every stripe—in the engaging form of letters, notes and secret files—that gives readers a rare and comical glimpse at their private lives and predilections. There’s a personal invitation from Count Dracula, a warning about werewolves, an exclusive interview with the Loch Ness Monster and a classified email about zombie research. Appropriately, this is Bobbi Katz’s 13th poetry collection. Her others include We the People: Poems and Once around the Sun. Adam McCauley’s mixed media design is great fun and likely to convince children that they are indeed holding a rare collection of monster memorabilia.

It’s time for a sing-along. “There was an old monster who swallowed a tick. I don’t know why he swallowed the tick ‘cause it made him feel sick.” The creepy critters being ingested by our gluttonous friend in There Was An Old Monster! range from ants and bats to lizards and a lone jackal. It culminates with a lion and, well, it’s not necessarily a happy ending. The Emberley family—Rebecca, Adrian and Ed, a Caldecott Medal winner for Drummer Hoff—has joined together to give us a twisted take on an already twisted tune that will be a memorable addition to Halloween pageants everywhere. Readers who can’t seem to get the catchy refrain out of their heads will be happy to find it available for download on Scholastic’s website.

Vampires next door
The new neighbors are a vexing bunch to young Bram Pire. In Dear Vampa Bram dashes off a letter to his Vampa in Transylvania to blow off a bit of steam. For starters, the Wolfson family stays up all day long and seems overly fond of sunshine (“Mom says it’s disgusting”). They lock their windows at night (“It’s so inconsiderate”), and call the cops when the Pires engage in a bit of rooftop revelry at midnight. When the Wolfsons take up slingshots to shoot the Pires out of the sky during their “evening flutter,” it’s the last straw for Mom and Dad. But are the Wolfsons keeping a dark secret of their own? Ross Collins, the author and illustrator of Medusa Jones and Germs, introduces irony into his story at a level that won’t fly over the heads of young readers and his mod-goth style will appeal to graphic novel devotees in the making. This is Halloween hilarity at its hippest.

As the (scare)crow flies
Scarecrows aren’t normally known for their fancy footwork, but in the hands of Jane Yolen and illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline, one comes alive with wild abandon in The Scarecrow’s Dance. When the wind began to blow “He shrugged his shoulders / And a grin / Just like a corn row, / And as thin, / Broke out along / His painted face. / He gave a leap— / And left the place.” The scarecrow dances past the barn and peers in the window of the farmhouse where he glimpses a young boy reciting his prayers. As he leans in to listen to the child’s appeal for a healthy corn crop, the scarecrow knows he must return to his post to do his part. Ibatoulline’s gouache and watercolor illustrations are breathtaking and readers of all ages will appreciate Yolen’s refined verse and the book’s final message about responsibility.

Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of A Parent’s Guide to the Best Children’s Literature.

Something is lurking out there. Scarecrows are stirring, black cats are making mischief, and innocent young girls are taking to their broomsticks. It must be, it must be . . . this season’s bumper crop of fabulous Halloween picture books. By the time everyone’s favorite dress-up day arrives, there will be candy to fill young […]

Did you notice how frequently Abraham Lincoln's image was conjured during the recent presidential election? The symmetry between the early political careers of the 16th and 44th U.S. presidents seems to have captured the imaginations of many. Adding to the fascination is an important milestone: February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Children's book publishers have responded in kind, and the season brings an impressive display of new titles that chart the course of Lincoln's life in its entirety, from lighthearted looks at pivotal moments from his youth to painterly representations of his famous speeches. There are rare glimpses of Lincoln as a family man and an engrossing new spin on biography that revisits the aftermath of the president's assassination. Taken as a whole, this collection is an invaluable and multifaceted lesson in American history for young readers.

What might have been
Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale takes place "on the other side of yesterday, before computers or cars, in the year 1816" as seven-year-old Abe sets out with his good friend, Austin Gollaher, on a partridge-finding expedition down by Knob Creek. Problem is, the boys must cross the raging waters to get close enough to the birds. This proves to be a nearly impossible task, but determined to brave the danger, Abe shows his mettle. The results are nearly disastrous and if Austin wasn't close by—well, let's just say that the course of American history might have been drastically altered. Author Deborah Hopkinson (a BookPage contributor) and illustrator John Hendrix have created a delightful, folksy tale that depicts Lincoln before political aspiration took root. Clever intervention from the storytellers provides a playful yet profound "what if" factor. The final pages depict President Lincoln wistfully remembering his childhood friend while Hopkinson provides the following wisdom: "Let's remember Austin Gollaher, who, one day long ago, when no one else was there to see, saved Abe Lincoln's life. And without Abraham Lincoln, where would we be?"

United by a cause
From Nikki Giovanni and illustrator Bryan Collier, the acclaimed duo that brought us Rosa (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor book), comes Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship. Here readers are treated to a glimpse of Lincoln in his formative years through the stirring combination of Giovanni's prose and Collier's celebrated collage depictions. This time, we're shown the ethical parallels between the future president and his longtime ally, Frederick Douglass. When Lincoln was a newly elected congressman, Douglass paid him a visit, and "A friendship flowered based on mutual values, a love of good food, and the ability to laugh even in the worst of times." Adamantly principled on the topic of slavery, both men devoted their public lives to the cause of abolition. The Civil War cast a pall over the festivities that accompanied Lincoln's inauguration as president, but there was one guest that Lincoln insisted on seeing at the White House that evening, despite the rules that prohibited Negroes from entering. When Douglass finally arrives, the men gaze over the balcony and renew their shared commitment to freedom for all people.

A new birth of freedom
Two new books exemplify Lincoln's impact by incorporating his own words into the narrative. In What Lincoln Said, author Sarah L. Thomson uses direct quotes from pivotal moments in Honest Abe's life. Illustrator James E. Ransome presents a more jovial, less stern depiction than we're accustomed to seeing. The story ends with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day in 1863 as Lincoln humbly states, "If ever my name goes into history, it will be for this act . . . and my whole soul is in it."

Destined to be a classic, Abe's Honest Words by Doreen Rappaport (author of the Caldecott Honor book, Martin's Big Words), features divine, luminous illustrations by Kadir Nelson (known best for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, also a Caldecott Honor book and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner). Rappaport's own prose is coupled with Lincoln's thoughts on the importance of reading and education, the horrors of slavery, the challenges of being a young and unknown politician, and, of course, the iconic speech delivered on a Gettysburg battlefield.

Family matters
Beloved author Rosemary Wells shines a light on a personal dimension of Lincoln's life in Lincoln and His Boys. This is history as seen through the eyes of his young sons, Willie and Tad, who, after Lincoln is elected president, accompany him on the 12-day train ride (unfathomable to us now) from Illinois to Washington, D.C. They gleefully interrupt cabinet meetings and pray with their parents to heal the soldiers as the war escalates. The boys persistently ask questions of their adoring "Papa-day," trying to make sense of events as they unfold. Illustrations by P.J. Lynch are warm and vivid, capturing the genuine bond between a famous father and his sons.

The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary takes readers ever deeper into the lives of Lincoln, his family and his country. Author Candace Fleming has painstakingly compiled rare photographs (including the only known photo of Abraham with both Willie and Tad), insights into the Lincolns' marriage, accounts of White House mischief by their sons, biographical information about the president's cabinet, humorous anecdotes about stovepipe hats and three tales about Mary that you won't want to miss. This is the type of book that will invite readers to examine and re-examine its pages. Each time they do, they'll be rewarded with more captivating details.

Extra, extra: A special edition tells Lincoln's story
Books about Abraham Lincoln are plentiful this year, but one of the most impressive tributes comes in the form of Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered by Barry Denenberg, featuring enthralling artwork by Christopher Bing. The format is eye-catching: a special edition of a newspaper, dated April 14, 1866, marking the one-year anniversary of Lincoln's death. From the very first page, readers get the sense that they're examining privileged archival documents. The headline reads "President Dies at 7:22, Nation Mourns Fallen Leader." The search for assassin John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators is recounted. After the villains' apprehension and execution, all told with riveting specifics, the paper turns to Lincoln's life, from boyhood hardships in the Indiana wilderness, to spelling bee triumphs, through his early career as a lawyer and romance at age 30 with a charming socialite named Mary Todd. Lincoln's entire political career is offered for inspection and the Civil War is fascinatingly detailed. In fact, though the book is only 40 pages long, there's hardly a moment of Lincoln's life that's missed. With its mimicry of a 19th-century newspaper, complete with archival photography, authentic typesetting and period advertisements, this type of alternative biography is sure to capture the imagination of both ready and reluctant readers. When the story ends with Lincoln's assassination, only five days after the Union victory, we come away with new perspectives on a most famous historical figure and the era he represented, all derived from the unique learning experience that this book provides.

Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children's Literature: A Parent's Guide. 

Did you notice how frequently Abraham Lincoln's image was conjured during the recent presidential election? The symmetry between the early political careers of the 16th and 44th U.S. presidents seems to have captured the imaginations of many. Adding to the fascination is an important milestone: February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Children's […]

Following the death of her mother, 16-year-old Katie D’Amore is spending the summer tending to the grounds at the home of the famously reclusive Miss Martine. It’s the kind of work Katie’s mother would have appreciated—the quiet pursuit of beauty—and the physical labor is a welcome diversion. She joins a cast of devoted caretakers, working under the guidance of the inscrutable Old Olson, who begin clearing a patch of land for a new gazebo. The project is the latest in a string of orders seemingly handed down by Miss Martine herself—though she was last seen in 1954—that reflect a meticulous and somewhat puzzling need to perpetually reorganize the lush landscape of the vast estate.

In Nothing but Ghosts, acclaimed author Beth Kephart (Undercover and House of Dance) artfully juxtaposes themes of grief and torment with the persistence of beauty. Katie must reconcile herself with the notion that “Things disappear and vanish. That’s the fact. Before you’re ready for them to go, they go, and after that all you can do is keep the idea of them bright inside yourself.”

Spurred by a need to make sense of her own recent loss, Katie becomes compelled to solve the mystery that has shrouded Miss Martine’s withdrawal from society. She begins to delve into the community archives with the assistance of a local librarian, an atypical beauty herself, trying to break through a tangle of riddles and hidden truths.

Though confronting her own ghosts, Katie keeps busy through the long, hot summer, dividing her time between the big old house she now shares only with her father, the library where she conducts her research, and Miss Martine’s garden where secrets are being unearthed daily. Meanwhile, Katie’s father is grieving in his own eccentric but even-handed way. He restores paintings for a living and his latest acquisition might just hold an important key.

Beth Kephart’s dazzling new novel is wise and wonderful, certain to be a revelation for young adult readers. As Katie makes a few necessary discoveries, she begins to let love in once again. In doing so, she honors an important promise, “a daughter’s promise: to live my life with my eyes wide open. To honor exuberance, and color.” 

Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of A Parent’s Guide to the Best Children’s Literature.
 

Following the death of her mother, 16-year-old Katie D’Amore is spending the summer tending to the grounds at the home of the famously reclusive Miss Martine. It’s the kind of work Katie’s mother would have appreciated—the quiet pursuit of beauty—and the physical labor is a welcome diversion. She joins a cast of devoted caretakers, working […]

Ivy June Mosely and Catherine Combs are both from Kentucky, but their lifestyles are worlds apart. The two seventh-grade students have agreed to take part in an exchange program; the girls will visit each other for two weeks at a time and record their impressions in their journals.

In the skillful hands of veteran author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of the Newbery Award-winning Shiloh and an astonishing 135 other books, Faith, Hope, and Ivy June unfolds with poetic restraint and unexpected discoveries. As the story opens, we meet Ivy June as she prepares to leave her home in mountainous and old-timey Thunder Creek for a stay with Catherine and her family in a posh suburb of Lexington. She moved in with her grandparents, Mammaw and Papaw, after her own home became too crowded. There’s no running water in most Thunder Creek homes and life tends to be led hand-to-mouth. The town relies on its coal mines, and Ivy June worries for the safety of her beloved Papaw as he returns home each night exhausted and covered in coal dust.

Miles away in Lexington, Catherine awaits Ivy June’s arrival. Catherine’s family takes great pains to welcome Ivy June and to hide their own apprehensions and prejudices. After a tour of Catherine’s lovely, spacious home—the air-conditioning and multiple bathrooms make a big impression—the girls begin to form a friendship, though fragile at times, based on their commonalities and an intentional downplaying of their differences. Their view of each other’s standard of living becomes especially dramatic when Catherine comes to Thunder Creek, trekking over the hills and bathing outside in a tin tub.

As they engage in their shared journey, the girls can’t help but be forever changed by it. But how will these changes affect their lives going forward? Each has expectations and fears, each has to contend with their family’s preconceived notions about life on the other side, and each has to come to terms with the idea that certain stereotypes will inevitably affect their experience. In the end, it’s a shared devotion to their respective families that will enable a bond to form, particularly in the face of loss and a newfound appreciation for the gifts of their own daily lives. 

Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children’s Literature: A Parent’s Guide.

Ivy June Mosely and Catherine Combs are both from Kentucky, but their lifestyles are worlds apart. The two seventh-grade students have agreed to take part in an exchange program; the girls will visit each other for two weeks at a time and record their impressions in their journals. In the skillful hands of veteran author […]

Never underestimate your mom. When she threatens to buy you a blue whale if you don’t clean up your room, she means business. If you second-guess her about having a blue whale delivered overnight—after all, they are the biggest animals in the world—she’ll show you who’s boss. And before you know it, you have a sizable dilemma on your hands, because whales make rather difficult pets.

That’s the comical and cautionary tale behind Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, marking the impressive debut of author Mac Barnett. After Billy shirks his chores one too many times, he wakes to find the large aquatic mammal at his doorstep, delivered by who else but Fed Up: Delivering Punishment Worldwide. He tries to go about his day, towing the whale to school on the back of his bike, squeezing him into the classroom and defending his new pet against the playground bully. It’s exhausting, to say the least, and his troubles don’t end when he returns home. As Billy drags himself upstairs, his father pulls out a copy of the Blue Whale Owner’s Manual, complete with instructions on washing and waxing your whale, not to mention feeding him. “The manual says they eat krill—tiny shrimps things that they find by gulping ten-thousand-gallon mouthfuls of seawater.” But where will Billy find that much seawater?

He heads to the sea, of course, tossing water into the beast’s mouth by the bucketful. That’s when he has a revelation that might just give him an insider’s perspective on his blue whale problem.

This picture book, with its oversized humor and gentle lesson about responsibility, will surely find an enthusiastic audience. Fantastic illustrations by Adam Rex burst from each page and his sympathetic depiction of the nonchalant whale is completely charming. In the midst of the hilarity are plenty of facts about blue whales that readers will have no trouble digesting. Needless to say, it’s a whale of a tale with a new twist.

Never underestimate your mom. When she threatens to buy you a blue whale if you don’t clean up your room, she means business. If you second-guess her about having a blue whale delivered overnight—after all, they are the biggest animals in the world—she’ll show you who’s boss. And before you know it, you have a […]

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