The Secret School

The Secret School by Avi, 2001.

The year is 1925, and what 14-year-old Ida Bidson wants most is to graduate from her community’s small, one-room schoolhouse so that she can go to high school in a nearby city.  She dreams of becoming a teacher when she grows up, and she knows that she can’t do that without more education.  The problem is that, in her rural community in Colorado, not everyone thinks that higher education is important, especially for girls.

When their teacher’s mother becomes ill toward the end of the school year and the teacher has to leave, the man in charge of the local school board, Mr. Jordan, doesn’t want to bother to hire a new teacher to finish off the year.  In fact, it seems a little dubious about whether they’ll even get a new teacher in the fall.  Ida is crushed because, without a teacher, she can’t graduate this year as planned, and she had just about persuaded her parents to let her attend high school in the fall.  Her friend, Tom, is in a similar position.  More than anything, he wants to work with radio, the latest technological development of their time, and he also needs to attend high school.  (So far, he’s just been teaching himself by reading Popular Mechanics – the magazine started in 1902 and is still in circulation today.)  However, Tom comes up with a plan that could help everyone: What if Ida becomes their teacher?

Ida knows that there’s no way that Mr. Jordan would actually hire her as the new teacher.  Everyone knows that he’s a miser and that a large part of the reason they’re not getting a new teacher is that he doesn’t want to have to pay for one.  Besides, what school board would hire a 14-year-old girl who hasn’t yet graduated?  After discussing it with the other children, they make the decision to keep their school open secretly with Ida as their secret teacher.  Although Ida confesses the truth about what they’re doing to her parents, most of the others don’t, figuring that they’ll wait to tell them when the school year officially ends in another month.

Although it’s a daunting challenge, going from student to teacher while still continuing her own studies, Ida sees it as the only way to get what she wants.  She does her best to act out the part of teacher, telling her friends to call her “Miss Bidson” when she’s teaching instead of “Ida”, giving them their assignments to study, and checking their work. 

Most of the other children agree to her terms as their new, secret teacher, although one boy, Herbert, deliberately gives her a hard time.  Herbert’s future ambitions don’t include higher education, and he was originally looking forward to having an early summer break.  At first, he delights in trying to push Ida, to see how she’ll deal with him as a discipline problem.  Ida partly earns his cooperation by pointing out with him that their secret school is voluntary, that no one is making him come, that they had all voted to make her the teacher, and that if he makes problems for the other students, they can also vote him out of the school.  The thought of being rejected by his friends for making problems keeps him more or less in line.

Then, a woman from the County Education Office, Miss Sedgewick, comes to the school and finds Ida teaching there.  She is the one who administers tests to graduating students, and she has come to ask how many students will be tested this year.  Ida is forced to admit her circumstances to Miss Sedgewick.  Miss Sedgewick is surprised to discover that Ida is both teacher and student and says that she isn’t quite sure if she can give the exams if the local school board has officially closed the school.  She leaves, promising to look into the matter.  What she eventually tells them is that they can keep the school open with Ida as the teacher, but in order for the children to get credit for their work, they will all have to take exams at the end of the year, not just Tom and Ida.

As the end of the school year approaches, Ida does her best to prepare the other children for the exams and thinks about how her relationships with them have changed.  Tom, her best friend, has become more her student and less her friend, which feels uncomfortable to her.  She also has her own studying to do if she hopes to pass the exams herself, which is difficult both with her teaching work and the work that she must do on her family’s sheep farm.

Then, Herbert’s father, who doesn’t value education at all and just wants Herbert home to work their farm, finds out what they’re doing and gets Mr. Jordan to shut the school down for good.  Ida feels like all her dreams and hard work have been for nothing.  However, a talk with Herbert changes her mind.  Herbert knows that his father fears his education.  Herbert’s father is afraid that Herbert will look down on him for not having as much education or that Herbert will want to leave him.  Herbert admits that he’s been very unhappy at home because his father is a bitter, angry man who doesn’t treat him much better than he does other people.  Herbert has actually learned more than he pretends at school and really does have plans to leave home.  Herbert also tells Ida that his father and Mr. Jordan are planning a secret meeting to close the local school permanently, purposely telling only people they know will agree about it, not local people who value education. 

Knowing about the secret meeting gives Ida’s parents, as well as other parents in the community who support their children’s education, to show their support for their children’s hard work.  Faced with their opposition, Mr. Jordan agrees to let the school remain open while the children take their final exams.  Ida not only does better on the final exam than she had feared, but she finds an ally in Miss Sedgewick, who will help her fulfill her wish to attend high school and become a real teacher.

The book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Grandfather’s Dance

Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MachLachlan, 2006.

This is the final book in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series.

Cassie is now in the fourth grade, and things are changing in her family. Cassie has come to love her little brother, John, called Jack, who is now a young child who likes to follow their grandfather around and imitate him. Caleb has gone away to school, and Anna is getting married, which is the major event of the story. Through the planning and anticipation that precedes the wedding, Cassie still keeps her journal, with its occasional flights of fancy.

Anna’s wedding brings new excitement to the family farm and thoughts of both the future and the past. Cassie, unlike her older half-siblings, has never been to Maine or met her relatives there, but Sarah’s brother and aunts are coming to the farm for Anna’s wedding. The others remember the last time they saw these relatives, and Cassie looks forward to seeing them.

Cassie wonders about why people get married, and she can’t imagine anyone she loves enough to marry and spend her life with, except maybe her dog. She tries to picture her own future wedding, with a dog as the groom, but it bothers her that she can’t picture her grandfather at her wedding. At first, she can’t quite figure out why she’s having trouble picturing him in the future, but the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes how old her grandfather is. He even comments on his age, saying that he’s getting older every day. Her grandfather seems to be increasingly feeling his age and his heart condition. Before Anna’s wedding, Cassie and her grandfather talk about her future wedding, and her grandfather tells her that he might not be there when she is married. Cassie tries to convince him that he will be, but he says, just in case he can’t, maybe they should have a wedding for Cassie now. He has Cassie put on the nice dress that she will wear to Anna’s wedding, and they stage a mock wedding for Cassie and their dog, Nick, so her grandfather can say that he was at Cassie’s wedding, too.

Anna’s wedding is beautiful, and Cassie and the others enjoy having Sarah’s brother and aunts visit. After the wedding, they have a picture taken of the whole family together. Sadly, it is the only picture of all of them together. Soon after, Cassie’s grandfather dies. All of the wedding guests are still visiting, so they attend the funeral. Jack is still a little boy and upset and confused by their grandfather’s death, but Cassie assures him that their grandfather loved them and that they won’t forget him. The title of the book comes from a little dance that their grandfather did for Jack earlier in the story, which Jack later imitates after his death.

In the back of the book, the author explains how her family was the inspiration for the family in the book. The grandfather in the story was based on the author’s father, and part of the dedication is to him. The author’s father died two years before this book was published. The farm and landscape around it are kind of a combination of the places where her family has lived in North Dakota, Kansas, and Wyoming, which is probably why the books in the series never specify which state they’re in.

The book is available online through Internet Archive.

More Perfect Than the Moon

More Perfect Than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan, 2004.

This is the first book in the Sarah, Plain and Tall Series that is narrated by Cassie, the younger daughter in the family.  By this time, Cassie is about eight years old, and her grandfather, who rejoined the family in the previous book, has been living with them for a few years.  Caleb has also found a girlfriend (Violet, Maggie and Matthew’s daughter).  When Cassie writes entries in the family’s journal (started by Anna in the first book), they are partly fantasy, like when she thinks that Caleb and his girlfriend will someday marry and go to live in Borneo, where they will eat wild fruit.  When Caleb tells her that the things she’s writing aren’t the truth, she says, “It is my truth.”  (Oh, criminy!  I hate it when people say that.  Well, she doesn’t really mean it in the sense that I’m sick of hearing it.  I like games of pretend, but only those where the people playing them realize that it’s both a game and pretend.)  Fortunately, it’s just that Cassie is an imaginative child, and most of what she imagines is wishful thinking about things she would like to see happen.  With Cassie, the journal becomes not just a documentary of family events but of her feelings about them and what she imagines.

As Cassie grows more observant because of her writing, she notices that her mother’s behavior is changing.  Sarah is sleeping a little more, and she doesn’t always want to eat. Cassie worries that she’s sick.  Then, one day, Sarah faints.  Jacob takes Sarah to the doctor, and in the journal, Cassie writes about how her mother is well and will bring home a perfect present for her, “More Perfect than the moon,” in the hopes that it will come true.

When Sarah comes home and Cassie tells her what she wrote, Sarah says that it is true because she is pregnant.  Her perfect present will be a new baby.  Cassie doesn’t think that a baby sounds like a perfect gift.  She doesn’t want the baby because she doesn’t want things to change.  She is determined not to love the new baby.  Anna (who is now engaged to her boyfriend, Justin) tells Cassie that she didn’t love her at first, either, but she came to love her.  When Cassie asks Anna what made her love her as a baby, she says that she couldn’t help it and that she’ll understand when the new baby arrives.  All the same, Cassie can’t help but wish her mother would give birth to a cute little lamb instead.

Then, Cassie hears Sarah telling her friend, Maggie, that she thinks she’s too old to have a baby.  Cassie knows that Anna and Caleb’s mother died giving birth to Caleb, and she worries that the same thing could happen to her mother.  She thinks that the “terrible baby” is putting her mother’s life in danger.  Sarah tells her that’s not really the case, that she just thinks that it will be difficult to run after a young child again.  Still, Cassie worries and tries to keep an eye on her mother.  Sarah tells her that it isn’t necessary and that she will let her know when she needs her, like when the baby is going to be born.

As everyone guessed, Cassie’s feelings about the baby change once he arrives and she sees him for the first time.  At one point, Cassie admits to Sarah that some of the things she writes in her journal are nasty, but Sarah understands and says that one of the reasons to keep a journal is “To put down feelings. That way they don’t clutter up your head.”  Sarah knows that Cassie has a lot of worries about the new baby and the changes that will come in their family, and she knows that the journal is a way for Cassie to sort out her feelings. Once Cassie gets her worries and bad feelings out of the way, she is better able to move on to better things. Journals can be therapeutic.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Caleb’s Story

Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan, 2001.

This book is part of the Sarah, Plain and Tall Series, but while the first two books are narrated by Anna, this book is narrated by her brother, Caleb.

When the book begins, Caleb says that Anna is now going to live in town, finishing school and working for the local doctor.  Her boyfriend, Justin, is the doctor’s son, and he has gone to Europe to fight in World War I.  Sarah worries about Anna because of the influenza epidemic.  Anna has given him a journal in order to write about the things happening on the farm while she’s away.  Caleb isn’t as much of a writer as Anna, and he can’t imagine what he’ll find to write about, but Anna assures him that he’ll find something.

While Caleb is play hide and seek with his little half-sister, Cassie (who is now four and a half years old), Cassie says that she saw a man behind their barn who asked her about their father.  At first, Caleb thinks that Cassie imagined the whole thing, but she insists that she didn’t.  However, Caleb later finds the man in the barn, suffering from cold.  The family brings him inside to warm up, and he says that his name is John.  They try to ask John about who he is and where he came from, but he is evasive at first.  He says that he used to be a farmer, and he starts to help a little with farm chores.

The truth about John comes out when Jacob returns from taking Anna to town.  John is actually John Witting, Jacob’s father.  For years, Jacob believed that his father was dead.  It comes as a terrible shock to see him suddenly, after all this time.  Jacob is angry that John apparently abandoned his family and left him to believe that he was dead.

The children have many questions about their grandfather and where he’s been all these years, but John remains evasive for some time.  Sarah tries to encourage Jacob to talk to his father and learn what he needs to know about him, but Jacob resists because he’s too angry.  Caleb notices his grandfather taking pills, and Sarah discovers that it’s heart medicine.

The imagery in the story is pretty bleak, compared to the other books, even the drought descriptions from Skylark.  It’s winter, and people are dying during the influenza epidemic.  People have black wreaths on their doors, some because of influenza deaths and some because they have relatives who died fighting in World War I.  At one point, they see a bonfire in the cemetery because the ground is frozen, and they need to thaw it enough to dig a new grave.  When they get closer, they see that it’s a baby’s coffin, which upsets Sarah.

When Jacob finally demands that his father explain himself and his presence there, John says that he wanted to see how things turned out.  The two men argue and push each other, and Jacob accidentally falls over a plow and breaks his leg.  John sets the broken leg, saying that he’s done it before, but Jacob is still angry with him.

Eventually, John talks to Caleb about his past, admitting that he was wrong to leave years ago and saying that he can’t really blame Jacob for how he feels about it because his bad decision has affected Jacob’s whole life.  John quarreled with his wife years ago, and he felt like the two of them couldn’t live together anymore. (I have to admit that, after John had earlier tried to tell Jacob that things weren’t the way he thought they were, I was really disappointed because this explanation is exactly the way I figured it was.)  Jacob keeps saying that John could have at least written, but the truth is that John can’t read or write until Caleb begins teaching him. (If this is what John meant by things not being the way Jacob thought they were, it’s a little less disappointing.)  When Sarah is accidentally lost in a snow storm outside, and John helps Jacob save her, the father and son finally make peace with each other.

The movie version of this book is called Winter’s End, and it is the last of the series to be made into a movie. Actually, I think that the movie may have actually been made before the book (I’m a little confused by the movie’s date, but it looks like it was first). The movie and the book are pretty close to each other. The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.


Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan, 1994.

The second book in the Sarah, Plain and Tall Series picks up about two years after the first book, shortly after Sarah marries Jacob, the father of Anna and Caleb.  That summer is very dry, and people worry about when it will rain next.  If there is no rain, their farms will be in danger.  Some people have been known to simply abandon their farms and move on during especially long dry spells.  Jacob says that their family won’t leave, no matter what, because “Our names are written in this land,” meaning that they have a commitment to it because they were born there and make their lives from the land.  However, Sarah was born in Maine, and Caleb worries that, if the dry spell goes on too long, Sarah will want to return to Maine.

The year goes on, and Sarah settles in to life on the farm.  Her cat, Seal, has kittens.  Sarah reflects on the baby animals and seems thoughtful about babies.  However, people are becoming ever more concerned that the water in the wells is lower than usual.  As people keep hoping for rain, Sarah gets a letter from Maine, saying how lovely and green everything there is.  The land around the farm is dry and brown, and the family has had to ration their water carefully, their supplies running increasingly low. 

Eventually, a family from the area has to pack up and leave because their well is dry.  Sarah is upset, trying to think of some way around the problem, but there is nothing to be done.  Everyone’s supplies are running low, and they’re already doing everything that can be done.  Sarah hates feeling helpless against the problem.  When Sarah’s best friend, Maggie, talks about leaving with her family, Sarah says that she hates the land because it takes so much and gives nothing back.  Maggie tells her that she’s like a lark that hasn’t come to land yet and that, if she is hoping to survive in this land and make a home there with Jacob, she will have to write her name in the land, just as he has.

Although the characters become increasingly distressed, in a way, I like the story for that.  Sarah is a strong, capable woman, but even she doesn’t have all the answers to every problem.  It’s upsetting for her to realize that, but it’s very human.  After the family’s barn catches fire and burns down, Jacob persuades Sarah to take the children and visit her family in Maine.  While they are gone, he will take care of the animals and try to keep the farm going, waiting for rain.

In Maine, Sarah and the children stay with Sarah’s aunts.  Aunt Mattie, Aunt Harriet, and Aunt Lou, who have never married, are called “The Unclaimed Treasures.”  They shower the children with affection.  Still, the children miss their father and worry about what is happening on the farm.  Sometimes, the children have bad dreams in which their father is unable to find them.

In the end, the rain comes on the prairie, and Jacob comes to Maine to collect his family.  Then, the family learns that Sarah is expecting a baby.  Anna worries a little because her mother died giving birth to Caleb, but Jacob and Sarah reassure her that everything will be fine.  When they return home, Sarah writes her name in the dirt, signaling her commitment to her new life on the prairie.

There is a movie based on the book that follows the story very well. In fact, some of the dialog is almost word-for-word from the original. The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, 1985.

This is a popular book to read in schools in the United States.  It’s a Newbery Award winner, and it shows aspects of farm life during the early 20th century and the concept of mail-order brides, a practice from American frontier days where men living in the West or Midwest, where there were not many available women in the population, would write to agencies or advertise for a bride from the East.  The process for arranging these marriages could vary, but it typically started with written correspondence before the man and woman would meet in person.  In this book, the man looking for a bride, Jacob Witting, is a widower with two children who has a farm on the Great Plains.  The story is narrated by his older child, Anna. The book isn’t very long, and it’s a pretty quick read, but it’s filled with colorful imagery and emotion.

Anna has had to help take care of her little brother, Caleb, since he was born.  Their mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and Caleb frequently asks Anna questions about what their mother was like.  Anna’s memories of their mother are fading because she was still very young when she died, but she really misses her.

Then, Jacob tells the children that he has advertised for a bride from the East, the way a neighbor of theirs did.  The children like their neighbor’s new wife and wouldn’t mind having a mother like her.  The father has received a reply to his advertisement from a woman in Maine, Sarah Wheaton.  Sarah has never been married, and now that her brother is getting married, she feels the need for a change in her life.  She loves living by the sea in Maine, but she is willing to move to start a new life.  She says that she would like to know more about Jacob and his children.

Jacob and the children write letters to Sarah, getting to know her better.  They come to like each other, but the children worry about whether Sarah will change her mind about coming to see them or whether she’ll like them or their farm when or if she comes.  When Sarah tells them that she’s coming during the spring, she says that they will know her because she will be wearing a yellow bonnet and describes herself as being plain and tall (the title of the book).

Sarah will stay with the family for a time while they decide if they can be a family together and if she will marry Jacob that summer.  There are adjustments that they will all have to make.  Life on the prairie is very different from what Sarah is used to, and the children still worry that she won’t want to stay.  Sarah brings seashells from Maine to show them, and they teach her about the local wildflowers.  One of my favorite scenes was where Sarah cuts Caleb’s hair, and they put the hair clippings out for birds to use in their nests.  Caleb was particularly concerned about whether Sarah would sing like their mother used to, and Sarah does. 

Through it all, the children can tell that Sarah really misses the sea.  Sarah does say that the land around the farm kind of rolls, a little like the sea, and they play in a haystack, like it was a dune by the sea.  When they visit their neighbors, Sarah talks with Maggie, the mail-order bride who came from Tennessee.  Maggie understands Sarah feels, missing her home in Maine, and it upsets Anna to hear them talk about missing their old homes.  However, Sarah says that things were changing at home, and Maggie comments that, “There are always things to miss, no matter where you are.”  What the women realize is that, although they miss their old homes, they have grown to love the new people in their lives and would miss them if they tried to go back to where they came from.

At one point, Sarah goes to town alone, and the children worry that she won’t come back, but she does.  She just went to town to buy colored pencils in her favorite sea colors.  Sarah does stay and marry Jacob, setting up the rest of the series.

There is a movie version of this book, which follows the story pretty well. The book wasn’t specific about the time period, although it seems to take place during the early 1900s. The movie and its sequels are set during the 1910s, which makes sense for the rest of the series. The book also didn’t say exactly where the farm was, but the movie clarifies that it’s in Kansas. The movie also emphasizes how much the whole family, particularly Jacob and Anna, misses the mother who died.  In the movie, Jacob forbids the children to use any of his dead wife’s things and doesn’t want to talk about her.  However, when Sarah realizes that trying to avoid his wife’s memory is hurting Anna, she brings out some of the dead wife’s belongs to use, helping the family to make peace with the past and prepare for the future. 

In the movie, Jacob’s pain over his wife’s death is partly about guilt as well as grief. The book doesn’t really talk about why Anna’s mother died after childbirth, but in the movie, Jacob has a painful discussion with Sarah about how he blames himself for his wife’s death because the doctor had warned them that they shouldn’t have any more children after Anna.  Apparently, Anna’s birth had been difficult because his wife was so young, and the doctor had said that having another child would be dangerous.  However, after a few years went by, they decided to try for a son to help run the farm, thinking that enough time had gone by for it to be safe.  When his wife died giving birth to Caleb, Jacob felt terrible, thinking that he should have taken the doctor’s warning more seriously and not tried to have another child.  Confessing all of this to Sarah helps Jacob to make his own peace with what happened.  However, none of this discussion appears in the book.

In both the book and the movie, Jacob also has to adjust to Sarah’s different personality.  Sarah is more stubborn and independent than his first wife, with her own way of doing things.  Living with her is different from living the mother of his children.  However, Jacob comes to love Sarah for the person that she is.

The book is currently available on Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Tomorrow’s Wizard

TomorrowsWizardTomorrow’s Wizard by Patricia MacLachlan, 1982.

In a way, this story is a collection of shorter stories, but they are all tied together. In the beginning, Tomorrow’s Wizard (that’s actually his name, he’s also called Tomorrow) has just been given an apprentice wizard named Murdoch. Their job is to listen for important wishes to grant. Each of the shorter stories in the book involves a different wish and how Tomorrow and Murdoch grant it.

The First Important Wish – Rozelle is a pretty girl but wild and given to fits of temper. Her parents had her later in life and never disciplined her, so she has never had a reason to learn to control herself. However, her tantrums drive everyone else crazy. Rozelle’s father, acknowledging how difficult it is to deal with Rozelle, wishes that he could find a man who was willing to marry her. Tomorrow hears the wish and sends a variety of suitors to meet Rozelle, but she doesn’t like them, and none of them really like her, either. Then, another possibility occurs to the wizards: the villagers have been complaining that they are afraid of a nearby giant. Tomorrow knows that he giant is really harmless and gentle, just lonely. Could it be possible that Rozelle is the company that he needs?

Three-D – Miller Few and his wife, Mona, are nasty people, two of a kind. Because he’s the only miller in town, Miller Few (known to his neighbors as Three-D for Dreadful Dastardly Demon) freely cheats his customers. He and his wife have no friends because they’re so awful. Then, one day, Three-D saves Murdoch’s life. To reward the miller, Murdoch agrees to grant him a wish. The miller and his wife decide that they want a nice, sweet child who would do their work for them. The child Murdoch grants them is indeed sweet. A little too sweet. Not only does little Primrose look pretty and do the housework, but she helpfully reminds the miller about his debts and the other things her parents do wrong. The miller and his wife become more careful and agreeable and gain new friends because of Primrose, but they aren’t very happy. They aren’t really being themselves, and they’re tired of being on their best behavior all the time. But, perhaps there is one thing that can stop Primrose from being overly sweet: the miller’s old cat, Clifford.

The Comely Lady and the Clay Nose – Geneva is a very beautiful young woman and has many admirers, but she knows that they are more in love with the way she looks than with who she is. It worries her, and she wishes for someone who would love her for the person she is. To help solve her problem, Tomorrow makes an ugly clay nose for Geneva to wear, telling her that it will help her to find the person she is looking for. When she puts it on, her former admirers flee, and for awhile, Geneva is very lonely, but she perseveres and ends up finding the love that she is looking for.

The Perfect Fiddle – Bliss, the fiddle-maker, is ironically an unhappy man. The reason is that, no matter how good his fiddles are, he can never make one that’s completely perfect. After Bliss tries several crazy schemes to capture perfection in his fiddles, Tomorrow goes to visit Bliss’s wife, Maude. Like Tomorrow, Maude has seen the problem with Bliss’s approach to his fiddles and finally asks Bliss the question that makes him reconsider whether perfection should be his goal.

The Last Important Wish – Although Tomorrow is impatient with his apprentice, Murdoch, he does like having him live with him, and he has also grown attached to the horse that lives with them both. However, he has come to see that the life of a wizard isn’t he one that Murdoch is really suited for. More than anything, Murdoch wants the experience of being born and living among humans. The horse, too, wishes for a kind master and a family. Tomorrow sees that it’s time to grant both of their wishes, giving the horse and Murdoch (as a baby) to a kind farmer with a wife and other children.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Wizard’s Hall

Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen, 1991.

Henry hadn’t seriously considered becoming a wizard.  It was just one of a number of things he considered being when he was young.  However, when he suggests the possibility when he is eleven years old, his mother unexpectedly jumps on the idea and immediately packs him off to Wizard’s Hall, the school for young wizards.  Although Henry expresses doubts, his mother tells him that it’s only that he try that counts.  Being a dutiful son, he immediately sets out for Wizard’s Hall to enroll.  He has a moment when he gets worried and tries to turn back, but he discovers that he can’t because his destiny is at Wizard’s Hall, the road there won’t let him turn back.

At Wizard’s Hall, the Registrar (after consulting with a strange bird or animal in a cage called called Dr. Mo) changes Henry’s name to Thornmallow, saying that he’s prickly on the outside but squishy on the inside.  Henry isn’t happy about being given a new name, but he accepts it as part of what he has to try at the school.  The Registrar and the teachers also refer to Thornmallow oddly as what they “desperately need.”  Something is deeply wrong at Wizard’s Hall, and the teachers are hopeful that Thornmallow will be the one to save them, although he doesn’t appear to have much aptitude for wizardry.

On his first day, his teachers discover that he is tone-deaf, which is unheard of for wizards.  Wizards have to recite their spells in the proper tones, and Thornmallow can’t do it.  When one of his teachers tries to help him by covering his years while he attempts to recite, Thornmallow accidentally recites a spell that produces an avalanche of snow and roses.  It’s more powerful than anyone expects of a beginning student, especially one like Thornmallow, who has no prior knowledge of spells and doesn’t show much aptitude in other ways.  Thornmallow wonders briefly if he might have some special, hidden talent for wizardry, but he is unable to produce the same results when he is alone.

Although Thornmallow feels lonely and out-of-place at his new school, he persists because he promised his mother that he would try, and the teachers at the school also say that trying is important.  He also makes his first real friends his own age at the school.  A couple of other first-year students, Tansy and Willoweed (called Will for short) are assigned to be his Guardians, helping him to become acquainted with the school and its rules, and another girl, Gorse, also becomes his friend.  Thornmallow realizes that he would miss his new friends if he were to leave, although be briefly considers it, having the feeling that his first spell was just a fluke and that he doesn’t have any real talent for magic.

However, just when Thornmallow goes to tell his teachers that he thinks that his admittance to the school was a mistake, he overhears them talking about the serious threat to the school: the school is in danger from an evil sorcerer and his Quilted Beast (a “quilted beast” doesn’t sound particularly threatening, but it’s worse than that).  The teachers don’t know how to defeat the Master and his Beast, but they know that it’s vitally important for the school to have its full quantity of students, 113.  They were almost full when they sent out a call for the final student and got Henry/Thornmallow.  Although they aren’t sure why Thornmallow is the proper final student, it seems that he has some important role to play in the situation, and when he learns the danger that they’re in, Thornmallow realizes that he has to stay and try to help them as best he can.

Master Hickory, one of the teachers, explains to Thornmallow and his friends that the Master was one of the original founders of the school years ago.  The main founder had been Doctor Morning Glory, and she sent out a call for others to help her, bringing 13 sorcerers to found the school.  However, one of the others, Nettle, was prickly in every sense of the word.  He enjoyed using his words (and words are very important in magic and in the story) to sting and hurt others.  Eventually, the other 13 founders pushed him out of the school, and he turned to dark magic to get revenge. 

The Quilted Beast is made out of the dark pieces of the souls of each of the other founders, all “quilted” together.  Master Hickory explains that everyone has a little darkness in them in the form of very deep emotions, the kind that can tempt people to do bad things, if they let them get out of control.  I particularly liked the explanations of how people have their dark sides and how mature people deal with them.  At first, Thornmallow struggles to understand why the teachers are so upset that their dark sides have been removed because he thinks that would make them better.  However, Master Hickory explains that by “dark side,” he doesn’t mean the parts that are necessarily evil; he means the parts that could become evil, some of which are actually good.  Master Hickory says that some of the strongest human emotions can turn to evil if they aren’t kept under control.  For example, ambition out of control can become greed or admiration out of control can become envy.  Having these feelings isn’t evil by itself; it’s the way people respond to their feelings that determines that.  Even love, which is considered good, is a deep emotion that can turn to something evil if used improperly, and so can count as part of a person’s dark side.  Mature people learn to deal with their feelings and control them, using them in the best ways.  People who aren’t mature, don’t.  Thornmallow, who often quotes his mother’s words of wisdom throughout the story, says, “Good folk think bad thoughts; bad folk act on ‘em.” 

I find those words of wisdom familiar because that’s something that my own parents impressed on me, “You can feel anything, but you don’t have to act on it.  You never have to act on it.” It was okay to have feelings and to say how we felt, but just “feeling like it” wasn’t an excuse for misbehavior. Everything had limits. You can’t hit your sibling just because you feel like it, and you can’t call people names just because you’re mad.  You can feel any way you want, but no matter what you’re feeling, you still have to behave, within the rules. If you don’t, there will be problems, and those problems won’t go away because of how you “feel.”  This probably explains a lot of my impatience toward people who don’t control themselves and don’t have limits for their behavior.  It’s not that I think it’s always easy or that people are always completely successful; it’s more that I have no respect for those who think it’s impossible and don’t even want to try, which brings us back to the story . . .

Master Hickory says that the teachers who had the smallest dark sides have still been basically functional since having them taken away, but those of particularly strong feelings have been damaged by the attack, including Morning Glory, who was both the most loving and the most ambitious of all the teachers.  What happened to Morning Glory isn’t fully explained until almost the end of the story, but the loss of her has been devastating to the school. When Thornmallow tells his friends about the problem, the kids are scared, but if there’s one thing that Thornmallow believes in, it’s trying. He and his friends are determined to try and save the school from the Master and the Quilted Beast, but time is running out.

The importance of trying is the theme of the story. Thornmallow/Henry doesn’t know his real talents or abilities, but just by showing up and trying to help, he learns that he possesses a special ability that makes him the right person to stop the evil wizard. Although he is not good at magic, not an enchanter, he has the ability to act as an enhancer for the abilities of others. The times when Thornmallow succeeds in his spells are when he’s working with, especially touching, one of the other wizards. He is able to use the talents of others and magnify them to be greater than anything either of them would do by themselves. By himself, Henry isn’t particularly special, but he can unite his friends and combine the talents of others, just by trying.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that the magic at Wizard’s Hall is largely based on word play. The characters play off words, using special names to point to the true natures of people and to change situations to be what they need them to be, which turns out to be part of the solution to their problem. Words spoken aloud at Wizard’s Hall have power and can change reality. For example, the names that everyone is given when they arrive at Wizard’s Hall are clues to the kind of people they are and what their abilities are. Thornmallow’s name is already explained, and at first, he puzzles a little over Tansy’s name when he meets her. Tansy is a black girl, and Thornmallow knows that tansy is a bright yellow flower. Gorse later explains to him that Tansy got her name because of her sunny personality. It’s not about what she looks like but what she is. Gorse describes herself as being small and prickly, and she seems proud of it because she’s comfortable with herself as she is. Before they can defeat the Master, who is really Nettle, they realize that they need to learn more about what Nettles are, which gives Thornmallow a clue as to what he needs to do.

Alien Secrets

Alien Secrets by Annette Klause, 1993.

Robin Goodfellow, nicknamed Puck (her parents were fond of Shakespeare), is a human girl from Earth in the future.  When the story begins, she has been kicked out of boarding school on Earth and is traveling by space ship to join her parents where they are working on another planet.  Her parents are scientists who have been working on other planets.  They left Robin with her grandmother on Earth, who enrolled her in an English boarding school in order to give her some discipline and some friends her own age, but she was expelled for failing her classes (not to mention throwing a fit and burning her books when she discovered that she had failed).  She dreads what her parents will say when she arrives on the planet where they are now living because they had always hoped that Puck would become a scientist too and work with them, but this journey will change Puck’s life.

Before the ship she will be traveling on leaves Earth, Robin witnesses a man attacking someone else, possibly killing him.  Robin does not report the attack because she doesn’t know whether or not the other person was killed, and she doesn’t think that anyone will believe her anyway.  She witnessed this attack while sneaking around a place where she wasn’t supposed to be, and she is being sent to her parents in disgrace after being expelled, so she doesn’t sound like a very credible witness.  However, the man in the fight, Mizzer Cubuk (“Mizzer” is how they say “Mister” in the book), turns out to be traveling on the same ship as Puck.  All Puck can think of to do is to try to avoid him on the ship and hope that he didn’t get a very good look at her after she ran away from his fight.

To Puck’s surprise, the captain of the ship she is traveling on, Captain Cat Biko, asks her if she could make friends with an alien who is also traveling on the ship.  The alien is one of the Shoowa, who were enslaved by another group of aliens called the Grakk.  Now, he is free and finally traveling home to Aurora, the same planet where Puck is going.  The captain feels sorry for him and thinks that he might appreciate a friend and that he might find a human child less intimidating than an adult.

Later, Puck and other passengers are woken out of their sleep by the sounds of wailing and moaning.  One of the women on board, Leesa, says that she saw something that looked like a ghost that walked straight through her. Other people, who didn’t see or hear it, assume that it was nightmares or imagination, but Puck knows that it wasn’t.  One of the crew members, Michael, tells Puck that there have been rumors that the ship is haunted and that other people have seen and heard strange things.

Strange things are happening on the ship, and some of the passengers seem to be hiding something. Who can Puck trust, and who isn’t who they seem to be?

The alien who is traveling on board the ship understands Puck’s feeling of failure.  The alien, called Hush, says that he carries shame because he lost something important, something that his people were counting on him to take home to their planet.  Puck and Hush discuss how people from Earth had fought the Grakk and sought to learn about Grakk technology from Shoowa slaves who were freed after the war.  Even the ship they are now traveling on was once a Grakk ship.  The Earth people kept delaying sending the slaves home because they wanted to pump them for more information and because they were trying to decide if they could really trust them more than the Grakk.  After negotiating with the Earth people about returning home, the Earth people agreed, with some provisions.  They arranged for some of the Shoowa to stay on the Grakk home planet, still working with humans.  Some of them would travel on ships with Earth people, and some others could go home to their own planet.  Hush is the first one to head home, and he was entrusted carrying home an important symbol of his people that his family had protected for generations: a statue that represents a child because children are the future and a source of freedom, according to an ancient Shoowa prophecy. Unfortunately, the statue was stolen from Hush before he could return it to its rightful home. He reported the theft to the Earth security personnel at the station, but they didn’t take him seriously. They thought that he probably just lost it by accident.

The haunting is real in this book.  On a tour of the ship, Puck learns that the ship’s navigator has also seen the ghost aliens.  One of the characteristics of a ship’s navigator is the ability to see hyperspace, something that not everyone has the ability to do, although even scientists in Puck’s future time don’t seem to know why some people can do that and others can’t.  Slowly, it becomes evident that people who are able to see hyperspace are also able to see the ghosts.

On the journey to Aurora, Puck also learns that she is one of the rare people who are able to see hyperspace, giving her a possible future in navigating a space ship, something that she would really enjoy learning.  When she arrives at Aurora and is greeted by her parents, who have missed her while they were apart, Puck also comes to realize that her parents will always love her, even in spite of failing her classes. Even Hush’s people tell him that, although they are happy to have the statue back, his safe arrival was always the most important thing, and they wanted him to come home, whether he successfully brought the statue or not. Both Hush and Puck come to realize that their families will always love and value them even with their imperfections and failings.  With parents who love her and a new vision of the future ahead of her, Puck is ready to make a new life on Aurora.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Jeffrey Strangeways

Jeffrey Strangeways by Jill Murphy, 1990.

Jeffrey lives with his widowed mother in a Medieval village (not a realistic one, this is a fairy tale type story), where his mother supports the both of them by selling her knitting.  However, when his mother breaks both of her arms after falling off of a cart, eleven-year-old Jeffrey must find a job and earn some money.  As a young boy from a poor family, there aren’t many options for him at first, and he doesn’t try very hard for the ones that are available because what he really wants to do is to be a knight.  As a boy from a non-noble family, it isn’t likely that he’d ever actually become a knight, but it’s all that Jeffrey has ever dreamed of.

One day, after Jeffrey has failed to get the jobs that were available in a nearby town of Axington, he is walking home, sad and worried about what his mother will say, he meets a knight.  In fact, it’s not just any knight but a famous one, Sir Walter!  Jeffrey is thrilled to meet him.  Sir Walter asks Jeffrey for directions and invites him to join him for supper. 

The two of them discuss what it’s like to be a knight.  Sir Walter tells Jeffrey that it’s not all as glamorous as people think it is.  Some parts are very difficult, and he has to travel a lot on his various assignments, keeping him away from his family for extended periods.  Unlike real, historical knights, who would work for a lord, Sir Walter works for an agency in Axington called Free Lance Rescue Services Limited, which gives him his assignments.  They send knights like Sir Walter to rescue damsels in distress or deal with dragons or ogres.  Although it’s not easy work, Jeffrey likes the sound of it!

When Jeffrey returns home and his mother finds out that he didn’t get a job, she is upset.  Jeffrey tells her about his meeting with Sir Walter, and she points out that, even though it’s exciting, he really needs to focus on finding work because they’re running out of money.  Seeing his mother so upset, Jeffrey lies to make her feel better, telling her that Sir Walter has recommended him for a job with his rescue agency.  His mother is doubtful at first, knowing that knights are usually from noble families and that her small son hasn’t had any training or shown any fighting ability.  Jeffrey reassures her that he’ll probably just be helping in the office until he gets more training.  To Jeffrey’s shame, his mother believes him and is proud of the job that he doesn’t have.

The next day, after his mother sends him off to his first day on his new “job,” Jeffrey decides that the only thing to do is to go to the agency in Axington and try to find out if he can get a job there, or failing that, anywhere he can in order to make things right with his mother.  When he gets to Axington, he is hungry, so he asks at a food stand in the marketplace if he can help out for a while in exchange for some food.  He spends the morning peeling potatoes in exchange for lunch.  However, although it’s boring work, Jeffrey does get a good meal out of it, and he catches the eye of a leatherworker, who compliments him for working hard.  Jeffrey confides in the leatherworker that he’s really hoping to get a job at the rescue agency, and the leatherworker tells him that his fiancé is the secretary there.  He gives Jeffrey a message to take to the secretary, and Jeffrey sees it as his opportunity to ask for a job.

When Jeffrey delivers the message to the secretary (which is an invitation to join her fiancé for lunch), the secretary tells him that the rescue agency has no job openings at the moment, but that she’ll pay him a penny to watch the office and her mother’s rambunctious dog, Lancelot, while she’s at lunch.  It’s not much, but a penny is enough to buy his mother a nice dinner, so Jeffrey takes the job.  The secretary tells him a little about how the office works, but she doesn’t expect anything to happen while she’s at lunch because nothing ever does.

However, while the secretary is away, a message comes in that Sir Walter is in trouble!  Sir Walter is in the cave of an evil ogre and needs help at once!  Jeffrey tries to find the secretary to tell her and ask what to do.  When he can’t figure out where she went to lunch, Jeffrey decides that there’s no time to waste and that he must rescue Sir Walter himself!

Although Jeffrey is eager to help Sir Walter, he does worry about the lies that he has told his mother about his new “job”, the fact that he isn’t really qualified for what he’s doing and doesn’t even have permission to be doing it, that the ogre might well end up eating him as well as Sir Walter, and that he left a mess in the office when he ran off on his rescue mission and is currently in possession of a dog that doesn’t belong to him.  The book is a fun adventure story, but it makes some good points about truthfulness and responsibility as well.

Although Jeffrey really only brought the dog along because he had nowhere else to leave him, it is really Lancelot who defeats the ogre, partly by accident.  At first, Jeffrey is tempted to claim the victory for himself, but he decides to be honest and admits the truth about the ogre’s defeat to Sir Walter.  Still, Sir Walter is grateful and offers to sponsor Jeffrey for knight school and give him a part-time job polishing his armor.  Jeffrey accepts, and he also gets to keep Lancelot, who needed a new home anyway, although his mother says that he will have to be responsible for the dog and its training.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.