I can’t tell you how excited I was when I read about the premise of Beswitched: time travel! boarding school! the 1930s! girls butting heads and having complicated friendships! However, everything about the execution felt forced to me, and as a result I just couldn’t warm up to the story. First of all, there’s Flora herself and her character arc: I don’t have anything against stories where an initially unreasonable, inconsiderate character learns The Error of Her Ways and becomes more mindful of others, but this has do be done organically rather than heavy-handedly, or else it’s going to lose me. It’s obvious that we’re meant to think that Flora is a bit of a spoiled brat when the story begins, and this is done in an exaggerated, cardboard-y way that immediately distanced me from her. It’s not that I disliked Flora; it’s that she didn’t feel like a real person. Furthermore, the 1930’s words and turns of phrase the girls used felt rammed in; and the ending was not exactly what I was led to expect, but in a way that only drew further attention to the puppet strings. The book sets up a deliberate red herring, and when the truth about Flora’s connection to the past became obvious it made me feel manipulated.
I feel like a curmudgeon writing this, but alas, Beswitched was just not for me. Maybe it would have worked if I had more of an emotional connection to the classic school story genre it’s obviously paying loving tribute to? You could very well feel differently, though — after all, as I said above it does feature time travel and a 1930s boarding school and complicated girls. Maybe you’ll have more luck than I did.
I was impressed with Dubosarsky’s writing from the very first paragraph. Here’s how The Golden Day opens:
The year began with the hanging of one man, and ended with the drowning of another. But every year people die and their ghosts roam in the public gardens, hiding behind the grey, dark statues like wild cats, their tiny footsteps and secret breathing muffled by the sound of falling water in the fountains and the quiet ponds.The thoughtful, slightly dreamlike prose continues for the rest of the novel. This is the kind of quiet, subtle, bittersweet and unsettling book that I generally love, and I think the fact that I felt mildly disconnected from it probably says more about me than about the book itself. The Golden Day is filled with a pervasive sense of dread that’s never fully resolved, and this ambiguity is part of what gives it its power. It’s also the sort of story I suspect will be read in different but equally rewarding ways by children and adults. As an adult, I can see all the things the parents, teachers and other authority figures are not quite telling the girls in Miss Renshaw’s class. I can see the fear and uncertainty they try to mask; I can see their desperate attempts to be reassuring and look in control of a situation they don’t know how to handle. As a child, I think I would have mainly related to how well Dubosarsky conveys what it’s like to get glimpses of a messy adult world you don’t yet fully understand; to try to trace its borders and make sense of its rules. The little girls navigate Miss Renshaw’s loss differently depending on their histories, and they each attempt to incorporate the summer’s unsettling events into their ever-evolving map of adulthood.
The Golden Day is a brief novel, but it packs a lot. I look forward to reading more of Ursula Dubosarsky’s writing.
In Night Birds on Nantucket, Dido finds herself aboard a ship whose captain is obsessed with following a pink whale, which… come on, of course I was going to be charmed from page one. The ship eventually takes her to Nantucket, which in Aiken’s alternative history universe is an independent nation, where she uncovers yet another Hanoverian plot. Dido, who gleefully says “screw being ladylike!”, is as much of a delight to spend time with here as she was in Black Hearts in Battersea. One of my favourite things about the story, though, is that Dido is absolutely not framed as an excepto girl. Dutiful Penitence, the timid friend Dido spends the first half of the novel drawing out of her shell, proves resourceful and brave and saves the day in the end. Also, you have to read this book for the encounter between the Pink Whale and Captain Casket alone. I can’t wait to see where Dido’s adventures will take me next.
I really enjoyed this picture book as an adult, but I know it’s one that would have set my imagination on fire as a child. The illustrations reign supreme in Tell Me a Dragon: there’s a brief and evocative bit of text accompanying each one, but the joy in absorbing all the detail in each double-page illustration and then imagining all the dragons Morris doesn’t draw. I was somewhat reminded of Journey, another picture book that uses art to evoke all the joy and excitement and sense of boundless possibilities the best stories give us, and that leaves readers longing to explore all the worlds it hints at.
As promised, pretty pictures:
(Have you posted about any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.