Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘author roundups

After reviewing Spilling Ink, I was eager to read more books by co-authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Having received enthusiastic email from both ladies upon the post of my review of their writing guide, I decided to also ask for interviews.

I always appreciate when writers take time from their own busy work schedules to answer questions. Anne replied within a week despite having a cold. Ellen also replied quickly despite having project commitments.

If you haven’t already read it, please check out my interview with Anne Mazer. I hope you will enjoy my follow-up interview with Ellen Potter. Thanks to both ladies for their time.

Allison: You have tons of odd people, places, situations, and inventions in your books. How do come up with all your quirky ideas? Are any of them based on real life counterparts?

Ellen: I do have this attraction to the quirky side of life. If you plop me in a room full of people, I will magically find my way to the lady who collects earwax in mason jars.  I just love people who are unapologetically bizarre. Some of my characters are amalgams of people I have met; but many pop into my head fully formed. 

Allison:You have said in other interviews that because you don’t outline you don’t often know what’s going to happen to your characters at the outset. In Olivia Kidney and Pish Posh, you were even surprised by the secrets that some of your characters held. How you prepare your readers for these unexpected revelations? 

Ellen: Since I often don’t know the secrets until I am almost right on top of them, I have to go back into the original narrative and tuck in a few hints in. For the most part, though, I don’t want to over-prepare my readers. The beautiful thing about working without an outline is that you keep surprising yourself with your own story; and if I’m surprised by my story, my readers will be too.

Allison:You’ve talked about doing research for some of your books. How does research change what you write? What advice would you give to students about how to integrate research into a story? 

Ellen: I consider research one of the great perks of my job. I’m a pretty curious (ok, nosy) person, and I love going on research quests. Sometimes I will deliberately pick settings or a character’s occupations because it’s something I want to know more about. I used to be shy about asking people questions, but I’ve found that people generally love to chat about the things they know best. I’ve been inside jails, been coached on how to do an Ollie, helped deliver mail to islands, and spoken to subway conductors. Totally fascinating!

As far as advice goes, I think it’s often best to do the research at the same time you are writing your story, or even after. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time doing research on things you may not ultimately need for the story. Also research can be a nifty stall tactic for getting started, since it’s generally easier to read about something than to write about it. 

Allison:You grew up in New York City, which is also the setting for three of your books. What was your favorite thing about NYC? Least favorite thing?  

Ellen: Manhattan was a great place to grow up. Your playground is thirteen miles long and filled with the coolest stuff imaginable.  For a kid who loved to write, I had all the material I needed right outside my front door. And now, years after I’ve moved out of New York, I still find myself setting many of my books there. I think it’s partially because I’m writing about kids, and kids have an unusual degree of autonomy in the city. They can move about without parents via buses and trains and on foot, so there is more potential for adventure.

My least favorite thing about NYC? The smell. How an entire city can reek of urine is beyond me.

Allison: Your details of apartment buildings, restaurants, and even New York City are rich in sensory detail. What is your secret to so effectively building setting into your story? What advice do you give kids about how to build a sense of place in story?

Ellen: I think kids understand, deep down, how to do this.  It’s a form of playfulness. It’s a natural extension of “Hey, imagine if . . .” You just sort of sink into the part of the mind where kids go when they’re bored—the part where exciting things happen and the world is brighter and more alive than the one they are living in. That’s essentially what I do.

Allison: You have known a boy like Owen in SLOB and this helped inspire the book. In the acknowledgments, you credit others for helping you work out a scenario for Owen’s invention. How did you even know where to start and who to contact to get this help? How much of the book were you able to write before figuring out the details of his invention? 

Ellen: Before SLOB, if someone had told me I was going to write a book about radio telescopes, I would have said they were nuts. In college I failed an astronomy course. But Owen had a brilliant scientific mind, so I knew I had to bring myself up to speed. I found a wonderful astronomer in Hawaii who was incredibly generous with his help. He gave me some terrific ideas about how Owen might build a radio telescope out of scraps of junk. My husband is an engineer, and he helped me with the inventions. I told him what Owen was trying to invent, and he gave me some ideas about how Owen could do it.

Allison:In other interviews, you have talked about the origins of Olivia Kidney, Pish Posh, and SLOB. How did you come up with the idea for The Kneebone Boy? 

Ellen: One of the things that sparked the idea for The Kneebone Boy was something I had read about a creepy castle in Scotland. According to local lore, the castle had a secret room that had once held The Glamis Monster. The monster was the oldest son of Lord Glamis, a child who had been born with such awful deformities that his parents claimed he had died at birth, then locked him in the hidden room for the rest of his life. This story was so terrible and compelling that I knew I wanted to weave it into a book.

Allison:You don’t plot. What is the typical draft process like? What do like most about it? Least about it?  

Ellen: It’s a little bit nerve-racking to write without an outline, but I find the discomfort is worth it. I follow my characters rather than a story outline, and I try to imagine what they might do in a given situation. Things pop into my brain more easily when I’m not fixated on a result, so the first draft feels very improvisational. The funny thing is, although I’m not meticulously constructing the storyline, the storyline almost always winds up pretty tight. It’s like that feeling you get when you look back on a series of events in your life, and in hindsight you can see how it couldn’t have happened any other way.

Allison:What is the typical revision process like? What do like most about it? Least about it?  

Ellen: I used to dread revision. Now I enjoy it. The hard work of manifesting has been done and now you can relax a little and tinker. It feels like a big puzzle, and I’m pushing pieces around until it all fits snugly.

Allison:You post about being involved in writing workshops for kids. What are the best lessons you have learned about your own writing from them? What are the best lessons you would pass onto young people?  

Ellen: My Spilling Ink co-author, Anne Mazer, and I conduct many writing workshop for kids, and we are always amazed at how many young writers have strong narrative voices. It seems to come pretty naturally for younger writers, whereas many adult writers struggle with it.  Listening to their stories reminds me to loosen up with my own writing. To remember to play.

On the other hand, some kids feel that because writing doesn’t come easily to them, they aren’t good at it. Anne and I tell them that even professional writers struggle daily with fiction writing. We stumble around a lot. Our first drafts are generally pretty lousy. The best asset a writer can have is not natural talent; it’s stubbornness. 
 
Allison:What’s next? 

Ellen:I have a new book called The Humming Room which is coming out early next year, and I’m working on a series for younger kids now. Anne Mazer and I are also cooking up something new too, so stay tuned.

Ellen Potter
Spilling Ink

What amazes me most about Ellen Potter’s books is how unpredictable they are. Just when I think I have one character or one situation figured out, Potter will reveal a twist. Yet I would never say that her plots are contrived. Ellen Potter also delights me with quirky characters, settings, and situations. Yes, she truly makes all three unusual! Yet with only one exception, I would never say that her unconventional writing feels forced. Last, I’m impressed with how convincingly Potter took on the perspective of an overweight fifth-grade boy. Her other three books are from the viewpoint of precocious preteen girls, making SLOB a unique feat. Perhaps for this reason, SLOB is probably also my favorite. Roahl Dahl and Neil Gaiman fans especially, I encourage you to check out Ellen Potter.

OLIVIA KIDNEY

Cover of "Olivia Kidney"

Cover of Olivia Kidney

Olivia Kidney splashed onto the scene in 2003. Anyone with a bizarre name like Olivia Kidney is bound to have adventures. And so she does, partly because of her dad. Olivia’s dad is an apartment building superintendent. He doesn’t know how to fix things and so is always getting fired. Of course, this means lonely Olivia is always traveling new places and meeting new people. So much so that Potter has already written three books about Olivia. In the first, Olivia’s new home is an apartment building twenty-two stories high, made of maroon and yellow bricks, and located on New York City’s Upper West Side. This in itself might not be so unusual, nor perhaps are the crabby and unfriendly tenants, but wait…. What about the Biffmeyer children outside who are playing freeze tag? The boy who greets Olivia, who is searching for her key, has no shoes and wears dirty socks with a hole in the big toe. He “gave off the faint odor of a barnyard”. What about the batty old woman with bird-skinny legs and no pantyhose? She lives in an apartment that feels like it is floating in thin air, because everything is made of glass—even the floor. From her apartment, you can see two women below playing cards. Olivia can also see an unsupervised toddler playing in the bathroom. When he picks up a blue bottle, full of liquid that Olivia’s dad uses to unclog sinks, Olivia rushes downstairs to prevent him from swallowing poison. In doing so, she meets the boy’s mom who has an appointment with a psychic. As you can tell, adventures also seem to find Olivia. Sometimes all the twists and turns in Olivia Kidney make me feel like I’m in a house of mirrors. At the same time, the bizarre scenarios also exhilarate me the way haunted Halloween houses can. Olivia is a fun character. The apartment complex where they live is weird. And by the time I turn to the last page, pretty much every situation has surprised me in a good way. I can’t wait to read Olivia’s next adventure!

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Cover of "Pish Posh"

Cover of Pish Posh

PISH POSH

In contrast, it took me awhile to warm up to the equally precocious pre-teen featured in Pish Posh. True, Clara Frankofile is different from the norm, but she is also a perfectionist snob. She wears dark glasses and a black dress (of which she owns one-hundred and fifty-seven copies), sits at a little round table in the back of the Pish Posh restaurant, and dines on a tuna-fish sandwich cut into four perfect squares. The latter doesn’t sound too bad, but I don’t like that “she gazed around the room with sharp, assessing eyes”. Nor do I like that Clara felt that her classmates were all astonishingly stupid. Last, I hate that because Clara’s parents won the restaurant, Clara can a patron “has become a Nobody” and then ask them to leave and never return. My favorite scene is the conversation that transpires between Clara and Dr. Piff after she calls him a “Nobody”. While he admits that she has cunning eyes, he also informs her: “And yet, you have failed to notice a most particular and mysterious thing that is happening right under your nose.” This announcement rankles Clara, who in her arrogance thinks she knows everything. To her dismay, she eventually discovers that Dr. Piff is correct. I enjoyed seeing Clara frustrated. Remember though that Clara likes tuna-fish sandwiches. She also likes roller coasters, cotton candy, and beach sand. Moreover, in the quiet of her apartment floor (the family owns two floors of a high-rise apartment), Clara likes to wears overalls and a straw hat. This elegant girl is not as proper and prim as she wants everyone to think. When a girl about her age gets caught stealing on her floor, Clara finds herself craving danger and even covers for the thief who is named Annabel. There is sweetness to the relationship that develops between these two girls, as they make choices about their future and who they really want to be. I also liked the mystery that unfolded, as Clara tries to figure out what secrets are happening under her nose. Last, I was impressed with how Ellen Potter could introduce a somewhat unlikeable character but then turn her into an endearing fun kid.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

SLOB

When I read the first lines of SLOB, I wondered what I was in for: “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are.” Was this going to be another “pity the fat kid” story? Or was it going to be another “here’s how to lose weight” story? I should have known better than to wonder. This is Ellen Potter. SLOB starts out with a simple problem: The cookies which Owen eats for lunch everyday have disappeared. I like Owen’s reason for this daily snack: “No matter how lousy my morning was; those three Oreo cookies remind me that life also has its high points.” I feel the same way about chocolates. After you read about Owen’s gym class, you’ll probably also understand why Owen needs those cookies. On the heels of gym class is a third problem: Owen is trying to build something called Nemesis. About it, Owen says: “I’m not going to tell you what she will do when she’s complete. You don’t know me well enough yet. You probably think you do. Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We’re so obvious…. That doesn’t mean we don’t have other secrets that you can’t see.”And Owen does have a huge one. So does his sister. And even the high school bully. What amazes me about SLOB (and all of Potter’s books) is how organic it is. SLOB goes in one direction and then another. Yet no matter what surprises crop up, when you think about them in hindsight they all make sense. Something else I love about Potter’s books is how easily she weaves in lessons, without ever preaching about them. For example, throughout much of SLOB, Owen struggles with being a coward. At one point, he realizes that he is like a boulder that sits there and lets others do what they want. As such, some of Owen’s failures are through his own weakness. Owen is all of us who have ever run away from a problem. He is also every person who has faced up to problems. For so many reasons, including this one, SLOB is my favorite Ellen Potter book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

THE KNEEBONE BOY

So far, I haven’t cared for at least one book in every author round-up. Inevitably, I have reached this place with Ellen Potter’s books. In The Kneebone Boy, the Hardscrabble children live in a small England town where everyone has avoided them like the plague since their mother disappeared. One reason the villagers avoid them is because rumor has it that one day Otto strangled his mom in a fit of rage. I suspect another reason is because the children aren’t all that friendly. One day the youngest Max invites a girl home. Lucia demands to know who she is. Lucia keeps pressing Brenda with questions until finally Lucia denounces everything Max has said as lies and snorts: “I’m surprised a girl your age would believe such rubbish. I honestly think kids are getting stupider each year.” Yes, Ellen Potter has given readers another snob. The difference here is that while eventually Clara reveals herself as vulnerable as the rest of us, I never really feel this about the Hardscrabble children. In Potter tradition, mysteries are afoot within the first chapter. Did the children’s mom die at the hands of Otto? Did she even die? What exactly happened to their mother? There are other storylines, but none of them possesses the same heart of Potter’s other books. Instead they seem weird for the sake of being odd, such as the unidentified narrator of The Kneebone Boy. Then, if you remember, I compared Olivia Kidney to a house of mirrors because all of its twists and turns. The Kneebone Boy also has twists, but I find them harder to follow and so in the end stopped caring whether they all made sense.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

During one of my first years of gardening, I bought a box of about one hundred flower bulbs. My future husband and I dug trenches along my apartment walls, dumped the bulbs randomly, and then covered them up. The following spring, I had the fun of trying to guess what plant would show up where and in what quantity. Ellen Potter’s books are akin to that experience. Reading them, I never knew what path she would take her characters down or what new characters would show up on the next page. Yet in the end, just like I had a delightfully beautiful garden, her books always felt satisfying and complete.

This week I’m continuing my round-up feature of fiction books by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. These two ladies are the co-authors of the fabulous writing guide Spilling Ink which I reviewed earlier this fall as part of a round-up. Last week I spotlighted Anne Mazer; this week I’ll feature Ellen Potter.

Collaboration: Ever wonder how these two ladies met or how they found the collaboration process? Read all about it at Cooking The Book: The Joy of Co-Authoring. My only collaboration experiences have occurred as a teacher, but I keep teasing my husband that one day he and I need to co-write a mystery. He can plot and add the quirkiness, while I can do the rest. What do you think of collaborating? What have been your experiences?

Reader: What is the oddest thing you have ever read? When Ellen Potter was a child, some of her favorite books were Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, when no books were available, she read walkie-talkie instructions, the back of cereal boxes, and even the washing instruction tags on her clothes. Me, I read dictionaries and encyclopedias, along with those instruction manuals and food boxes.

Writer: What did you want to be when you grew up? Why did you make that decision?

Ellen Potter has wanted to be a  writer since she was eleven years old. She was in her school library, strolling through the aisles, trying to decide what to read next. As she debated whether it should it be A Wrinkle in Time or maybe Harriet the Spy,  Ellen Potter decided that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds. With her twelfth birthday just around the corner, she reasoned that the only thing for her to do was to grow up and write books for eleven-year-olds. Which is pretty much what happened!

As for me, I grew up wanting to be a naturalist, actress, veterinarian, singer, astronomer, artist, teacher…. You name it and I probably wanted to be it. Most of all though, I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read stories, tell them, and hear them. I still do!

Inspirations: Remember how I said that I tend to grab information for teasers from anywhere online I can find it—including other reviewers. Well, today, I have two tidbits about Ellen Potter which both come from other blogs.

Ever wondered whose writings most influenced your favorite author? If you didn’t grow up reading E. Nesbit and Roald Dahl, but like Ellen Potter, check them out. In an interview at Girl in a Swirl, Ellen Potter credits them: “I love E. Nesbit’s books! The kids in her book are so charmingly rotten. Roald Dahl has also been a big influence. I love his skewed, eccentric universe, and it has definitely crept into my own books.”

When compiling questions to ask Ellen Potter, I noticed that some answers exist about the origins of three of her books. Here I’m including one about her most famous book, which comes from Ellen Potter’s own blog: “Like my character, Olivia Kidney, I grew up in a high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side. In fact, the idea for Olivia Kidney came from a game I used to play when I was about eight or nine years old. I would watch people in the building’s elevator (most of whom I knew nothing about) and make up crazy stories about their apartments. There was one woman, for instance, who was sort of chubby and always cheerful, so I imagined that she lived in an apartment made entirely of chocolate! I imagined that her walls were made of chocolate, so she could lick them, and her furniture was chocolate, and she had a chocolate refrigerator that only contained chocolate eggs and chocolate milk. And if she got hungry in the middle of the night, she could nibble on her bed.”  Reading this tidbit made me think about how one can see hills in the distance in my hometown. Growing up, I wondered what lay behind those hills and wrote at least one story where I explored this childhood question.

As an avid reader and aspiring writer, I grew up reading author bios. I’m still reading them as a book reviewer. One of the most fun bio I’ve ever read comes from Ellen Potter: The Big Fat Lie of the Author Bio

To get an even fuller scoop about Ellen Potter, check out my interview with her. And of course don’t forget to read my roundup of her books. Both are coming your way this weekend!

Anne MazerAfter I emailed Anne Mazer to let her know that I had reviewed Spilling Ink, which she co-authored with Ellen Potter, I received a quick and positive response. She also told me if I needed copies of anything to let her know. I didn’t expect to actually take her up on that offer, as I know authors can’t exactly afford to send out copies of their books to just anyone. When however I looked for her books at our local library, I found myself out of luck. Anne Mazer immediately packaged up some of her books for me. Within a week, I received signed copies of five of her books. I wish to say thanks very much to Anne Mazer for her kindness in sending me some of her books and in agreeing to an interview. Next week, please look forward to reviews of books and interview with Ellen Potter too.

Allison: What was it like growing up with parents who were writers?

Anne: It was like attending writer’s boot camp from infancy. I absorbed a lot of invaluable knowledge about writing that was just in the air. For example, I had no illusions about much work writing took, or how solitary it was. That helped me a lot when I began writing later on in life. One nice thing about growing up with writers: no one minds if you disappear for hours or even days behind a book!

Allison: You grew up reading and writing. What were your favorite books back then?

Anne: I loved fairy tales, myths and legends, and anything funny, fantastic, or futuristic. And practically anything else with a spine, a cover, and a bunch of pages covered with writing.

Allison: What today is the worst thing about writing? What is the best thing?

Anne: Worst: isolation, lack of security, no health insurance. Best: ability to create universes out of one’s imagination; meeting amazing people whose lives you’ve touched with your writing.

Allison: You have two series: Abby Hayes and Sister Magic. What is the worst thing about writing a series? What is the best thing?

Anne: I love writing series. It’s like visiting with old friends. You don’t have to reinvent the world every time you write a book. On the other hand, you’re restricted. If you want to break out of that world, you can’t. You have to follow the rules that you set up. Also there’s a lot of time pressure in writing a series. You have to produce books quickly. That’s not always easy.

Allison: Who are you like of all your books’ characters? Who do you secretly want to be like?

Anne: There’s a little of me in every single one. But I’ve never yearned to be one of my characters. In another lifetime, I’d like to be Pippi Longstocking, however.

Allison: How did you meet Ellen Potter?

Anne: Megan Shull, the author of Amazing Grace, introduced us. The three of us did an event masterminded by Megan, called “You Read, Girl.” It was an incredible evening. Afterward I knew I had to become better friends with both Megan and Ellen. Sure enough, a few weeks later, we were all sitting down to discuss writing a book together. Because of other commitments, Megan soon had to leave the project. Ellen and I kept on going. The result was Spilling Ink.

Allison: What was it like to collaborate with another author?

Anne: I can only answer what it was like to collaborate with Ellen Potter: the best, ever. Magic happens when the two of us get together. We bring out the best in each other. There’s a lot of trust, respect, and mutual admiration; and we can be honest about what we think and feel. I barely knew Ellen when we started the book, but now she’s someone I can’t live without.

Allison: You have written books for younger and older readers. How do you adapt to each audience?

Anne: When I start to write, I try to “tune in” to that audience. Before I start writing, I have to get the voice in my head. Once I have it, I’m good to go.

Allison: You post about being involved in writing workshops for kids. What are the best lessons you have learned about your own writing from them? What are the best lessons you would pass on to young people?

Anne: What I’ve learned from kids: I love their enthusiasm, creativity, wild imagination, and ability to write dialogue that’s out of this world. They have a looseness and freedom that I try to emulate.

What I try to pass on: I think kids, especially the younger ones, should just learn to enjoy their writing. Find out what sparks their imagination and what makes their eyes light up. Once they experience the joy of it, they might be ready for some of the more difficult aspects. If they can connect to their own voices, the hard work part starts to make more sense.

Allison: What’s next?

Anne: Another project with Ellen Potter, of course. And I have a few books in the works.

Anne Mazer
Spilling Ink

For author round-ups, I always challenge myself to read everything that is available by an author at my local library. When it comes to reading Anne Mazer, this would be impractical. She’s written picture books, chapter books, series books, and even a nonfiction writing guide for a total of about fifty books. The Abbey Hayes’ series alone numbers around twenty books. She’s one prolific writer!

Earlier this fall, I reviewed Spilling Ink, which Anne Mazer co-authored with Ellen Potter. As soon as I finish reading a few dynamite finds from library book sales, I also plan to review sample Abbey Hayes’ books in a second round-up of juvenile fiction that features aspiring authors. For now, you’ll have to settle for a review of three representative books: The Accidental Witch, Sister Magic, and The Oxboy.

Although these three books are for different ages and audiences, they show off Mazer’s ability to immediately set up conflict and establish character. The Accidental Witch starts out: “I’ve wanted to be a witch since I was four years old.” Only a few paragraphs later, we learn that main character Bee is not witch material: She doesn’t have a broom; cats make her eyes puff up; her hair is short, straw-colored, and sticks up. Sister Magic starts out: “Mabel and Violet are as different as two sisters can be. They didn’t look alike. They didn’t think alike. They didn’t play alike. They didn’t act alike.” Only a couple of paragraphs later, we learn that this is a problem, because sometimes they didn’t even like each other. And only a mere page later, an even bigger problem crops up in the form of a mysterious book that is sent to them, which Mabel is reluctant to allow Violet to hold. The Oxboy starts out: “No one can tell that I am the son of an ox.” Like with the other two books, the conflict is revealed after only a few paragraphs: “I have not forgotten my father, though he left when I was five.”

The Accidental Witch and Sister Magic also show off Mazer’s ability to create memorable characters. In The Accidental Witch, character tags are used to quickly distinguish characters. For example, Peter is so thin and slight that he is almost invisible, while Mandy looks like ice-cream with sprinkles on top but is NOT sweet. As for Bee, we quickly learn that all her problems would be solved by becoming a witch: Jennifer would be proud to be her friend again, Mandy would turn green with envy, and her teacher would award her with an A for all her perfect school work. We also soon realize that as clumsy as Bee is, she has a ton of confidence. When her mom lists the traits she needs to become a witch, Bee thinks she is well on her way. And when a real witch visits her school to outline the four stages to becoming a witch, Bee thinks she is a cinch for being picked as a witch-in-training. Turning to Sister Magic, Mazer’s style is simpler but characters are no less developed. I love this image that main character Mabel gives of her younger sister Violet: “Mabel had jam on her face. She had jam on her hands. She even had jam in her hair.” Later, we learn even more about the differences between the sisters by seeing the contrast in their rooms: Each one of Violet’s walls is a different color, her curtains are green, and her bedspread is polka-dotted. Mabel’s room is painted pale yellow. Her curtains are yellow. Her bedspread is a matching cream.

Mazer is equally adept at creating vivid descriptions. I love this line from The Accidental Witch: “The colors of rain, dusty winds, and gutters of muddy water may all carry magic into your world.” Senior witch Andelica uses this phrase when describing the glories that witches bring to the human world. Naturally, every object connected to a witch is orange or black. I appreciate that there aren’t any of the serious and darker objects (such as crystal balls, tarot cards, or hexagrams but rather fun and lighter Bewitched-type stuff like capes, hats, wands, and cats. Non-witch details are picturesque without being flowery such as: “the air chilled and darkened, as though someone had clapped an iron bowl over the earth”. Again, Mazer’s style is simpler in Sister Magic, but the descriptions are just as real. For example, here is one about Mabel’s special bead box: “She had organized the beads by size, color, and shape. All the colors of the rainbow, from blue-green to yellow-orange, sparkled in their drawers.” In those two sentences, we’re given all the info we would expect an eight-year-old to observe or need. We also see how organized Mabel is. Turning to The Oxboy, we read that the family cottage is like a sweet-smelling barn. It is far off the main road, at the end of a tumbled path overgrown with clover and blackberries. Can’t you just picture it?

The final compliment I’ll bestow on Mazer regards her light tone and humor. One of my favorite episodes in The Accidental Witch involves the broom that Bee receives. It is for beginners, which Bee quickly realizes means that her broom is about as untrained as she is when it comes to magic. This means it twitches, skims, whizzes, bangs, zooms, plunges, and of course flings. When her broom finally flies Bee home, it thinks about going down the chimney but then thinks better about it and takes her through her closed bedroom window. One of my favorite episodes in Sister Magic isn’t a laugh out loud one, but did make me smile. Mabel, her best friend Simone, and Violet are making bead necklaces to wear on their first day of school.  Mabel is feeling proud of how she is sharing her beads, when Violet decides that instead she wants to run under the sprinkler. To Mabel’s dismay, Simone joins Violet outside and helps her turn on the sprinkler. Mabel instead keeps making her necklace, but then glances out the window and notices the hot weather. She decides that she can finish her necklace anytime, there was plenty of time, but “there might not be time to run under the sprinkler again”.

You’ll notice that I have said little about The Oxboy. While it is a well-written allegory with an important message, it is not typical Anne Mazer fare. After the hint of conflict in the first chapter, the next two chapters backtrack to tell about how a woman and an ox unite during a time when animals are outcasts. As such, The Oxboy is a slower and more plodding tale than found in her other books. Even when the pace picks up in chapter four, because the strange union is discovered and the family is being hunted, the book remains overtly moralistic and dark. Rarely are readers allowed to forget the message of prejudice and cruelty, to the point that The Oxboy rarely receives help from even his fellow animals. So, while I liked The Oxboy, it lacks the spark and charm I have come to appreciate from Anne Mazer, and so is not my favorite.

Which brings me back to Mazer’s other two books! In The Accidental Witch, Bee believes that everything would be perfect if only she could become a witch. Ta-da! One day she’s sitting in her favorite tree in the cemetery, when she loses her balance and falls into the center of senior witch Andelica’s circle. Next thing Bee knows she has magic. Guess what? Through all her attempts to use it, Bee discovers there are actually other ways to solve problems. As for Sister Magic, I thought first that it would just be a fun episodic book. In some ways it is: The girls play in the sprinklers, shop for school shoes, and help out their parents. Except there is also the mysterious package, a visit from a strange uncle, and some unusual events such as laces that kept untying themselves. Through all these events, Mabel gains a little more appreciation for her little sister. In other words, Mazer’s books are not only well-written but fun to read with some good messages to boot! For all these reasons, I’m now a fan.

My rating? Read them: Borrow from your library or a friend. They’re worth your time.

How would you rate these books?


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