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A Sunburst of Fantasy
A Look at Farrar, Straus and Giroux's Children's Paperback Imprint
by John O'Neill

I wish I could say that it was science fiction that first kept me up late. But what an enormous disservice that would be to the numerous fine children's books -- chock full of ghosts, wart-faced witches, and courageous mice -- that were the first to tease a high note from the strings of my imagination. To be honest, I can't even recall most of those books today. But I sure remember the look, the feel, the smell of them. And I still know a good children's book when I see one.

I'm skirting a fat, slobbering cliché to say that there's something magical about children's books. But no, really, there is. Maybe it's more accurate to say that there's something pure about children's books. With the adult fantasy market today, who knows what risks you run when you crack open a new book -- inadvertent exposure to volume one of a bloated ten-part epic; Lord of the Rings cast with punk elves; a Star Trek rerun in medieval costume. But just try and pull a stunt like that on an audience of eight-year-olds. While the rest of the world may pay lip service to plotting, there's no getting around it in this market. With children's books it's all about the tale, and no special effects or sleight-of-hand can disguise a plot hole from an eight-year-old.

Rat's Tale There are plenty of publishers catering to the Young Adult and Children's book market today, but few of them have demonstrated a commitment to quality fantasy fiction as sustained as Farrar, Straus and Giroux's Sunburst paperback imprint. For the last twelve years, Sunburst has published a wealth of fantasy, science fiction and horror at a level of quality that would put many adult imprints to shame. This month we have a look at some of their recent titles, all published or re-released this season.

Of Mice and Men

Rodents were staple heroes in Young Adult fiction long before Walt Disney made Mickey the Sorcerer's Apprentice famous, and they still get most of the good parts. Take A Rat's Tale (1986, 187 pages, $6.95) by Tor Seidler and illustrated by Fred Marcellino, for example. Young Montague Mad-Rat is busy collecting feathers in Central Park when Isabel, a young and attractive Wharf rat, is literally blown into his path on the winds of an oncoming storm. When he introduces her to the wonderful shortcuts of the New York sewer system he impresses her enough to win a kiss... and soon he's head over heels with a rat of considerably higher social stature than himself. How he uses his unique artistic skills to win her hand proves to be a grand adventure, set in an imagined world with "the kind of entrancing reality found in The Cricket in Times Square or even Stuart Little" (Kirkus Reviews). Precisely the kind of imaginary dexterity you'd expect from the author of Mean Margaret and The Wainscott Weasel. And yes, the title is a pun.


Rats aren't the only archetypal rodent heroes cluttering bookshelves. Abel's Island (1976, 119 pages, $4.95) written and illustrated by William Steig, author of Silvester and the Magic Pebble, features one of the great literary ubermice of the last few decades: Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, a prim and rather stuffy Edwardian mouse whose inherited wealth has ensured him a life of tremendous comfort and ease. But when a storm blows up unexpectedly during a picnic with his wife -- storms apparently being a literary rodent's defining nemesis, kind of a meteorological Moby Dick -- Abel finds himself swept away by the driving rainwater and stranded on a river island for over a year. Faced with the stark necessity of survival, Abel discovers a level of courage and resourcefulness within himself that he never knew he had, including the ability to make true friends. Selected by the New York Times as the best children's book of the year when it first appeared, Abel's Island has won a place in the hearts of numerous readers young and old.

"It's hard to imagine that Abel's Island was written only 21 years ago," wrote Lela Olszewski in her feature review of Abel's Island. "This delightful fantasy has a timeless quality that succeeds in a way that children's books full of the latest slang and social relevance rarely can... Abel, true to his name, learns he is capable of foraging for food, solving engineering problems, defending his life against predators and surviving despair and loneliness. He gains an appreciation for nature and is inspired "to try his hand at making something just for its own sake, something beautiful." Stripped bare of all but the most basic of civilization's trappings, Abel finds his true calling: he is an artist. Abel's Island works on so many levels that it's no wonder it is a classic and a Newbery Medal honor book."

Notions and Potions

Fairy Tale There aren't a lot of picture books published in an inexpensive paperback format, so it's always a surprise to find one as delightful as A Tooth Fairy's Tale (1996, 32 pages, $6.95) by David Christiana. The Tooth Fairy is the last fairy in the world -- all the others having been turned to stone by a giant's stare -- and every night she accompanies her father, the Sandman, on his task of cleaning out a giant's eyes. One night she spies a beautiful blue stone in the giant's tight grasp, a stone the exact color of the dress her mother was wearing when she vanished. Obsessed with the possibility that the stone may be her mother, the Tooth Fairy begins the dangerous game of bartering with a giant. When the giant reneges on the deal, the fairy and her father hatch a plot to steal the stone, leading to a rousing climax that reveals the true nature of the stuff of dreams. A charming and beautifully illustrated tale, prefect for reading to any youngster with a wiggly tooth.

Night of Three Wishes

I picked up The Night of Three Wishes, or The Satanarchaeolidealcohellish Notion Potion (1989, 218 pages, $5.95, illustrated by Regina Kehn, translated in 1992 by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian) because of Michael Ende. The German author of The Neverending Story has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in Children's Literature, but frankly I'd never heard of this one before. It's the tale of Shadow Sorcery Minister Beelsebub Preposteror and his witchy aunt, who find they've fallen behind in their annual quota of evil deeds and must complete them all before midnight -- including exterminating ten species of animals, poisoning five rivers, and creating at least one plague. And all that stands between them and diabolical success is a small cat and a raven, determined to foil their evil plans and save the world.

"I like this book a lot," says Sabrina, our children's lit expert and only thirteen-year-old staff member. "It was an interesting mix with good vs. evil and evil vs. evil. The dominance of animals over humans is different from what one usually sees in fantasy. It seemed simple enough but it has a hidden complexity. The animated objects/elemental spirits war is a unique kind of fun, and the author uses a lot of humor with his description and examples of book platoons. The witch and the sorcerer are evil enough to make this a good book, without it ending up as a horror story or something similar. It looks into some things like further dimensions, and evil in the end serving God, to add depth. An unexpected ending, but satisfying. Altogether a good mix and balance."

The Creepy Stuff

Real Mummies

When children's lit does creep over into the horror section of your local bookstore, it usually does it with a cheery Jack-o-Lantern and a shy spook or two on the cover. Firmly in this category is Real Mummies Don't Bleed (1994, 119 pages, $4.95) by Susan Whitcher and illustrated by Susan Glass, which is subtitled Friendly Tales for October Nights. This collection of five original stories "just right for any dark and stormy night" includes tales of a talking toad, a witch trap, and even a genie in a paper bag. Perfect for those who like laughs generously mixed in with their frights.

For those who don't have more-than-enough alternatives, Demons and Shadows: The Ghostly Best Stories of Robert Westall (September 1, 1997, 264 pages, $6.95) is Sunburst's first collection of the late Robert Westhall's ghost stories to be released in paperback (the sequel, Shades of Darkness: More of the Best Ghostly Stories of Robert Westall is still only available in hardcover). Westall's original story collections, such as Echoes of War and Antique Dust, are now out of print and difficult to obtain. These collections are ideal for ghost story fans of all ages.

Demons and Shadows Containing ten reprints and one new tale ("Graveyard Shift"), this collection exhibits the wide range of Westall's talents. In "The Death of Wizards," a youth discovers the wisdom of not meddling in the affairs of wizards. An avenging angel bent on destroying a village confronts a young girl in "Rachel and the Angel," and "Graveyard Shift" introduces us to Cem Robsom, a kindly cemetery superintendent who finds himself a counselor to the newly buried... and forced to deal with a particularly evil arrival. Other tales such as "The Creatures in the House" and "A Walk on the Wild Side" showcase Westall's distinctive British style, and the reason he is considered "An acknowledged master at turning a tale toward the spooky and unexpected... Westall's dark stories are rich with drama, wit, and wisdom" -- BookList.

Roald Dahl

Nobody knew children's fiction like Roald Dahl, the brilliant author of such classics as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. And Dahl had his own fondness for the creepy and the macabre. In 1958, he approached Edwin Knopf, half-brother of publisher Alfred Knopf, with the idea of doing a television series of nothing but ghost stories. The idea was green-lighted, providing that Dahl could scare up twenty-four superb examples of the classic ghost story culled from the last hundred years or so, and that he would write the teleplay for the pilot himself. He began his task in earnest, and in short order he assembled "just about every ghost story that had ever been written. My house was filled with books and piles of old magazines, both bought and borrowed." The task of reading them all and choosing the twenty-four best wasn't easy, but in the end Dahl had his selection and crafted the screenplay for the first, "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham" by E. F. Benson, which was produced and shopped around Hollywood.

The pilot turned out to be a political landmine: "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham" tells the tale of a Catholic priest who must chose between violating the sanctity of the confessional and letting an innocent man hang. Afraid of upsetting millions of Catholics around the country, advertisers and network execs took a pass on the pilot and on the series. Dahl was left, in the end, "with nothing but a very complete knowledge of the ghost stories of the world." Twenty-five years later he assembled many of his chosen few into a book: Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (Noonday Press, 1984, 235 pages, $12), a prime collection of some of the finest ghost stories ever written, including neglected gems by such writers as Edith Wharton, Robert Aickman, and Sheridan Le Fanu. This time out, sadly, Benson's tale is not included.


Not every ghostly tale intended for a young audience is a short story. The Eyes of the Amaryllis (1986, 128 pages, $3.95) by Natalie Babbitt -- author of Tuck Everlasting and The Devil's Storybook -- is a full-length novel with plenty of genuine chills. The brig Amaryllis has been lost at sea for thirty years, swallowed with all hands by a hurricane. Geneva Reade, the Captain's widow, still walks the beach at night, watching and waiting, certain that her husband will send her a message from his watery grave. But Geneva too is being watched, by a mysterious old man named Seward. So things have been for years, until the arrival of Jenny, the widow's granddaughter, whose arrival portends a climactic ending to three decades of a haunted game. Made into a 1982 film staring Martha Byrne and Ruth Ford, this is an original and creepy tale for kids young and old.

FSG is also the publisher of Madeline L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time -- one of the first great works of fantasy I do remember reading -- including several available in inexpensive editions in the Sunburst line, such as Dance in the Desert. Other recent publications of note include the historical adventures of Rosemary Sutcliff, including The Eagle of the Ninth and The Shining Company; George Selden's classic The Cricket in Times Square and The Genie of Sutton Place; and Frances Mary Hendry's Quest For A Maid, a tale of witchcraft in 13th century Scotland. All in all, the Sunburst line has one of the richest offerings for fans of quality fantasy fiction this season, one that shouldn't be overlooked by readers of any age. Spend some time and have a closer look, and I think you'll agree.

Copyright © 1997 by A. John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the Founder and Managing Editor of the SF Site.

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