Marshmallow’s Quick Take: If you like books about family, animals, or magic, then this might be the book for you.
Marshmallow’s Summary (with Spoilers): Peter Augustus Duchene lives in Baltese with his guardian, an elderly soldier named Vilna Lutz. Vilna Lutz is not particularly bad, but he is extremely obsessed with making Peter into a good soldier. Thus, Vilna Lutz is extremely strict. One day, when Vilna Lutz sends Peter to buy fish and bread, Peter meets a fortune teller. Instead of buying the fish and bread he was supposed to, he uses the money to ask the fortune teller a single question. (Since he is honorable, he decides that he will tell Vilna what he has done, which is very honorable.) Peter knows exactly what he will ask. His little sister, Adele, according to Vilna, was stillborn but Peter has his doubts. When he starts to ask the fortune teller his question, the fortune teller tells him that his sister is still alive. Extremely excited, Peter asks how to find her. The fortune teller mysteriously says, “Follow the elephant.” Puzzled over these words, Peter realizes that this means that Vilna or the fortune teller is lying, which shakes his foundations, because Lutz is a soldier, “good and true”.
Not very far away, a magician is performing at the Bliffendorf Opera House. He intends to summon a bouquet of lilies. Instead, this magician performs his greatest trick yet: he summons an elephant that crashes through the ceiling. This elephant lands on the legs of the woman the magician was trying to present the lilies to. She is crippled from that and the magician is arrested. The elephant is placed in a cage and then later bought by a rich noble woman to be displayed at her house.
The elephant is the talk of the town, and Peter hears about it and believes that it will lead him to his sister, Adele. When Peter questions Vilna about his sister’s supposed death, Vilna admits that she didn’t die. Vilna was a good friend of Peter’s father. Adele was not placed in his care because she was just a newborn when she was orphaned. This makes Peter more determined to find her.
Marshmallow’s Review: I think that The Magician’s Elephant is an amazing book. I always enjoy reading Kate DiCamillo’s books; all of her books are touching and elegant. And this one is especially good. I specifically like how DiCamillo goes into the backstories of all the characters and ties them all together at the end.
The Magician’s Elephant is also a great family book. The main message is simple and perhaps not surprising: even during hard times, family should stick together. But the way DiCamillo tells the story makes all the difference. I listened to this book with my family as an audiobook, besides reading the paper version, too. In both versions, I really enjoyed reading this book. All in all, I think it is a necessary addition to the library of anyone who likes reading children’s literature.
Kate DiCamillo also inserts a bit of a magical touch into this book. The summoning of the elephant and the fortuneteller’s ability to see are both interesting additions of inserting magic into an otherwise realistic storyline, and they make up a major part of this book. All together these make The Magician’s Elephant a touching book that is both realistic and magical, somewhere between fairy tales and realistic fiction.
The version of the book I read was illustrated by Yoko Tanaka. Tanaka’s full-page illustrations were black and white and simple, but contributed to the general magical atmosphere of the story.
Today Marshmallow is reviewing The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, the 2016 novel by Adam Gidwitz which won a Newberry honor in 2017. (Coincidentally she had already reviewed the book that won the Newberry award that same year: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.) Following Marshmallow and her recommendation, Sprinkles also read the book, which offers a lot of food for thought, both for young bunnies and the not-so-young ones. The two bunnies discuss the book together below.
Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with a brief introduction to the book? What is the book about?
Marshmallow: This book is about three kids, named Jeanne, William, and Jacob, and their dog, named Gwenforte. The kids have superpowers. Jeanne has fits and can see the future when having them. William is tall and very very strong. And Jacob has the power to heal people, but at an uncanny level. Even the dog seems magical. She died and then many years later reappeared above the plot of land she was buried in.
S: The subtitle of the book sort of hints at this, right? Three magical children and their holy dog?
M: Yes. And they are living in France, in the middle ages.
S: Yes, the story starts in 1242, and there are a lot of historical facts and people who show up in the book.
M: Yes, for example the king is Louis IX, the ninth Louis, and we also get to meet his mother Blanche of Castille. They are both real people from the history of France.
S: So in some very real sense this is historical fiction, which according to Wikipedia is “a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting related to the past events, but is fictional”.
M: Yes, but if we want to talk about genre, I think we might also have to talk about magical realism. Remember, I reviewed two books that I thought fit this category before: Ikenga and Hurricane Child.
S: Why would you say that?
M: Because everything seems real and like things are in the real world, but every now and then some weirdly magical stuff happens. And some of the characters interpret them as magic, and some think they are miracles. But they are almost always extraordinary and supernatural.
S: Can you give an example?
M: Jeanne has visions of the future for example. And then there is a dragon whose fart causes things to burst into flames. And everyone acts as if dragons are real and the main issue is that this dragon’s fart is unexpectedly deadly.
S: Yes, there is a farting dragon, and I am sure Caramel would love to learn more about that. And you are right, I think. I’d agree that this book is somewhere between magical realism and historical fiction. In fact at the end of the book, there is a section where the author explains which parts of the book are real history, which storylines he took from legends and myths and other stories of medieval times, and which he himself totally made up. All together these all add up to make a really rich story, don’t you think?
M: Yes. And the book is written like a medieval manuscript. There are illustrations on most pages, and they are credited as “illuminations by Hatem Aly”. Illuminations are the decorative illustrations that were sprinkled here and there in medieval manuscripts. We learned about them in history class when learning about the middle ages.
S: I can see why the author and the illustrator and the publisher decided to call these illuminations, besides the historical connection. I think they are not just illustrations that would accompany the text and depict some event happening in there. Sometimes they do not seem to be directly related to the story at all.
S: So you read this book a while ago and really wanted me to read it, too, so we could discuss it. Can you tell me why?
M: Because this book, more than any other book I read or reviewed recently, talks about religion at length, and I wanted to think out loud about some of the themes that came up together with you.
S: You are right of course. The book talks a lot about religion. Europe of the thirteenth century was almost a Christian continent, and we see this in the characters and their world views very clearly throughout the book. And Jacob, one of the three magical children, is Jewish, and we also see the tension between his world and the world of the other characters involved. In fact one of the main challenges the children have to face involves the king’s decision to burn all copies of the Talmud in France so as to get rid of all non-Biblical wisdom available to the Jews. And this was actually a real event that happened. Some background can be found in this Wikipedia article about the Disputation of Paris. Did you know what the Talmud was before reading this book?
M: No, I did not. But reading this book made me curious. It seemed to be really important to the Jewish communities and it seemed like Louis IX was trying to destroy something sacred to and vital for them. Then I learned from the relevant Wikipedia article that the Talmud is a collection of writings of more than a thousand Jewish scholars that addresses all sorts of theological and philosophical issues as well as very practical ones, like how to live one’s life.
S: So the children set out to try and save the copies of the Talmud that would be burned. Why did they want to do that? Only Jacob is Jewish. How come the other children agreed too that this was an important thing to do?
M: Because it was centuries of knowledge and wisdom collected and cared for by generations of people. And of course it was not fair to the Jewish communities who had so cared for these volumes of books one generation after another.
S: Yes, there is a part of the book when the children realize how each book is written and illuminated by a person who dedicates years of their lives to this work. And I really liked this because, even though we have the publishing press today and books can be published much faster, a book is still the product of many years of hard work of many many people.
M: And I like books! I mean I can like some books more than others, but every book I read takes me to a different world! I would not want even the worst novel I read to be burnt. And these are not novels. They contain sacred wisdom of a whole people. It just seems pretty terrible.
S: Yes, and the children can see beyond their own differences of world views, their own religious backgrounds, to see the value of these books and the cruelty of burning them.
M: Of course they are kind of guided to this by Michelangelo of Bologna, “the red, fat, and wicked” priest who begins as their nemesis and ends up being their friend and mentor. And in the end he turns out to be–
S: Wait, let us not spoil that. That is revealed all the way at the end and we don’t want to spoil it for our readers.
S: How about we instead talk about one of the big questions of all time that shows up in the book? The question of evil? The question of the reason and the justification of the existence of evil in a world created by a good God?
M: Yes. Some really bad things happen in the book, and at some point the children are so sad that they ask why God ever allows for such bad things to happen if He is good. And I think this is a really tough question. I don’t know how to answer it.
S: I think you are not alone Marshmallow. This is a big question for a lot of theologians and philosophers. What did you think of the answers offered in the book?
M: I’m not sure I totally understood them.
S: Well, the main Christian answer is, I think, captured in the Book of Job, and the drunk friar named Roger Bacon recites a part of that book to explain that the living are too small to understand the grand plans of God. What may seem like evil to us may not be. What we find wrong and bad may not be.
M: And then there is a troubadour (apparently that is a “a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, especially on the theme of courtly love”) who gives a different answer. He says God is a troubadour. I did not quite get that answer.
S: Yes, there is a part of the story when a troubadour sings The Song of Hildebrand, a story of a father and son who meet in battle. The father recognizes his son but cannot convince him that he is his father, so they go on and battle and it is all pretty bad and sad all around. And the troubadour sings this song and the song is sad, too, but it is also beautiful. And then he says that this is how our lives are. When we live them, it may be sad and ugly and terrible and we cannot make any sense of it. But all in all, there is a song that God is putting together and that song is beautiful. I think in a way this is the same answer as the answer from the Book of Job. While we are in the thick of things, going through the rollercoaster of life, we cannot appreciate the big picture. But the faithful believe that there is a meaning to it all, and it is known to God.
M: Hmm, I will have to think more about that.
S: Okay, then let us get back to the form of the book. What can you tell us about the general organization of the book?
M: Well, there are twenty-seven chapters. Each of them is titled The Innkeeper’s Tale, the Nun’s Tale, and so on. Each is told through the perspective of someone else who knows a part of the story of the three children and their dog. And slowly, chapter by chapter, we get to learn their story as it unfolds. Also there is a main narrator, who is the “I” of the main story. And he is trying to learn about the children and what happened to them and so on.
S: So maybe it makes sense to also tell our readers that the story starts in an inn and the different people talking are all at that inn, taking turns, telling us the story of the children, in more or less chronological order.
M: Yes, I guess that would also be useful to know.
S: In that way the book resembles some medieval stories, in particular The Canterbury Tales and the earlier Decamoeron, which were each written as collections of tales told by a handful of characters one after another.
M: I did not know about those earlier books. But looking them up on Wikipedia, I see that they were both written in the middle ages, so it makes sense that the author chose this form. I like that!
S: Me too. It somehow gives the book an even more authentic feel.
S: Okay, Marshmallow, this is already a pretty long review. Let us try and wrap things up. Who is your favorite character?
M: I liked the children a lot. They are all good people. And they are also in some ways very realistic even though they have some strange super powers. They act like real children.
S: True. Which super power among the three would you have liked to have if you could choose?
M: Probably the healing power of Jacob. I think that would be really good, so I could help a lot of people.
S: Did you know the author would choose William’s strength? He says “Well, Jeanne has visions of the future. That could only screw you up psychologically. Jacob has the power to heal wounds—which just means I’d be running around like an EMT all day. William has incredible strength. That I would take.” (This is from a longer interview with the author, which you can find here.)
M: I guess I can understand that.
S: You have also read and reviewed A Tale Dark and Grimm, by the same author. Do you see any similarities between the two books?
M: That was a lot of fun to read but also kind of scary. This too has some scary things that happen. So maybe both would be more appropriate for older bunnies, like me, rather than Caramel.
S: I see. This one also engages with some pretty mature themes, so I agree that perhaps it is best for more mature readers, like you. So finally how would you rate this book Marshmallow?
M: I’d rate it 95%.
S: And what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap up this review?
M: Stay tuned for more amazing book reviews from the book bunnies!
Today Marshmallow reviews Clarice the Brave, a 2021 novel by Lisa McMann.
Marshmallow’ Quick Take: If you like books about animals, friendship, or family, then this might be the book for you.
Marshmallow’s Summary (with Spoilers): Clarice and her brother Charles Sebastian are ship mice. Their mother was born on land, but all Clarice has known is the vicious ocean. She doesn’t understand why her mother chose to live at sea, especially since it is so dangerous; Clarice’s mother drowned in the ocean during a storm. And that’s just the beginning of Clarice’s problems. The crew of the ship she lives on recently had a mutiny. The Captain and those loyal to him were shipped off to die on the open ocean. Unfortunately, Clarice and the Captain’s cat were also put on that boat, while her brother is stuck on the ship with the mutineers. The Captain’s cat, named Special Lady, killed and ate Clarice’s older sister. However, Clarice soon realizes that she and Special Lady must cooperate to survive. Eventually, Clarice and Special Lady start to sneak each other food, in a sort of trade. This leads, slowly, to their eventual friendship.
Meanwhile, on the ship with the mutineers, Charles Sebastian is left alone without his family. Charles Sebastian was always an unusual mouse, and so Clarice is very worried about whether he will be able to take care of himself. Charles Sebastian starts to hang out with a young girl named Benjelloun who is imprisoned by the mutineers, because she heard about their mutiny, which is illegal. Benjelloun is mistreated by the crew, left outside in the storm, and such. Eventually, Charles Sebastian learns that not all humans are bad.
Clarice has one goal: to find her brother again. But the odds seem impossible. Perhaps, with the help of Special Lady, she can see him once more. And the big question is: will they survive and live happily ever after?
Marshmallow’s Review: Clarice the Brave tells a very touching tale. I think that the book is also interesting because the story is told from the perspective of two mice. In some ways the book reminded me of Poppy and Rye and the rest of the stories of the mice of Dimwood Forest that Caramel has reviewed. But unlike in those books, each chapter in this book is actually narrated by one of the mice, either Clarice or her brother Charles Sebastian. Chapters narrated by each can be identified easily; at the start of each chapter, there is a small portrait of the specific mouse narrating that chapter.
There are also a few full-page illustrations throughout the book. They are done by Antonio Caparo, and they help the reader visualize some of the events going on.
It was really interesting to see how the characters develop through the book. For example, Charles Sebastian grows up into a braver version of himself as he needs to take care of himself all by himself. Charles Sebastian’s friendship with Benjelloun and the friendship between Clarice and Special Lady were both well developed.
This sweet story could be enjoyed by bunnies of all ages; I think bunnies seven and up could appreciate the tale of Clarice the Brave and her friends.
A couple years ago Marshmallow read and reviewed When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Today she reviews another book from the same author published in 2015: Goodbye Stranger.
Marshmallow’s Quick Take: If you like books about family, friendship, and mystery, then this might be the book for you.
Marshmallow’s Summary (with Spoilers): Bridge is an accident survivor. She has missed all of third grade, and had to learn how to live normally again. When she returned to school, her friend Tabitha (Tab) introduced her to Emily (Em), and the three of them became best friends, the set of fourth graders who drew animals in the corner of their homework. (Bridge draws a Martian, Tab draws a funny bird, and Em draws a spotted snake.)
They are now starting seventh grade and are in middle school. They are still best friends, but some things have changed. Em turned out to be really good at sports, and her body has started to change, which has attracted some attention. Tab is now a “know-it-all” and has become very interested in social action/change and feminism.
The three girls are best friends and they all follow one rule: no fighting. But they have encountered some difficulty with this rule since they started middle school. Bridge has become very good friends with a boy named Sherm. She has joined the Tech Crew with him. But she finds herself confused about how she feels about him. But the worst problem of all is Em’s. She has made a critical mistake, regarding a boy, and the repercussions threaten to tear the trio apart.
Different chapters of the book are told in different voices. In some chapters we read the letters Sherm writes to his grandfather. He never sends them though. Sherm’s grandfather left his family and ran off with some woman that is not Sherm’s grandmother. Sherm doesn’t think that he can forgive his grandfather for leaving them, ever. Sherm also has trouble identifying his feelings toward Bridge. Sherm writes down the events of the book in these letters, from his point of view, ending each letter with the amount of time left before his grandfather’s birthday, something they used to do before he left.
The third set of chapters is written in the voice of an unknown highschooler (who knows the previous characters mentioned). This particular person is having big problems with her friends, specifically Vinny. Vinny is pretty, smart, and popular, and the unknown highschooler used to be best friends with her, until she (the anonymous highschooler) finally realized how cruel she was. Vinny likes to play a “tasting game” where she blindfolds a person and feeds them something. If she likes you, she gives you a banana or something. If she doesn’t like you, she gives you a spoon of black pepper. The unknown student brings another girl, named Gina, to meet Vinny, and Vinny feeds her pepper during the game. The unknown teenager struggles to understand whether the Vinny she knew when she was younger is still there, under the cruelty.
Marshmallow’s Review: Goodbye Stranger is a good book. I found it interesting that the name of the anonymous highschooler is unknown until the end, and that it turns out to be someone who has been there since the beginning. I didn’t guess who it was at all. As I said before, the book is told from multiple perspectives: Bridge, Sherm, and the unknown girl. I think that this made it more interesting. And the three voices are quite different from one another. All of Sherm’s chapters are in the form of letters written to a grandfather, while Bridge’s chapters are narrated in the third person. The unknown highschooler chapters, on the other hand, keep using “you”, which leaves a totally different flavor in the end.
I think that Goodbye Stranger is probably better for middle schoolers and up. There are some things that might be confusing for younger children. For example, I think Caramel might not understand all of the plot.
One minor thing I felt was not perhaps ideal was the way the most idealistic of the three girls, Tab, was treated, both by others in the book and by the author, too, in the end. I think Tab was perhaps a bit too naive and perhaps a bit too strong with her passion for an equitable and just world, but I think those are valuable things to hope and work for, and I did not appreciate that she was too often dismissed and not taken seriously.
Overall though, I think that the author, Rebecca Stead, did a great job with this book. The characters are unique and realistic, and also very understandable. Rebecca Stead also wrote When You Reach Me, which I reviewed before. I did like that book a lot, too, but I think that Goodbye Stranger is even better.