Monday, October 29, 2007

What You Wish For: Strange Happenings by Avi

In this collection of five tales of the supernatural, Newbery Award-winner Avi (who won his 2005 award for Crispin_ makes use of a popular device for fantasy, the mystical power of transformation.

"Be careful what you wish for--because you might get it" is the basic theme of these stories, together titled Strange Happenings Two of the stories have a contemporary setting. In the first, "Bored Tom," twelve-year-old Tom Fitzhugh is marginally involved but basically bored with his daily world of home and school. When he meets up with a talking cat named Charley, he takes the cat up on his offer to swap places, chiefly because he needs an exciting event to write about in a school assignment. Tom soon regrets his choice but finds that undoing the wish will not be easy.

The second contemporary story, "Curious," has a more chilling tone. Jeff Marley is strangely curious about the mascot for his hometown baseball team, the Rolerton Astros. This costumed character, called "the Alien," cavorts on field, mocking the players and umpires, and is popular with the fans, but when Jeff inquires about him, no one seems to know who the person inside the strange outfit is. When Jeff stakes out the stadium and watches the goings and comings of players and staff, he cannot identify the actor who portrays the character. Finally driven by his curiosity, Jeff begins serious surveillance from beneath the bleachers, where to his horror he finds out the horrifying truth about the real space alien behind the "Alien's" sponge rubber-clad persona.

Three of the stories hew to more traditional folkloric settings. "Babette the Beautiful" tells the story of a baby born to a queen who asked an ugly old sorceress to give her a flawlessly beautiful child. Babette is born perfect but perfectly invisible. As in the "Emperor's New Clothes," everyone pretends to see her as strikingly lovely until Babette herself finally looks, and fails to see, her own reflection in a mirror. "The Shoemaker and Old Scratch" is conceived in the traditional "pact with the devil" motif, in which a duplicitous cobbler fails to keep his deal with a mysterious cat and in turn is forced into a much harsher deal with the devil. The last tale, "Simon," tells the story of a spoiled and self-centered child who takes all his parents have to give. When his search for notoriety leads him to kill an enchanted Golden Bird, Simon is himself transformed into a bird until his selfish soul finds remorse.

These stories are indeed of strange, bizarre, and sometimes creepy happenings, but in Avi's skilled hands, they become modern cautionary tales which warn of the peril of wishing for more than one deserves.

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