Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Past: Ghost Tale for Christmas Time (Magic Tree House #44) by Mary Pope Osborne

"My father had fallen on hard times," said Charles. "He was a good man, but he couldn't pay his bills. So he was sent to a debtors' prison across the river."

"But at least things are different for you now," said Annie. "You're a famous writer."

"How can that make me feel better?" said Charles. "What is writing? Just ink on a page. It's not food for the hungry. It's not medicine for the sick. Lately I've been thinking I should give up my writing altogether."

"It seems so foolish and vain."

It is late November, and Jack and Annie are again summoned to the Magic Tree House, this time for their final mission to bring happiness in the modern world by helping a creative person to give his special gifts to the world. Their summons asks them to travel to Victorian England, taking the magical Wand of Dianthus transformed into a child's violin in a green velvet bag, to help Charles Dickens, who, depressed by the poverty and injustice of his times, finds himself unable to write.

Set down in prosperous Hyde Park, Jack and Annie hire a hansom to take them to Dicken's home nearby. As the two notice the sumptuous shops along the way, they are also surprised to see that many of the workers of Victorian England are children of their own age. Switching their prosperous "young gentlemen" dress for the ragged clothes of a pair of child chimney sweeps, Jack and Annie fake their way into Dickens' home and pretend to clean the fireplace in Dicken's own study, hoping to have a chance to speak with him.

But the famous writer is in despair. Nothing he writes pleases him, and when he sees little Jack and Annie with their sooty faces, he reacts strangely.

"I can't bear it," Mr. Dickens groaned. "I--I can't bear it," he said. "I have to get out!"

Jack and Annie rush after Dickens into the foggy late afternoon, hoping to get a chance to persuade him to continue his writing. As they run through the busy streets following Dicken's slow-moving cab, they are arrested as potential thieves and just as they are about to lose the all-important velvet bag, Dickens happens along and recognizes the two as his grubby sweeps and testifies that they had the bag with them when they were working in his house.

But despite his kindness to the children, Dickens's despair leads him to hurry away to an almost deserted park, where he drops, weeping on a bench. Hiding nearby, Annie and Jack realize that it's time to use the violin to play the magical song which will create a vision to convince Dickens to continue his work.

Annie's song summons Dickens' own personal ghosts, one who shows Dickens himself as a twelve-year-old finding escape from his daily drudgery in a factory in his battered copy of Arabian Nights. A second ghost appears to show Charles his current fans, eagerly awaiting his latest work, and the final ghost, one from his future, shows his children at his own grave, sobbing in regret:

"Poor Papa," the young woman said to the other mourners. "How sad that he stopped writing when he was so young. If only he'd given more stories to the world, he might have touched the hearts of millions."

Mary Pope Osborne's latest Magic Tree House book, Magic Tree House #44: A Ghost Tale for Christmas Time (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)) (Random House, 2010) takes the reader to the moment of inspiration for Dicken's classic A Christmas Carol. As always in this notable series of early chapter books, Pope combines humor, adventure, and a bit of magic into an easy-reading taste of historical fiction that brings the past alive for young readers.

As Annie and Jack return back home, Merlin shows them the fruits of their last four missions right there in Frog Creek: the sounds of of local musicians rehearsing a Mozart piece for a church performance, a middle school band practicing a Louis Armstrong number for their fall concert, and at the library, a local storyteller recounting Irish folktales collected by Augusta Gregory. Then they see that their current mission was a success as well: at the local community playhouse, the marquee proclaims the upcoming opening of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" for the holiday season.

As always, Osborne also offers a companion research guide, Magic Tree House Research Guide #22: Rags and Riches: Kids in the Time of Charles Dickens: A Nonfiction Companion to Magic Tree House #44: A Ghost Tale for Christmas Time (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)) (Random House, 2010).

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