Review of the Day: Strange Happenings
I'm sorry, babies. I should be posting more than just the requisite review of the day. But I actually have things to do and places to be. Forgive me, sweeties, and I'll give you all kinds of tantalizing treats on Monday, I promise.
Cats haven’t been considered really and truly evil for centuries now, but try telling that to Avi in his latest collection of short stories. Cats? They're friends with the devil himself. They’ll transform bodies with you and then leave you stuck as a feline for the rest of your days. In “Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation”, Avi gives up the world of historical fiction and kid adventures to bring us some fantasy and sci-fi tales that come across as low-key Ray Bradbury. Not quite as chilling, of course. Let’s just consider them starter-Bradbury fare. They’re not always moral tales and not always agreeable, but they've the advantage of always being interesting and always containing just a hint of darkness to their souls. Whether he’s channeling fables or Rod Serling, Avi’s book is for those kids who want tales of magic rather than scary fare. These stories are warnings. Not frightenings.
The first tale, “Bored Tom” (which sounds like a character from Struwwelpeter) is the first of these transformative tales. Tom’s bored as all get out. He’s like Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, feeling that life has nothing new to offer him. That is, until one day a cat comes to him with a particularly interesting proposition. Story number two is “Babette the Beautiful”. In it, a queen wishes for a daughter of complete and utter perfection. She gets her wish, but it’s the daughter that has to pay the price. Story number three was “Curious” about a boy’s search to discover who’s really inside the local baseball mascot’s costume. Curiosity kills the cat in this one. Rounding out the book are Avi’s attempts at creating new fables. “The Shoemaker and Old Scratch”, involves a man, a cat, and the devil himself as one character attempts to outwit the other. Finally there’s “Simon”, about a man who wanted everyone in the world to take notice of him and the consequences of when they do.
The connecting thread between these tales is that in each one someone, or some thing, changes from one physical appearance to another. Transformation, both internally and externally, as it were. Because of its particularly pretty cover art, the book is bound to attract a whole host of enthusiastic child readers. The question is, how strong a book is this? It’s always difficult to review collections of short stories, especially for children, since you’re judging the author on scant little glimpses of interesting tales. What it comes down to is whether or not the author adapts just as well to the short format as he or she does to the longer. In Avi’s case, it’s kind of touch and go. He’s certainly won the reader over in terms of interest. Every tale is an interesting one, even those of a moralistic bent. So how well do they stick with you in the long run? Will the kid that reads these stories be thinking of them long afterwards or will they immediately forget them? The answer is both. I think the fables, like “Simon” and the “Old Scratch” tale, are forgettable. They’re fine as stories go, but they don’t stick too tightly in the brain. The slightly horrific “Curious”, will be more memorable for some kids than others. And personally, I think the first two stories in this collection are the strongest, and come across as the most affecting.
Once in a great while a teacher will tell his or her class to locate a book of short stories and report on them in some fashion. In other cases, kids are told to find a book of short stories and act one of the tales out like a play. There are a million different uses for a book of this type, and for their purposes, “Strange Happenings”, will be an ideal choice. I don’t think that it’s the best of Avi’s work or even the best collection of short stories for kids by a single author, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. Well worth picking up if you get a chance.