wolves of willoughby chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

1962

Illustrated by Pat Marriott

The fair-haired orphaned Sylvia leaves her aged Aunt Jane to live with her cousin Bonnie at the country estate known as Willoughby Chase.  On the overnight train journey, Sylvia is joined in her compartment by Josiah Grimshaw, a strange man who attempts to befriend her with chocolates and tea cakes.  When they are awakened by a lurching stop, Sylvia looks out on the frozen landscape to see wolves streaming across the snow.  They begin throwing themselves against the train window until the clasp gives, the glass shatters, and a wolf bounds into the compartment.  Mr. Grimshaw dispatches it with a shard of broken glass and then heaves its carcass out the window.

This singular scene, with a tone unlike that of any other book in children’s literature, gives a taste of Joan Aiken’s disorienting imagination.  The book is set in 19th century Britain but the improbable appearance of the sinister wolves reveals the backdrop to be pseudohistorical.  Aiken places her stories in the past, but she has taken liberties with history.  In a later book, we learn that the wolves have invaded England from the continent through a tunnel under the English Channel.  Aiken’s world is just a hair off-kilter, which makes it much more unsettling than a world of overt magic.

wolves of willoughby chaseWhen Sylvia reaches Willoughby Chase, she and Bonnie discover that Mr. Grimshaw is in league with the wicked Letitia Slighcarp, a distant relative in whose care the girls and the estate have been left during the absence of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green.  After sacking all the loyal retainers, Miss Slighcarp packs her charges off to an orphan work house in the bleak industrial town of Blastburn.  They make their escape from the cruel Mrs. Brisket with the aid of Simon, the forest boy who lives in an underground cave on the estate with his geese.  There is a wonderful scene in which the feverish Sylvia is tucked into a donkey cart with feather-filled mattress and quilts below and warm feathery geese on top.  Lulled by the soft warmth, she immediately falls asleep.

Joan Aiken came from a literary household – her father was the Pulitzer Prize winning Conrad Aiken and her stepfather was Martin Armstrong.  Home-schooled until the age of 12, she read voluminously as a child.  The influence of Charles Dickens is obvious in her work (note the names of the evil characters), as is that of Victor Hugo.  The wolves are borrowed from The Box of Delights, an unusual book by John Masefield that is little known in the U.S.  The starkly opposing forces of good and evil, with the inevitable triumph of the former, provide the makings of a gothic morality play or a wild melodrama (there are shades of both).  Aiken leavens the battle with a deadpan humor, sometimes with a morbid touch in the style of Edward Gorey (who provided the jacket illustrations for some editions).  For those intrigued by Aiken’s distinctive tone and strange imagination, there are a dozen books in the Wolves series alone.

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Max’s Chocolate Chicken

Max’s Chocolate Chicken by Rosemary Wells

1989

Illustrated by Rosemary Wells

The book begins with an Easter bunny, in yellow paisley tails and purple vest, backed by a star studded sky, gliding low and gently dropping Easter eggs from his basket onto a grassy meadow.  He places a chocolate chicken, wrapped round with a pink ribbon, in an empty birdbath.  Max stares at the chicken with a look of weak-kneed rapture and proclaims his love.  Enter Ruby, his older sister, who interrupts his lovestruck revery to lay down the rules.  The Easter egg hunt is to be a competition.  Winner takes the chicken.  She admires each colorful egg she finds.  Max delights in floating his basket in a mud puddle, collecting acorns, following a trail of ants.  While Ruby, Midas-style, counts her eggs, Max slips away.  When he emerges from his hiding place, mouth covered with telltale chocolate, Ruby remonstrates.  “’Max……how could you do this to me?’”  Behind her back, we see the Easter Bunny’s hand slipping a chocolate duck onto the birdbath.  The book ends with Max’s protestation of love to a new object of desire (and we see that he has already broken off the tail).

max's chocolate chickenMax’s Chocolate Chicken is one in a series of over two dozen Max and Ruby books.  Ruby, usually well-intentioned, sometimes self-serving, tries to impose her agenda on her younger brother.  Indifferent to her priorities, Max always succeeds in following his own very different agenda, quietly making an end-run around his sister’s plans.  There is neither animosity nor rancor in their relationship.  There is much humor, however, as we watch Ruby persist, over and over, in her wrongheaded belief that she can prevail.

Rosemary Wells is a brilliant humorist, the best there is in the picture book world.  She learned what she needed to know about comedy and timing from Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason.  Her touch is deft and fresh, subtle and intelligent.  Her amazing gift is the ability to appeal equally to children and adults – and the humor never stales, despite endless readings.  Who else can claim as much?  The storylines ring true (the siblings were based on the author’s daughters, Beezoo and Virginia), the writing is succinct and clever, and the illustrations create humor through minute shifts of mouth or eye that perfectly express characters’ feelings.

Max and Ruby are bunnies, but that is incidental.  With the notable exception of the white West Highland terrier who stars in the McDuff series, the world according to Rosemary Wells is filled with skunks, guinea pigs, raccoons, kitties, dogs, and ducks, all wearing clothes and behaving like people.

Aside:  “Drink your milk, Fritz,” said Fritz’s father.

           Fritz put a dab of relish in his milk

           so that it would turn a weird color.

           “Something’s wrong with it,” said Fritz.

                               (From Fritz and the Mess Fairy)