Monday, April 19, 2010

Eye of newt and toe of frog

I think E.L.Konigsburg writes the most intriguing titles in the world of children's literature -- nearly all of them make you want to open up the book and see what's inside. That's why I picked Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth for a quick listen. Elizabeth (she's the one on the left) has recently moved to a small, New York City commuter town and is having difficulty making friends. On her way to school on Halloween -- dressed in last year's Pilgrim costume -- she meets Jennifer. Jennifer tells Elizabeth that she's a witch -- a year-round witch, not just for Halloween. The two girls decide to go trick-or-treating together and Elizabeth witnesses Jennifer's witchcraft first hand: She manages to convince the adults at every house they visit that she's not getting much candy and so they give her twice as much. Mightily impressed, Elizabeth agrees to become Jennifer's apprentice witch.

During the remainder of the school year, Jennifer sets tasks for Elizabeth that she works very hard to complete -- tasks such as eating raw eggs, no candy over Christmas, don't make phone calls. The girls' goal is to prepare a flying ointment, but ultimately they have a falling out over a key ingredient. As Elizabeth figures out where Jennifer's "witchiness" comes from, the two girls reconnect; the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is Konigsburg's first novel, and it is pretty masterful in its brevity. The audiobook is just a little over two hours long. Not a word is wasted, yet the two girls' characters and their relationships with others in the novel are crystal clear. It's very clearly set in the 1960s, but it doesn't feel dated at all. The only thing that's really important is the friendship of those two lonely girls.

A new-to-me narrator, Carol Jordan Stewart, read the novel. She reads the first-person narration with a slight bit of youthfulness in her voice, nothing faked. I really enjoyed her characterization of the mostly silent Jennifer: She has a low, quiet voice that she uses sparingly but with confidence and authority. You can really understand Elizabeth's attraction to Jennifer's exoticism by listening to that voice.

Newbery watchers know that this is the only time in nearly 90 years that an author has won both the actual medal (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) and an honor (Jennifer, Hecate ... ) in the same year: 1968. (There was one year when one author won two honors: 1954 -- Meindert Dejong.) Publication schedules must be quite different now, but even if an author had two books published in the same year would this ever happen again?

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