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Friday, Oct. 25, 2002

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Thief Lord," "The Witch Trade"


"The Thief Lord," Cornelia Funke, The Chicken House; 2002; 345 pp.

"Who does this child belong to?"

Perhaps this sounds familiar -- it's usually the first question that grownups ask when they find a kid who seems too little to be on his own. Hmm, he's lost, they reason, and needs help to find his parents.

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How come children always have to belong to someone? Sometimes they're quite happy on their own and don't want to be found. Like Bo, Prosper, Mosca, Riccio and Hornet, the five street children who band together to survive in Venice -- in this English translation of the immensely popular German original.

Some of them, like Bo and Prosper, are orphans; others have run away to escape an unhappy home. But this isn't a Dickensian tale about their unfortunate lives. It's an optimistic, upbeat story told with a real affection for this strange little gang that sticks it out together -- 5-year-old Bo who is adored for his mop of blond hair; his older brother, Prosper, who'd do anything to protect him; Hornet, the only girl in the group, who loves her books more than anything; Riccio, nicknamed Hedgehog because of his spiky brown hair; and Mosca, the strongest of them all, who loves fiddling with his radio in his free time.

Their leader is even stranger: He calls himself the "Thief Lord," comes and goes mysteriously, and wears a masquerade mask when he's outside. Scipio -- although the children are forbidden from calling him anything but the Thief Lord -- provides his gang with a warm hideout, and plenty of fresh fruit and pasta.

The children's freedom comes with its challenges -- stealing for a living, dodging the police and trading with wheeler-dealers like Ernesto Barbarossa, an antique-shop owner who buys stolen goods on the cheap and resells them at much higher prices.

But it's also a freedom worth celebrating. They roam through the crowded alleys of Venice, along the glittering canals teeming with boats, in a romantic city of huge churches and squares, of winged lions and golden horses perched on tops of buildings . . . and live in a dilapidated movie house whose thick curtains with golden stars have earned it the name of the Star Palace. This world is their home.

The children are doing quite well for themselves -- until trouble arrives in the form of a bungling detective who's been commissioned to find Bo and Prosper. If he does, the brothers will be separated forever -- Bo, adopted by his stern aunt Esther, and Prosper, sent off to a children's home. And things get more ominous when the children are roped in to steal an ancient, time-turning treasure from its secret -- and dangerous -- hiding place.

This is an elaborately woven, richly detailed adventure, set in historic Venice. You'll love this enchanting tale, told with humor and sensitivity, of the inventiveness of children left to their own devices in an adult world. Often capable of greater maturity and sounder moral judgments than most grownups are, the Thief Lord's gang might not belong to anyone, but they're not alone and they're certainly not lost.

For children 10 years and older. Available at online bookstores.

"The Witch Trade," Micahel Molloy, The Chicken House, paperback edition; 2002; 284 pp.

There are unforgettable books, and then there are books like this one -- good, but not compelling.

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Where does the difference lie? Why do some books score higher than others?

As you read more, you'll come up with a scoring system of your own, but originality carries a lot of points. And this tale of adventure has many familiar ingredients -- a journey to Antarctica, a quest to find the source of all magic, abducted children waiting to be rescued, battles between good witches and evil ones, a boy and a girl gifted with magical powers. If you've read Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, you'll probably get a ho-hum feeling of "been there, read that." But to really determine whether or not this book measures up to the others, don't take my word for it. Read it for yourself.

Abby Clover and Spike are inseparable friends, both clueless about the whereabouts of their parents and living with Abby's aunt and uncle. They're the only children in their seaside town of Speller -- the others are thought to have drowned while out at sea on a picnic.

Their contented existence is swiftly interrupted by their meeting with Capt. Adam Starlight who once designed ships for the Light Witches. He tells the children how the Light Witches are locked in a timeless tussle with the evil Night Witches, and reveals, to their disbelief, that all the inhabitants of Speller are Sea Witches.

The Sea Witches once controlled the witch trade in Ice Dust, the mysterious shimmering crystals used in all spells, without which the Light Witches are powerless. But now the deposits of Ice Dust are depleted, and the Night Witches have come up with a toxic form of it called Black Dust as part of their fearsome plan to destroy the forces of good forever.

Abby and Spike must sail on a magical boat to find the last intact reservoir of Ice Dust and wage war on the Night Witches, who have their parents and the children of Speller in their clutches. Along the way, they get help from a giant albatross, the Shakespeare-loving Master of the Light Witches, Sir Chadwick and a magician who can pull things out of thin air.

The story has its fair share of wickedly imagined events, but things unfold too quickly for the suspense to build up. Even in fantasy stories, where things that seem impossible in the real world actually happen, the action still needs to be plausible.

For instance, when you're infiltrating enemy headquarters for the first time, you need to think out a plan to succeed -- whether your enemies are real people or Night Witches. We all know that good ideas don't come instantly. But in this adventure, things are too easy and don't seem natural. Worse, the characters never develop as distinctive individuals. Abby is brave, Spike has a sense of humor, but we learn so little else about them that we don't grow to love them.

A good book is like good food in some ways -- it's not enough to follow the recipe if there's no creative flair. Children's writers sometimes assume that it's enough to stick to a successful formula to keep their readers happy, but that's not the case. Once you've read widely, your reading instincts will be trained enough to sift out the best books and recognize why they work -- and why formulas don't.

For children 10 years and older. This book and its sequel "The Time Witches" is available at online bookstores. Both are also available at Tower Records Shibuya 7F, (03) 3496-3661.

My warmest thanks to the sixth-graders at Nishimachi International School for their enthusiastic response to this column. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your letters and will review some of the books you recommended in future columns. Keep writing in!

E-mail Payal Kapadia about this new fortnightly column or about the Education page in general at payal@japantimes.co.jp


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