Mythical creatues of the Amazon

A clock at the Bronx Zoo that inexorably ticked away the Amazon acres left me sweating with panic as a teen. Charmian Hussey's son had a similar reaction to finding out about deforestation, and in response he invented mythical creatures to populate the Amazon (tapirs and sloths apparently not being exotic enough). Hussey, a model-cum-archaeologist, turned her son's creations into the mystery that lies at the heart of her first book, "The Valley of Secrets."

The novel, about an orphan who inherits his great-uncle's Cornish estate, sat in Hussey's attic for 15 years after London publishers turned her down. When a relative opened a small press, Hussey tried again. The book quickly sold out, and secondhand copies are already a hot commodity. That's a lot of excitement for an earnest, old-fashioned story, but anyone who loves underdogs will find it difficult not to root for Hussey and her young hero, Stephen.

In the tradition of literary orphans everywhere, Stephen knows nothing at all about his family. One day, a batty old solicitor hands Stephen some cash and sends him off to live at Lansbury Hall, an overgrown mansion regarded with great suspicion by the locals.

Adults could probably do without the frequent pauses to lecture readers about what harm people have done to the natural world (If Man appears in caps, skip to the next paragraph), and Hussey's style is only workmanlike. But the mystery is compelling - a feat rendered more impressive when you consider that the first half is mostly Stephen alone, reading his great-uncle's Amazon journals and trying to scrounge something to eat. In a Young Adult world overshadowed by a certain boy wizard, it's refreshing that she does it all without magic.

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