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Children's books: reviews of "Wishing for Tomorrow," "A Conspiracy of Kings," and "The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place"

Three terrific books for middle-grade readers.

By Yvonne Zipp / May 3, 2010

Wishing for Tomorrow: The Sequel to A Little Princess" By Hilary McKay Margaret K. Elderry 288 pp., $16.99 Ages 9-12

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Let’s get a few things settled: 1. I can’t abide when writers grab a beloved classic and tack on a sequel. Write your own darned book, I say. 2. My To-Be-Read pile is a tower rivaling that of Pisa (and leans just about as precariously). My aversion to open-ended series is now pure survival instinct. 3. If you’re an orphaned British governess working at a rural manor with dark goings-on and your name is not Jane Eyre, I’m probably going to find you a pallid imitation.

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But three new children’s books have made me throw out all of my hard-won prejudices – including No. 1, which has held solid since “Scarlett” wrecked an otherwise fine week at college.

I can’t count the number of times I read “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden” in elementary school, so I’m a little protective of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classics for girls. (If you want to remake “Little Lord Fauntleroy” – have at it.) Hilary McKay apparently was an even bigger fan. In her new novel, she asks: What happened to those left behind at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies after Sara Crewe went away, trailing diamond mines and taking Becky the scullery maid with her? “Took herself off, didn’t she!” sniffs Cook. “And now she’s away to the seaside, I hear, for air, along with that Indian gentleman. Although why they need air more than the rest of us, I’m sure I can’t say!”

But what about little Lottie, sharp-tongued Lavinia, and faithful Ermengarde? To say nothing of dithering Miss Amelia and Miss Minchin, the villain of the piece?
The title is the only bland part about Wishing for Tomorrow – Whitbread winner McKay slyly deepens the original characters, while still making them recognizable to readers of “A Little Princess.” Lottie may have the most fun (and get the best lines) and Lavinia may be the most impressive transformation (she uses her indomitable will to study for Oxford), but McKay uses wit and empathy to help Ermengarde stand on her own sturdy legs.

Newbery Honor-winner Megan Whalen Turner also takes a minor character and turns him into a hero in his own right in A Conspiracy of Kings. Eugenides, her thief-turned-king, takes a supporting role, while readers learn what happened to his friend Sophos (who had gone missing in “The King of Attolia”).

The first 115 pages rush past almost without a breath as an attack on his family’s villa turns Sophos from a dreamy, self-doubting heir to the throne to a scarred field slave. “I grieved, but a part of me felt a lightening of a burden I had carried all my life: that I could never be worthy of them.... As an unknown slave in the fields of the baron, I knew the worst was over. I had failed them. At least I could not do so again.”

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