What with Aunt Leah preparing to jump in the well and other grown-ups driving their Model A's into sugar maples they mistook for Martians, it was a Halloween night Willie Beatrime Mills would long remember.
The year was 1938 and enough radio dials were tuned to Orson Welles's infamous ''War of the Worlds'' radio broadcast in Willie Bea's hometown to throw folks into a tizzy. While her relatives dashed about, Willie Bea strapped on her stilts and walked across town to confront the invaders.
''Turn off your rays,'' she challenged the roaring monster that towered above her in the corn field. ''Don't fight. We only want to be friends.''
Although the cover illustration is an unfortunate giveaway of the climax, our heroine's daring-do doesn't slip into the cornball, overly sentimentalized antics that spoil too many pre-teen books today. Author Virginia Hamilton once again saves the day for imaginative fiction with a finely crafted blend of once-in-a-lifetime escapades and everyday events.
Some young readers may stumble over the country dialects, and others probably won't appreciate Willie Bea's renditions of such popular radio shows of the day as ''The Green Hornet'' and ''Little Orphan Annie.'' But overall, the sights and sounds, aromas, and impressions of rural Ohio - from homemade corn muffins to cool, springy green lawns - are among the details that contribute to the success of this remarkably effective story.
On one level, it's an unpredictable adventure. On another level, it's an intimate look at one extended black family that helps to remind us that all families have their share of characters.
What makes the Mills and Wing kinfolk so appealing is the unabashed affection they share with one another. At her grandparents' homestead, Willie Bea slices up pumpkin and lemon meringue pies for her younger cousins. At home she likes to feel her baby brother's hand in hers as they descend the darkened stairs together. when she spots her father returning from work, she puts on her Mary Janes to go out to meet him.
At the end of the book, when Aunt Leah leaves a surprise hanging on the back of Willie Bea's bedroom door - a store-bought Halloween costume - we can fully agree with the attached note that promises, ''Wave your magic wand and anything can happen.''