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.

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

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.

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.”

Despite the mopey words, Sophos looks for small pleasures in his new life. But civil war is ripping apart the country, and Sophos isn’t going to be allowed to peacefully build stone walls the rest of his life.

There isn’t a young adult author out there who does political intrigue better than Turner, and “A Conspiracy of Kings” offers plenty of high-stakes diplomacy and all-out warfare. But the mythology is so complex that newcomers may need GPS. And the charismatic Gen doesn’t do supporting roles terribly well – making it tough to fully concentrate on Sophos when he’s around.

But these are small failings amid some of the most impressive world-building since Tolkien. The Medes are still out there, and it’s going to take all of Sophos’s newfound bravery and Gen’s trickery to stop them.

Penelope Lumley, though just 15, is a fine standard-bearer of the noble literary tradition of British governesses. “Penelope had read several novels about such governesses in preparation for her interview and found them chock-full of useful information, although she had no intention of developing romantic feelings for the charming, penniless tutor at a neighboring estate. Or – heaven forbid! – for the darkly handsome, brooding, and extravagantly wealthy master of her own household.”

In The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Maryrose Wood pairs the Gothic humor and arch narration of a Lemony Snicket with a more benevolent worldview.
Mary Poppins could not have handled with more aplomb the news that her three charges were, in fact, raised by wolves. (Lord Ashton found the children when he was out hunting. Lady Ashton cannot wait for them “to take up their rightful place as burdens on society.”)

Undeterred, Miss Lumley adapts her curriculum to concentrate on bath-taking, learning English, and not chasing after squirrels. (That last is still a work in progress.) The Latin and French, she is sure, will come later.

But, even armed with pithy sayings by Agatha Swanburne, founder of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Miss Lumley grows concerned about her ability to protect Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia from the strange goings-on at Ashton Place – and from Lady Ashton’s Christmas Ball.

“The Incorrigible Children” are a hoot-and-a-half and the series boasts the most promising kick-off since Adam Vinatieri wore a Patriots uniform. National Children’s Book Week starts May 10, and I can’t think of a better excuse to grab any one of these three keepers. But National Paper Cut Day would do in a pinch.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews children’s books for the Monitor.

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