Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review - 100 Cupboards

When I saw 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson at my local Target, I was excited and snapped it up even though it didn't fit the birthday gift requirements I was shopping for at the time.  Why excited?  For one, N.D. Wilson is the son of the Classical Christian Education movement's guru-in-chief, Douglas Wilson, and his book appearing in paperback on the Target shelf was pretty convincing evidence that classical education has gone mainstream. For another reason... hello? Magic cupboards leading to other worlds?  Since I first read the Narnia series nearly 40 years ago, books like this one go immediately to the top of my reading list. 

Henry York arrives by bus in the dusty town of Henry, Kansas after his flaky parents get themselves kidnapped while biking in South America.  He is taken in by his kindly Aunt Dotty, eccentric Uncle Frank, and three cousins; placid Penelope, nosy Anastasia, and Henrietta, closest to him in age, impatient and competitive.  He is awakened at night in his attic room by a banging sound and pieces of plaster falling away from the wall; curiosity takes over and he finds an entire wall of small cupboards and a mysterious set of dials to control them somehow.  The "somehow" takes a while to discover, but with Henrietta's help he is able to find out a tantalizingly little bit more about the worlds behind the doors.  There is an evil witch plotting world domination, and some scheming magicians and their servants, and at least one old man with a long-concealed secret.  The conclusion of the book comes too quickly for full resolution and we are left with a certain unsettled expectancy to look forward to the next two books in the trilogy.

Modern children's entertainment -- I hesitate to use the word literature -- tends to be extraordinarily derivative in both style and content.  I walked through a book fair at my 6th-grader's public middle school the other day and I could categorize very rapidly: paranormal romance; paranormal comedy; teenage angst; Harry Potter rip-off; nonfiction that reads like bathroom wall graffitti; increasingly desperate offerings to get underachievers hooked on reading.  Wilson's writing is having none of that, but it is derivative in the best way: inspired by the rich layers of children's literature past, it remembers its roots and sends out new ones.  The reader who has also been inspired by the great children's books will be set off on a treasure hunt for literary allusions... they are hidden with subtlety and skill, but they are there.  I imagine that this trilogy began with a series of speculations based on favorite books:

What if Dorothy never left Kansas? What if beings from other worlds came to visit Kansas instead? What if Eustace Clarence Scrubb went to live in the Pevensies' guest room; what kind of pictures would he find there? What if the kids from E. Nesbitt or Edward Eager met up with Neil Gaiman's Coraline and things turned really scary?  What if the parents of the kids, instead of being dead or removed from the story, had stories of their own? And what if ordinary American things, like pocket knives and baseball bats and grumpy old cats, had significance above their usual function in the fight of good vs. evil?

I have to say, I'm looking forward to the movie that ought to come of this book. Wilson's style is modern enough to be very visual and the movie is waiting right there in the text, ready to be released from its marble prison like Michelangelo's statues.  The publisher recommends it for ages 8 and up, but I would say 10 and up might be safer: my 9-year-old found certain parts very "creepy" (though this did not at all stop her from reading and liking it) and the overall tone of the book is dark and often frightening.  Like all children's literature, too dark and frightening is in the eye of the beholder; and children often surprise us with their ability to cope with frightening stories.  This is the same 9-year-old who listened to Coraline on audiobook when she was 6 or 7, with no nightmares on her part (there may have been some on mine).  I am only partway into the second book of the series, but it does appear to be even darker.

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