For quite some time I have, for reasons of my own, been trying to find fictional books for children in which statues comes to life. The few titles I’ve been able to find are scattered. It was, therefore, will great delight that I discovered the completely forgotten but surprisingly well-written, "Stoneflight" by Georgess McHargue. Set in the Morningside Heights area of Manhattan, the story follows a girl with a startling ability, and the remarkably normal homelife from which she hopes to escape.
It isn’t that Janie doesn’t love her parents. It’s just that it’s obvious that no one in her family has been happy for a very long time. Her mother is constantly laboring under the mistaken belief that once the family gets some recognition, they’ll all be happy. Her father harbors modest ambitions that grate with his wife’s newfound hopes and dreams. Janie, lonely and bored over a summer where all her friends have gone away, is caught directly in the middle of the two of them. She finds herself often escaping to the rooftop, where she spends her days cleaning a beautiful stone griffin that sits on guard there. It almost feels natural to Janie when she finds that she has the ability to bring Griff (as she has named him) to life beneath her hand. Now Janie’s problems are far behind her as she swoops and soars on Griff’s back at night over the New York skyline. It’s only when she attempts to bring about a gathering of all the stone creatures in New York City that Janie discovers that sometimes being a soft malleable human with the ability to be hurt is a good thing.
It’s funny, but when you read plot synopsis’ (not mine) of this book, they all tend to mention an exciting climactic threat that appears literally 20 pages before the book is done. This is because the book isn’t quite so hot on the whole bad guy thing. This is a book of delicate family relations. In such a light, New York statues coming to life almost seems a kind of afterthought. Originally written in 1975, McHargue’s choice of overshadowing Janie’s tale with the prospect of divorce was probably rather daring at the time. The fact that this divorce never goes through isn’t important. Instead, Janie’s journey and slow acceptance of the fact that adults very rarely know what they are doing, is well-thought. There’s a great deal of intelligence to the tale. So when you see Janie jump on the back of a griffin and fly high and wide, it almost jars. I know that in all good fantasy tales the fantastical elements of the story should be taken with a bite of reality. Just the same, it seems that McHargue has attempted a new kind of "Wrinkle In Time" (which she quotes from liberally) but with more emphasis on the parental elements than the whole bringing-stone-to-life situation.
Personally, I found myself continually delighted by the locations in this book. This is probably because I live in Morningside Heights. I know exactly where Janie was probably living during the events in this tale. I’ve viewed the statues she "quickens". I’ve even entered the Morningside Heights Library mentioned more than once in the context of the tale. Of course, I had to wonder whether or not these same details would make the book LESS accessible to a kid in rural Alabama who picked it up on a lark. Illustrator Arvis Stewart obviously is New York based as well. When we see Griff perched above the city, he is facing in the correct direct (with the river on his left) and in such a way that certain confusing elements of the plot suddenly fall into place. This is the work of an illustrator who has read every word in this book and has made the corresponding pictures as accurate as possible. Arvis apparently was much enamored of that wacky wavy-lined drawing style so popular in the early 70s because this book comes across at certain times like a misplaced scene from "Yellow Submarine". They’re fun pictures and I think kids could definitely still get something out of them, but for some adults they’ll be instant time machines to a mighty groovy era.
You know a book is old when the narrator briefly mentions the "new" World Trade Center. In spite of this (and the book’s current forgotten state), "Stoneflight" is well worth remembering. It has just as much oomph and pizzazz as it did when it first came out. Though it lingers a little too long on its human elements, no one can accuse this book of not grounding its fantasy in plain good sense. A fun New York tale that is, in a sense, truly timeless.