Roald Dahl was a troublemaker of the first degree. Did he really have to be so original? So interesting? Did his books have to fall into such a distinctive age range? And did he have to be the kind of author that would inspire parents to come up to reference desks across the country asking desperately, “My kid only reads Roald Dahl. What do you have that’s just like him?” Honey, you are barking up the wrong tree if you think that anyone could replicate Dahl’s style. He was one of those rare authors to tread the line between early chapter books and older novels. His sense of fun was light-hearted and impossible to copy. Few authors have ever come close to being compared to Dahl, and nobody has his distinctive flavor. One of the very few authors to do so would have to be Suzanne Selfors. She doesn’t really have that streak of darkness that was so distinctly Dahlian, but she certainly knows how to tell a story and tell it well. Slugs and marmots. Magical apples and dastardly foes. Fortune’s Magic Farm follows hot on the heels of Selfors’ last novel To Catch a Mermaid and shares that book’s gleeful storytelling and delightful characters. A pure pleasure to read, for child and adult alike.
When you live in Runny Cove you get used to certain things. The fact that it’s always raining, and always damp and cold. The fact that the only two occupations in town involve working in the local factory or acting as a landlord or landlady. Even though she’s just a kid, Isabelle has to work in the factory too to support herself and her Grandma Maxine. Not that Maxine’s her real grandmother. Actually Isabelle was abandoned at the boarding house years ago as a baby and never knew her real parents. Yet when she and two other ten-year-old kids in town suddenly are given delicious apples by three mysterious animals, Isabelle gets sucked into an adventure to find out her true past. But what happens when you meet your real family only find out that one of them doesn’t even want you?
One of the things I like about her books is that Selfors doesn’t go half ways when she describes something. She has this ability to tap into a kid-friendly vibe and really draw her descriptions in livid detail. Right from the start we learn that Isabelle’s village, “was perpetually cast in a depressing shade of sludge – the same color as the gunky stuff that clogs up bathroom sinks.” Her words are accessible, never relying on self-conscious long-winded descriptions or overly extensive passages to convey what it is she has to say. There’s something very direct about the way in which Selfors writes. It’s as if she knows exactly how to speak to her child readers. My co-worker’s son had read To Catch a Mermaid and enjoyed it in the past, so I asked that he take a look at this book as well to give me a sense of what he thought. The result? He loved it. Absolutely adored it. Thought it was even better than her first book. Though you’ll have to help kids to discover it, once they try its first page they will definitely be hooked.
There are so many books out there in which the hero or heroine discovers that they were abandoned as a baby because they are “special” in some way. And the list of ways in which they are special are pretty rote. When the child is capable of otherworldly abilities then they are A) A wizard, B) A half-god, C) A fairy or D) A combination of one or more of the above. This book is slightly different. Sure, kids will enjoy trying to decipher the clues to Isabelle’s mysterious background, but the abilities that show that she is special seem pretty low-key at first. She grows mushrooms between her toes and also has impossibly warm hands at all times. What does that mean? It means that when you find out the truth to Isabelle’s past it isn’t the same as any other book. It keeps the kids guessing and, in the process, keeps them reading.
I’m going to insert a small SPOILER ALERT here for the remainder of this paragraph, particularly for those of you familiar with the movie, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There is a moment near the end of this book that reminded me hugely of Willy Wonka. It’s strange that I would say this, mentioning Dahl as often as I have in this review. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. However, if you read this book and get to that same part in the movie, you will understand what I mean. I don’t think it’s a flaw, necessarily, but it certainly does account for a sense of déjà vu.
So when you are asked to recommend someone like Roald Dahl, first you need to set them straight. There is nobody like Roald Dahl. That would be like someone asking for an author exactly like Shel Silverstein. Can’t be done. However, you may also reassure them that all is not lost. Should they want something along the same lines as Dahl, combining outright fantasy with brave heroes and horrible villains, there is someone who fits the bill. Suzanne Selfors is still flying below the radar in terms of public acclaim but it’s only a matter of time before she’s discovered and her books enter the public consciousness. Fortune’s Magic Farm. A small treasure, waiting for kids to discover it.
- On February 26th Ms. Selfors will be talking to host Suzanne Lieurance on her internet radio show Book Bites for Kids about this novel.
- Read some of the Kirkus and Junior Library Guild reviews on Ms. Selfors’ website.
- There’s a writing contest in conjunction with this book going on. Better hurry, though. It’s all over by March 1st.