I believe it was Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray who came up with the original notion:
"I know that we all review books all the time but honestly half the time (or more) we are reviewing good books that are not necessarily books we love. How many gush worthy books do we write about? So this is all about a book (or author or series) that you would happily push on to your family and friends with a great big loud ‘YOU MUST READ THIS!’ recommendation."
That I can provide. Because I spend so much of my time talking about new titles I never really get to sit back and compose odes to older titles, long since out-of-print. So this will be more relaxed than one of my normal reviews. Just some thoughts on a picture book that I love. A little something I like to call Ultra-Violet Catastrophe or The Unexpected Walk with Great-Uncle Magnus Pringle by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Froud.
Of course, I’d be amiss if I didn’t begin by pointing out that America is really having a serious love affair with New Zealand these days. Lord of the Rings on the one hand and Flight of the Conchords on the other, New Zealand is relatively hot stuff. I was totally into New Zealand before it was cool, though. Which is to say, I was into New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy. Many of you are probably familiar with Ms. Mahy’s work. She’s one of those writers that slips seamlessly between novels and picture books. She was a young adult novelist before the term had serious cache. In fact, her best known YA supernatural romance novel The Changeover should be due for a serious reprint one of these days. Twilight fans would adore it. And Mahy continues to write to this day, though I don’t know how many of her books get published here in the States.
You know, there’s a kind of relief a person feels when they run across a book beloved to them in their childhood and they find that the title was actually quite GOOD. Children can have discerning taste, but that is not to say that they always do. Ultra-Violet Catastrophe was a book that I remember pretty well and that may have had a huge influence on me. The illustrations of lush green fields and rolling hills. Blue skies and the dark shadows that happen underneath trees even in the middle of the day. A lot of this was probably due to illustrator Brian Froud’s work. If his name sounds familiar I can probably tell you exactly why. Not only did he inspire the look of such films as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (baby Toby held hostage by David Bowie is actually Froud’s own son), but his best known book is arguably Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. To tie it all back to New Zealand, he did a fair amount of work on Lord of the Rings as well. And yes, he’s also still working.
So there you have it. Two very different but very creative people, brought together in a single, solitary work of genius. On that basis alone a person begins to wonder why this book isn’t better known.
As for the story itself, it was pretty well described when School Library Journal said of it, "This book debunks all myths about the passivity of both little girls and senior citizens." Damn right it does. Right from the start we meet Sally who would much prefer to call herself Horrible Stumper the tree pirate (tree piracy has, strangely enough, not caught on in children’s books quite yet) than get all dolled up. But her mother insists and since they’re off to Aunt Anne Pringle’s home she needs to be extra washed and scrubbed. "Her hair was brushed until it shone and her ears went all red and hot." Once there Aunt Anne is just as stuffy as ever, but there’s a guest staying in her home as well. Bearing not a small resemblance to Congressman Barney Frank is Great-Uncle Magnus Pringle. He is prone to saying strange things like "Ultra-Violet Catastrophe" when the mood hits. Unbeknownst to Sally, she has found a soulmate.
The two are promptly banished from the home for a while and told to take a walk. Aunt Anne’s "Be good and keep clean," rings out over their heads, foreshadowing the mess to come.
Time and again, Great-Uncle Magnus surprises Sally with his propensity for fun. If they’re not crawling through hedges and taking off their shoes to squish in a muddy stream then they’re climbing trees (or at least Sally is), singing, making rock dams in the stream, and escaping from angry cows. By the end of the day they aren’t just unclean. They are filthy. Filthy and happy, particularly when Great-Uncle Magnus invites Sally and her mother to visit his own home someday by the shore.
Mahy’s language is striking right from the start. On a basic level she captures the small details children notice and adults ignore. Talking over children’s heads. Scratches on knees (or even looking at knees). The sheer pleasure of walking in mud. And her descriptions also remain delicious. Great-Uncle Magnus has a voice that, "was loud – loud but not crackly. It was rather like guns at sea." And his mode of speech is so natural. Listen to this: "I have this creaky knee, you see. It’s a good knee, mind you. I’ve had it for years but it is creaky." Or "Your Aunt Anne always ties my shoelaces as if she were choking the shoes to death."
The term "Ultra-Violet Catastrophe" turns out to be Great-Uncle Magnus’s go-to phrase. His "Jumping Jehoshaphat", if you will. And when Sally asks if such words mean anything his enigmatic reply is simply, "They do mean something scientific . . . Something scientific and too hard to explain."
The book was originally written in 1975, but by the time I read it (some seven years later or so) the world Sally lived in wasn’t too different from my own. Girls wore jeans and t-shirts just like she did. Her mother sports this rather magnificently dated yellow dress with an amazing short haircut much at odds with Sally’s veritable mane. The bulk of it has aged beautifully, though.
Geez it’s great. I mean how do you go about resisting a book like this? My edition is a paperback, but a look at the publication page reveals that the original publisher here in America was one Parent’s Magazine Press. Loganberry Books reports that, "Parents’ Magazine Press operated a children’s mail-order book club in the sixties and seventies, and through this club’s affordability and popularity sprang many a book that Baby Boomers fondly remember." Or Generation Xers. We were fans too. Some of their better known titles included the original Never Tease a Weasel by Jena Condor Soule (the original one with illustrations by Denman Hampson, not the recent George Booth edition) or The Mouse and the Lion by Eve Titus (illustrated by Leonard Weisgard). But it’s never too late to bring something fabulous back.
My two cents.
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