Tuesday, March 12, 2013

AFTERNOON OF THE ELVES by Janet Taylor Lisle

AFTERNOON OF THE ELVES was first published in 1989. I was twelve, so I missed this one. It was an excellent readaloud with my six-year-old daughter, and I think it would be a good read for any age. This rerelease includes "A Personal History of Janet Taylor Lisle" and a photo album at the end. Hillary isn't friends with Sara-Kate, the odd, shabbily dressed girl whose backyard abuts her own. But one day, Sara-Kate seeks Hillary out to show her the tiny village she claims elves built in the ruins of her trash-filled yard, and Hillary is enchanted. In fact, she suspects Sara-Kate herself may be an elf. Hillary's best friends warn her against Sara-Kate, but Hillary spends more and more time with her, until one day she discovers Sara-Kate's tragic secret.

This is an odd book, a bittersweet and ambiguous story with an ending that is either perfect or maddening, depending on your personality (I found it perfect; my daughter found it maddening: "But what HAPPENED, Mommy!?" It will be clear from early on to an adult reader (and older children) that Sara-Kate, though only a child, is the head of a shabby household, her mother unable to care for her. Because the story is told through Hillary's eyes, though, Lisle teases out the possibility that Sara-Kate is, in fact, an elf, and that there is magic afoot. And there is, in a way. When Sara-Kate is "rescued" (again, according to the reader's perspective), Hillary is devastated and shows her loyalty to her friend by caring for the elf village. There are so many layers to this story, and all of them with some level of tragedy and pain, that I was reminded of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, one of the books from my childhood that still haunts me. But where there is tragedy, there is hope. Was Sara-Kate a true friend, or was she using Hillary out of desperation? There's no way to be sure, but Hillary finds her own peace with the answer she constructs.

All this seems like heavy stuff to read to a six-year-old, but as it is couched in the language of elves and magic, it becomes relatable. My daughter concluded that Hillary's friends were being mean about Sara-Kate just because she's different, and she also understood that Sara-Kate had a very hard life. She was positive, though, that Sara-Kate had cared for Hillary - positive enough to convince me. The ultimate "what happened" question is thorny: Hillary doesn't view Sara-Kate as having been "rescued" from a dire, untenable situation, and so the reader doesn't either. My daughter and I talked a bit about why Hillary's mother reveals Sara-Kate's secret. Sometimes things are simply too much for a child to handle on her own.

A beautiful, tragic story. Highly recommended.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher.

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