The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken

I really didn’t read a lot of the classic children’s books when I was a kid. My reading history went from Richard Scarry picture books, to ‘Treasure island’, and then onto World War II memoirs and other Non-fiction History books I would find in the adult section of my local library. The librarian probably thought it was odd that a ten year old kid was taking out a five hundred page academic level book on the archeological discoveries of Heinrich Schleiman in ancient Troy, but that’s the kind of thing I read when I was that age. So I missed out on a lot of classic literature for children.

So now that I have my own family, and I’m searching for books that would be appropriate for my 5 year old. I will sometimes take a few books from our local library that I may have missed when I was a kid. I recently read about the author Joan Aiken, so I looked for one of her books and was somewhat surprised that my local library only had two books, one of which was ‘The Stolen Lake’.

Joan Aiken (1924 – 2004), daughter of American poet Conrad Aiken, started writing at a very young age. Her first short story was published when she was just 17. Her novels for children focused alternative history, supernatural fiction, and humorous stories. She also wrote several novels for adults, such as several continuations of the novels of Jane Austen. Among her children’s stories, most likely her most famous work is the alternative history series ‘The Wolves Chronicles’. Another series ‘Arabel and Mortimer’ is a series of stories about alittle girl and her pet crow, one of which was the second book that my library had of hers.

‘The Wolves’ series presents an alternative 19th century Britain where James II has not been deposed, and is currently ruled by James III. Some of the other changes to history include a tunnel under the Channel between Britain and Europe, America is what is left of the Roman Empire, parts of South America had been colonized by Britain as well. The series starts with ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, published in 1962, through ‘The Witch of Clatteringshaws’, published in 2005. ‘The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of the series, published in 1980. I’m sure it would help to read the series in order, though it is not absolutely necessary, as each book is a self contained story.

‘The Stolen Lake’ is the story of Dido Twite, and her adventures in New Cumbria with Captain Hughes and the crew of the HMS Thrush. Dido had been traveling back to England on the Thrush after her adventures in the previous book in the series ‘Nightbirds on Nantucket’, when the Admiralty diverted the journey to New Cumbria. From what I can tell, New Cumbria appears to be what is now Brazil. Though in this world, Brazil was actually colonized by settlers from ancient Celtic tribes. A series of treaties ties New Cumbria to Britain, and the current Queen, Ginevra, has asked for help from Captain Hughes in locating the missing lake of the title. It seems that the King of neighboring Lyonesse has stolen New Cumbria’s lake, and the Queen needs help in getting it back to its rightful spot on the map.

The stolen lake of the title is not the end of the fantastic details of the story, which also includes giant blood thirsty birds, man eating fish, evil dressmakers, a revolving castle made of silver, and a ship’s steward who may or may not be King Arthur. What keeps all of this fantasy from spinning out of control is Dido, with her fearlessness, curiousity, and ingenuity at solving the problems she is presented at every turn. She maintains her positive attitude throughout, with many witty and humorous conversations with the Captain and crew.

Once we arrive in New Cumbria, Dido is soon presented with a number of mysteries. who is this Queen Ginerva, and why has she seemingly never aged in centuries ? Why are there no other children her age in New Cumbria ? Is Mr. Holystone, the ship steward, really King Arthur ? The main mystery, and the reason for the quest that Dido goes on is to find the stolen lake. I’m not giving much away here by saying that of course Dido finds the lake, but what is surprising is that all of the other mysteries are also resolved by the end as well in a series of action packed adventures.

Dido more than hold’s her own throughout the action, solving problems and taking on the scary creatures the members of the expedition find on their journey. Aiken’s prose is a bit more complex than the usual YA fare, I would think that fans of the works of Lloyd Alexander or J.K. Rowling would like the Aiken books as well.

There’s quite a bit of historical context presented, and since this is alternate history, much of it has been altered. It’s probably not too common to find a kid who would be aware of all of the historic context, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be completely fluent in that. I certainly didn’t know a great deal about the real James I and the actual succession battle, but I did find this much more engaging then the usual YA fare, and I’ll be on the lookout for further books in the series.

This is New York by Miroslav Sasek

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Miroslav Sasek (1916 – 1980) was a Czeck born author and illustrator, trained as an architect, he emigrated to West Germany in 1948. The ‘This is..’ series began in 1959 with ‘This is Paris’, and continued through 1970 to include 18 locations including London, Venice, San Francisco, Rome, and Australia. Universe, an imprint of Rizzoli, has reissued most of the series in beautifully printed hardcover editions. Starting with ‘This is New York’ in 2003, through ‘This is Australia’ in 2009.

I had not heard of this series until we received Sasek’s ‘This is New York’ as a gift. It is now one of our son’s favorite books. He loves seeing the brightly colored cars and big buildings. There’s page after page of peppy mid-century style illustrations of New York City. There’s no ‘story’ here per se, just facts and figures of the day pertaining to NYC. Like a lot of reissued children’s books, especially non-fiction, new information is included where any fact or figure may have changed over the years. Though the nice thing about these editions is that the original text is printed as Sasek wrote it, if there is an update to any fact an asterix is included with the new information noted on a single page at the back of the book, so these updates are not at all obtrusive.

What helps to make this book so charming is the inclusion of not just a list of facts and figures accompanied by illustrations, but plenty of detail on the human scale of the city as well. Making it much more relatable, especially for a five year old who likes to see some trucks and will laugh at the antics of the kids and adults depicted in Sasek’s illustrations.
Facts are listed, but information is presented along with personal asides, giving the book some personality:

‘Brooklyn Bridge, crossing the East River, is the oldest and is popular with everyone from cameramen to songwriters.’

Well known sites are included such as the Statue of Liberty, Guggenheim Museum, and the George Washington bridge:

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And plenty of everyday people are depicted as well, such as this food cart man;

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and this pizza maker;

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We have one other title by Sasek, ‘This is San Francisco’, and I’d like to try to check out some more of his titles. My only complaint is that at just 64 pages it might be too short!

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Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton

When I was in 3rd grade I took this book out of my elementary school library on a continual basis. I must have had it all year. At the end of the school year the librarian gave me the book, and I still have that copy.   There’s a book plate on the title page identifying the book as being from the Boston Public Schools, with a note written by me at age 8 which says ‘And given to Peter by the librarian!’.

Thirty something years later I bought a new hardcover edition of the book for my son when he was about two years old. Too young to know exactly what is going on, but from looking at the illustrations in the pre-histortic era section of the book, he now can say “Dinosaur”.  He can also pick out his dad’s favorite illustration of early spring at the farm later in the book.

Virginia Lee Burton wrote and illustrated seven children’s books, and illustrated six works by other authors. Most likely her most well known works are ‘The Little House’, and ‘Mike Milligan and His Steam Shovel’. ‘The Little House’, in which we follow the story of one small house located in a rural area as a nearby city expands over time to eventually surround it, it won the Caldecott medal in 1943. In ‘Mike Milligan’, the title character uses his steam shovel to help a small town build a new town hall. His steam shovel may be out of date, but he finds a place where it is useful and needed.

Unlike her other works, Virginia Lee Burton’s ‘Life Story’ is non-fiction. This is the story of evolution, but more than that it is the story of ‘Life’. Each two page spread includes a detailed illustration of a time period, and is accompanied with Burton’s poetic description.  The story advances through the ages, from the beginning of the Solar System, through the early stages of life, dinosaurs, early mammals, cave men, up through the present time.  

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Each illustration appears as if on a stage, with a narrator letting us know what is happening. Similar to a play, once we move towards the present time, the use of the narrator reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’.

Each illustration is meant to focus on a particular location. This becomes apparent once we have moved through time to the present day and the place is now a farm.  We follow the farm through a few seasons, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.  Her artwork tends to have a lot of movement associated with it. Birds move in circles through the sky, Pterosaurs fly in formation, rivers meander around bends, filled with fishes swimming in shapes that fit in with the animals around them. Lines are bold and curvilinear, drawing the eye to the narrator, or a central figure on the farm.

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‘As the afternoon hours slipped by
and the sun began to sink in the west,
the shadows on the ground gradually lengthened.
Just before the sun set it turned fiery red,
tinting the sky and the earth bright pink.
High overhead a pale new moon appeared.
By the brook the frogs were singing their song of spring.”

Burton’s prose here is as beautiful as her artwork, it reads like poetry.  As the book was first published in 1962, recent editions have been updated with new scientific discoveries, but the additions are glaring when compared to Burton’s words.  Certain words have been changed as well, such as each of Burton’s use of the word ‘mankind’ being changed to ‘human beings’.  The changes affect the flow of the prose at times and so are easy to spot.  I think the reason they are so obvious is that the updates are focused on a fact based, scientific explanation of each time period. While Burton is concerned with Science, she is also interested in a more philosophical viewpoint. She’s looking at the mysteries of life.

Like her swirling artwork, the story is meant to show the flow of time. The last page is particularly poetic, as we have reached the present day;

“And now it is your Life Story
and it is you who plays the leading role.
The stage is set, the time is now, and the place wherever you are.
Each passing second is a new link in the endless chain of Time.
The drama of Life is a continuous story – ever new,
ever changing, and ever wondrous to behold.”

I’ll probably have that 3rd grade version of this book for the rest of my life.  

I would think that this would be a good choice for kids ages 7 through 10, to read by themselves, though it could easily be read aloud by a parent to younger kids. Good luck finding the older version, at least it’s still in print though!