Alice Hoffman,
Water Tales
(Scholastic, 2003)

Alice Hoffman is a respected and prolific author of both children's and adult literature. But, left to myself, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with a bare 300 words for a review of the two novels, Aquamarine and Indigo, contained in Water Tales. To me, the stories were wholly uninteresting, without meaningful challenges to the characters; plot and character development were sorely lacking and, worst of all, I read the whole thing in about an hour.

Disappointed, and wondering how I could possibly concoct a review from this material, I decided to pull in my emergency back-up crew: the kids. Vinnie is 11 and Molly, 6. They are both avid readers and tend to go for interesting, compelling stories. They're big fans of Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen. I feel they can be trusted.

Vinnie's first comment was, "The pictures aren't very good." But he immediately added: "Actually, the pictures are good, but they're too dark to see anything."

I had thought they were very good illustrations, too. In fact, what appeal the books had for me was pretty much related to these mysterious, haunting black-and-white images. There's a lovely mermaid approaching the water's surface, rising from the murky depths below. Another picture showing three shadowy figures perched atop the roof of a house elicits memories of long summer days, with nothing to do to fill them. The best, I think, is a linear perspective of a road at dusk, tree-lined and stretching off into mystery. It's an ominous scene, but the adventure surely at its end makes it almost an invitation to explore. They appear to be pencil or charcoal sketches, but in print it is difficult to discern their original medium.

The books had seemed to me to fall somewhere between Vinnie and Molly's interest ranges, but I gathered them for a family reading session and advised them to listen carefully and respond honestly. Both sat quietly, fiddling with toys, throughout the first half hour, after which they assured me they were both intrigued by the story. This has proven out in the days since that first reading, as they clamor for more.

In Aquamarine, a modern adaptation of "The Little Mermaid," we meet Claire and Hailey, best friends who have lived next door to each other in an unnamed beach town for their entire 12 years of life. Claire is cautious, the planner of all the girls' adventures. Hailey is the brave one, taking Claire's careful plans and executing them with daring and finesse. The quiet rhythm of their life is disrupted when Claire's grandparents (her guardians since the death of her parents) decide to move to Florida. The impression given is that Florida is unreachably far away, and the friends fear they will never again see each other.

Spending the few remaining days before the move haunting the beach club where they spent every summer, the friends despair of their hopeless situation. But the accidental discovery of a stranded mermaid redirects the girls and gives them a purpose and responsibility beyond their youth. To save the mermaid, the friends must work together, combining the skills and talents they possess.

As I said above, to me it seemed the challenges were not so great as to be impressive, nor do they require feats of bravery or cunning. But for my kids, it seems to be a satisfying amount of conflict, and the resolutions to them are believable. Vinnie (in grade 5) gauges this story to be most appropriate for a child between first and third grades. He was quick to assure me that it held his interest as well, though, seeming concerned that I might stop reading it and cost him the conclusion!

Indigo is the recounting of the events of the night a rainstorm came into the landlocked town of Oak Grove, a thing that had not happened in many, many years. The last storm was so devastating and left the townsfolk so frightened that they spent the intervening years building an enormous concrete wall to block Penman's Creek from ever overflowing its boundaries again.

Hydrophobia may be the town's motto, but not all who live there are in agreement. For two unusual brothers, Trevor and Eli McGill (respectively known as Trout and Eel), nothing could be worse. Adopted during the elder McGill's seashore vacation and brought to Oak Grove as infants, they have never managed to shed their affinity for the ocean, despite the impassable distance that separates them from it. Unhelpfully, their parents refuse to take them back to visit the ocean that haunts their memories, responding to their pleas with: "If you knew what the ocean was like, you'd be grateful to live in a place as dry as Oak Grove."

Trout and Eel disagree. With the help of best friend Martha Glimmer, they plan a foray beyond the borders of all they know to seek the truth of their heritage and find their place in the world. How this comes about is unexpected, and is a more appealing conclusion than I would have thought.

It turns out that these short novels are indeed of interest to children, and considering the cheers that meet our daily revisiting of these characters, I would have to recommend the book. Perhaps I would not encourage an adult to seek a fulfilling read here, but I can say for sure that my kids will be passing it on to friends of their own.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 18 September 2004

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