Review of the Day: Portable Childhoods
I don’t normally do this. It’s out of my realm of expertise, really. Covering new territory. Breaking new ground. What I mean to say is that “Portable Childhoods,” by Ellen Klages is not a children’s book. It is written by a woman who has penned a Scott O’Dell Award winning work of historical fiction, of course. And it is filled with children at various ages, in various situations, and at various times and places. It even contains the short story version of A Green Glass Sea
Sixteen tales of varying length. Some are two pages long. Some are twenty-eight. Realistic sometimes, and sometimes deeply magical. In her Afterword, Klages says it best when she mentions that, "My stories have been described as fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction, not science fiction, children’s, mainstream, and/or horror. (Often in different reviews of the same story)." More telling is her final sentence, "Many of my stories appear to have happy endings." Appearances being, as they are, deceiving, the tales found in this book can be hopeless and heartless one moment and then bounce back with something that "appears" to be cheerful the next. With an Introduction from fellow adult/children’s author Neil Gaiman, the book’s stories last just as long as they need to, never overstaying their welcome or bringing you up too short, too soon. Their connections demand a little more work.
The mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and realistic fiction is seamless here. It’s all the more fun too when you think you’re in one genre and then realize too late by the end that you’re in another. A story where God is a kid who’s helping his grandmother in the kitchen (he has, as J.B.S. Haldane once said, "an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.") is followed by the historical fiction tale "The Green Glass Sea." The amusing "Ringing Up Baby" where a child orders a baby sister with… let us say unusual properties is preceded by the mostly realistic, possibly sci-fi "A Taste of Summer" and all that it entails. For the most part they fit with one another. I’ve always thought that the arrangement of short stories is a difficult task in its own right. You want the book to flow from tale to tale rather than start and stop in a herky-jerky manner. The sole story I found out-of-place was a tiny two pager called "Be Prepared". A kind of "To Serve Man" but lighter. It’s a fun story but I didn’t quite see how it fit in with the rest of the book.
Every author writes, to some extent, from what they know. The funny thing about Klages is that you can’t figure out what she has conjured versus what she’s experienced. Ms. Klages writes in such a way that you cannot separate her memories from her fictions. Everything, every single little thing, seems deeply drenched in fact. Dripping with it, I say. From the Afterword we learn that her little sister Sally was born with Down Syndrome. So you get an understanding for why the story "Guys Day Out" about a father and his Down Syndrome son, feels so right. Then again, Klages really nails the time traveling aspects of "Time Gypsy" too. And the feeling that you’re flying when you snorkel as in "Flying Over Water". Many of these tales are about socially awkward girls who are comfortable with their own passions and interests to the exasperation of the mainstream adults around them. So how far do you feel comfortable assuming that you know an author from their works? With Klages you end up making all kinds of assumptions. Certainly they cannot all be correct.
Certain themes do crop up throughout the tales. Homosexuality, and how quickly we forget what strides have been made, is a theme. Powerlessness, particularly the powerlessness of children. That’s there. Girls tend to either vanish or find themselves transformed (both literally and figuratively) in this book. And as Neil Gaiman says in the Introduction, "I expected them [the stories] to be funny and bustling, and they weren’t. They were something else entirely." Not unfunny, but not a barrel of laffs and larfs either.
Then there’s the writing. It all comes down to the writing. When I read a book like this, I like to mark the sentences that catch my eye and let me smile when I read them. They never really have the same effect when you pluck them out of their context and try to make them bobble about in a review on their own. I’ll try anyway, though. Otherwise, how could I tell you about the lovely moment in the story "Basement Magic" when little Mary Louise receives a compliment from her family’s housekeeper, Ruby. "She does not get many compliments, and stores this one away in the most private part of her thoughts. She will visit it regularly over the next few days until its edges are indistinct and there is nothing left but a warm glow labeled RUBY." Or to say of a woman that "she still had all of her marbles, though every one of them was a bit odd and rolled asymmetrically." A good author, a competent author, knows how to elicit an almost visceral response when they mention things like "a small, curled whip." Klages does that.
(Continued in Part Two)
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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