A while ago I was offered these three short books for review: Delilah Dusticle, Delilah Dusticle's Transylvanian Adventure, and Eliza Bluebell, authored by A.J. York. I was happy to accept, because middle grade fantasy is a genre with room for a lot of magic. I mean, um, not just spells-and-charms kind of magic, but... vivid colours and vast landscapes and textured descriptions. The kind of magic that never stops putting new, detailed pictures in your head. (It's also usually the genre that gets the absolutely prettiest book covers!) But in talking about books like these, I have to mention my handicap in being near 30 and entirely disinterested in actual children. (I just want to pilfer their library shelves.) My reading of stories like these will be coloured by being neither a middle-grader or a middle-grader teacher or parent, et cetera. This is just the opinion of a speculative fiction nerd. I mean, enthusiast.
Look! Delilah Dusticle's Transylvanian Adventure has a book trailer!
I'm treating the three books as a set, mainly because they're each so short that reading them back to back is satisfying but not necessary. The stories work fine independently of each other. Delilah Dusticle is set up to be a series of unknown length - there's a third book about her planned, and I'll probably want to read it.
Because Delilah Dusticle is an awesome heroine. Her special ability? It's cleaning. I'm daydreaming about being Delilah right now. I can easily imagine my middle-grade self being sufficiently inspired by Delilah to at least, um, dust a bookshelf. I've never been a cleaning prodigy, but who knows what I would have been with someone like Delilah to show me the way. Picture the young woman with a neat bob haircut in a maid's uniform with apron, a quiver on her back for her special dusters, one hand wielding a Grumpy Sponge, the other waving at her boyfriend, the vacuum cleaner repairman.
A quiver of dusters. Given the nature of the story and the setting/timeframe, it's really hard not to mention Mary Poppins for comparison, but I'm trying not to go there.
There is this oddity - I'm not sure I remember the last time I read a middle grade book where none of the main characters were actually children. I think this contributes to the quaint - or maybe timeless - feel of the stories. The prose itself is quite simple and no-nonsense, which is excellent, because new events keep unfolding on every page, and the words are just, well, vehicles for projecting new, beautiful, atmospheric or action-filled images into your head.
(Yes. This is in a way true of all books, but you know what I mean.)
You can guess who Delilah meets in her Transylvanian adventure, right? Your guess would be somewhat accurate. And he's not even the most spectacular thing in there.
Eliza Bluebell lives in the same universe as Delilah Dusticle, though they don't meet. Eliza has some very special talents of her own, which she happily shares with the little town she visits. Her shadow is detachable and has a life of its own, and that could be quite sinister, but it's not. Mostly it's just sticky and sugary, because Eliza's business here is pastries. For a while, at least.
My main complaint is the length - so short! - but that is a reflection of who I am as a reader. I'm not at all sure the intended audience would even comment on it. And complaining about the length is easily flipped into a compliment, because I really like this universe, its whimsical magic system, and its diverse population. It's nearly a Spirited Away kind of magic. And it brings Diana Wynne Jones to mind, actually. Which is good. And one of my favourite books, The adventures of Endill Swift, has a very similar cozy-crazy tone to it. (That's unhelpful, probably, because no one else seems to have read that book...)