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17 June 2010

Book Review Wizard's Hall

Wizard's Hall by Jane Yolen

After learning that this book preceded Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and that its author, Jane Yolen, feels that Rowling stole all of her ideas from Wizard's Hall and is remarkably grumpy about the Harry Potter series, stating, "... even though the story moves along, I just don't feel like they're well written" and "I always tell people that if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large cheque, I would cash it" and "Rowling's prose is terrible,"  I just had to read this book.

Sure, Wizard's Hall has similarities to the Potter series but it isn't remotely epic, like Rowling's seven tome creation. Nor are the similarities damning. Yolen says, "[Wizard's Hall] has got a boy named Henry [who] goes to wizard school, doesn't think he has talent. He has a good friend with red hair. There's a wicked wizard who's trying to destroy the school, and the pictures on the wall move and speak and change." That's all she's got? So Bridget Jones' Diary = Pride and Prejudice. And everyone is now stealing from the Twighlight series even though vampire mythology has been around since prehistoric times. 

Ideas are like flowers -- just because one rose resembles another doesn't mean either is a clone. 

However, none of this gristmill of ridiculous bile makes a damn bit of difference if one tries to take Wizard's Hall as a stand-alone children's book. 

And, as one, I liked it. Not immensely. But I liked it. I thought of Harry Potter only once, when the main character forgot his wizard's robe in the wardrobe. Otherwise, the clever bits in this book bear only a passing resemblance to the clever bits in Rowling's; and they aren't nearly as well fleshed out. 

But that's ok. And, in fact, for what I was hoping (I hear it's ok to end a sentence with a preposition these days but I fear Yolen will read this someday and come after me). My son is a prolific reader at age six; he's not ready for the dark, epic themes of Potter. But he can probably handle most of this book (though it does get a little creepy during the final showdown) and for that, I am grateful. 

This is a quick read with sketchy outlines that are perfect for young readers. Yolen peppers her prose with wisdom, most of it coming in italicized sayings by the main character's "dear ma," like "Better take care than need care" and "Secrets is like wounds, can't be cleansed until opened " and "Expectations always disappoint" and "Good folk think bad thoughts; bad folk act on 'em" and, most tellingly for the plot and moral of the book, "Talent don't matter. It only matters that you try."  With that, she kisses him three times, "once on each cheek for love and once on the forehead for wisdom ..." and sends him packing to Wizard's Hall. 

Yolen engages in some amusing humor;  Henry becomes Thornmallow, a name which no one can seem to remember, "'Thornpillow!' said Magister Hickory. 'Marrow,' corrected Magister Beechvale. 'Mallow,' squeaked Thornmallow." 

And when the kids are in the library, trying to figure out how to defeat the dark wizard, they come upon a solution that seems to easy to Thornmallow. "'Besides, if we thought of it, why didn't the Magisters?' 'Probably because it is to simple and too easy,' Gorse said. 'Have you ever noticed how grown-ups try to complicate everything? Make it harder than it is? Like grown-up food, with too many sauces.'   'And grown-up clothes, with too many buttons,' added Tansy.   'And grown-up manners,' Will said. 'With too many shoulds and shouldn'ts'" 

But this is not an overtly funny book. For me, it was an entertaining confection.  But for my kid, it may well be a tome that, with its three great themes, will resonate deeply in his psyche;

Words mean something 
When the head of the school has confronted the dark wizard and is deflated, he begins to tell a story, "And clearly, as Magister Hickory spoke, the very act of speaking the words, telling the story, re-creating another time, gave him life. Just as the words spoken by the awful Master had brought him a kind of death." 

The Fine Line 
"By 'black,' my prickly friend, I do not mean evil. Or wicked. I mean dark and deep, as in the black water of the deepest lakes. All those strongest of emotions that -- if used improperly -- tempt us to wicked, evil deeds. For example, ambition, which can become greed. Or desire, which can become gluttony. Or admiration, which can become envy. We are all made up of such deep and dark emotions, and as we grow more mature, we learn to control them." 

Always try. Always. 


And Jane Yolen is overly fond of italics. Just saying.