“I don't know where she's going with this, but I sure do enjoy the ride.”
So pronounced Mrs. P when we had reached a particularly startling twist in the charming Nicolás, la abuela Margot y el hechicero (Nicholas, Grandma Margot, and the Wizard), penned by our own Vanessa Seijo.
We began the book New Year’s weekend, with me serving as lector (reader) while Mrs. P did some picking up after the Christmas week family visits. That is, she did chores until events in the story forced her to abandon them so she could concentrate her full attention on the story—and its artful telling. From time to time, then, the watering can was placed on the counter, the orchids compelled to wait just a bit longer for their drink, until the avid listener could discover how María la Una might survive the tyranny of the loathsome Profesor Tomás (nicknamed “profesor ah-eh” for the interrogatives he pompously inserts every few words).
We all know Vanessa as an exquisite poet who, with astonishing brevity, joins unlikely words to create stark images. We all know Vanessa as a thoughtful commenter on the culture, history, and environment of her Island. We all know Vanessa as a resident expert on all things vampirish, medieval, and Taíno and Carib.
Well, Vanessa is also an enchanting writer of children’s books.
Nicolás, eleven, lives with his three cousins, the 16-year-old responsible but disorganized Luis; the nine-year-old, impetuous María la Una; and the impish preschooler María la Dos. (The full names of the sisters María are just grounds for the family’s decision to address them numerically.) The kids live in the home of abuela Margot, a dedicated, if less than skilled, dabbler in magic. The one spell she successfully cast was on the kids’ aunt, Elvilina, to help the tía lose weight: “los chicos vieron a la tía desinflarse como globo pinchado” (“the children saw their aunt deflate like a punctured balloon”). As a result, the poor tía is sometimes as thin as a piece of paper, forcing the family to attach her with clothespins to her chair so the breeze does not blow her away. (Abuela, unfortunately, has not studied her magic systematically and thus never has learned how to undo a spell.)
The extended family lives together in love and chaos, due in part to the antics of the hundreds of books in abuela’s collection of magical tomes, each of which willfully does whatever it wants, performing magic on its own, gossiping with fellow books in some corner, and even, Nicolás suspects, mocking him and his cousins.
The books are not the only misbehaving magical objects in abuela’s home. The kitchen is full of headstrong utensils, appliances, and food. Serving bowls stick their tongues out, the refrigerator insists on receiving the correct code before it is willing to open, and vegetables hide the cooking spoons, demanding ransom before releasing them. As a result, “las sesiones de preparación de comestibles de la abuela Margot más bien parecían batallas campales” (“abuela Margot’s meal preparations seemed more like pitched battles”).*
The children find refuge in the third-floor attic, the only room in the house unaffected by the disorder elsewhere. There, amid cobwebs that sometimes get stuck in Nicolás’s tomato-red hair (when María la Dos is not using them to mummify herself), the children speak with love, and bemused wonder, of their errant abuela; study old family photos, conjuring memories of their own mothers, long gone; and contemplate how to avoid their two adversaries—the overweening profesor ah-eh and the very large, very blond, very privileged, very disdained Otilia, who (alas) has a crush on Nicolás.
As the story develops, though, Nicolás focuses his attention on the mysterious old man who suddenly appeared in town and who, he is convinced, is an evil wizard trying to harm his abuela—and is responsible for the unaccountably strange events that leave their town cut off from the outside world.
Yes, things happen, dire (and at the same time hilarious) things, that threaten the survival not only of Nicolás and his family but the whole community. The reader, meanwhile, is in suspense over whether Nicolás is correct in suspecting the strange señor Raspinell or is in fact himself responsible for the puzzling goings-on, as a result of an inability (inherited from abuela?) to control his own nascent power.
And that’s all you’re going to get from me!
Except this: Vanessa has written a truly wonderful book, full of children who act, think, and feel like children and who are respected, not condescended to, by their creator; full of humor and feeling; full of surprises and delights. The writing is imaginative, the figurative language vivid, the details sharp, the tone well controlled. The Spanish is colloquial, rather than formal, and not too high level, as is appropriate for a kids’ book. (Though I have to confess I was aided by having on-call translation when needed.)
Nicolás is not yet available in English (work on that, kiddo!). If your Spanish is up to it, go here.
Tell you one more thing: Mrs. P and I very much look forward to reading it to the nephews and nieces—and, eventually, los nietos.
* Who’d have thought that Vanessa would see cooking in this way . . . .
Words © 2011 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.