September always struck me as a time of year especially poignant and backward-gazing -- long before I had accumulated memories to pierce me. It may have had to do with the yearly return to school; the remembered smell of new pencils, new backpacks, new shoes. I hardly know a young person who doesn't look back on former schooldays with nostalgia -- even the 8-year-old gazes back with condescension upon his or her 5-year-old self. So if the month is ripe for memory, it makes sense that it would produce exceptional memoirs by two of our most extraordinary children's book writers.
Tomie dePaola, the popular and prolific writer and illustrator, has been publishing his work for 35 years. It seems only natural that he would turn to the story of his own life, so frequently and charmingly alluded to in some of his most popular picture books. ``26 Fairmount Avenue,'' a memoir written for children, is something of a milestone even for dePaola, whose list of published books is so wide and varying it might have made Isaac Asimov sit up and take notice. His list of previous works ranges from the comical (``Strega Nona: Her Story'') to the heartbreaking (``Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs''); from myths and legends, nursery rhymes and fairy tales to how to make your own Christmas cards, to the achingly beautiful ``The Clown of God,'' and a number of ``autobiographical fictions.'' ``26 Fairmont Street'' feels more like memoir than fiction -- but I'll let someone else draw those fine lines.
``26 Fairmount Avenue'' is not the ``full'' story of dePaola's life; he promises sequels at the book's close -- ``The End (for the time being)'' -- and in an afterword. But it is an auspicious start. Like any good work of autobiography, this one tells a good story: the building of the first house he and his family ever owned. Completed in the face of natural and unnatural disasters, with the help of family, neighbors, and friends, the Fairmount house makes a natural vehicle for talking about anything and everything, and eventually takes on some of the mythic shine of a child's long-hoped-for dream.
DePaola's distinctive art -- slightly cartoony, colorful, with a hand-made, sketchy look to it, a sort of genius doodle -- is underplayed here, in small black and white sketches that focus, as does the book, mostly on subtleties of character. This gives dePaola's prose a chance to rise to the surface of our attention. Helped, as he claims, by his beloved friend and editor, Margaret Frith, the voice of the book has a sweet freshness and enthusiasm. There is great art in all his seeming artlessness. But the nicest thing about this unusual memoir, in my opinion, is that while appealing to older readers and adults, it is accessible even to the young readers of his picture books. Any child willing to sit still at all will surely sit for the story of the boy whose umbrella, in ``a really strong gust,'' blew him into the air and floating ``down the stairs just like Mary Poppins.'' Or to hear how our hero mistakenly gobbled chocolate-flavored laxatives with his beloved great-grandmother, and who, upon learning that he wouldn't be taught to read till first grade, said, ``Fine I'll be back next year,'' and marched right out of kindergarten ``and all the way home.''
``26 Fairmount Avenue'' is filled with good humor, affection for a past to which dePaola pays respectful attention. After a bad storm, ``Trees had fallen in all directions, criss-crossing each other like a giant game of pick-up sticks.'' A neighbor, terrified of thunder, comes rushing into Tomie's apartment to be sprinkled with holy water, though she ``wasn't even Catholic . . . and it must have worked because Mrs. Crane never got struck by lightning.'' ``26 Fairmount Avenue'' has much of the feel and flavor of Tomie dePaola's best picture books: It is a wonderful introduction to the art of memoir.
Robert Cormier, similarly, is a beloved author for young readers, but his work has been written for an older set, notably his classics, ``The Chocolate War'' and ``I Am the Cheese.'' The darkness in some of Cormier's novels is so haunting one might not believe he could possibly write a memoir of his childhood in a small Massachusetts town here called Frenchtown -- much less that he could do it in lovely, cadenced, and moving free verse, with great tenderness and delicacy. Nonetheless, here it is -- ``Frenchtown Summer,'' one of the most daring and successful books out so far this year, by one of our finest and most respected authors for young readers.
The free-verse poems in ``Frenchtown Summer'' have the cumulative drive of a collection of short stories -- from which a dual portrait emerges: both of a particular boy living his adolescence ``in the days / when I knew my name / but did not know who I was'' and of a particular place and time, where the siting of a real orange airplane in one of the yards of Frenchtown is a miraculous, literally unbelievable event, where a quarter will pay for movies and refreshments, and almost all of the town's income derives from fancy comb and hair ornament factories that spill their ``red, purple or green'' dyes into the local brook where the children swim.
Of all the affectionate and touching portraits in the book, none are greater than those of Cormier's own mother and father: ``My mother was vibrant, / a wind chime, / but my father was a silhouette / He was closer to me waving from the street / than nearby in the tenement / or walking beside me.''
This loving mother and the sad, silent, and distant father hiding behind ``The Monument Times / collapsed in his lap'' are two of Cormier's best and most fully-comprehended characters to date. In some ways, ``Frenchtown Summer'' reminds me of the Newbery-award-winning ``Out of the Dust'' by Karen Hesse -- though Hesse's story, also written in free verse, was more grippingly dramatic, and Cormier's work is, I think, more successful as poetry. A handful of poems here can stand with the best new free verse for teenage readers, ``Sister Angela,'' about first love and lust; ``My Father's Pilgrimage''; ``Jackstones''; ``The Bald Spot'' -- happily, the list goes on and on. Cormier would have done well to eliminate the overused one- or two-word last line, but he more than compensates: ``My uncles and aunts / came and went in my life / like gaudy ghosts.'' And while the poems do often stand on their own, they increase in power when read as part of a boy's coming-of-age story -- that awkward age where one's neck is craned forward and back almost at once, and whatever is just around the corner still has its own mysterious speed.
This month's review would not be complete without mention of the new Harry Potter book. The enormous popularity of this planned series of seven novels proves, after all, that Y2K readers are as much in need of the fantastical, the mythic, and inventive as human beings in any age. J. K. Rowling's second in the series, ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' was number one on many bestseller lists this summer. Now the third installment is out, ``Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,'' and I'm guessing that fans of Rowling's previous books will not be disappointed.
If anything, she rises in many ways to new heights in this volume: more magic; more intricate spells; more exciting games of Quidditch (wizard air hockey in which the players themselves are taken to new heights); more unexpected and thrilling heroics, more complex and invidious villains, like the Dementors of the prison Azkaban:
``Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. . . . If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself. . . . soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.''
They are invidious enough to knock Harry off his Quidditch broom -- but, of course, it will take more than these simple demons to defeat Harry Potter and his friends. All the old favorite characters are back -- the bookish Hermione; the hapless giant Hagrid, everyone's dupe and nobody's fool; Harry's best friend, Ron -- along with some refreshing new characters.
One of the best things about ``Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' is the degree to which our attention is returned to Harry himself -- his dark, complicated history and his own sweet, indomitable character. He turns 13 shortly after this volume begins: ``Then he took off his glasses and lay down, eyes open, facing his three birthday cards.
``Extremely unusual though he was, at that moment Harry Potter felt just like everyone else -- glad, for the first time in his life, that it was his birthday.''
The young Harry Potter, famed wizard, marked by a lightning bolt on his forehead, stuck for most of his young life in a family of Muggles (us dimwitted mortals), is both human and heroic in ``Prisoner of Azkaban.'' He learns some more about his own troubled past; more about human (and wizard) nature; and that what he fears ``most of all is -- fear.''
Harry Potter is a character on a journey that leads him, volume after volume, simultaneously into the past and the future. Grateful readers will eagerly await further adventures and discoveries.