One more October Old Favorite, this time the oldest book featured so far. It’s been around so long that not only could your parents have read it as children, but your grandparents and great-grandparents as well! This particular book doesn’t feature ghosts, witches or vampires, but instead some of the scariest creatures to come out of the imagination: the Ugly-Wuglies! What are they? You’ll find out…but first, you’ll have to read The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit.
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Gerald, Jimmy and Kathleen were supposed to go home for the summer holidays. But when their cousin Betty came down with the measles, they ended up at Kathleen’s school. It’s a little strange to be living in an empty boarding school for the summer, but no other girls are there. The French mistress is also living there, and agrees to supervise them, while the cook will make their meals. And Mademoiselle agrees to give their their freedom, as long as they promise “not to be more naughty than they must”. That’s an easy promise!
Given their freedom, the children set out and spend their days exploring. They discover a hedge, and after accidentally falling through, find a mysterious tunnel that leads to a beautiful estate with includes a large lake with swans, surrounded by marble statues, and a lovely castle overflowing with towers, turrets and flourishes. When they find their way through a maze made of roses, there’s also an enchanted princess, deep in slumber. Just like Sleeping Beauty, Gerald awakens her with a kiss.
The Princess tells them she lives in this magical castle, and shows them all of her treasures, including her ring of invisibility. But when she puts it on and the ring really turns her invisible, the “princess” panics and tells the others that she’s really Mabel, the housekeeper’s daughter, and she had no idea the ring really had magical powers. Each of the children longs to try it, and the ring behaves differently for each of them. Soon, the ring is leading not only Mable, but Jerry, Jimmy and Kathleen on a series of magical adventures. From invisibility to dinosaurs to ghosts, the children are hanging on, trying to figure out the magic and survive!
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So why is this an October title? Because of the Ugly-Wuglies. In the course of their magical adventures, the children construct a fake audience out of discarded bits of clothing, sticks and painted faces. They call these creations The Ugly-Wuglies, and laugh at them. But after they’re discarded and all but forgotten, the Ugly-Wuglies come to life, and that laughter comes back to haunt the children. Not only are the Ugly-Wuglies ugly, but they’re dangerous, and they want to stay alive… Maybe some readers wouldn’t be bothered, but this reader was terrified when I read that particular chapter as a kid!
The Enchanted Castle was written in 1907, but Jimmy, Cathy, Jerry and Mable seem like kids you could meet and talk to today. (Their clothes might be a little different, but…) Edith Nesbit was an outspoken writer for children, and her books are still read and loved, over a hundred years after they were written. Some of her more famous adventures include Five Children and It, The Railway Children, and The Story of the Treasure Seekers.
I love the way real life in Nesbit’ s books suddenly becomes infused with magic–through magical talismans, creatures or other means. Magic in these stories has rules, but those rules can be extremely tricky to figure out, and the consequences of using magic incorrectly can be dangerous. Or embarrassing. Or both. Without E. Nesbit, we probably wouldn’t have Edward Eager, Diana Wynne Jones or Harry Potter.
This book does have some challenging vocabulary, both because it was written a century ago and because it’s British. But it is extremely readable, especially by fans of J.K. Rowling or Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is also a great read-aloud, since each chapter is like a smaller story in the frame of the book. For listening, it could be enjoyed by kids as young as seven (although check to see how they feel about Ugly-Wuglies before you get there!) For older kids, it’s timeless, but would be most enjoyed by fourth through sixth grades.
So try The Enchanted Castle, and find out what magic was like in 1907. See if you find it just as interesting as Hogwarts in 2007 (book 6!)