The Trolls, by Polly Horvath
The Trolls has one of my favorite beginnings of all time:
The week before Mr. And Mrs. Anderson were to leave Tenderly, Ohio, for the somewhat more bustling metropolis of Paris, their babysitter, who had just returned from far-off climes herself, came down with a mild case of bubonic plague and called tearfully to say she didn't want to spread the buboes around. (3)
And then, on the second page, comes one of my favorite exchanges—the conversation itself is great, but it's the narrator that makes it KILL—of all time:
"Well, this is a fine kettle of fish," said Mrs. Anderson.
"What about a kennel?" said Pee Wee. "Are you going to put us in a kennel?"
"No," said Mr. Anderson, "we are not."
"Kennels are for dogs," said Melissa, who always knew everything.
"She said kettle," said Amanda, who often knew everything.
"Oh," said Pee Wee, who knew nothing and led the life of a worm. (4)
Due to the babysitter's aforementioned sad case of the bubonic plague, Mr. Anderson manages to get his older sister, Sally, to come down to Ohio from Vancouver Island, BC, to watch the kids for a week. Melissa (10), Amanda (8), and Pee Wee (6) have never met their Aunt Sally, and after a week with her, life—and their understanding of their family, and of each other—will never be the same.
It's about storytelling and family, about sibling relationships and rambunctiousness and generational differences, about learning from the mistakes of others, and it's about how getting what you want sometimes shows you that you don't actually want what you think you want. In other words, in a quiet way, it's about regret. Also green beans. And yes, trolls.
Polly Horvath is funny. So funny. So so so funny. Sometimes she's dry, and sometimes she's slapstick, and sometimes she's sneaky, and sometimes her characters pick up on the humor and sometimes they don't. But with all of that funny, there's often a dark undercurrent that makes a lot of the laughs almost... uncomfortable. In a good way.
For instance, this is how Aunt Sally describes what it can feel like for kids to deal with high expectations and pressure:
If you studied an instrument, your parents could pay an enormous fee for you to take an exam with the Royal Academy. It was a big deal. You show up and do your stuff for some traveling hotshot. If you passed, you got a certificate and could go on to the next level the following year, and if you failed, you jumped off a cliff or something, I guess, because after your parents had paid those exam fees you had darn well better pass. Also, it was a reflection on your teacher, who was often housing the visiting examiner, so if you failed you humiliated not only yourself but pretty much everyone who had ever known you. (14)
Like, YEAH. It's FUNNY. But it's also not, because it's true?
Then there are the moments that are funny because of a tonal shift:
It was one of those perfectly glorious October days when the trees are all tipped with gold, the sun smiles on everything, and the earth is alive with a last sparkle of energy before winter kills it. (87)
But, you know, also semi-depressing because winter and dark and death and ugh. But again, in a good way.
And the way that she handles group scenes—watching the various personalities colliding and interacting combined with her word choices is a BLAST. Like, just the IDEA of a six-year-old being described as 'regal' WRECKS me, but it's also the PERFECT choice because creates such a great image of Frank graciously waving Aunt Sally's story forward:
"Will you please ignore him and go on?" said Melissa.
"I'm always happy to get Frank's take on things. Do you have anything else you'd like to share on the subject, Frank?"
Frank shook his head regally. It wasn't often his opinion was valued. He gestured silently that she should continue the story. Melissa threw a bean at him. (77-78)
And, all at the same time, Melissa's bean-throwing makes it clear that no matter how much respect that Aunt Sally gives Frank/Pee Wee, SHE'S not going to do the same. Aunt Sally's stories are constantly getting interrupted, and the interruptions don't just work with the rhythm of the story, they almost act as bridges between verses... AND they work to strengthen all of the character development and growth, PLUS sneakily introduce new vocabulary to the reader. It's killer.
ALSO! There are legit moments of creep:
"Are all the doors locked?" asked Amanda.
"There are no locks to keep out the trolls," said Aunt Sally. "But don't worry, the trolls don't come to you. It's your own darkness that leads you to the trolls." (57)
But ultimately, the creep is ALL IN YOUR OWN HEART, which is WORSE than actual literal trolls. Like, even though she never explicitly says it, the darkness all comes from Aunt Sally's regrets about her own actions as a child, about her lack of relationship with her brother, and serves as a lesson—but again, an UNSPOKEN lesson, so it doesn't feel didactic or Victorian—to Frank's older sisters. It's so well done, because it's not about Horvath trying to Teach Her Readers Something, it's Horvath telling a story about a woman who regrets something, and allowing her other characters to do with that information what they well.
Unfortunately, towards the end, there were two moments that detracted from what was otherwise a LOVELY rereading experience:
1. The Playing Indian sequence:
It was John's idea to get out the poster paints and paint strange signs on our faces like natives going into battle. (101)
It was clearly written as kids equating Natives as brave, etc., and—as I'm sure that some commenters will be quick to note—it's part of one of Aunt Sally's stories, and it's set decades in the past of a book that was published in 1999. To which I say: Blah blah blah. It's still playing into stereotypes, it's still a form of performing redface, and reading it still absolutely felt like a slap in the face. I have no doubt that it'll feel like that to plenty of other readers.
2. The Fat Little Mean Girl: I feel like I don't even need to go into why this whole chapter was pretty disheartening, especially given how little characterization the Fat Little Mean Girl gets when compared to any number of the other minor characters. Beyond the bit where you find out—SPOILER—that she ended up marrying one of Sally's other brothers, the whole thing was just a FAT GREEDY MEAN GIRL gets taught a lesson about eating too much, HO HO HO.
Next up, maybe:
Possibly revisit more Horvath, like Everything on a Waffle or The Canning Season. Or maybe step sideways into Saffy's Angel or The Exiles by Hilary McKay, which are warmer, but have a similar tone and sense of humor and are also family stories that deal with generations of issues and decisions that have repercussions years and years later...
Lists & so on:
Book List: ALA Notable Children's Books, 2000
Book List: Booklist Editors' Choice, 1999 Middle Readers
Book List: Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1999 Blue Ribbon Book
Book List: Horn Book Fanfare, 1999
Starred Review: Booklist