-- Get a block of marble and take away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
I’ve always loved that joke, and not because it’s funny, because it isn’t. I love it because it’s beautifully, simply and totally true – while also being no help whatsoever. Yet I think about it a fair amount when it comes to how to craft a story. Finding the story is like finding the elephant. You have to keep carving and keep carving until you’ve rid the story of all the bits that are not the elephant.
Some books seem a bit like the sculptor (that is, the storyteller) didn’t quite finish. Sometimes, when this happens, the story is clearly beautiful – complex, interesting, intriguing, funny – but there are just these bits of rough marble hanging around, sort of clouding the clean lines of the story. This was my experience of THE TRAVELING RESTAURANT, by Barbara Else.
I loved the imagination underpinning this world. I loved the humor, the characters, the way magic lurked almost, but not quite, unseen. I loved the quest, and the delightful descriptions of all the meals and foods cooked up on the ship, the Traveling Restaurant. I appreciated both the satisfying inevitability of the ending, and the suspenseful circuitousness of the route the tale took to get there. I also liked Jasper, the hero. I liked his unflappability, and his affection for his baby sister, which was such a defining character trait.
I did, however, have a hard time keeping track of the central thread of the tale. I felt sometimes like there was perhaps one character too many, although I’m not quite sure who I would axe… the orphan girl? The pirate king? The wayward uncle? Really, each character taken on his or her own was a treat. It was just that all of them together were sometimes a mob.
This might be unfair, however. I actually (I confess) had much the same reaction to Peter and the Starcatchers, which in some ways this book called to mind. It has some of the same appealing elements – strong, young characters; magic hovering at the edges, like something in your peripheral vision; pirates and sea voyages. Enemies and islands. It is a satisfying, busy (really busy!), lively adventure, and one that will appeal to boys and girls alike.
Magic, pirates and ballistic gingerbread!