Casting a spell

An introduction to the work of children's book author Susan Cooper.

By Andrea Gollin

Published July 31, 1997 9:37AM (EDT)

Great children's books -- great books, for that matter -- are those
that "cast a spell so subtle and overwhelming that it has overpowered the
reader's imagination, carried him outside all the rules, before he has
noticed what is happening." Those are the words of author Susan
Cooper, and she should know, because it's a feat she has accomplished
again and again in more than 15 books for children.

If someone were to ask me to list the best contemporary writers of
children's literature, Susan Cooper's name would appear on that list. And
if someone -- a parent, for example -- were to ask me what books to give to
an 8- to 12-year-old child of either gender to keep him or her engrossed
for the rest of the summer, I would tell them to choose anything and
everything by Susan Cooper.

Cooper is the author of the acclaimed five-book series "The Dark
Is Rising,"
which is among the best fantasy series ever written. These
tales of good vs. evil are filled with magic, mystery and darkness as, on
his 11th birthday, Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, learns
that he is the last of the Old Ones -- immortals dedicated to defeating the
Dark. These epic battles are waged in distant times and places, so Will's
life becomes split between everyday activities as a normal boy in England
and otherworldly activities as an Old One. The good characters, including
Will, are honorable (as well as interesting) and the evil characters
are terrifying. ($19.75 for boxed set of 5 paperbacks; for ages 8 to 12,
from Aladdin Paperbacks)

I have read the "Dark Is Rising" series both as a child and an adult,
and never for a moment has my suspension of disbelief been broken. I have
dreaded turning the last page and returning to the mundane world; I have
never questioned the veracity of the worlds that Cooper creates.

Her new novel, "The Boggart and the Monster," is a sequel to "The Boggart," which
was published in 1993. Both books feature Cooper's seamless blend of the
fantastic and the real as they relate the tales of a boggart -- a kind of
spirit, "a very ancient, mischievous thing ... Born of magic as old as the
rocks and the waves" -- in a Scottish castle and his very large cousin
Nessie, who just so happens to inhabit a loch. These books are more
lighthearted than "The Dark Is Rising" series, but are just as full of
wonder and magic.

Boggarts (pronounced with a short "o," as in "dog") are often invisible,
but they are shape-shifters. They can do pretty much whatever they want,
except pass through closed doors with iron locks. Above all, boggarts love
to play tricks. They'll eat the food off your plate, sew your pants' legs
together while you're asleep, pull the dog's tail -- harmless fun.
However, in "The Boggart," the boggart of Scotland's Castle Keep
gets stuck in a roll-top desk with an iron lock and is inadvertently
transported to Canada, where he wreaks havoc like getting into traffic
light wires and making them go haywire. Eventually, savvy children figure
out how to send him back to Scotland, without the clueless adults catching
on. ($3.95; for ages 8 to 12, from Aladdin Paperbacks)

"The Boggart and the Monster," which takes place two years later,
features the same appealing characters from "The Boggart." Here, Castle
Keep's boggart and the children rescue another boggart, aka the Loch Ness
monster, from a very un-boggartlike future of loneliness and
despair. There's plenty of sly humor here -- Nessie, in addition to being
lonely, is insecure, and has to be cajoled and encouraged to change
shape from the monstrous creature he's been for centuries into a more
maneuverable form. Time is of the essence, because a gang of determined
scientists is on the rampage, determined to capture, catalog and define
the monster once and for all. Without giving away the ending,
I will say that, in Cooper's books, wisdom and magic always triumph over
greed and stupidity. ($16; for ages 8 to 12, from Margaret K. McElderry

Adults intrigued with Cooper's fiction may want to further explore her
work in "Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children,"
published in 1996 ($18; Margaret K. McElderry Books). The collection
includes this description of her state of mind when writing, a description
that's very similar to reading her work: "I exist in a state of continual
astonishment ... And I am always overcome by wonder, and a kind
of unfocused gratitude, when I arrive."

Andrea Gollin

Andrea Gollin is a freelance writer living in Miami. Her children's summer book special continues next Thursday.

MORE FROM Andrea Gollin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------