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The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books:
Rising Star

This February: Hilary McKay

There floats around in children's literature circles the truism that the British write better fantasy and the Americans write better everyday life stories. Such generalizations are dubious enough in general, and this one collapses completely in the face of the sparkling work of British author Hilary McKay.

McKay's first book, The Exiles, tells of the four Conroy sisters' summer sojourn with their grandmother; subsequent volumes have documented their school-year adventures and a new stage in their lives. Dog Friday focuses on ten-year-old Robin Brogan's possible acquisition of a stray dog and growing friendship with the next-door neighbors, the Robinsons. These are hardly earth-shattering premises, but then neither is a single man in possession of good fortune's being in want of a wife. The Jane Austen reference isn't incidental, as there's a definite Austenish tone in McKay's pellucid and amused third-person narration; in Dog Friday, for instance, the Robinson children had "dug for bones and strung them up beneath their neighbor's bed-and-breakfast sign, they had painted the dog, dropped eggs in the library, given tomatoes to tramps, slept with homemade skeletons, fallen through the greenhouse roof, and tried to burgle the police station, but they had kept their promise and stayed away from the path along the cliffs." Much of McKay's humor comes from the contrast of these detached observations with the headlong chaos that's observed-and the flood of high-spirited, ebullient dialogue from those who cause it.

Those catalysts of chaos are charming, heedless, strong-minded children who run in packs, which immediately gives readers the same sense of being admitted to a closed society or joining an exciting club provided by the Swallows and Amazons crowd or the Bastable children, or, more recently, The Babysitters Club. McKay enhances the pleasure of this togetherness with an eye for eccentric individuality reminscent of Bill Forsyth's movies. Phoebe Conroy imprisons a picture of her eldest sister in a homemade zoo (captioned BEWARE OF THE RORIN PIG) as a punishment for offenses to Phoebe's dignity; Beany Robinson's desire to be a broad bean inspires her pop open a multitudes of beans, which her mother must then pay for, at the vegetable stand. These are not leisurely eccentricities, however, because there's always another one rushing pell-mell towards the reader; we've barely recovered from Phoebe's zoo when the baby next door is sick all over Naomi's soccer magazine, and Sun Dance Robinson is handing out tomatoes to tramps even before anyone can eke an apology out of Beany for wrongful bean-opening. The circumscription of the youthful worlds here produces more intensity, so that every little thing stands out in sharp and humorous relief, yet they all fit together with an effervescent momentum. It's almost more fun than a book can hold.

--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

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This page was last updated on February 2, 1998.