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Wendy Anderson Halperin.
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Horvath, Polly. The Trolls;illus. by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Farrar, 1999. [144 p]
ISBN 0-364-37787-1   $16.00    Gr. 5-8

Humor is a funny thing, ha-ha. Children's literature offers it in many different flavors: the rollicking, slapstick humor of Anne Fine, the verbal and slightly dotty humor of Hilary McKay, the raw-edged humor of Jack Gantos. Horvath herself has dem onstrated a solid humorous gift in her previous books, whether it be the realistic family comedy of No More Cornflakes (BCCB 10/90) or the frenetic but effective silliness of When the Circus Came to Town (12/96). And now The Trolls offers memorable characters, fizzy narrative, and scenes worthy of a roll on the floor, but also an underlying emotional trajectory that makes the strongest comedy part of a larger and more complex picture.

Horvath starts with a tried-and-true catalyst, a classic eccentric aunt: Aunt Sally, Dad's distant Canadian sister, swoops down to child-sit Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee Anderson for a week while Mom and Dad are out of the country. Aunt Sally champion s put-upon youngest brother Pee Wee, shares dramatic tidbits about life in exotic Canada, and tells tales of the wild events of her childhood and notable characters in the family all hitherto unknown to her charges. We hear about Great-Uncle Louis, "who came for two weeks and stayed for six years" and who had an obsession with the consumption of green vegetables; the murder of Mrs. Gunderson, the beagle next door, who was sacrificed to her owner's desire to get a new puppy; "Maud who shot eighty cougars, " whose enthusiasm for adding to the number seems to blind her to the species of her targets; and the trolls, who "answer to the blackest evil in our hearts," who carry off the rejects left on the beach, and to whom Aunt Sally left the kids' father when h e was just Robbie, the resented baby brother.

Horvath's helplessly hilarious relation of Aunt Sally's interaction with the children at first puts the inset stories into the shade, but Sally's narration is unstoppable, with digressions and stories flying out at warp speed. Gradually the sagas (and occasionally the sagas within the sagas) take on a rhythm and depth of their own, conveying effervescent humor but also the dark that makes laughter necessary: the family rifts of childhood that don't go away (Aunt Sally's relationship with her brother h as never been the same, and Great-Uncle Louis left never to return), the tragedies (Great-Aunt Hattie's husband and daughter died in a fire, Uncle Edward and Aunt Marianne drowned on their honeymoon), the unalterable changes ("And when I pass our old clap board house that I loved so much," says Aunt Sally, "I am a stranger"). The result is a book hard to slot but, with its refusal to restrict itself to the light-comedy side of the street and its pell-mell plunge into heightened family history, sharply inv olving to read. Like Aunt Sally's Canada and like family history itself, it is not an evenly mixed melting pot but a mosaic, with some pieces solid glittery humor, other pieces the various hues of daily life, and a few pieces flat black tragedy, all cont ributing vital components to the overall design. The book also subtly makes clear that Aunt Sally manages a piece of atonement by altering the next generation's design: she gently but successfully extricates baby brother Pee Wee, son of the baby brother she lost to the trolls ("We never did get Robbie back . . . We all drifted apart"), from the clutches of the trolls to which his sisters are, all unawares, leaving him.

It would be enough that The Trolls is very funny. It is splendid that it is more than merely enough.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
February's Bulletin cover illustration
by Wendy Anderson Halperin from
The Trolls,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers

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This page was last updated on February 1, 1999.