When I was about nine, I was given my first anthology of Joan Aiken stories- A Harp Of Fishbones and Other Stories. Included among the treasures therein was "Mrs. Nutti's Fireplace," my introduction to Mark and Harriet Armitage, two typical British children whose lives are infused with whacky magical-ness. Here's how that story starts:
Mark, who wished to get rid of the space-gun his great-uncle had sent him, and acquire something more useful, brought home a copy of Exchange and Mart.
'"Princess-type boiler fireplace exchanged for gent's bicycle,"' he read aloud consideringly.
"But we don't want a fireplace," Harriet pointed out. "And we haven't a bicycle."
"Or there's five gross jazz-coloured balloons, a tiger's head, and two whale teeth. Offered in exchange for go-kart or griffin's eggs."
"The balloons would be nice," Harriet swallowed her last bite of cake-they were having Friday tea-and came to hang over his shoulder. "If we had a go-kart."
I was hooked. The Armitage stories are a brilliant melange of the ordinary and fantastical, and with each subsequent anthology came my way, I always read the stories about Mark and Harriet early and often.
So front and center on my Christmas book wish-list was The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories (Big Mouth House, 2008). This book brings together all the previously published Armitage stories, with four new ones (hooray!), with interesting introductions by Joan Aiken's daughter and Garth Nix. Such reading pleasure. The title story, "The Serial Garden," is particularly unforgettable, beautiful, sad, exquisitely written, funny, etc.
I have been reading Mark and Harriet to my boys, 5 and 8, for the past week or so, and they have been greeted with enthusiasm. I am rather fond of short stories in general for reading aloud, partly because longer books get put in piles unfinished, and it is sometimes hard to find them again. But a good short story can be read in one fell swoop. And these are good fun for both children and grownups.
From "Broomsticks and Sardines":
"I say, Shepherd, I'm terribly sorry-my children have changed yours into sheep. And now they say they don't know how to change them back.'
"Oh, don't apologize, old chap. As a mater of fact, I think it's a pretty good show. Some peace and quiet will be a wonderful change, and I shan't have to mow the lawn." He shouted indoors with the liveliest pleasure,
"I say, Minnie! Our kids have been turned into sheep, so you won't have to put them to bed. Dig out a long frock and we'll go to the Harvest Ball."
A shriek of delight greeted his words.
The Serial Garden was just named a 2008 Smithsonian Notable book--here's what they say about it: "In a singularly important publishing event, the first complete collection of Aiken's 24 beloved Armitage cycle of stories appears here for the first time. The family who dwells in and out of magical worlds transcends fantasy and enters the world of classic, entrancing literature. Belongs on every child's bookshelf. For all ages."
And as a proud member of Team Unicorn (in the great Zombies vs Unicorns Debate), I'd like to point out that Mark and Harriet have a very nice example of the species (shown on the cover) who is not in the least bit twee.