Chiaroscuro is the name of a rather memorable rat conjured by Kate DiCamillo, the Newbery Medalist who lives in Minneapolis, and it's become a central theme in her novels for young people, which often exist in the play between darkness and light.
Consider the opening act of "The Magician's Elephant," in which an illusionist of "advanced years and failing reputation" casts the greatest spell of his career, conjuring an elephant instead of the more predictable bouquet. This moment of spectacular lightness lasts only as long as it takes for the animal to fall through the roof of an opera house onto the lap of a noblewoman, who spends the rest of the story trying to explain the incredible misfortune that has befallen her.
"Perhaps you do not understand," she says, repeatedly. "I was crippled, crippled by an elephant that came through the roof!"
"I intended only lilies," the magician replies, in a repeating motif of painfully funny dialogue, emphasis on the pain.
Critics (including parents, teachers and blogging librarians) have been known to complain that some of DiCamillo's stories can seem uncomfortably dark for their intended audience of 8- to 12-year-olds. In the Newbery-winning "The Tale of Despereaux," for instance, the mouse's own family members beat the drums demanding his exile (and intended execution) in a castle dungeon, while the narrator helpfully defines the word "perfidy" for young readers. The even more melancholy "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" includes a little girl who dies of consumption.
Those who worry whether kids can handle Grimm reality may prefer to stick with Di Camillo's "Mercy Watson" series for early readers, about a mischievous pig whose troubles are always resolved on the last page, over a large stack of freshly buttered toast. But readers willing to venture a little deeper into the darkness will be reassured and rewarded by the singular sense of hope that nearly glows from DiCamillo's prose, and from the incandescent illustrations created by Yoko Tanaka.
The greatest source of light is Peter Augustus Duchene, an orphan in the neglectful care of an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Sent to buy a meager meal with a single coin, Peter spends it instead on a fortune teller, whom he asks whether the sister he was told died at birth may yet live. Follow the elephant, is her advice to Peter, whose quest calls a large cast of characters into action. Among them, a policeman, a beggar, a stonecarver, a countess and a nun (not to mention the poor elephant), all of whom begin to glimpse their intertwining fates in their dreams:
"She dreamed that she was flying high over the world, her habit spread out on either side of her like dark wings. She was terribly pleased, because she had always, secretly, deep within her heart, believed that she could fly. And now here she was, doing what she had long suspected she could do, and she could not deny that it was gratifying in the extreme."
DiCamillo's writing is equally gratifying, even if the unwieldy cast of adult characters in "The Magician's Elephant" sometimes overwhelms the simpler story about Peter's search for his sister. Its minor-key resolution won't be as easy to digest as a pile of buttered toast, but it's likely to leave young readers ready to explore the shadows in children's literature hungry for more.
Laura Billings is a writer in St. Paul.