I really love the way Sonya Hartnett writes. Every now and then, when I want to see a master storyteller at work, I find my copy of Thursday’s Child, printed in the United States in 2002, and reread it. I do the same with What the Birds See (2003).
Read Seven Impossible Things on the Brownie & Pearl series.
To be sure, these are far from pick-me-up tales, but I’m not looking for that when I turn to Hartnett’s novels. I’m looking for great stories and beautiful prose. It’s the way she turns a phrase and how she brilliantly constructs the narrative that has me at frequent intervals putting the books down and muttering to myself in awe that someone is capable of writing that good.
As I once wrote at my own site, it’s the latter title in which Hartnett takes “haunting”—the most overused adjective in book reviewing (or one of them)—one step further to downright spectral and straight-up chilling with its themes of love (or a lack thereof), loss, the innocence and vulnerability of children, and the emotional damage that can occur to them when neglected.
But when one thinks of this internationally acclaimed Australian author, one doesn’t think of chapter books for very young readers. Hartnett has primarily written for older readers. I suppose the closest she’s ever come to a book for younger readers is 2006’s The Silver Donkey and last year’s The Midnight Zoo.
But now things have changed. At the end of this month, Candlewick will release Sadie and Ratz, Hartnett’s new chapter book for young readers. Yes, chapter book. When I saw an early copy of this, I did a double take.
Not surprisingly, the book is emotionally compelling. This is Sonya Hartnett we’re talking about, who is quite good at nailing the sometimes-cruel worlds of children, à la Robert Cormier. (I feel compelled to point out that, despite the “dark” label repeatedly attached to her writing, Hartnett is a rather cheery person, as she noted in my 2007 interview.)
There are three short chapters here in a book that clocks out at around 60 pages. There’s also clear, large text with ample spacing, as it should be for early chapter books. All of that is to say that this can be read in one sitting—if you’re a parent, teacher or librarian, that is, reading to children. And that is exactly what I did. In my case, I read it to my young daughters and a visiting friend. If only I could show you the looks on their faces as we went through each chapter.
This is the story of a young girl, Hannah, who refers to her 4-year-old brother as Baby Boy. Hannah has named her hands Sadie and Ratz, and all of Hannah’s great frustrations with her younger brother, who blames many things on his sister, are channeled through her hands. She turns them inward to vent (such as, with her own thumb wars), but she also uses them to try and exact revenge. (“They jump onto Baby Boy’s head, and try to rub his ears off.”) “Sadie and Ratz aren’t animals,” she tells readers. “‘But they behave like wild beasts,’ says Dad.”
There’s so much emotion here that I had to sneak looks at the children as I read, and it was with great passion that their faces reflected the dramatic array of feelings Hannah explores in this short book—anger, sadness, frustration, joy. Hartnett nails the emotional rawness of children, who have none of the veneers we adults possess for protecting our vulnerable cores. And she offsets the intense emotions with humor and makes a larger point about the imaginative play of children. And, cathartically enough, her “crafty” little brother gets called out for his crimes at the end, though it’s hardly as if Hannah is at-all-times innocent.
This Sendakian tale—even Ann James’ striking charcoal illustrations, which perfectly capture the emotional impulses of Hartnett’s story, are reminiscent of early Sendak art—never once strikes a false note.
This, an outstanding chapter book for early readers, is the kind of good writing that all young children deserve.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.