Howard is not a particularly nice child. He gets his best friend into trouble, then takes off without sharing any of the blame. He has ideas that are less than kind, such as throwing red dye all over a white goose, just for fun. And when the kids in town run after the old woman who lives outside the village whenever she comes into town, he joins them, imitating the way she walks, calling her "the old witch." But he's not a completely horrible child. It's not his idea to make fun of the old woman, but still, he does.
The old woman is old and unattractive, and Howard thinks she really does look like a witch. But he never suspects she might actually be a witch. So when he goes to the pond where her beloved geese live, steals some of their eggs, and gets caught, he's a little scared, but not that much. After all, she's just an ugly old woman. But suddenly she's muttering strange things at him, and the whole world shifts and changes. Or rather, Howard shifts and changes...into a goose.
"Three good deeds," the witch tells him. He must do three good deeds in order to change back into a boy. But that seems an impossible task, in a world where the humans want to eat him and the other geese are nasty and hiss at him. It looks as though Howard may have feathers and webbed feet for a very, very long time.
I read this book to my children (8 and 10 years old), and it made for a great read-aloud. It has the feel of a fairy tale, with more introspection and characterization than is typically present in such a story. Howard is certainly a flawed individual, but as a goose his life becomes so very difficult that he gains the reader's sympathy fairly quickly, particularly with his first act of impulsive kindness. I loved the way the geese are portrayed - they are not just human characters masquerading in geese shape; they have a clearly defined goose culture and attitude, which is hilarious at times (often at poor Howard's expense).
I enjoyed this one very much, as I have everything I've read by Vivian Vande Velde so far (Heir Apparent is my absolute favorite). This story is particularly effective because of its depth. Not only is it a funny adventure/fairy tale, but it offers readers some food for thought about kindness and how even the smallest of our actions can have a great impact on others. I never closed the book at bedtime without both children clamoring for more (and it was hard to resist reading just one more chapter - if they'd known how hard, they'd never have let me off so easily!).
Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde (Magic Carpet Books, 2005)
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Cynsations: "This delightful middle grade novel feels very much like a sort of old-fashioned story, told to the reader. It has a cleverly interwoven novel, a reflective narrator, and a timeless setting."
Mayra's Secret Bookcase: "The devious simplicity of the tale is what makes this book stand out. This is one of those excellent books which can work on two levels: as a light, fun, superficial story, and as a deeper, more complex one with a serious theme."
Other B&OT reviews of books by Vivian Vande Velde:
A Hidden Magic