Teak is a 7-year-old girl who lives an unusual life, traveling with her parents from one country to another, mostly in Europe, during the period between the two World Wars. Teak is a sensitive, imaginative child, and her parents ignore her much of the time, but at least she has Nanny as a constant from one move to the next. When Nanny leaves to take care of a sick relative, Teak feels even more alone - but luckily she has discovered the country of Beejumstan. She travels there on a train once she's fallen asleep, and she meets all sorts of fantastical creatures, from talking rabbits and witches to intellectual owls and dragons made from pots and pans. Her trips to Beejumstan teach her lessons about herself, friends and family, the many difficulties and challenges of growing up, and the joy of creativity and the imagination.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. It is a difficult one to categorize, really. Teak is seven years old as the book opens, and while she is older by the end of the book, most of the book is about her experiences as a seven-year-old. But the book is clearly geared towards older children, and typically kids aren't too fond of reading about children who are younger than they are. There isn't much of an overarching plot here, aside from the emotional development or coming of age of Teak. The book is episodic, and there are elements touched upon that were very interesting but never returned to or explained.
For example, when the narrator describes Teak's relationship with Nanny, there is much hinted at beneath the surface: "Teak had no idea that Nanny might be lonely too, or that she might ever be tired or have a headache or wish that she could wear a red dress with flowers on it. Nor did Teak realize that she was the apple of Nanny's eye, that Nanny secretly loved her to pieces though she felt she had no right to. To Teak, Nanny was just there." Those words made me look forward to a greater understanding developing between the two characters as their relationship progressed, but that never happened. Nanny exits and never comes back, and that's that. There were many such interesting things mentioned but left unexplored in the course of the novel, which made it read a bit like a memoir - things happen in life, later we might understand them better, but life goes on. That's fine for a memoir, but for a novel, I find it unsatisfying.
My main problem with the book is that it touches on some issues that are personal peeves of mine. When I was a child, I couldn't stand it when books had a fantasy world that turned out to be all in the character's head. I hated that because I had my own fantasy world in my head already, but I wanted to get to Narnia, Oz, Middle-earth or any other magical land for real. So when a fantastical world in a novel turned out to be a dream, or a fantasy, it really annoyed me. What good was that? I felt betrayed and tricked, and it bugged me to no end - particularly if it wasn't made clear from the beginning that the magical parts were just a dream. In this book the fantasy world sequences were so full of long, intricate description of things that were never touched on in future visits that I found myself skimming over them after a while. It is unusual for me to prefer the real-world part of a book that includes a fantasy world, but in this one the realistic parts were far more compelling to me. Young readers would probably feel differently, though.
The other thing that annoys me is when characters have names that are patently fake - it just undermines my suspension of disbelief and shines a big spotlight on the fact that the story is just a construct meant to convey an idea or a lesson. Ick. So when the characters of Beejumstan are named Figg Newton, Rudintruda, Sir Lovalot, Asibov Sobelow, and Idy Fix, it jolts me from the story.
As a child I particularly disliked this convention of naming characters for their personal attributes because it just felt, well, patronizing. As though the author expected me to be too young or inexperienced to figure out what was going on. I want real characters, not two-dimensional ones, and if there is a lesson to be had, I don't want it written in neon lights. I want it to sink gently into my unconscious reader's mind to be pondered at my leisure. The lessons that Teak learns are clear responses to events that happen in the real world, but occasionally it seemed that her behavior came from out of the blue, simply in order to provide a lesson for her to learn in Bejumstan.
The language used in the book is complex, with a vocabulary that readers Teak's age might have some difficulty with, but it is combined with rather babyish terms for things ("tucky tix" for tickets, etc.), that I know would have annoyed me when I was a child. As I write this I can't help but laugh at what a picky reader I was - and apparently still am!
You might think I didn't enjoy this book, after reading all my griping about the little things that bugged me, but you'd be wrong. The author, who is a Jungian scholar, conveys a whole lot of very complicated ideas in a way that is surprisingly accessible to young readers, particularly as the ideas are central to the events of Teak's life. There are certain readers who are sure to adore this book, particularly quiet children who enjoy spending time in the worlds of their own imaginations. This book would make a great read-aloud for children who aren't ready to read it on their own yet, or for parent/child book clubs, because there are so many fascinating ideas to be discussed, and it would be an interesting way for adults and kids to share their feelings on subjects that aren't typically touched on in books - or in general conversation, for that matter.
The Beejum Book by Alice O. Howell (Bell Pond Books, 2002)
Have you reviewed this book on your blog? Let me know - I'd love to include a link to your review!