Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

The Ogre Downstairs
The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Diana Wynne Jones, I pick up The Ogre Downstairs, and realize that I can't predict anything about her books.

That's a good thing, even if I'm not the intended audience.

The Ogre Downstairs is written for a middle grade audience, for kids 8 and up. I rarely felt self-conscious reading it, though, because Diana Wynne Jones never wrote down to her audience. She doesn't dumb down the plots or simplify the writing; she simply has realistic people, often children, making decisions and affecting events.

In this book, there are three children: Casper, Johnny, and Gwinny (short for Guinevere). Their mother, Sally, has just married Jack, who they call the Ogre, because he's mean and short-tempered and hates noise. The Ogre has two children, Douglas and Malcolm, who have been away at boarding school most of their lives. The Ogre buys Johnny and Malcolm chemistry sets, which have all the usual ingredients appropriate for kids old enough to experiment on their own, but not old enough to know better than to taste their results. But there's an extra layer of ingredients, which have some magical effects, as they find out when spilling one mixture on Gwinny results in her floating to the ceiling.

From there, I expected them to find the ingredient that would rid them of the Ogre for good, but the book took an unexpected turn in using the chemistry sets for the kids to start finding common ground. Casper learns to sympathize with the snobby-seeming Malcolm when they accidentally switch places, and they all have to work together to keep from getting caught out in their experiments gone awry. Then even the Ogre turns out to have some sympathy, and learns to soften his approach to keep the peace.

It was a fuzzier grey area than I was expecting from a book about a magical chemistry set, and the lessons about giving people a chance and seeing through their eyes are ones I wish more children would be exposed to early on. The book isn't resolved by getting rid of the Ogre; it's by seeing him as a human being who can learn to do better.

As I said above, I am not the target audience for this book. I did enjoy it, though, and I was pleased at the notion of some kids reading it and absorbing the message. I plan to pass this along to my nephews, when they're old enough to appreciate it.

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