Charlotte and Emily Bronte dread returning to boarding school after Christmas. When they last left school, their older sisters had fallen ill and died soon thereafter. If only they could convince their father to keep them home with Branwell and Anne, their younger brother and sister.
The four children escape their fears during the holidays by playing their invented game: The Glass Town Game. Wooden soldiers comprise the armies of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, fighting deadly battles and then coming back to life the next day for a new round.
The “Beastliest Day” arrives when Charlotte and Emily must walk to town to catch the carriage to school. Branwell and Anne accompany them to see them off. To their great astonishment, their own wooden soldiers are alive at the train station and allow them to board a strange train made of gorse branches, heather and other moor plants. They ride through patchwork fields, which look just like their quilts at home, to Glass Town – a place nearly like their fantasy land, but with unexpected dangers.
Every character from their stories has come alive, though not totally in the form they imagined. When an evil spy working for Napoleon kidnaps Branwell and Anne, Charlotte and Emily realize that they no longer have control of their toys and must play by new rules to save their siblings.
Catherynne Valente’s monstrously clever story is one of the best published this year. Her intelligent use of language compels the reader to consider nuances and double meanings. The Bronte children meet historical figures whose personalities come to life in humorous manners that will thoroughly engage middle school students who have a strong knowledge of literature. For those with less reading experience, Valente’s book is highly entertaining and may inspire them to explore more advanced novels.
Jennifer Minicus is a teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.