“It will only be for a month, Molly.”
“Why me?” she wailed, forgetting her vow of silence. “Why not Betty? She’s older.”
“Because I think you’ll do a better job than Betty. You’re the reader in this family. The storyteller… Your grandma’s getting awfully forgetful, Molly. Ever since Grandpa died, she’s been living in the past — she tells the same stories over and over. She needs someone who’ll talk to her and help her organize the shop. You know — keep her in touch with the present.”
“Molly, you’re the one who doesn’t mind a little mess.” He waved his hand at her room. “You’re the lover of mysteries.”
“What’s the big mystery about taking care of Grandma?”
“Making people well is always a mystery,” said her father sadly.
I will forever be indebted to a family that both placed an importance on reading and not only understood how much I loved science fiction and fantasy, but encouraged it with gifts. For my eleventh birthday, my aunt and uncle sent me Firebrat, by Nancy Willard, with illustrations by David Wiesner. I don’t know how they decided on this particular book, but the whimsical cover of fish flying through a forest, showing a young girl and a young boy, with the girl in the lead probably had something to do with it. And where I have read and discarded a hundred other fantastical children’s books, Firebrat has kept its place firmly ensconced on every bookshelf that I have ever owned.
Firebrat is an utterly uncomplicated portal fantasy that follows a girl named Molly as she’s forced to spend her summer vacation with her aging grandmother, Edna, who owns a curio shop beneath a brownstone in New York. Molly is not at all impressed by this situation as she’s forced to listen to her grandmother tell the same stories every single day and watch nature shows about fungi. Molly only finds escape when her grandmother allows her to explore the dusty shop full of unexpected treasures, with her grandmother’s young neighbor Sean. The most curious character is Eugene who is, by all accounts, a homeless man who lives in the subway, collects discarded items and subway tokens, and fixes all manner of things. Eugene gives Molly and Shaun a map to another kingdom, disguised as a simple subway map, and so they set off on an adventure.
As I said, Firebrat is an uncomplicated portal fantasy. The kids set off one morning to find an old subway station, that takes them to the Crystal Empire, which, sadly, has been conquered by the Firebrat, who has turned all the people into flying fish, ensorcelled the court magician, and stolen the people’s timesticks (basically their lives). The kids are helped along the way by a tortoise, whose shell is made up of doors, a spider who is a bit of a hoarder, a fire engine “made .. out of knives and hot tempers,” a frog who can swallow a lake, and a snake who helps them because Molly’s grandmother, Edna, once saved the king of the snakes. It really is a short and sweet adventure, with complications that are relatively easily conquered or coincidentally solved. So much so that the entire adventure takes a bit less than a day, between when they leave the brownstone at 8 a.m. and when Sean’s mother comes home early with fresh baked onion rolls.
Honestly, I think that might have been the appeal to me as a child. I couldn’t even imagine being allowed to travel on the subway on my own, much less be allowed out in a city unaccompanied. Sure, I was allowed to traipse through the woods near my friend’s house for hours at a time, but a city? My goodness. What if I had been kidnapped or worse?! The portal fantasy, for me, was a world in which children are trusted to have adventures. Molly is specifically sent to stay with her grandmother, not because her parents want to keep her busy, or out of their hair, but because they genuinely believe that she will be able to help her grandmother, who is becoming forgetful in her old age. In this portal fantasy, it’s not that they’ve avoided the consequences of disappearing, it’s that they have permission to adventure.
The joy of this story is that it’s exactly the sort of adventure that a child might make up as they’re out and about. Each piece, each character, on their way through the Crystal Empire and the Firebrat’s kingdom is tied to some aspect of the real world. Molly and Sean find two golden carp necklaces, which act as their key to the Crystal Empire, the fire engine is a small toy on the shelf at the shop, and they carry a book with them, How to Fix Everything! Hints for the Busy Housewife, which has a spell for invisible reweaving, how to get rid of rust, and, of course, how to defeat firebrats. It’s a very powerful spellbook, indeed. And can I just squee for a moment that it’s a book for housewives that gets to be a spellbook? Without it ever seeming to be in any way misogynistic? THANK YOU! IT’S ABOUT TIME!
Willard’s language and descriptive abilities are simple, but evocative, and Wiesner’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment, though entirely in black and white. Willard peppers modern (to the 1980s) touches throughout, from references to the Beatles, to comic books, and even Doctor Who fandom! If I had any complaint, it’s that Willard relies on some Orientalist descriptives to evoke fantasy, such as the “Great Jade Road,” “Crystal pagodas,” and “The Island of a Thousand Lights.” There is nothing blatantly racist, but that touch of appropriation just to make the Crystal Empire seem more exotic is slightly problematic. There’s also little to connect Molly’s actual childhood struggles to their adventures until the end, when she has to rely on her ability to tell stories to save the day.
In some ways it isn’t necessary to have a protagonist that is facing true struggles, or desperately needs a few life lessons. Sometimes, a simple story with a simple outcome, perhaps with a touch of a lesson about appreciating your grandparents and their stories more, is enough. Especially if that story does a great deal to fuel hours of adventures of your own, which this story is almost certain to do. Essentially, Firebrat makes it very clear that the most powerful portal of all is your own imagination. And, sometimes, that might just be the most important lesson of all.
Written by Nancy Willard, illustrated by David Wiesner
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988