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I’d never before read anything by Nancy Farmer (although as a former children’s bookseller, of course I knew about her) until I picked up A Girl Named Disaster to read as the first Tiger’s Choice. I was lucky to have found it–this book is an outstanding piece of fiction that can be read and enjoyed by a doddering fifty-nine-year-old like me or by people who are substantially younger.
In an earlier posting by Corinne on PaperTigers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in the Philippines pointed out that children’s literature from different cultures is shaped by differing values. This is made intriguingly clear by the story of Nhamo, the girl who leaves her tribe in search of her one living parent and a family that will be truly hers. Her quest is an adventure, and a solitary one, that takes her into a world populated only by animals. Unlike similar stories written with a differing cultural perspective (Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins), this book does not show an anthropomorphic relationship between Nhamo and the baboons who are her neighbors. A lonely and frightened child, Nhamo forges a relationship with a world of the spirits rather than with the animal kingdom. She sustains herself through stories that she knows and loves about beings of an unseen realm, and in her dreams and in her waking imagination, these are the figures that guide her, and who allow her to bring out menacing, and hitherto unexplored, parts of herself by cloaking them under different names and the persona of spirits.
Her three-part story begins with elements of Cinderella, sweeps into a Robinson Crusoe-like world, and ends with a modern-day transformation and the fulfillment of a quest. At almost 300 pages, it is longer than many pieces of fiction for children, and it contains an impressive body of information within its compelling story. Anyone who reads it will be given a sense of place that only someone who has lived in that part of Africa could provide.
It could be a problematic choice to read aloud to a classroom of boys and girls. Although Nhamo’s adventures, and her adventuresome spirit, will appeal to both genders, the author’s frankness when writing about menstruation and other physical functions could be difficult in a mixed-gender classroom if read aloud. It is, however, a dazzling choice for a parent-child book group, or to give to a reluctant reader, or to enjoy as a solitary pleasure when in need of something absorbing and magical to read.
“Hi everyone! Shannon here. You probably already noticed I opened a New Gift Shop, and Hayashi really went all out with a really cool new design. I’d be really happy if you would all come visit us because this is the best Gift Shop we’ve ever had, and we’re starting a new thing on our site today.”
“Teko likes to explore, so he’s going to fly through our shop to find a new item each week that will be ‘Teko’s Magical Treasure.’ We’ll announce it here along with a link.”
“This way we can announce our best Gift Shop gifts with our best designs.”
“And you know we’ve got the best designs!”
“This week’s Magical Treasure is the Warrior of the Night Tote Bag with our brand new Starlight Huntress design.”
Teko’s Magical Treasure of the Week
“Yay for Teko-chan! Don’t forget, minna! Shannon-sama donates some of what the Gift Shop makes to benefit the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls which is a super-neat camp every year that’s all about music! Have fun! Ja ne!”
“Wow, Hayashi doesn’t make announcements very often.”
“So listen up.”
“We’re going to try a new update schedule because we have two comics now. On Monday, we’re going to update the Varcarel Jade with a new page, and on Tuesday, we’re going to publish new chapters from our book series.”
“On Wednesdays, we’re going to have Teko’s Magical Treasure of the Week from our Gift Shop and a Gamepowa update with Commander Acey and Z-bot, and on Thursday, a new color page from The Fury of the Venom Legion web comic. Then every Friday is…”
“Ten Update Friday.”
“And on Saturday we will have previews from the next week’s comic pages.”
“That’s a good schedule, Talitha-chan. We should start today.”
“Stay tuned folks. There’s more on the way on Ten Update Friday!”
“Well see, Hayashi is super into planets and telescopes and stuff and when they said Pluto wasn’t a planet she got mad so Yorozu decided to try and cheer her up and it’s been a running joke ever since.”
“Check it out! That’s a contra-bass! There’s only like ten of them in the whole world or something.”
“Where’s Goofy? She’s the saxophone expert.”
“She ran off with that ring, I don’t know where she went though.”
“I’ll go find her!”
“That thing is seriously frightening.”
“That guy can play, though. That’s the Aadams family theme from television.”
“I found Jessie!”
“Hiii everybody oooh looky a contra-bass saxophone. Super cool!”
“Okay what’s the deal with this thing?”
“Well, there’s a whole bunch of saxophones. I play soprano and alto. Those are the highest pitched ones. Soprano is B-flat a major second below concert pitch. Alto is E-flat a major sixth below concert pitch.”
“But this one is double E-flat.”
“Yeah, it’s two octaves lower than my alto. You transpose music for it up two octaves and a major sixth.”
“That’s all pedal range stuff about an octave or more below the bass clef.”
“How do you know all that?”
“It’s music! It’s easy! There’s four E-flat saxophones and three B-flat. Sopranino, Alto, Baritone and Contra-bass are the E-flat ones and soprano, tenor and bass are the B-flat ones. I played a bass sax one time at the music shop and it had an ‘A’ key so I could make it sound like a big truck horn!”
*giggle* “Jessie’s funny.”
“I wish she was that good at her other classes.”
“Well there you have it, folks. The giant saxophone attack from the land of Goofy. We out.”
“So Ranko and Alanna went to the athletic building?” Talitha asked as she and Cici walked out the side door of the band room.
“Uh huh,” Cici replied. “Alanna said Ranko went there to find you. Did you see Ranko?”
“No,” Talitha said, looking down. “From inside that cage I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t speak, but for some reason I could hear and I wanted so badly to try and warn you that it was dangerous to come near those cages, but I couldn’t.”
“Me and Hikousen are ready for anything. Right Hikousen?” Cici looked down at the enormous cat she was carrying in her right arm. Hikousen continued purring, completely oblivious to everything going on around him. “He’s my best friend. He goes with me on all our adventures.”
“I like how Ranko always calls him our ‘ferocious guard cat.’” Talitha said, then smiled. Cici giggled.
“He’s always being big and fat because he’s a sleepy cat,” Cici said as she hefted Hikousen with her arm. Talitha stopped and looked around the entrance of the athletic building.
“It’s getting dark earlier now,” Talitha said, straightening her glasses. Lit lamps sat along side either side of the cement walkway on tall poles, and their yellowish light illuminated the sidewalk in front of the glass doors.
“I wonder if anyone’s here?” Cici asked. She glanced down at the stone timepiece on her wrist. “I don’t think there’s anything enchanted around here.”
“I don’t know if that’s good news or not,” Talitha said. “I’m almost sure those cages use some kind of powerful sorcery to keep people immobilized like that.” Very slowly, Talitha walked closer to the double glass doors. Inside, the half-lighted shadowy lobby looked eerie and indistinct. Talitha pulled the handle of one of the doors, which rattled. “It’s locked.”
Cici looked back and forth. “There’s nobody around at all.” Cici placed Hikousen on the grass alongside the walkway and walked over to the doors. She put her hands up to the sides of her face and peered inside. “Maybe we should knock on the window, ’cause there might be someone that can hear us.”
Talitha looked back towards the fine arts building. “This is very odd. Even on weekends there’s usually someone here.”
Cici backed up from the window and saw movement reflected in the glass. She whirled around and shouted. “Talitha! Look out!”
Talitha looked around quickly. To her left she saw a skelegor warrior only two paces away and charging at her with a bent and rusty sword! Talitha backed away and ducked to her left as the monster swung the wicked blade over and down towards her head. Talitha’s eye flashed and an explosion of golden light illuminated the entire area around the athletic building entrance. A resounding thump echoed off the brick walls of the athletic building as the fiend’s attack was neatly parried by the Goldenwood Shield.
Cici shivered as the monster’s voice slithered through the cool evening air.
“Your friendsssss are helplesssssss….” the skelegor hissed. Talitha frowned as she peered over the golden edge of her shield.
“You can’t defeat two Ajan Warriors, minion,” Talitha said as she slowly began to back away, holding her shield ready. The skelegor crouched, taking an agressive stance and brandishing its rusty sword. It slowly advanced towards Talitha, not noticing the evergreen trees planted along the side of the building. Talitha retreated between two of the trees as the skelegor readied its next attack. Then suddenly she shouted.
“Graceful evergreens, come to my defense!”
The skelegor screamed as the heavy trees slammed together and trapped it. The monster twisted and thrashed around, dropping its bent sword on the grass. Cici ran forward and grabbed the sword, then backed quickly away.
“I got its sword Talitha!” Cici said. Talitha ran out from behind the row of evergreen trees and over to where Cici was. The skelegor’s enraged scream startled Talitha again as she examined the sword quickly.
“What do we do?” Cici asked. “What if it gets loose?”
Talitha straightened her glasses. “Transmute your lantern, Cici. I’ve got an idea.”
Cici dropped the sword on the ground and held up her timepiece. “Chronicler’s Lantern, transform!” she shouted. A swirling cascade of multicolored light emerged from the timepiece and the lantern of gold appeared spinning in the air, bathing the ground in a rainbow spectrum of light. Cici caught the handle with both hands. Talitha began to back away once again after picking up the sword.
“When I say ‘go,’ use your shield,” Talitha said, bringing the Goldenwood Shield around to protect herself. “Ready?”
Cici frowned as she readied her lantern. “Ready!”
Talitha closed her eyes and listened carefully for the voices of the evergreen trees. In her mind, she heard pleasant whispers. All of the plants around the athletic building began speaking at once. They were all very happy to hear Talitha’s voice. My friends, she thought. Please believe in us. Please believe that we will protect you as we protect all life.
The evergreens answered, and their words were encouraging. They questioned Talitha’s plan, however. She could sense their concern even as they released the skelegor. The moment it was free, the enraged monster recklessly charged at Talitha. Cici realized the skelegor was running right at her!
“Go Cici!” Talitha shouted.
“Spectrum Deflect!” The Chronicler’s Lantern’s light became very intense and a spherical wall of energy emerged from it, surrounding Cici.
The monster ran headlong into the edge of Cici’s shield. Instantly a violent blast of magical energy from the Spectrum Deflect threw the monster backwards! A reflexive swirling colorful sphere appeared around Cici for a moment, then faded.
“Got him!” Cici shouted triumphantly. “You better leave us alone! ‘Cause we gots magical powers too!”
The monster climbed back to its feet and scowled at Cici, then charged again. Cici held up her lantern and another flash of brilliant light appeared as the skelegor slammed into the Spectrum Deflect. This time, the power of Cici’s shield seemed to increase in intensity, and the monster shuddered as colorful discharges of electrical energy coiled around it. All at once, the skelegor disintegrated, and Cici’s Spectrum Deflect faded.
Talitha exhaled and closed her eyes in relief. Cici turned around with a bright expression.
“We did it, Talitha! We beat a Halloween monster all by ourselves!” Just then, Cici was distracted by her Lantern. “Look! My Lantern says something around here is enchanted now.”
Talitha walked over, still carrying the rusty sword. “That’s peculiar. It didn’t detect anything before. Is it this sword?”
“I don’t think so, ’cause it would have said so when the monster first appeared, wouldn’t it?”
“Let’s go back over to the front door. Maybe now we can get in somehow,” Talitha said, walking back over to where Hikousen was sleeping by the glass entrance to the athletic building.
“There’s another cage!” Cici shouted, pointing at a spectral cylindrical shape next to one of the lights near the athletic building entrance.
Talitha straightened her glasses, looking up at the sickly grayish-blue magical cage. Inside she could just see the outline of a person.
“It’s Alanna,” Talitha whispered. “What do we do? How do I get her out of there?”
“Just put your hand on the outside and it goes away,” Cici said. Talitha placed the palm of her hand up against the shimmering wall of energy. A series of simple reddish-colored glyphs flashed brightly, then faded. A moment later the cage vanished suddenly. Alanna Kawa slumped to the ground.
“Alanna!” Cici ran up. “Is she hurt? Is she sick?”
Talitha knelt down and placed her hand on Alanna’s shoulder and nudged her gently. “Are you okay, Alanna?” A few moments later, Alanna’s eyes opened slowly.
“I can unlock it,” Alanna said, taking out her keys.
“Wow,” Cici said. “You’re just like a teacher, huh?”
Alanna smiled. “One of the perks of being in charge of the band is you get to unlock doors for them,” Alanna said as she turned the lock in the athletic building door. It was still dark inside, but they could see the hallway that led to the gymnastics training facility. Cici held up her lantern and the lobby area brightened slightly.
“Still glowing,” Talitha said, indicating Cici’s lantern. As Cici watched, it looked as if Talitha was talking in slow motion.
“What?” Cici asked as Talitha’s voice faded. Cici looked around frantically. Everyone was gone. Even Hikousen. She heard a voice whispering very close by.
“They don’t really like you,” the voice said. “Not really. They say you’re their friend, but you don’t deserve friends.”
“Who are you?” Cici shouted. “What did you do to Talitha and Alanna?!”
“They left you,” the voice said, as a shadowy shape began to emerge, moving towards Cici. She could see sharp horns on its shoulders and crooked hands. Cici held up her lantern defensively. “Didn’t they?” the voice asked. “You’re all alone, aren’t you?”
“They left you because they don’t like you,” the voice whispered. “That’s why you have no friends.” The shape was close enough now for Cici to see what it was. Its head was the shape of a wolf’s, and it had very sharp high shoulders. Its entire essence was pitch black and a hazy indistinct grayish mist rose from its shoulders and head.
“You stay back!” Cici said. “I’ll zap you if you don’t stay away!”
“I am unarmed,” the voice said as the creature began to float slowly in a wide circle around Cici. “You know it wouldn’t be right to attack someone who hasn’t hurt you, don’t you?” it said. Cici hesitated again, watching the creature float past. Is it okay to fight? Cici thought.
“Maybe if you learned to get along with other people, you’d have friends,” the creature said. Cici’s expression slowly began to change as she listened. “Those older girls don’t really like you. They just tolerate you because they don’t want to hear you complain.” Cici sniffled.
“You’re not telling the truth. They do like me. They said so,” Cici challenged the creature.
“I’m not telling the truth? They are the ones who are lying. They all blame you for getting them trapped. They blame you because you hurt them,” the voice replied. “It’s your fault, isn’t it? Isn’t it your fault they got trapped? You could have saved them. You have an Ajan Treasure. Why did you fail?” Cici felt tears in her eyes. Maybe it is my fault.
“And now they’re going to leave you alone just like they’ve always wanted to,” the voice said as it slowly completed its circular path around where Cici was standing. “Look around. There’s nobody here. They’ve all left you. They’re going off to have their Halloween party. Even Acey. None of them like you. They don’t want you around. Nobody wants you around.”
“You be quiet!!” Cici shouted. “You don’t know! Those are my frien–” Cici’s voice broke. “They are!!” she screamed through her tears.
“No. You’ve never had friends. You know that. They are all trapped forever, and it’s your fault. Just admit it,” the voice whispered. “Admit it.” By now Cici was crying. She looked down at the lantern she was holding. Her hands were shaking and she felt an awful cold emptiness in her heart. There was nothing she feared more than being alone. And now she was alone with nothing but an evil voice for company. Even Hikousen was gone.
She could just see her own reflection in the lantern’s golden top. The Lantern. She felt its weight in her hands. It was the only source of light. It was then that she heard another voice. In her mind she heard faint words through the pain of being alone and abandoned. She could just hear the words through her fear of having no friends.
Are we the Ajan Warriors?
She stopped. The evil whispers faded away. Everything faded away. Her entire attention was on those words.
Are we the Ajan Warriors?
Something happened. What was a cold, fearful pain changed suddenly. A fire had started in Cici’s mind. Ajan Warriors. She thought of Ranko, and how many times she had encouraged Cici to do her best. She thought of Jessie and Shannon. She thought of the time they let her do an update all by herself. She remembered how they all cheered for her. She thought of Talitha, and how they had fought together. She thought of how proud Talitha was of how Cici had helped defeat the Halloween Monster.
Her mind burned. We are the Ajan Warriors, she thought. I’m an Ajan Warrior! She looked up suddenly, her eyes glaring with a warrior’s rage.
“They are my friends!” she screamed. “Because we’re all the Ajan Warriors!” Cici lifted the Chronicler’s Lantern, and it’s light glowed around her, pushing the darkness away. The creature’s eyes widened, and it snarled with white fangs.
“By the power of the Crystal Terrane! Ruby Lens of Fire!”
All eight lenses of the Chronicler’s Lantern shifted to a brillant, sparkling reddish color, and a fiery glow bathed the front of the athletic building in the seething light of a volcano’s blood. In that same instant, a cloud of yellowish-orange flames in the shape of a serpent’s head exploded from the lenses of the lantern and blasted through the dark shape as it turned to avoid the attack. A horrifying shriek echoed in all directions as the flaming remains of the shadowy fiend faded from sight.
Cici stood wide-eyed, holding her breath.
“Three cheers for the Ajan Wimps,” another voice said. Cici snapped to her right, ready to fight again. Floating in the air only a few feet away was the grinning face of a jack-o-lantern. Cici’s breathing was frantic and her heart was beating rapidly as she backed away, expecting another attack. Just then, Cici heard the doors of the athletic building slam open, and Ranko’s voice.
“There they are!”
Cici turned around with an expression of surprise and saw Ranko running towards her. Alanna was running faster, though. Just as Ranko reached the spot where Cici was standing, Alanna caught up and grabbed Ranko, who was clearly very upset.
“No, no, no..” Alanna said, pushing against Ranko and trying to hold her back. Shannon arrived to help, but Ranko was having none of it.
“You want to trap me in a cage?!” Ranko screamed. “Huh?!! Try trapping me again and we’ll see what’s left! Come on!” Ranko was jumping and pointing. Alanna and Shannon were doing everything they can to keep Ranko from rushing at the monster. Cici turned back to the grinning face.
“You’re the cause of all of this!” Cici shouted. “You leave us alone, ’cause now I know how to zap monsters!”
“We’ll meet again,” the jack-o-lantern said coldly. “You can’t defeat us. We’ll find you in Aventar. And next time we’ll have even more powerful sorcery.”
“Do I hear a bell?” Ranko snapped. “Because when I hear a bell, something’s about to get knocked out!” Ranko pointed over Alanna and Shannon’s arms. “You won’t have to look for us, rotface! Next time you find us you better bring something besides talk, and you mess with little bit again and I’ll kick you through those doors myself! You GOT THAT!?!” Ranko lunged again and again as Alanna and Shannon held her back.
“You Ajan Wimps make a brave noise,” the jack-o-lantern said calmly. “You have no idea what you face. When next we do battle, you will know the pain of defeat,” With that, the jack-o-lantern disappeared.
“Yeah!?” Ranko shouted. Then she clenched her mouth and teeth. There was nobody there. She slowly relaxed and Alanna and Shannon very slowly released her. Cici noticed Jessica, Talitha and Leila were standing a number of steps behind where Ranko had been held back. They still looked startled. Alanna turned to survey the situtation.
“Looks like they gave up,” Alanna said, trying to change the subject to help everyone recover from Ranko’s outburst. Ranko stormed past her.
“They better give up,” Ranko said angrily. “Because I’m just getting started.” Ranko walked through the side door to the Fine Arts building and slammed it behind her.
The other girls remained standing on the cement path outside the athletic building. Nobody spoke.
Ranko Yorozu sat in the corner of the band room, aimlessly tapping the wrong end of a drum stick on a practice pad. She stared blankly at the rest of the drum equipment that surrounded her. She and Jessica Hoshi were the only two people in the room.
Jessica walked around next to Ranko and sat down on the floor so she could see Ranko’s face.
“I want my treasure back,” Ranko said.
“Do you think we could have fought those Halloween monsters?” Jessica asked, implying that the surprise attack would have made their treasures useless.
“At least we could have done something,” Ranko said. “We left little bit all by herself like the whole time. She could have really gotten hurt, you know? We have to get those treasures back no matter what.”
“Cici-chan is a smart girl. She went to find help. That’s what I would have done too. I’m proud of her,” Jessica said, making a fist.
“I’m proud of her too,” Ranko said. “She’s pulled us out of tons of trouble now. Her and that little lantern and the ferocious guard cat,” Ranko grinned very slightly.
“She said her and Talitha fought together really good,” Jessica said. “I wish I could have been there.”
“We’ve got a lot of trouble coming, Goofy,” Ranko said. “We’ve got to get those treasures back. Some of the monsters we face might be too much for just little bit and the Professor.”
Jessica nodded. “We’ll find them. I’m sure of it.” Just then, Alanna and Shannon walked through the side door, with Cici, Talitha and Leila following. Jessica waved wildly.
“Konban wa minna-san!” she smiled. Shannon shook her head and smiled.
“Well, here we are once again, huh?” Shannon said. “We found Teko.” Shannon let Teko down off her hand. He hopped to the floor and began walking towards Jessica. About halfway there, something distracted him and he wandered off to look at the shiny base of a chair leg. Jessica giggled.
Cici stood behind Ranko and tugged Ranko’s shirt. Ranko swiveled around on the drumset stool she was sitting on and faced Cici.
“I found a new power that my lantern gots!” Cici announced. Ranko stifled a laugh as she saw the expression on Cici’s face. Then her eyes glistened just a little and she put her hand on Cici’s shoulder.
“I want you to know how proud we all are of you, little bit,” Ranko said. “You’re a real fighter. Never forget that.”
Cici closed her eyes, smiled and nodded, then opened her eyes again. “Me and Hikousen are ready for anything!” Cici said loudly. All of the girls laughed, even Leila. Just then, Irina and Tara ran through the front door, with a short, fierce looking woman following them. She was dressed in a parka, carrying a mobile phone and a set of car keys.
“Oh my, girls. What have they done to you? Are you hurt? Are you all okay?” the woman asked as she walked around to each of the girls in turn, putting her hands on either side of their faces and inspecting them for injuries. It took her less than 30 seconds to make sure every single one of the girls was okay. She was scarcely as tall as Jessica.
“Mom, we’re fine,” Ranko said as she fussed over the girls one at a time. “Really, we’re all okay.”
“Tara and Irina said you were all in trouble and to come quick. I got here as fast as I could.”
“You closed the diner?!” Ranko exclaimed. “What about dinner? What about all the regulars? That radio guy and the paint truck driver! They’ll end up over at that burger place and get food poisoning again!”
“Relax, I sent the deliveries early this afternoon. It’s Halloween! Everyone’s going to parties anyway. All I need is a big bowl of candies for the goblins.” the woman replied. “It’s all under control.”
“Ladies, if you haven’t met her yet, this is my mom, Darci Yorozu.”
“Hi Mrs. Yorozu! I’m Jessica Hoshi, but you can call me Jessie!”
“Well, I’ll be sure to call you Jessie, then!” Mrs. Yorozu replied with a wink. Jessica grinned. “Now, who’s up for a Halloween party with candy and cakes and caramel apples!”
“Me!” Cici shouted.
“Me!” Jessica shouted.
“Sounds like fun,” Shannon said. Alanna nodded.
“Let’s hit the diner, then,” Tara said. “Ranko’s mom makes the best pies you have ever eaten before. She has about ten recipes for real hot chocolate too.”
“Ooh, my mom can make great hot chocolate. Hey! She made candy this year! You wanna get some before we go to the diner?” Jessica asked.
“Are you kidding?” Mrs. Yorozu said. “Bring some along! Bring your mom too. We can compare recipes.”
“My mom has tons of recipes! Yay!” Jessica exclaimed.
All of the girls walked together out the front door of the band room. Jessica was so happy they were all together again.