Neil Gaiman, M Is for Magic (HarperCollins, 2007)
There is a child who burns with curiosity, who is full of the Wood. He knows there are scary things in the world, and amazing things too. This child understands that trolls still lurk under bridges and she knows that magical things can be found in the most ordinary of places. She knows that she should be careful in the world but that she shouldn't let that keep her at home. He realizes that the categorically scary can be oddly comforting and that the impenetrably beautiful can often times be terrifying indeed. And yet this is all to say there's a child who's every child.
Then there are parents. Parents don't always remember how much their children know about the world and often would rather seek to shield them from it. This desire leads to Disney-fied fairy tales wherein the little mermaid never dies and Snow White's stepmother accidentally falls off a mountain. They don't intentionally buy collections of stories where the macabre dance, the mysterious lurk, and the otherworldly cavort: at least not for their ten-year-olds, which is the lower limit of the age range that HarperChildren's suggests. In this case, I wouldn't blame parents' hesitation. This collection contains a range of more adult themes, sometimes hard to categorize but indelibly there.
In some of the stories, the adult themes can be overlooked by the child: he simply may not understand it, or may derive a simpler understanding than an adult would of the same story. In others, the adult themes may bury seeds of later understanding. After all, it was "Troll Bridge," read first when I was thirteen, that lodged deep in my mind and took root, sending out tendrils that met and tangled with tendrils from other deep-rooted stories and experiences to teach me that sometimes the deepest (and saddest) evils lie in ourselves and don't exist only in those ubiquitous monsters who go bump in the night.
On the brighter side, these stories are such that lessons less sober than the one above also await the reader. Neil Gaiman is great for any child's vocabulary. His stories are often riddled with culltural references, sure to widen any child's worldview. Because the lessons inherent in the stories differ according to age, experience, and education, this collection has a high factor of re-readability (which possibly wasn't a word until now). If the parents continue to have concerns about the ideas their children are exposed to via Gaiman's stories, these issues can be solved by reading the stories with their children at bedtime (even if their children think they're too old for that). That way, the parent can be on hand to answer any questions their children might have.
Gaiman writes his own Introduction to this collection, which is quite nice and appropriate: it's rather like a favorite uncle settling down, introducing his career as storyteller to you, and then launching into a completely absorbing tale. There are some quite good bits in this Introduction. He gets across a couple of truths, defines a few genres in terms of how they affect you, and even manages to encourage any budding young writers. Also, any Introduction that manages to potentially interest you in Ray Bradbury is a worthy Introduction indeed.
Fans of Gaiman may be especially excited by the inclusion of "The Witch's Headstone" in this collection, as it's part of his forthcoming The Graveyard Book. (I know this heart is all aflutter and even more impatient after such a little taste.) Younger readers will likely be captivated by such stories as the eerily-familiar-yet-eerily-different "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds" and the fantastic feast that is "Sunbird" (a story originally written for one of Neil's own daughters). For myself, reading "Chivalry" and "Instructions" were like visiting old friends: one who collects the Holy Grail next to porcelain dogs and one who collects fairy tales, anyway. I've given you but a small sampling of the stories here, but allow me to mention what I consider to be the crowning glory of this collection: "October in the Chair." This story is an engaging mix of otherwordliness, sadness, and spookiness: in essence, perfectly October. I won't tell you more than that. Like any October treat, it's best if you go into it unawares.
Collectors of Neil Gaiman's works please note: this is the first appearance in a Gaiman-only anthology of "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds," "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge" and "The Witch's Headstone." "The Witch's Headstone" will, of course, appear as a chapter in The Graveyard Book.
In conclusion, M Is for Magic follows in the fine tradition of both Ray Bradbury and fairy tales, full of thought-provoking pieces of fantasy, horror, and science fiction that will keep children and adults engaged for years to come.