Okay, so this little book has been sitting on my coffee table for a while. I finally read it this past weekend. I think I was looking for something (a) short, and (b) as far as possible from grimdark. If those two criteria were what I had in mind, then boom, nailed it.
So this is a young MG story. I don’t have a particularly clear notion about how to judge reading level, but offhand I’d say that this story, A Diamond in the Window, would be about right for eight- to ten-year-old children, though certainly older readers may well enjoy it. It’s a very simple story with a set of interlocking problems our young protagonists need to solve.
Edward and Eleanor are living with their hardworking Aunt Lily and her brother, their nutty Uncle Freddy, and there’s a serious threat that they may soon lose the house. More importantly, long ago, their aunt and uncle had two young siblings, Ned and Nora, who vanished mysteriously. A young foreign gentleman was staying with the family at the time and also vanished, after leaving a puzzle etched into the glass of the uppermost attic room’s window. Our two young protagonists want to solve the puzzle, find hidden treasure to save the house, and also find the children who vanished long ago.
So that’s the frame story: a series of adventures following the riddles laid out in the puzzle game. Chapters dealing with ordinary life alternate with adventures, which gradually become more overtly dangerous and the children realize they’re working against an enemy. Can they find the long-vanished children? Was the foreign gentleman a good guy, courting Aunt Lily and fond of the children; or was he a bad guy? The reader isn’t going to find this much of a puzzle. This is the story where everyone who seems like a good person is a good person; there’s not a lot of subtlety, though there are questions about exactly what happened.
This story takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, and Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lousia May Alcott are all strongly present in the story, which includes lots of literary references and snatches of poetry. Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul / As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low-vaulted past! / Let each new temple, nobler than the last, / shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast / till thou at length art free / leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea! This is pretty snazzy in a story aimed at ten-year-old readers. I would have loved it when I was ten and I liked it now.
Also, A Diamond in the Window wraps around Christmas, and while it’s not centered on Christmas, I hereby declare it is close enough to a Christmas story that if you would like to read a short, charming Christmas story this month, here you go.
The story is unabashedly and thoroughly positive in its themes and imagery. It’s a little dated – it was first published in 1962 – but actually, it’s about old enough that it just comes across as historical rather than contemporary. If you remember E Nesbit’s stories fondly, then I expect you’d enjoy this story as well; if you’re giving Nesbit’s stories to a young reader, you can certainly add this to the stack because it will fit right in.
Now I kind of want to go reread something by Edith Nesbit. Did you realize her books are literally over a hundred years old now? Five Children and It was published in 1902, The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Story of the Amulet in 1906. That seems just remarkable. I bet Jane Langdon read Nesbit’s works and was inspired by them.