Diana Wynne Jones, Wild Robert (Greenwillow, 2003)
How many of us dreamed as children of living in a real castle? Young Heather would love it -- if it weren't for all the tourists. Her life in the stately home of Castlemaine, where her parents are curators, is spoiled by their daily invasions. When she stands on an ancient burial mound and calls on the legendary Wild Robert to teach them some manners, though, the results are wilder than she had anticipated. Before Robert is put to rest again, Heather's view of Castlemaine has been thoroughly transformed.
The writing of Diana Wynne Jones normally seems to me without age limits. I've recommended the same title to eight-year-olds and fifty-eight-year-olds with complete confidence in their enjoyment. But with Wild Robert, Jones is clearly writing for a younger audience. Children who struggle a bit with reading on their own, and are not yet ready for Jones' more complex and subtle works, will be able to manage this relatively straightforward narrative.
The scenes in which Wild Robert takes revenge on the tourists invading "his" castle have a spark of Jones' wicked humor, and Robert himself is one of her likeable rogues. There's the seed of a good story here, and the simple style is not so forced as to spoil an older reader's pleasure. I was disappointed by the conclusion, though, which is abrupt and anticlimactic. It feels like Jones started a full-length novel and lost interest in it -- or was cut short by a publisher's length requirements? Whatever the reason, it's a letdown for those of us who can usually depend on Jones for a rousing climax to her tales.
This slender volume is the first publication in the U.S. of a story originally published in Great Britain in 1989. The cover illustration by Mark Zug is quite striking, and some of his internal pencil drawings are amusing. Others were distractingly prosaic, though -- was it necessary to capture Wild Robert eating a sandwich? One warning, if you're thinking of adding this book to your collection: though in this edition it is packaged (and priced) as a hardcover, I found after one reading that the binding was beginning to crack and split. Further investigation revealed that it is not a true, sewn hardcover binding at all, but a cheap glued paperback binding between the hard boards. I find this to be a deplorably deceptive cost-cutting measure--a high-quality paperback would have been preferable.
Diana Wynne Jones' publisher's Web site can be found here.