This month Dashe Roberts shares Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle

 There are some books we read in childhood that loom large in our memories well into adulthood. For me, these are often books featuring grand, fantastical adventures, in which heroes and heroines face larger-than-life villains, terrifying horrors or unfathomable creatures bent on intergalactic destruction. The works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, R.L. Stine and Robin McKinley hold such space in my formative recollections, still influencing my imagination and my writing today.


And then there are books we encounter as early readers that exist in our minds on a smaller, quieter scale, their words and ways persisting into adulthood almost undetected. These books are no less significant than their brasher counterparts, for these are the stories that stealthily influence our human identities, how we behave as grown-up actors, and how we see the world. I gave birth to my first child this year – an event that has had me revisiting my most treasured childhood tomes. And among A Wrinkle In Time and Goosebumps and The Magician’s Nephew, another book came wriggling into the corners of my consciousness, so subtly I nearly didn’t see it.


When I recently reread Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle, I was astounded at how accurately I remembered the story. Even before I cracked its spine for the first time in thirty years, I realised that I could recite the plot by heart. This was a book I hadn’t read since I was eight or nine years old, but that I now know I must have read over and over again, cementing its nuances in the pathways of my developing brain. Because Afternoon of the Elves is not just a story about a friendship between two neighbouring girls who exist in different worlds mere feet away from one another – one middle class and one struggling, one living in suburban comfort and the other in hazardous squalor. It’s a story about ways of seeing, of honouring details invisible to most, and of finding magic where it seems no magic could or should be found. The kind of magic that has real power, because it lives in the very real imagination.


When unkempt, angry, hard-eyed Sarah Kate first tells Hillary that there are elves living in her backyard, Hillary almost doesn’t believe her. After all, why would elves choose to live in a place so devoid of qualities that anyone would consider 'beautiful'? In contrast to Hillary’s neatly trimmed, lovingly tended back garden, Sarah Kate’s yard is a borderline trash heap overgrown with weeds and poison ivy, as neglected by adult hands as the hem of Sarah Kate’s shabby skirt. But when Sarah Kate shows Hillary the tiny houses crafted carefully from twigs, leaves and bits of twine, Hillary can feel that she is indeed in the presence of something remarkable.


Their friendship grows gradually, slowly, as the somewhat mercurial Sarah Kate introduces Hillary to the elves’ world, to their way of seeing. Elves, Sarah Kate explains, prefer to live in untamed spaces, with plenty of acorn caps to use as cups and thorny bushes that produce berries to eat. They don’t like trimmed lawns and neat flower beds as they leave nowhere for them to hide. The elves prefer to remain invisible to human eyes, for people often harm them when they are noticed. In fact, Hillary learns, you can only see an elf if you aren’t looking right at it, catching glimpses of movement out of the corner of your eye. Just like the glimpses of Sarah Kate’s mysteriously absent mother, who may or may not be watching from behind a filmy window.


The genius of Lisle’s prose is that it renders the author near-invisible, grounding the story so securely in the child’s perspective that the reader glides along, as enraptured by Sarah Kate’s elves as Hillary herself. Lisle brings the elves vividly to life without ever revealing them to protagonist or reader, her prose radiating the kind of magic a kid can truly experience in the real world: an old bicycle wheel is an amusement park ride, a half-buried saucepan is a pool for collecting starlight, a footprint in the weeds is a tiny amphitheatre. Here, the ordinary, dirty, discarded things that we encounter every day contain the potential to be so much more, depending on your ability to see beyond the mundane. This is the alchemy of the child’s imagination, a skill that adults so often lose as they become more practical, more traditional, more dangerous to things which may wish to remain unseen. It is of course, the menace of well-meaning adults that undoes the magic of Sarah Kate’s elves and thrusts her hidden life out into the open, for better or for worse.


There is some part of me that never lost the way of seeing so delicately depicted in Afternoon of the Elves. Even now, in the firm embrace of routine and tidiness, in administration and necessity, in nurturing and responsibility, I appreciate a weed-conquered flower pot, an unkempt corner filled with upturned toys, a pile of wood best left for spiders to dwell in than for burning in a stove. On a more profound level I acknowledge the value of perspectives rooted in different wells of experience from my own, and that the paths I walk through the world are not necessarily better or more correct than anyone else’s. I recognise that authority is not always synonymous with salvation. And as I feel overcome with nostalgia for the passing phases of my son’s babyhood, I look forward to the day when I can read him Afternoon of the Elves, feeling safe in the prospect that perhaps some child-like ways of seeing may survive in him long after I am gone.




Dashe Roberts is the author of mind-bending, laugh-out-loud sci-fi adventures for kids. A Californian, she is the creator of the Sticky Pines series and lives in London with her husband, son, and adorable dog.



TW: @maddashe


IG: @dasheroberts

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