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afternoon of the elves

3 november 2022

Afternoon of the Elves is supposedly about elves, but it doesn't take even a child reader long to realize that it is far more about people who are "different," and that it will advocate the tolerance that people who conform to their community's norms ought to show to those who are different.

It's the fourth grade. Hillary is from a comfortably-off conformist family. Sara-Kate, her classmate, shouldn't even be in the fourth grade; she's been held back a year. Sara-Kate is poor; she dresses funny and her family is a murky business. Her house is off limits and her back yard is a mess. But elves live in that back yard. And, Sara-Kate explains, "Before you say anything, you've got to put yourself in the position of the elf. That way you don't make mistakes, okay?" (20).

Hillary and Sara-Kate bond over the village that the elves have built, complete with houses, swimming pool, and even a Ferris wheel. Hillary's provokingly normal family humors her friendship with Sara-Kate; Hillary's snotty schoolfriends disparage it. But Hillary, though at times ashamed of Sara-Kate and at times distressed by the older girl's mood swings, is drawn to her out of sheer mutual love of fantasy.

Well, of course there aren't any elves. There's a madwoman in the attic, though. Or something. Sara-Kate's domestic situation seems to be something out of The Cement Garden, or maybe Psycho. Sara-Kate presumably has a mother, but nobody ever sees the mother, except in fleeting glimpses at an upstairs window.

Eventually the situation resolves prosaically: no elves, no ghosts, not even any psychopaths, exactly – though the problem of Sara-Kate's mother never really gets confronted in any satisfying manner. Interventions are made and things right themselves; Hillary inherits the elf village. But the reluctance of the narrative to explain things in full is awkward, though at the same time evocative. Sara-Kate is heir to a long tradition in children's literature of kids thrown on their own devices. Sometimes these kids appear in fantasies; sometimes in realistic fiction. Sara-Kate spans those two realms: she has to live in reality, so she fashions a dream-world to cope with it. That's as good a definition of literature as any.

Lisle, Janet Taylor. Afternoon of the Elves. 1989. New York: Scholastic, 1991.