Avi's Shadow Reflects Dully
Bright Shadow by Avi
It's impossible to walk into a library without seeing a list of "books to read while waiting for the next Harry Potter." I certainly appreciate the efforts of librarians to capitalize on the Harry Potter phenomenon and keep kids reading. I don't, though, always agree with their choices. But then, it is hard to find something as universally appealing as Harry Potter-that's why J.K. Rowling has found herself a millionaire while most authors of juvenile fiction/young adult literature are still struggling.
One of the authors that I've frequently heard mentioned as a Harry Potter alternative is Avi. He is the author of a Newberry-award winning historical novel called The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. While browsing the library shelves recently, I found a copy of one of Avi's books, Bright Shadow.
Bright Shadow is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Morwenna. She lives in a land filled with suffering because of the cruelty of the ruler, Ruthvin. One day a 1,000-year-old wizard shows up. He is the holder of the last five wishes in the land. You see, this land was once abundant in wishes, but they were used, sometimes wisely, sometimes poorly. Now there are only five left and once they are used, they are gone forever-as is the wizard who holds them.
The old wizard was ready to die, so he showed up to give his wishes to the ruler of the land. But Ruthvin had no time for him, so he gave the wishes to the king's chambermaid. Morwenna doesn't realize what she has and there are only the voices in her head to give her scanty, confusing directions. She learns that she cannot make wishes for herself, only for others and that once the wishes are gone, she will die. She is also told to not let anyone else know that she is the wizard. This turns out to be a simpler task than expected, as everyone suddenly believes her simple-minded friend, Swen, is the wizard.
The School Library Journal called Bright Shadow "A sensitively written tale which poses philosophical questions about selfishness, selflessness, and the terrible burden of what first appears to be wonderful gifts." That is certainly one take on the book. I took a slightly more cynical approach to the book. I grew frustrated while reading it. I was frustrated for Morwenna, a child given so little direction with such a precious gift. I felt frustration that she was told not to tell those very things that might have prevented the waste that would occur.
It is difficult to do a wishes story. After all, every reader spends half the book thinking, "Wish for more wishes." Avi does answer that-no wizard can wish for something for himself or herself. What he doesn't answer is why she can't wish for wishes for someone else-why couldn't she have wished that Swen would have ten wishes, that the captain would have wishes, that every person would have an allotment of wishes? Logic constantly interferes with any wishes story.
I also grew frustrated with the demands that were placed on Morwenna. She was called cruel and unkind by those who knew her secret until it was too late. Her mother is alive, but is barely mentioned. I found it strange that her mother would have so little care or interest in Morwenna's life.
Another frustration is that Ruthvin is so nasty, but we don't really understand why. Apparently he is only this cruel and despotic because the book demanded a villain. I would have preferred that he have some sort of motivation. Since he was so consistently evil, why would anyone pay allegiance to him?
My final complaint with Bright Shadow lies in the obscuring of the book's meaning. There are questions raised about altruism and selfishness, but no good answers are given. Indeed, I think one must have Avi's outlook on life to be able to understand the book's moral, much less to agree or disagree with it. The meaning remains ambiguous, much like the sad and depressing ending of the book.
I found some interesting elements hiding within the pages of this 144-page novel, despite my overall dissatisfaction with it. Avi paints rich characters that quickly become three-dimensional despite the amount of stereotyping sketched into them. Swen displays little understanding or insight, yet he exhibits undying loyalty, a hurt desire for explanations, and a commitment to doing what he thinks is necessary. Even his bluster is a kindly bluster that makes us blush over his skewed good intentions.
Bright Shadow shows up on reading lists most frequently for fourth and fifth graders, though like any book the age range is much wider than that depending on the child's interests and aptitude. If we must compare it to Harry Potter, I'd say they have magic in common, but that Bright Shadow has neither the humor nor the quirkiness of Potter. Nor does it have the same delineation between good choices and bad ones.
Overall, the book is a mediocre one and worth reading only if nothing else is available or if you are already an Avi fan.