Magical 'Unicorn' no one-trick pony

BOOKS FOR KIDS

November 21, 1992|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

"Wish on a Unicorn" by Baltimore native Karen Hesse isn't about fantasy or sorcery, but it is one of the most magical books published in the last few years.

Rarely are readers in the 8-10 age range offered stories that plug into as many emotions as "Unicorn" does. Its honesty will entrance fourth-graders who think they are too busy to bother with stories anymore. Plus, the vocabulary isn't daunting, and the length (108 pages) is inviting.

"Wish on a Unicorn" (Henry Holt and Co., $13.95, ages 8 and up) is told in the first person by Mags, a sixth-grader burdened with adult responsibilities. She lives in a trailer with her 7-year-old sister Hannie, who suffered slight brain damage because she was deprived of oxygen at birth, and her 6-year-old brother Mooch, who sometimes sneaks into neighbors' homes to steal food.

Their mother works nights at the mill, so it's up to Mags to walk Hannie home from school, fix dinner and put Mooch and Hannie to bed each night. Mags yearns to be like everyone else at school, and to be liked by two of the popular girls, Patty Jo and Alice.

When Hannie finds a dirty, stuffed unicorn discarded in a field near the highway, she is convinced it will grant everyone in the family awish -- just like in the fairy tales Mags reads to Hannie and Mooch at night.

Hannie's innocence gives the book an unshakable truthfulness. "Mags make wish," she says, willing her sister to believe.

On the surface, it appears Mags' wish comes true. She asks for some new clothes, and when they get home, they find a box of hand-me-downs has just arrived from their aunt in Baltimore. Mags picks out a pink sweater with penguins marching across the front, and when she wears it to school the next day, she gets compliments from Patty Jo and Alice.

She's thrilled when Patty Jo invites her over to her house after school. She knows she shouldn't let Hannie walk home from school alone, but this is Mags' one chance for a bit a freedom.

Mags' new friends prove to be petty and selfish. She finally heads home, only to find Hannie missing. Ms. Hesse's climax will have readers fretting and sweating, and probably crying. Hannie saves her wish for last, and in her selflessness, she embodies the strength and love that bind this family.

Karen Donald Hesse, 40, grew up in Pimlico and says that the only time she ran away from home, she ran to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on the corner of Garrison and Park Heights Avenue. She now lives in Williamsville, Vt., with her husband and two daughters, Kate, 13, and Rachel, 10.

She will be back in Baltimore today, appearing at the B. Dalton Bookseller in Owings Mills Mall from 1-3 p.m.

Ms. Hesse worked on writing children's books for 10 years before "Wish on a Unicorn" was published.

"I must have a strong masochistic side," she said, laughing. "I had eight to 10 novels and picture books that were rejected, but many of the rejections were kindly and encouraging. I guess that's what kept me going. . . . I've worked off and on through the years to support this habit."

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