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Literature / Afternoon of the Elves

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If you don't believe it's elves, that's your problem. I know it's elves.

“Even without being believed, magic can change things. It moves invisibly through the air, dissolving the usual ways of seeing, allowing new ways to creep in, secretly, quietly, like a stray cat sliding through the bushes.”
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Hillary doesn't believe all the mean things she hears about Sara-Kate. Sure, she wears weird clothes and she lives in a dumpy house, but if Sara-Kate's as bad as everyone says, how could she take such good care of the elf village in her backyard? She and Hillary spend hours fixing the tiny stick houses and the miniature Ferris wheel so the elves won't move away. But as Hillary is drawn further into Sara-Kate's world, she learns there are other mysteries besides the elves. Why doesn't anyone ever see Sara-Kate's mother? And why isn't anyone allowed in her house?

Afternoon of the Elves is a children's novel by Janet Taylor Lisle, about unlikely friendship, class differences, the power (and limits) of imagination and ingenuity in the face of poverty, and finding magic in the most unexpected of places (and people). It was a Newbery Medal Honor Book in 1990. Given that the plot pivots on a major twist, expect lots of spoiler text below.

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Includes examples of:

  • Ambiguous Ending: Was Sara-Kate just lying about the elves the whole time? Despite all the evidence in support of this conclusion, the finale still leaves you with a whisper of doubt. Maybe, just maybe...
  • The Artful Dodger: Sara-Kate fancies herself to be a bit of this trope. It backfires in the end.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Are Sara-Kate and her mother better off now, even separated and reliant on charity? Hopefully. Could Sara-Kate have held things together forever? No, and she shouldn't have to at her age. But her devastation at the upheaval of their life together is still heartbreaking.
  • Consummate Liar: Although she is extremely clever and smooth for her age when deceiving adults, and can come up with a convincing lie so swiftly that even Hillary is impressed, Sara-Kate is still just a child and is unable to deflect outside attention from her strange family situation forever.
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  • Cool-Kid-and-Loser Friendship: Hillary is a member of one of the cooler cliques in school (they even own matching jackets), and yet she blows off her friends to spend time with Sara-Kate, a perennial delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks.
  • Freerange Children: Sara-Kate seems completely free to do whatever she wants. This turns out to be a very dark iteration of the trope - she's free of supervision because her mother is too sick to look after her.
  • Jerkass Woobie: On the one hand, Sara-Kate is abrasive, rude, a consummate liar, and a thief. On the other hand, her bleak home life and social isolation are enough to make any sensible reader want to give her a great big hug and a lifetime of square meals and warm beds.
  • Living a Double Life: By day, Sara-Kate is an ordinary, rather grubby schoolgirl. But after school, she's the protector of a mysterious village of elves...and caretaker for her ailing mother.
  • Loser Friend Puzzles Outsiders: Nobody can figure out why Hillary enjoys Sara-Kate's company, or vice versa, and Hillary's friends and family actively try to pry them apart. Even the girls themselves are a little bewildered by their own friendship, at times, and Sara-Kate's behavior makes the whole mess pretty believable.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Do elves really live in Sara-Kate's backyard? Or is it all an elaborate game she's come up with, to impress the neighbor girl and add a little magic to her unhappy daily life? Unusually for a book in this genre, after a twist that seems to imply the latter answer, the question is actually left unanswered to the very end.
  • MacGyvering: The elves seem to be experts at this, repurposeing everything from old bottle caps and baking pans to cinderblocks and bicycle wheels. Sara-Kate is also a champion of the art, rearranging the Connolly's entire kitchen and living room into a small multipurpose area that can be more-or-less efficiently heated by the stove to save on utility bills.
  • Promotion to Parent: Rather than siblings, Sara-Kate has ended up acting as a mother to her own mother.
  • The Reveal: Sara-Kate's mother has grown too sick to care for her daughter (it's implied that she may be clinically depressed, physically ill, or both), and Sara-Kate has been acting as head of the household for nearly a year, doing the shopping and laundry, paying the bills, running errands, and otherwise barely holding their little family together. The potential for adventure here is deeply subverted - their home is a shambles and they can barely keep the electricity on, even in the winter.
  • Scavenged Punk: The major aesthetic of the elves' village, combined with a touch of Bamboo Technology. They make a Ferris wheel out of bicycle wheels, popsicle sticks, and wire, and use bottle caps for buckets and a large pan sunk in the ground for a swimming pool. Their actual homes are just twig-and-leaf huts, though.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Sara-Kate admonishes Hillary at one point for assuming that the elves are primitive, pointing out that the leaves floating in their swimming pool (which Hillary assumed were simple pool toys) could be solar power collectors for all she knows.
  • Tragic Dropout: Sara-Kate stops attending school partway through the book when her mother's health takes a nosedive, requiring more constant care. She forges a note for her teachers, claiming they're out of town for a while.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Although she prefers to think of herself as wise beyond her years, Sara-Kate frequently verges on this.
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