If Kate DiCamillo wrote a book about a box of Swiffer refills, it would probably make us chortle and sob about lint.
The beloved Minneapolis author imagines many things beautifully — the hopes of personality-filled animals ("Flora & Ulysses," among others) , the worlds of pre-adolescent girls (debut "Because of Winn Dixie," among others), the ill effects of holding one's feelings inside (practically all of her books). But she has carved out a specialty to which she returns with her new fairy tale, "The Puppets of Spelhorst": the inner lives of the inanimate creatures that shape us, whether or not we know it.
Like the protagonist of "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," the title characters of "Spelhorst" are not-humans who seem quite human. The book appears to be set about 200 years ago and the puppets seem to date to an even earlier time: a white owl, a boy with a bow and arrows, a girl with a shepherd's crook, a king and a wolf.
These five function in a number of ways: As a set, they are purchased early in "Spelhorst" and pass through several hands, expressing their longings on the way. They also awaken hopes in the people who possess them, including sisters Emma and Martha. And they're actors in a play produced by the sisters, portraying characters that — because playwright Emma is intuitive — contain echoes of their own dreams. (To add to the stories-within-stories-within-stories quality, "Spelhorst" is structured as a play in three acts.)
Although words like "gentle" and "kind" pop up often in descriptions of DiCamillo's books (accurately), she doesn't ignore darkness; as a "Spelhorst" character says, she writes "songs that break your heart and heal it, too." The puppets are manhandled and there's a sense that, like the "Toy Story" gang, our world has stopped caring about them.
That sense sets up the most thrilling aspect of "Spelhorst:" that the title characters are not the hilarious, lovely book's protagonists. It's best to leave it to readers to find out who is, but let's just say the puppets can't speak or move but they still exert a powerful influence over the humans, igniting their desires, good and bad.
"The Puppets of Spelhorst" seems designed to make children — and the adults to whom they read — think more keenly about things they may wrongly believe were put here for them. Trees, birds, mice, china rabbits — there's a sense in DiCamillo's books that they all have inner lives, that they all can help us figure out who we are if we pay attention and that they all exist in a world that bends toward kindness.
The Puppets of Spelhorst
By: Kate DiCamillo.
Publisher: Candlewick, 152 pages, $17.99.
Event: DiCamillo will launch her new book at noon on Oct. 14 as part of Rain Taxi's Twin Cities Book Festival, State Fairgrounds, 1265 N. Snelling Av. N., Falcon Heights. Free.