Afternoon of the Elves has significant ties to the genre of enchanted realism. Typically, a novel written in this genre portrays a magical person or object that enters the life of a contemporary child in an otherwise realistic and ordinary setting. By presenting magical experiences in this way, authors can make magic seem immediate and credible to young readers. Janet Taylor Lisle, however, chooses to emphasize the uncertain, unprovable, and elusive qualities of magic. Hilary longs to see the elves in person and to have her faith in magic confirmed by observation, but her most careful and persistent attention is constantly frustrated: “She was never sure what she had seen. It was maddening.”
Only once in the novel does the author describe an event that Hilary unequivocally accepts as having a magical provenance. In this scene, a bicycle wheel that serves as an elfin Ferris wheel seems to turn around of its own accord, as if by magic. Readers are aware, however, that Hilary is deeply susceptible to Sara-Kate’s hypnotic personality, that this perception may have been induced by her friend’s powers of suggestion. Although the elves remain hidden and unproven throughout the story, the powerful allure of magical possibilities is reinforced. The reader sees how Hilary’s interest in the elves leads her to a more reflective, curious, and analytical pattern of thought, how it motivates a keener observation of the natural world, and how it adds a...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Although many books for young readers address the theme of friendship, few explore its ambiguous psychological nuances as intently as Afternoon of the Elves. In this regard, it is also unique within Janet Taylor Lisle’s oeuvre, although her earlier novel Sirens and Spies (1985) also emphasizes friendship and the importance of probing beyond surface appearances. Her novels The Great Dimpole Oak (1987), The Lampfish of Twill (1991), and Forest (1993) are whimsical fantasies that emphasize action over reflection and incorporate large casts of extraordinary characters. With such books as The Gold Dust Letters (1994) and Looking for Juliette (1994) in the series Investigators of the Unknown, Lisle returned to realistic settings with hints of magic but kept her narratives focused on action rather than on her characters’ interior lives.
Afternoon of the Elves won high critical esteem in the year of its publication, when it was named both a Newbery Honor Book and an American Library Association Notable Book. Steady paperback sales since then suggest that children as well as adults find this story of friendship and imagination highly readable. With its evocative yet economical style and its emphasis on themes that have timeless appeal to young readers, Afternoon of the Elves is likely to become a minor classic in the canon of children’s literature.