Lily and the Lost Boy by Paula Fox (Orchard Books: $12.95; 149 pages)
Jack Hemmings is trouble waiting to happen. You sense that on the first page of "Lily and the Lost Boy," before you know his name, before you know what he's doing on the Greek island, which, until Jack's appearance, has been "a golden place" for Lily and her brother, Paul. As annoyed as Lily that Jack has come crashing into their lives, you immediately dislike him. But, like Lily, you also feel a little sorry for him--especially after you meet his father, Jim, who drinks too much ouzo, roars around on a motorcycle and dances Greek dances better than the Greeks themselves.
Author Paula Fox skillfully creates a cast of complex, vaguely troubled characters. Subtlety is her trademark.
First she gives us almost-12-year-old Lily, who is afraid of vipers and the whole multitude of creepy crawly creatures that inhabit this island paradise, and who wants so much to be brave that she sometimes acts as though she really is.
Comrades and Explorers
Then there is her brother, Paul, older but not as quick on the uptake as Lily. Back home, he's the ultimate sibling rival, but here on Thanos, with their interestingly quirky parents (Papa is a teacher on sabbatical who can't quit lecturing), brother and sister have become fellow explorers. You might say they have become comrades.
Enter Jack, a tall American kid in a T-shirt looking like the ancient statue of a Greek youth in the village. Everything Jack does seems dramatic and different and therefore intriguing to Paul. But to Lily he's an intruder in their comfortable relationship.
One night the three of them--Lily invites herself--go off on an adventure. Jack decides to overturn the tables and chairs at a little village restaurant; Lily objects, Paul goes along with the scheme. Much later that night, Lily packs a honey sandwich, overcomes her fears of nameless stinging, biting things and returns secretly to the restaurant to set things right. There she finds Jack asleep. When it dawns on her that Jack doesn't have a lot to go home to, she leaves him the honey sandwich, as much to puzzle him as to help him.
A Leisurely Pace
From there, Fox allows the tension to build at a leisurely pace. You understand why Paul is so attracted to Jack, "an engine racing, with no place to go." You sympathize with Lily, now the outsider. You watch tragedy develop as inevitably as in a Greek drama.
Nearly 20 years ago, Fox wrote "The Stone-Faced Boy," recently issued in paperback (Aladdin Books: $3.95). In that story, Gus Oliver has much in common with both Lily and the lost boy. Like Lily, Gus is afraid of a lot of things--and like her, he overcomes his fear and behaves bravely. Like Jack, Gus is emotionally scarred; for different reasons, neither boy is able to show his real feelings, to be himself.
Fox understands kids and their fears and writes about them with accuracy and empathy. That's why she has developed a faithful following over the years and why her books have received so much praise.