One of the joys of good young adult literature is its leavening — not like the turgid, dense rye of a 19th century Russian novel or the artisanal whole-wheat of Anne Tyler, but puff pastry and pudding like George McDonald or C.S. Lewis, cookie-d Joan Aiken, the delicious, moist cakery of Diane Wynne Jones or candied comic books. Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars, first in the Theater Illuminata series, is a chefly examplar of its kind, light and frothy as a flakey crossaint accompanied by a fragrant latte.
Sometimes told as stage instructions, other times as prose, the book revolves around Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, an orphan inhabiting an ancient theater. Beatrice is as charming as an ice cream concoction, from her cobalt-dyed hair to her contemplation of the ways of the theater and her behavior:
Mrs. Edith had told her once that the costume made the character, but only now did Bertie understand what she’d meant. The corset was dainty, demure, pin-striped, and it wanted her to slap Ariel across the face.
But Bertie was more than the sum of her clothing, so she cocked her arm and punched him as hard as she could in the stomach.
For as long as she can remember, Bertie has lived amid the flats of the theater’s stage, co-existing with the Players that live and perform within its confines, circling around the Book that holds all of the plays ever performed. The world Mantchev creates is theatrical and spectacular:
Her bedroom walls took flight in a soaring arc before disappearing into the rafters. The bed dropped below the stage while the armchair and dresser chased each other into the wings. Huge wooden waves slid in from Stage Left with the clank and wallop of mechanical water. Seaweed hit the stage with wet thumps, sand gathered in drifts, and saltwater misted the floor. Ground row lights painted the cyclorama in undulating shades of blue and green.
When she turns seventeen, Bertie faces the threat of ejection from life in the theater, and in order to redeem herself, she must mount a production. In this she is aided by three fairies: Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. The fairies are a main part of the book’s delight, providing a constant candy sparkle as they fly by “like demented pendulums” in bursts “of speed and sparkles” before engaging in a fight:
He somersaulted backward, then rushed to swing his tiny fist at her nose. Cobweb and Moth tackled him leaving miniature explosions of glitter twinkling in the air…Tufts of fairy hair, ripped out by the roots, drifted into the orchestra pit. Tiny scraps of clothing exited the brawling tumbleweed at sporadic intervals: a sleeve, a sock, a pointy-toed shoe.
Bertie’s side romances with the Players Ariel and Nate allow her autonomy in adventures that are G rated and have been deemed suitable for ages twelve and up. If the first volume is indicative of the quality of what will follow, we have several delicious tea-times in store.