This is a difficult book to read and accept. It beautifully delivers a message that I think most readers will dodge, particularly young readers, but perhaps most well-trained adults as well. It points out that our society's politically correct response to some social situations may be morally completely wrong.
Hillary is a happy kid from a good home, with plenty of happy friends. But she is fascinated by her next-door neighbor Sara-Kate in spite of her junk-filled yard, her ratty clothes, and her strange ways. Sara-Kate, you see, has elves in her back yard. And an inordinate amount of knowledge of the strong and independent ways of elves. Slowly, Sara-Kate's elvish charm draws Hillary closer, until finally Hillary enters into Sara-Kate's fantasy along with her. As this happens, Hillary also begins to absorb the ugly reality that the fantasy makes bearable: Sara-Kate's father has left, and sends odd bits of money sometimes. Sara-Kate's beloved mother is sick, mentally ill, and Sara-Kate cares for her like a child, hiding the reality from the world so that authorities won't take her mother away from her as before.
There are two levels to the story. On the surface, there is the story of an odd, graceless outcast slowly charming another child away from her old friends with the intensity of her fantasies. Below, however, is the story of an abandoned child and mother, and more, the story of an unusually loyal, strong and resourceful child forced by her mother's mental illness to take on incredible responsibility.
It is a terrible story. By that, I mean that it draws a picture of a horrible mental and physical ordeal. The beautiful fantasy that sustains this unusual kid has the power of its creator's determination. And the sadness of the story is offset by the amazing nobility and optimism of an unusual character.