My father once had a handyman from Vermont who informed him, quite sternly, that his stepladder was “wee waw.” Ever since, I’ve loved that word. Though Roget doesn’t acknowledge it, cattywampus is an equally enchanting synonym for wee waw. They are both old-fashioned New England words meaning askew or off kilter. Cattywampus is said to be a mash-up of catty-corner, meaning diagonal, and the Scottish word wampus, meaning twisted.

If your own life is too boring or straight-laced, you might find pleasure in making the acquaintance of the residents of Cattywampus Street: the children who live along this twisty road in the middle of Nowheresville, and to whom magical things happen. They might, as the narrator points out, “seem just like you,” or like someone you know. You might wish you could share their bizarre adventures. Or, on the other hand, not. (As the narrator admits.)

“The Kids of Cattywampus Street,” by occasional Maine resident Lisa Jahn-Clough, is a collection of 11 stories, each one about a different eccentric child and often featuring an eccentric and slightly magic toy shop. The children pop up in each other’s stories, and the narrator is very much a presence. The collective result is an oddball little community that feels like an “Our Town” for tykes.

The narrator warns that the stories are “odd or mysterious, silly or scary, happy or even sad.” I can’t say that they defy convention, because ever since “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by the incomparable Lemony Snicket, it has become almost conventional for sad or scary things to happen to young children in books. But the narrator has neglected to add that many of the stories are also just plain funny in their own weird way: the girl whose parents died in “an unfortunate elevator accident,” the boy from the wrong side of the tracks (literally) who survives on avocadoes that “rolled off an avocado train,” the overprogrammed boy determined to schedule time to “do nothing.”

A few of the stories, like the ones about Lionel and his magic ball, or Ameera, who can’t stop singing, struck me as relatively dull. But most are full of fun twists and unexpected turns.

There’s the story of Lindalee, a “mean machine” who is even mean to her grandmother — until she loses all her friends and meets a frog who is meaner than she is. She becomes nice, which freaks everyone out. As a result, she decides never to be nice again. Lesson learned.

There’s Emmet, who falls asleep in a Waddlebee toy store trunk kept in his attic, dreams he is (or perhaps really is) captured by a spider, and learns to weave webs.

Then we have Bob, the homeless, parentless child who lives in a box by the train tracks and befriends a frog. This act of kindness does not turn the frog into a prince but — in a refreshing twist on the old fairy tale — turns the delighted Bob into a frog.

There’s the creepy story of Hans who loves waffles, until a woman pretending to be his mother makes him eat 101 of them, and then eats him! (Only temporarily.)

We also meet Ursula and her twin brothers Igor and Egor, who have a truly scary encounter with a ghost in the old toy store.

My favorite is the “very, very, very sad story” of Evelyn. “No one can be happy all the time,” the narrator proclaims. “I mean, are YOU always happy? I don’t think so. And sometimes Evelyn was sad. Sometimes she even liked being sad.” I definitely know kids like this. In this story everyone Evelyn cares about, from pets to parents, dies. (But not really.)

Lastly, the Waddlebee Toy Store, located where the pavement ends, is practically a character in its own right, with its grumpy and disagreeable owner Mrs. Waddlebee, and its apparent habit of granting wishes that get wished fervently enough.

Although some of the stories definitely work better than others, on the whole this is a fine collection for anyone who appreciates a world where lines aren’t always straight, ladders can be wee waw, and wishes can come true.

Amy MacDonald is a children’s book author and freelance writer who lives in Vinalhaven. She can be reached at [email protected]


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