The Demons' Mistake: A Story from Chelm


The mischievous demons of Chelm, the legendary town in Poland where only fools live, wreak havoc on a daily basis. They make the milk go sour, herd livestock into the sky, and rip people's clothing and tangle their hair. Then they hear about an irresistible new place called New York City. A city jammed with unsuspecting people, motor cars, and tall, shiny buildings—a mayhem loving demon's dream! When they get there, though, the big city is more than a match for the small-town ...
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The mischievous demons of Chelm, the legendary town in Poland where only fools live, wreak havoc on a daily basis. They make the milk go sour, herd livestock into the sky, and rip people's clothing and tangle their hair. Then they hear about an irresistible new place called New York City. A city jammed with unsuspecting people, motor cars, and tall, shiny buildings—a mayhem loving demon's dream! When they get there, though, the big city is more than a match for the small-town demons of Chelm. . .

Francine Prose and Mark Podwal, masters at bringing Jewish legends to life, create totally new and original tale that echoes the Old World but is just right for the modern age.

Demons from the town of Chelm hide in a crate being shipped to New York because they hope to practice their mischief where streets are paved with gold and there are parties every day.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Expert at refashioning Jewish folktales, Prose (previously paired with Podwal for The Angel's Mistake: Stories of Chelm) invents one just right for contemporary audiences. The story begins in Chelm, the legendary town of fools, where demons are just itching to ruin the party Reb Pupkin and his wife are giving for their son, Chaim, visiting them from America. But when Chaim--now calling himself Charles--describes the wonders of New York City (streets paved with gold, meals five times a day, parties all day and all night), the demons believe him. They slip themselves into a packing crate bound for America but, for various reasons, the crate goes unopened for more than 50 years. When the demons finally see New York, their tricks don't carry much weight. If they make the milk go sour, for example, people "would just go to the corner and get more." Even their decision to unveil themselves backfires--they do not know they are at a Halloween party, where their scary appearance will go undetected. Eventually, they figure out how to cause trouble (personal computers, for example, present rich possibilities). This funny, unexpectedly sympathetic story finds its match in Podwal's illustrations. Less folkloric than in previous works, his paintings discreetly isolate key elements of the narrative. The understated compositions keep the demons' doings puckish rather than wicked, and the sunny colors buoy the already light tone. Ages 5-up. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature
When the foolish demons of Chelm learn that America is paved with gold, they decide to cross the Atlantic hiding in a crate of presents. Once the crate arrives at New York Harbor, it is left in a warehouse unclaimed, because Chelmites are not smart enough to address packages. Fifty years pass before the miserable demons are freed. By that time, New York is a crowded modern city. People walk down the street talking to little black objects. They do not notice when the demons rub up against them. All the things that disturbed the Chelmites do not bother New Yorkers. The demons become so desperate they decide to break their custom of staying invisible, and show their true form. They arrive at a Halloween party intending to scare the guests away. But the scary costumes frighten the demons. Eventually the demons settle into American life when they learn how to make trouble with computers and stop lights. Traditionalists may have trouble with a climax that involves Halloween, but liberal readers will chuckle heartily. Prose has managed to mix Old World Jewish humor, the immigrant experience, and modern life into an ingeniously funny tale. Podwal's whimsical art completes the text. 2000, Greenwillow, $15.95. Ages 6 to 12. Reviewer: Jackie Hechtkopf
School Library Journal
Gr 1-3-To tell a "Chelm" story is to conjure up a rich and humorous world in which foolish people do foolish things with total conviction. Thus it is unfortunate that this lackluster original tale refers to Chelm at all, for unlike other fine efforts from this author and illustrator, it contains neither charm nor humor. When invisible demons crash a party at the home of Reb and Mrs. Pupkin, they overhear the Pupkins' son say that the streets of New York are paved with gold and that there are parties all night and all day. Unable to resist the urge to party, they stow away on a boat sailing for America. However, lacking an address, the crate in which they've hidden remains unclaimed for 50 years. When the demons are finally released, they find themselves in present-day New York City where people know better than to walk in dark, spooky places and simply replace anything the demons ruin. Feeling useless, they attend a party hoping to scare people by becoming visible, but since it's Halloween, no one is impressed with them. Finally, they are taught modern ways of making mischief such as crashing computers and snarling traffic. In addition to Prose's plodding, disjointed text and weak plot, Podwal's familiar gouache-and-pencil illustrations seem almost lifeless. The demons, being invisible for most of the story, are merely implied, and yet there is nothing visually interesting to take their place, certainly not the wonderful rabbis, townspeople, or villages found in his earlier books.-Teri Markson, Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, Los Angeles Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
This story from Chelm features pictures by Mark Podwal and a tale which requires good reading skills as it tells of the demons of the Polish town of Chelm, where only fools live. The demons decide to move to New York City, but find the big city is more than a match for their spirits in The Demons' Mistake, a fine story of adjustments.
New York Times Book Review
The shrewdly imaginative story about what demons might do in today's New York City is illustrated with delicate, abstract pastels. Worth reading aloud.
Kirkus Reviews
No one has ever claimed that demons were clever. And demons from Chelm, that legendary town of fools, are as foolish as foolish can be. Of course, to illustrate this, the foolishness of the people must first be demonstrated. First one trick then another is played on the townspeople. But it seems demons are as gullible as people are. So when they hear that in America the streets are paved with gold, nothing will do but that they must depart immediately. Although they can fly, it's awfully far, and "what will prevent us from flying off the edge of the earth?" Of all the demons, only Zereda thinks ships are too slow. She will fly to America. All of the others climb into a crate that will be shipped. What a voyage they have, trapped inside a crate that's nailed shut! They learn one thing—demons can get seasick! And when they get to America, they learn that crates need an address or they will never be delivered. Fifty years pass before they're finally let out! Coping with modern-day America, the demons must make some serious adjustments. Here their old tricks go unnoticed or are simple annoyances of life. Zereda has been working on this, however, and is quick to show them what to do in this modern world. Now we know who's really responsible for all the gossip in the newspapers, the traffic tie-ups, and the glitches in computers. Podwal and Prose have worked together before: The Angel's Mistake (1997), etc. As usual, Podwal's quirky illustrations are perfectly suited to Prose's subtle humor, capturing the essence rather than the specifics of details. Perfectly silly. (Picture book. 5-7)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402887826
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books
  • Publication date: 1/30/2003
  • Pages: 32
  • Age range: 5 - 8 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.85 (w) x 11.32 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine Prose
Francine Prose
Known as much for her wit as she is for her eclecticism, Francine Prose is a true renaissance woman of the literary set. She has written essays, art and literary reviews, translations, children’s books, novellas, and short stories -- not to mention bitingly humorous novels like Bigfoot Dreams and Blue Angel.


When it comes to an author as eclectic as Francine Prose, it's difficult to find the unifying thread in her work. But, if one were to examine her entire oeuvre—from novels and short stories to essays and criticism—a love of reading would seem to be the animating force. That may not seem extraordinary, especially for a writer, but Prose is uncommonly passionate about the link between reading and writing. "I've always read," she confessed in a 1998 interview with Atlantic Unbound. "I started when I was four years old and just didn't stop…The only reason I wanted to be a writer was because I was such an avid reader." (In 2006, she produced an entire book on the subject—a nuts-and-bolts primer entitled Reading Like a Writer, in which she uses excerpts from classic and contemporary literature to illustrate her personal notions of literary excellence.)

If Prose is specific about the kind of writing she, herself, likes to read, she's equally voluble about what puts her off. She is particularly vexed by "obvious, tired clichés; lazy, ungrammatical writing; implausible plot turns." Unsurprisingly, all of these are notably absent in her own work. Even when she explores tried-and-true literary conventions—such as the illicit romantic relationship at the heart of her best known novel, Blue Angel—she livens them with wit and irony. She even borrowed her title from the famous Josef von Sternberg film dealing with a similar subject.

As biting and clever as she is, Prose cringes whenever her work is referred to as satire. She explained to Barnes &, "Satirical to me means one-dimensional characters…whereas, I think of myself as a novelist who happens to be funny—who's writing characters that are as rounded and artfully developed as the writers of tragic novels."

Prose's assessment of her own work is pretty accurate. Although her subject matter is often ripe for satire (religious fanaticism in Household Saints, tabloid journalism in Bigfoot Dreams, upper-class pretensions in Primitive People), etc.), she takes care to invest her characters with humanity and approaches them with respect. "I really do love my characters," she says, "but I feel that I want to take a very hard look at them. I don't find them guilty of anything I'm not guilty of myself."

Best known for her fiction, Prose has also written literary criticism for The New York Times, art criticism for The Wall Street Journal, and children's books based on Jewish folklore, all of it infused with her alchemic blend of humor, insight,and intelligence.

Good To Know

Prose rarely wastes an idea. In Blue Angel, the novel that the character Angela is writing is actually a discarded novel that Prose started before stopping because, in her own words, "it seemed so juvenile to me."

While she once had no problem slamming a book in one of her literary critiques, these days Prose has resolved to only review books that she actually likes. The ones that don't adhere to her high standards are simply returned to the senders.

Prose's novel Household Saints was adapted into an excellent film starring Tracey Ullman, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Lili Taylor in 1993.

Another novel, The Glorious Ones, was adapted into a musical.

In 2002, Prose published The Lives of the Muses, an intriguing hybrid of biography, philosophy, and gender studies that examines nine women who inspired famous artists and thinkers—from John Lennon's wife Yoko Ono to Alice Liddell, the child who enchanted Lewis Carroll.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

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