Afternoon of the Elves

Afternoon of the Elves

by Janet Taylor Lisle


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A Newbery Honor Book
An American Library Association Notable Children’s Book
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Janet Taylor Lisle’s captivating Newbery Honor book explores how, like friendship, magic can emerge when you least expect it—and when you need it most. All you have to do is look deep.

Anything might happen in Sara-Kate’s backyard. For that matter, anything was happening.

For nine-year-old Hillary Lenox, being friends with Sara-Kate Connolly is a complicated business. Sara-Kate’s clothes don’t match, her hair’s a mess, and she’s known to spit at people when they make her mad. But when Sara-Kate shows Hillary the tiny elf village in her overgrown backyard, Hillary decides she can’t be as awful as all that.

Hillary is amazed by the delicate houses, the miniature well, even an intricate Ferris wheel made of bicycle wheels and popsicle sticks. But the more time she spends in Sara-Kate’s yard, the more questions she has. How come they never go inside Sara-Kate’s house? Why is Sara-Kate sometimes missing from school? And why hasn’t Hillary ever seen Sara-Kate’s mom? If Hillary can just look deep enough, she hopes, she will uncover the secrets of the elves—and of her new friend.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781481499095
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 459,886
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Janet Taylor Lisle’s books for young readers have received the Newbery Honor Award (Afternoon of the Elves), the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction (The Art of Keeping Cool), Holland’s Zilveren Griffel, and Italy’s Premio Andersen Award, among other honors. A graduate of Smith College and former journalist, Janet lives in Rhode Island and often draws on Rhode Island history in her work. Visit her online at

Read an Excerpt

Afternoon of the Elves

By Janet Taylor Lisle


Copyright © 1989 Janet Taylor Lisle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7178-0


The afternoon Hillary first saw the elf village, she couldn't believe her eyes.

"Are you sure it isn't mice?" she asked Sara-Kate, who stood beside her, thin and nervous. "The houses are small enough for mice."

"No, it isn't," Sara-Kate said. "Mice don't make villages in people's backyards."

Hillary got down on her hands and knees to look more closely. She counted the tiny houses. There were nine, each made of sticks bound delicately together with bits of string and wire.

"And there's a well," she whispered, "with a bucket that winds down on a string to pull the water out."

"Not a bucket. A bottlecap!" snorted Sara-Kate, twitching her long, shaggy hair away from her face. She was eleven, two years older than Hillary, and she had never spoken to the younger girl before. She had hardly looked at her before.

"Can I try drawing some water?" Hillary asked.

Sara-Kate said, "No."

The roofs of the houses were maple leaves attached to the sticks at jaunty angles. And because it was autumn, the leaves were lovely colors, orange-red, reddish-orange, deep yellow. Each house had a small yard in front neatly bordered with stones that appeared to have come from the driveway.

"They used the leaves dropping off those trees over there," Hillary said.

Sara-Kate shrugged. "Why not? The leaves make the houses pretty."

"How did they get these stones all the way over here?" Hillary asked.

"Elves are strong," Sara-Kate said. "And magic."

Hillary looked at her suspiciously then. It wasn't that she didn't believe so much as that she couldn't right away put Sara-Kate on the side of magic. There never had been one pretty thing about her. Nothing soft or mysterious. Her face was narrow and ended in a sharp chin, and her eyes were small and hard as bullets. They were such little eyes, and set so deeply in her head, that the impression she gave was of a gaunt, fierce bird, a rather untidy bird if one took her clothes into consideration. They hung on her frame, an assortment of ill-fitting, wrinkly garments. ("Doesn't she care how she looks?" a new girl at school had inquired just this fall, giving every child within earshot the chance to whirl around and shout, "No!")

Least magical of all, Sara-Kate Connolly wore boots that were exactly like the work boots worn by men in gas stations.

"Black and greasy," Hillary's friend Jane Webster said.

"She found them at the dump," Alison Mancini whispered.

"No she didn't. Alison, that's terrible!"

Normally, fourth graders were too shy to risk comment on students in higher grades. But Sara-Kate had been held back in school that year. She was taking the fifth grade all over again, which made her a curiosity.

"Can you tell me where you found those amazing boots? I've just got to get some exactly like them," Jane said to her one day, wearing a look of such innocence that for a second nobody thought to laugh.

In the middle of Sara-Kate's backyard, Hillary recalled the sound of that laughter while she stared at Sara-Kate's boots. Then she glanced up at Sara-Kate's face.

"Why does it have to be elves? Why couldn't it be birds or chipmunks or some animal we've never heard of? Or maybe some person made these houses," Hillary said, a sly tone in her voice. She got off her knees and stood up beside the older girl. "We are the same height!" she announced in surprise.

They were almost the same except for Sara-Kate's thinness. Hillary was sturdily built and stood on wide feet.

"In fact, I'm even a little taller!" Hillary exclaimed, rising up a bit on her toes and looking down.

Sara-Kate stepped away from her quickly. She folded her arms across her chest and beamed her small, hard eyes straight into Hillary's wide ones.

"Look," she said. "I didn't have to invite you over here today and I didn't have to show you this. I thought you might like to see an elf village for a change. If you don't believe it's elves, that's your problem. I know it's elves."

So, there they were: elves—a whole village of them living down in Sara-Kate's junky, overgrown backyard that was itself in back of Sara-Kate's broken-down house with the paint peeling off. Sara-Kate's yard was not the place Hillary would have picked to build a village if she were an elf. Where there weren't thistles and weeds there was mud, and in the mud, broken glass and wire and pieces of rope. There were old black tires and rusty parts of car engines and a washing machine turned over on its side. Carpets of poison ivy grew under the trees and among the bushes. Nobody ever played in Sara-Kate's backyard. But then, as Sara-Kate would have said, nobody had ever been invited to play in her backyard. Except Hillary, that is, on that first afternoon of the elves.

"Sara-Kate Connolly thinks she's got elves," Hillary told her mother when she came home, rather late, from looking at the village. The yards of the two families backed up to each other, a source of irritation to Hillary's father, who believed that property should be kept up to standard. But who could he complain to? Sara-Kate's father did not live there anymore. ("He's away on a trip," Sara-Kate always said.) And Sara-Kate's mother didn't care about yards. She hardly ever went outside. She kept the shades of the house drawn down tight, even in summer.

"Elves?" Mrs. Lenox repeated.

"They're living in her backyard," Hillary said. "They have little houses and a well. I said it must be something else but Sara-Kate is sure it's elves. It couldn't be, could it?"

"I don't like you playing in that yard," Hillary's mother told her. "It's not a safe place for children. If you want to see Sara-Kate, invite her over here."

"Sara-Kate won't come over here. She never goes to other people's houses. And she never invites anyone to her house," Hillary added significantly. She tried to flick her hair over her shoulder the way Sara-Kate had done it that afternoon. But the sides were too short and refused to stay back.

"It seems that Sara-Kate is beginning to change her mind about invitations," Mrs. Lenox said then, with an unhappy bend in the corners of her mouth.

But how could Hillary invite Sara-Kate to play? And play with what? The elves were not in Hillary's backyard, which was neat and well-tended, with an apple tree to climb and a round garden filled with autumn flowers. Hillary's father had bought a stone birdbath at a garden shop and placed it on a small mound at the center of the garden. He'd planted ivy on the mound and trained it to grow up the bird-bath's fluted stem. Birds came from all over the neighborhood to swim there, and even squirrels and chipmunks dashed through for a dip. The birdbath made the garden beautiful.

"Now it's a real garden," Hillary's father had said proudly, and, until that afternoon, Hillary had agreed. She had thought it was among the most perfect gardens on earth.

Sara-Kate's elves began to change things almost immediately, however. Not that Hillary really believed in them. No, she didn't. Why should she? Sara-Kate was not her friend. But, even without being believed, magic can begin to change things. It moves invisibly through the air, dissolving the usual ways of seeing, allowing new ways to creep in, secretly, quietly, like a stray cat sliding through bushes.

"Sara-Kate says elves don't like being out in the open," Hillary remarked that evening as she and her father strolled across their garden's well-mowed lawn. She found herself examining the birdbath with new, critical eyes.

"She says they need weeds and bushes to hide under, and bottlecaps and string lying around to make their wells."

Mr. Lenox didn't answer. He had bent over to fix a piece of ivy that had come free from the birdbath.

"And stones on their driveways," Hillary added, turning to gaze at her own driveway, which was tarred down smooth and flat.

She turned toward Sara-Kate's house next. Its dark form loomed behind the hedge at the bottom of the yard. Though evening had come, no light showed in any of the windows.

Now that Hillary thought about it, she could not remember ever seeing many lights down there. Gray and expressionless was how the house generally appeared. What could Sara-Kate and her mother be doing inside? Hillary wondered, and, for a moment, she had a rather grim vision of two shapes sitting motionless at a table in the dark.

Then she remembered the shades. Mrs. Connolly's shades must be drawn so tightly that not a ray of light could escape. Behind them, Sara-Kate was probably having dinner in the kitchen, or she was doing her homework.

"What happened at school today?" her mother would be asking her. Or, "Please don't talk with your mouth full!"

Hillary imagined Sara-Kate Connolly frowning after this remark. She felt sure that Sara-Kate was too old to be reminded of her manners. Too old and too tough. Not really the kind of person to have elves in her backyard, Hillary thought.

"I'm going inside!" Hillary's father's voice sounded from across the lawn. The rest of him was swallowed up by dark.

"Wait for me. Wait!" Hillary cried. She didn't want to be left behind. Night had fallen so quickly, like a great black curtain on a stage. In a minute she might have been quite frightened except that suddenly, through the garden, the twinkling lights of the fireflies burst forth. It was as if the little bugs had waited all day for this moment to leap out of hiding. Or had they been there all along, blinking steadily but invisibly in the daylight? Hillary paused and looked about.

"Hillary! Where are you?"

"Coming," she called, and turned to run in. A gust of wind slid across her cheek. Like lanterns in the grip of magic hands, the tiny lights flickered over the lawn.


Hillary dreamed about elves during the night. By morning it was clear that the magic of Sara-Kate's elves must be real, for while Hillary slept, it crept, mysterious and cat-like as ever, out of the Connollys' backyard, up the hill and through the half-opened window of Hillary's bedroom. There she woke beneath its spell shortly after dawn and immediately was seized by a mad desire to run down to Sara-Kate's yard, in her nightgown.

But what would Sara-Kate have thought? And suppose the elves were not such early risers? Hillary imagined them surprised in their beds, leaping for cover as her giant bare feet thudded over the ground toward the fragile village. She made herself dress for school instead. She gathered her school books with unusual attention to orderliness and went downstairs to the kitchen. Hillary was determined to visit the elf village again soon, that very afternoon if Sara-Kate would have her. In the meantime, she ate a large breakfast of pancakes and milk, walked to school four blocks away, and spoke privately to Jane Webster and Alison Mancini about what she had seen in the Connollys' yard.

"Elves!" shrieked Jane and Alison together.

They were standing in front of their lockers taking off their denim jackets, which were identical, each with silver stars sewn on the shoulders and down the front. Hillary was wearing the same jacket, too. Their mothers had bought them in the same store downtown even though they were rather expensive. It was such fun to dress alike, as if they were members of a select club.

"What kind of elves?" Alison asked suspiciously.

Hillary told them about the little yards. She described the stones bordering the yards and the neatness of it all.

"Are there gates?" Alison wanted to know.

"I don't think so," Hillary said.

"Are there chimneys? How about mailboxes?"

Hillary shook her head to both. "There's no furniture or anything inside. They're just, you know, little houses."

Alison shrugged. She and Jane looked at each other.

"I bet she made them herself," Jane said.

"Maybe she did," Hillary replied. "And maybe she didn't. You should come see."

"All right, we will," Alison said, pushing the sleeves of her sweater up her arms with two Smart strokes. She was the best dressed of the three. Jane was brighter, though. Her mother was a lawyer. Why they had alighted upon baby-faced Hillary for the third in their group even Hillary didn't know. She was often awed by their sophisticated conversations.

"We'll come, but don't think we'll be fooled for a minute," Alison said.

Jane put on the sweet and innocent face that always meant something awful was coming. "I'd be interested to see if anything can live in that sickening backyard," she said to Hillary as the bell for class rang. "Besides Sara-Kate, that is."

She was not allowed to find out because Sara-Kate refused to have her. Sara-Kate refused to invite Alison either, though Hillary asked as nicely as possible. Jane and Alison waited out of sight in an empty classroom.

"But why?" Hillary begged. "You've got to let them come."

The thin girl shook her head and raised her voice slightly. "These elves are private people. They aren't for public display. You can come if you want, but not those two creeps."

"They're not creeps. We're friends," Hillary protested.

But Sara-Kate, who didn't have any friends, who spit at people when they made her mad and walked around all day in a pair of men's boots, only smiled faintly.

"Some friends!" she announced, in a voice that carried straight down the hall to Jane and Alison's furious ears.

"Sara-Kate Connolly is not a nice person," Alison said to the group when Hillary returned. "She gets in trouble a lot. Hillary should be careful of her."

Jane nodded. "Anyone can say she has an elf village in her backyard if she wants to. The point is, where are the elves? I bet Sara-Kate is the only person who ever sees them."

"Nobody sees them," Hillary said. "Not even Sara-Kate. They go away when they hear people coming. Elves are very private persons. Sara-Kate said they used to be seen in the old days, but not now because there are too many people around and they're frightened. Elves haven't been seen for over a hundred years."

"If these elves are so real, why doesn't Sara-Kate want us to come look?" Jane inquired, casting a shrewd glance at Alison.

"Because they're fake," Alison answered without waiting for Hillary to reply. "Just like Sara-Kate."

"She's definitely not a person you want to trust," Jane agreed. She lowered her voice and drew the friends closer. "Do you remember that new bike she was riding to school last spring? Do you remember how she boasted about it and said she had a job on a paper route? Have you noticed how she isn't riding it anymore this fall?"

Alison nodded.

"What happened?" Hillary asked.

"She stole it," Jane whispered. "From a store downtown. Everybody knows. The police came to Sara-Kate's house and she was arrested. Only, she gave the bike back so nothing happened. They're watching her, though, in case she steals something else."

Hillary was shocked. "How awful!"

For the rest of the day she kept away from Sara-Kate. When she walked home from school, she saw her thin shape in the distance and it looked dangerous suddenly. It looked like the shape of someone who was bad, someone who lived in a bad house and came from a bad family.

If magic had truly invaded Hillary's room, now it slithered away again. It was gone by the time she reached home that day, and Hillary was relieved. She felt as if she had made a narrow escape and laughed at herself for being so easily fooled. She began to remember other incidents connected with Sara-Kate Connolly. They were little things—a lost pencil case, a series of small disappearances from the art room, a mean note left in someone's desk. Taken together, they added up to something larger in Hillary's mind.

"I do think it's best not to spend time down in that yard," Mrs. Lenox said, approvingly, at dinner. "Heaven knows what you might catch or step on."

Two days later, Hillary had put the elf village almost completely out of her mind when Sara-Kate appeared at her elbow in the hall at school. She appeared so suddenly, and at such an odd time—all the other fifth graders were at sports—that Hillary jumped.

Sara-Kate leaned toward her and spoke in a high, breathless voice.

"Where have you been? I thought you were coming again. The elves have built a playground. They have a swimming pool and a Ferris wheel now." She flung a string of hair over her shoulder and smiled nervously. "You should come see," she told Hillary.

"A Ferris wheel!" In spite of herself, Hillary felt a jab of excitement. "How did they build that?"

"With Popsicle sticks and two bicycle wheels. It really goes around. The elves come out at night and play on it. Really and truly," said Sara-Kate, looking into Hillary's eyes. "I can tell it's been used in the morning."


Excerpted from Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle. Copyright © 1989 Janet Taylor Lisle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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This story, though deceptively simple, is filled with complexities that are hidden in the underbrush of the prose. (Booklist, starred review)

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