When I was in primary school, I read a children's book, a collection of short stories, all either magical-realist or taking a turn for the unreal. The book was in Dutch, but I am pretty sure it was translated from English. I read this book around 1996 or so, so it's older than that, at least.

  1. A cyclist on a training round finds a racecourse owned by dwarves, where a boy races for his life against dogs that try to catch him.
  2. The devil tries to sell 'instant character' powder to a shopkeeper
  3. A girl climbs a very tall tree.

I've googled extensively, but had no hits at all. If anybody know what book this is from, I'll be very happy indeed. Thank-you in advance for considering this question!

1: A cyclist on a training round finds a racecourse owned by dwarves, where a boy races for his life against dogs that try to catch him.

One starts with a girl going out on a training round. She's a cyclist, and a good one -- she can tell from the sound of the tyres whether her weight swings back and forth too much when she takes off. She reaches a fork in the road – or maybe it's a side road she hadn't noticed before? – goes down it, and arrives at a cycling oval with a building adjecent.

She ends up inside the building, and there are small men, perhaps or almost dwarves. One of them asks about her cycling abilities, what sort of speeds and times she makes, and is impressed: "You are more, much more than we are used to." I think she is given orange juice in a wine glass.

A race is announced. A boy on a bike comes up to the start. The dwarves bet madly. When the race starts, the boy starts biking much to fast, a crazy pace, he'll never keep that up — then, when he has a head start, a cage of dogs is released, and she realizes he's trying to stay ahead of the dogs. The dogs are clever, they run alongside the track as though they know their paws won't find purchase on the wood. When the boy crosses the finish line, a fence rises from the ground cutting the dogs of from from the track.

Somebody, I don't know if it was the cyclist or a dwarf, clenched their wineglass so hard that it broke, and their hand is bleeding. I forget the precise ending; something that implies she won't be leaving.

2: The devil tries to sell 'instant character' powder to a shopkeeper

A storekeeper with a small general store who gets a visit from a salesmen or representative. The salesman sells instant character: powdered courage, powdered intelligence (he says, but the jar is labeled wisdom), powdered other things, just add water and drink it. The storekeeper has his doubts, but accepts the jars. When the salesman departs, there's a whiff of sulphur.

Shortly after a boy (called David?) comes in and says bullies are waiting for him down the street, don't you have something to make me stronger? The storekeeper tries out the courage powder, and the change is instantaneous: the boy decides to go down the street. But the bullies are waiting for you, says the shopkeeper; "I know," the boy says ‘his voice sounded cool, amused’, “I'm not afraid of them anymore.” In a short time he is back, beaten up.

The weeks pass, and the shopkeeper sells lots of powder; and the jar of wisdom powder gets emptier and emptier, even though hardly anybody every asks for it. When the salesman returns, he is expecting a lot of people who have gone to the bad because people are bad at knowing what their character needs. It turns out the shopkeeper has added a pinch of wisdom to every portion he sold — and wisdom is not intelligence! The salesman stamps his foot, the floor cracks, and he departs through the crack which closes itself behind him.

3: Third story, I don't remember much about. Girl climbs a very tall tree.

There's a girl who is good at climbing trees. Somebody challenges her to climb to the top of a certain tree; she takes off her shoes and climbs it. The bark is pleasantly rough and resiny under her feet. She climbs for a very long time. At the top, the branches bend under her weight.

  • 1
    I know I've read the second story mentioned, but I don't remember either of the other two. It was definitely in a collection of short stories, so the English collection may have a slightly different set.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 12:54
  • Brilliant! Do you remember anything about the book you encountered it in? Or perhaps about what other stories the collection you read contained? After half a year you are the first to have a lead on this question, so even the smallest thing would be helpful.
    – Esteis
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 14:45
  • The above comment is addressed @Rachel. (Forgot to make an @-mention in the comment itself.)
    – Esteis
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 14:59
  • 1
    I'm racking my brain to try and recall any other stories in the collection. I haven't remembered this story in years, but you're started me on something here.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 15:10

1 Answer 1


I found it!!

"The Devil and the Corner Grocer" is the story with the "character powders". It's part of a collection in The Chewing Gum Rescue and Other Stories, by Margaret Mahy, which also includes "The World's Highest Tray Cloth" where a girl climbs the tallest pine in town, and hangs her tray cloth in those upper limbs to prove her ascent.

The other stories in the book are as follows:

  • The Chewing-gum Rescue
  • The Singing Bus Queue
  • The Giant's Bathroom
  • The Midnight Story on Griffon Hill
  • The Pumpkins of Witch Crunch
  • The Boy Who Made Things Up
  • The Tatty Patchwork Rubbish Dump Dancers
  • The Travelling Boy and Stay at Home Bird
  • 1
    The list of contents doesn't seem to match up to the other stories, but that one totally matches. Turns out one of the libraries around here has a copy, so I'm going to check it out just to follow up. :)
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 14:00
  • Thanks, @Sean, I appreciate that a lot! The review of the Dutch translation (Google Translate) also mentions a story about a tree-climbing girl, so that's only the cyclist/dogs story left unaccounted for. I've ordered the Dutch edition, and I, too, will post a follow-up. It will be interesting to see whether the translation has the same set of stories.
    – Esteis
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 18:23
  • And Rachel, thank you very much for finding this book for me. (And for finding the author, too. I looked around and read some summaries of her other short stories, and the ideas alone are fantastic in every sense of the word.)
    – Esteis
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 18:37
  • @Esteis It was a good challenge. But thank you for leading me to rediscover her works.
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Esteis The English edition may also have the tree climbing story. It may be The World's Highest Tray Cloth. Still no sign of the dogs, though.
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:26

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