Book Review: Grimbold’s Other World

Cover of Grimbold's Other WorldMy animal loving cousin said, “Why don’t you review a book about dog training?”  Cousin is well aware that we have had mixed success with our dog, who will jump through a hoop on command but still eats all my clothes.

“Well”, said I, “Most of what I write about is science fiction and fantasy and romance…”

“Oh”, said Cousin, “Would you review this book I liked when I was a child?  It’s not about a dog, it’s about a cat”.

This being an equal opportunity blog, both cat and dog books are welcome, especially if they fit into one of the genres listed above, so I gave her recommendation a try.  It was delightful although I suspect it’s one of those books that’s better when you are a kid – I say this because I thought the book was not strong as an overall piece of literature, but had great kid-bait moments.  I can hardly wait to read the chapter to my daughter in which a baby dragon is lost and found.  She’ll eat it up.

Grimbold’s Other World, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, is a children’s fantasy book about a boy who befriends (sort of) a cat that is able to guide the boy between worlds.  The boy is able to communicate with animals and often finds himself in other worlds by accident, although he is usually guided there by Grimbold.  Grimbold keeps needing a human to help him save the son of an evil sorcerer.  This son is something of a jerk and always in trouble, but Grimbold just can’t stand to see him come to harm.    The story is episodic, as the boy, named Muffler, goes about his life but is constantly interrupted by inter-world crises.  Along the way we encounter an anxiety-ridden dog, a loyal horse, a baby dragon, a unicorn, and, in my opinion, some truly dreadful poetry.

This book does not have especially well-developed characters, or amazing powers of description, or brilliant use of language, or a plot that makes much sense, or much thematic depth to it.  So, were I grading it, I would not give it an A.  BUT – this book has a cat that pulls the boy into an alternate universe by taking him through the chimney, a unicorn, and a baby dragon.  Frankly, that’s some good literature, right there.  Well-developed characters and such things would be icing on the cake, but let’s face it, once you’ve got talking animals and a baby dragon, you can’t go too far wrong.  I haven’t tried this book out on my own daughter yet, but I predict that she will look upon it the way I look at a package of Oreos.  She will read this thing before you can say “baby dragon”.  This is nine-year-old kid crack, especially if the kid in question loves animals.  No wonder Cousin liked it – I did too!  I’m not sure if many adults will find it to be deeply satisfying – it doesn’t have the substance of something like the Narnia books or Neverending Story.  But you’ll enjoy sharing it with your kids.  Just don’t be surprised if you find your kids climbing up the chimney.

Book Review: The 21 Balloons

Cover of The 21 BalloonsOh, 21 Balloons, how I do adore you, even though the hero of your story is a misanthropic jerk.  In fact, I love you in part because your hero is a misanthropic jerk.  But mostly, I love this story for the idea (what would you do if you discovered an island that was home to an incredible diamond mine) and for the inventions (you would use the money from the diamonds to make cool toys, of course!)

The 21 Balloons was written and illustrated by William Pene du Bois.  It won a Newbury award in 1948.  It certainly deserved it.  This book entertained me when I was a kid and it gets better every time I read it, which is often.  The story is told in flashback by Professor William Waterman Sherman, a math teacher.  After years of teaching, Professor Sherman is royally sick of children and of teaching math and he decides to spend a year in a hot air balloon.  Well, not IN the balloon, obviously – in a house suspended from the balloon.  All goes well for the first seven days – and then a sea gull encounter causes Professor Sherman to crash land on the island of Krakatoa, where he is greeted, to his utter amazement by a dapper man with a big secret.

The character of Professor Sherman is so consistently without sentiment that he’s wildly refreshing.  I wouldn’t want to spend a year in a balloon with him, but so many people in children’s literature are very nice, or very evil, that someone like the Professor is a refreshing change of pace.  He’s not evil, he’s not cruel, but he’s interested in his own well-being.  Not to the point of being without morals, but enough to, for instance, fail to mention that he’s a retired teacher to a group of people who would doubtless pressure him to come out of his much beloved retirement.

The real excitement comes not from the plot or the characters but from the details.  Every detail of the balloon house is described, and it makes you wonder what your house would be like.  What would you invent if you were apart of a group of very rich, very smart people with a lot of resources and leisure time?  What would your constitution look like if you drew one up from scratch?  And how many ways are there to cook lamb, anyway?  These are pressing questions in the book and they will keep you daydreaming long after the book is over.

Look at these illustrations, aren’t they wonderful?  I deeply regret that I am unable to share my personal favorite:  Professor Sherman being pulled by his balloon across the surface of the ocean, with sharks nipping at his bare toes.

illustration from 21 balloons

The Balloon Merry-Go-Round

illustration of balloon house

The Balloon house. Not pictured are a great many books (paperback, small print).

Don’t you want to go read the book right now, and then start drawing pictures of your house on Krakatoa and your own balloon invention with a new box of crayons?  OK, go do that!

I guess if there’s any problem with the book, it’s that it’s rather tasteless to make light entertainment out of a disaster that caused the deaths of over 36,000 people.  As a child, I had no idea that there was a real Krakatoa – you can imagine my surprise when I discovered it.  It seems deeply unfair that that horrible tragedy was real and yet we do not have elevator beds and airy-go-grounds.  Since the real explosion happened in 1883, perhaps its not, as they say, “too soon” to turn it into a fantasy about living in a place so unstable that no one will ever look for you.  Just watch out for Anak Krakatau!

Review: Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

It’s my great honor to kick off my book reviewing features with a thoughtful analysis of the most frequently challenged book of 2012 (according to the just-released list of 2012’s challenged books by the American Library Association).  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you…CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS!

Captain Underpants

My Hero!

The Captain Underpants series tells the stories of George and Harold, two boys who (sort-of accidentally) have caused their principal to turn into the super hero “Captain Underpants” whenever anyone snaps their fingers in his presence.  Their adventures are endlessly convoluted and hilarious and yes, pretty gross.  I’ve been a huge fan of the series ever since my daughter got her first Captain Underpants as a prize from the library, and for the first time, but not the last, got in trouble for secretly trying to stay up all night to read.  It was a proud moment at our house, I tell you.

This website will generally focus on books that involve some mix of science fiction, fantasy, or other geeky goodness, and romance.  Just to be clear, there’s no romance in Captain Underpants.  Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants promises romance on the cover but immediately adds (“Just Kidding”).  There sure is a lot of geeky goodness, though.  The most recent installment, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-boxers included the following elements:  time travel, a pet pterodactyl, a robotic hamster, an explanation for the extinction of dinosaurs, the Big Bang, and the Ice Age, clones, and a giant squid.  Top that.

Captain Underpants is justly famous for its potty humor, but it’s a very clever series.  It contains all kinds of wacky fun and some surprisingly sharp satire, as when Mr. Krupp spends some time in prison and discovers that it is remarkably similar to elementary school but with a bigger budget (Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers).  George and Harold make fun of adults, but they make sure that no one gets hurt, and one of the messages of the books is that teasing people can make them evil – so don’t.

How I love Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds) with its villainesses, Zorx, Klax, and Jennifer.  If this doesn’t make you laugh, your soul is dead:

“And where did that super evil rapidly growing dandelion come from?”  asked Captain Underpants.

George and Harold gasped.  They looked at each other with the sudden panicked realization that only children who have created a giant mutated garden nuisance would know.

Here’s what gets me:  the reasons listed for challenging the Underpants series are:  “Offensive language, unsuited for age group”.  I hope I’ve made it clear that the Underpants series is more than poop jokes.  But seriously, this is a series in which an entire book revolves around people being eaten by talking toilets (The Attack of the Talking Toilets, natch).  What audience would anyone think this series is appropriate for?  Here’s a tip – kids love potty humor.  Adults (usually, OK, sometimes) don’t.  When I think of a target audience for a book about wedgies, I don’t think “CEO of a major corporation”, although that would explain a lot about the state of finances today.  No, I think:  “Ages 5 – 10”.  I did ask my handy nine-year-old consultant if she thought these books encourage her to disobey and disrespect adults and she said, and I quote, “They encourage me to disobey adults that are evil and crazy”.  Sounds fair to me.

Dav Pilkey is no stranger to the most frequently challenged books list.  However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first year that he’s made the top of the list.  Congratulations Dav!  You’re number one!  You have joined the ranks of some amazing books, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Lord of the Rings.  May your underpants always remain soft and cottony and free from the evils of starch.  Thanks for turning my kid into a reader!