A Crash Course In Crashing

April 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The human body is a wonderful thing, capable of feats of incredible endurance and power. The key word, however, here iscapable.While there are those heroes and those titans of industry who can keep going and going like the energizer bunny, that is not the truth for the majority of humans.

I, however, am in that majority. That means that, not only did I just finish this book today, I didn’t even start it until yesterday, and that was due to being busy every day this week. Very little of my busy-ness was related to work or other noble pursuits, and I’m definitely going to pay for it this week. In other good news, however, I’ve begun the process of collaborating with an artist on a new project. Am I excited? Very yes.

Week 17: A Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Now, I know I’ve said several times that I’m working on a book of Russian history, but it’s a hard thing to slog through (this isn’t to suggest that I’m slogging because it’s badly written; far from it. Rather, I’m slogging because all the corpses are getting in the way. It’s not a happy book). I needed something to pick up and quickly chew through so I could fulfill my reading quota (I shudder when I see that word, but even a “soft” quota like “a book a week” is still a quota) for the week, and there was no way a history of Russian death was going to cut it.

One of the advantages of working in the kid’s section is that I get to read fiction written for children and A) claim it’s part of my job, B) enjoy it immensely, and C) take it seriously because it is part of my job. It also helps that they write with 1.5 spaces between words (the orthographist in me shuddered) and lines, write quickly and clearly, and are often trying just to entertain. On Saturday, as I chewed through a painfully long day, I noticed this book sitting on the Kids Reading, 9-12 table. At first I was incensed because that is my 9-12 table and I didn’t put it there, but then the fabulous art by Todd Harris (which is also sprinkled throughout the book) caught my eye and I was enchanted.

Prince Duncan! Check out more of his work at http://hog-heaven.blogspot.ca/

This book tells a story about what happened to the various Princes Charming (named, because after all “charming” is just an adjective, Gustav, Frederick, Duncan, and Liam) after the resolution of their respective fables. Gustav and Rapunzel have trouble getting along, Snow White and Duncan don’t understand how to live together, Frederick and Ella (do not call her “Cinderella”) are two completely different people forced to marry, and, best of all, Liam is a noble hero of the people while Briar Rose is a righteous bitch. Oh, and there’s a witch that wants to take over the different kingdoms, a 10 year-old King of Thieves, a pack of dwarves who are very particular about pluralization, and a giant who’s more interested in sculpting than gianting. And did I mention it’s hilarious and actually got me to chuckle out loud once or twice?

Because it deserves it, I’ll say it here and get it out of the way: this book should be read. If you have young kids, get this book for them. If you have older kids, get this book for them. If you are young at heart, read this book. If you like good stories, read this book. In short: go out and read this book.

Hero’s Guide is a textbook example of how to do everything right. First, it’s just long enough. It’s 436 pages, which is pretty hefty for a kid’s book, but this gives it enough space to develop characters, create a simple but engaging world, drop enough description to keep things pretty, and all without feeling too long. It never seems to drag, but at the same time, it’s not a seat-of-the-pants adventure. There are pauses in the action that allow characters to react and develop. Second, the characters are real and distinct characters. There are no throwaway characters; everyone gets not only their chance to shine, but their chance to be a unique character. I had trouble with some of the names because I was reading it so fast, but I never mistook one character for another.

This is far more important than it sounds. Many books, especially kid’s books, don’t take this lesson to heart and don’t always make their characters as unique as possible. While the author might have various reasons for doing so (and this book had tonnes of comedy which allowed the author more leeway; the depressed bounty hunter wouldn’t have worked in a more serious piece), it’s usually best to err on the side of uniqueness. That’s one reason why I’m caricaturing Phorcys and Zizka because I need them to be different from one another. Does it work all the time? Maybe…but in Hero’s it did. Oh, and he has strong, capable female characters and strong, capable male characters. This is the best thing about pomo feminism done right: everyone can be a hero (or “the” hero). Although it centres on the male characters, entire sections are devoted to the females in a really good balancing act I don’t often see. This would be good for a male and female audience.

Third, and this is crucial, the author and the illustrator took it very seriously and put a lot of work into it. This is important and I’ve talked about this before: the more you believe in your work, the more the reader will too. There’s a map at the front of the book, and although it’s beautifully drawn, it also shows that they thought about this world beyond the bare minimum. They take the setting and the story seriously, so there’s no mistake or in-universe inconsistencies. The writing not only avoids plotholes (I only found a tiny one that doesn’t change anything and is really nitpickety on my part), it’s also, and more importantly, aware of itself at all times.

Take this one throwaway scene. I call it throwaway, because it’s a small detail that sets the scene but doesn’t propel the story. In it, a giant is picking his teeth with a wheelbarrow (which allows him to pick two at once!). That is a useless detail…except that earlier in the story the author mentioned that giants have poor oral hygiene because they can’t find implements large enough to clean their mouths with. While I’m sure that a lot of readers won’t notice that, those who do (like, say, people who are twice the age of the recommended age bracket for the book?) will appreciate the connectedness of the details, and gain a better appreciation for the work done.

I know I’m gushing and reviewing more than I should be, but I don’t mind in this case. I was completely blown away by what I read and recommend this to everyone and anyone. Something this good deserves gushin…praise. I said praise.

And do you want to know the kicker? The thing that took this book from “really good” to “permanent place on my shelf” good? One of the few things that annoyed me throughout was how the book (usually 3rd person omniscient) would sometimes directly talk to the reader or use “I” when mentioning something. It didn’t happen often, but enough that I was going to point it out as one of the few strikes against it…until, in the last five pages, there is an amazing, appropriate, and in-setting explanation for why it happened at all. Five stars, sir. No, make that all the stars. All. Of. Them.

This is what I love about kid’s books: when you find those gems that teach you so much, even though you’re not the person they’re meant for. Because I don’t believe kid’s books are meant only for kids, even if it’s only the very best that remind you why.

John just might be well-rested for once, but he’s taking a nap just in case.




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