Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

Though Down the Mysterly River is written primarily for middle-graders, the fact that it is scribed by Bill Willingham proved irresistible.  You may know Willingham as the creator and author of the Vertigo series entitled Fables.  He won me over long ago, and I don’t mind admitting that I’ll give anything he writes a chance.

Down the Mysterly River proved an enjoyable read, even for an old man such as me.  It is the story of Max the Wolf, a twelve-year-old Boy Scout who awakens upon an otherworldly planet much like his own except for the fact that this one has talking animals.  He soon befriends three such animals – a warrior badger named Banderbrock; a hellcat conqueror called McTavish; and a sheriff bear that answers to Walden.  Their adventure beings almost immediately as they are pursued by the Blue Cutters, a self-righteous group of huntsmen who will use their magic swords to cut all of the “bad” out of their quarry.

The quest for safety begins, and as any story such as this should, the group is told to seek out a wizard that shall protect them.  However, the tale takes a decidedly interesting turn, one that I’ve seen before, but that made it no less enticing.  And quite frankly, for most middle-school students, the big reveal will likely be the first time they’ve experienced such a thing and I can only guess at the explosion it will cause within their young imaginations.

Down the Mystery River is not without some issues.  My biggest objection is with the main character, Max the Wolf.  Though the boy be only twelve, he is written to employ the dialogue of a forty-year-old.  Now, Willingham cleverly addresses this issue, but the explanation did not settle well with me even though it did not contract the plot.  I also found the story a little too tethered to the “quest” formula.  Granted, the book was not written for me, it was written for those half my age, and I have no qualms stating that I’m certain the “quest” will be right up most young people’s alley.

I’d now like to talk about what Willingham got right.  As usual, his sentences are a delight.  And while his characters speak sometimes too similarly, he gave Max, Walden, Banderbrock, and McTavish each a distinctive personality that wins the audience over.  It goes without saying that the devilish McTavish steals the show.  Willingham had me laughing outright at some of the barn cat king’s antics.  Furthermore, near the end of the book, Willingham introduces a plot device that will probably change students’ outlook on literature and its possibilities.  I will forever be grateful to Willingham for taking students to such an imaginative and thought-provoking place.

Down the Mysterly River followed the typical conventions of a “quest” book for the most part, but the climax, as well as truly original, fun, charismatic characters far outshined that adherence to tradition.  This book will spark the imaginations of young men and women everywhere, and I daresay many adults—not just the Willingham fans, either—will have no desire to put it down before completion.

Horse Crazy: The Silver Horse Switch by Alison Lester – A Book Review

Intended for young readers, Horse Crazy is the story of Bonnie and Sam, two young girls living in the bush of Australia.  Though they don’t have their own steeds, they do everything they can to ride their fellow townspeople’s horses.  One night, a wild horse jumps the fence and switches places with Sam’s father’s horse that would much prefer to live in the wilderness.  Sam’s father is the sheriff, and this replacement horse must adapt quickly to the police horse lifestyle, especially when a child’s life is at stake.

The Silver Horse Switch is slow to start—very slow.  In fact, I have great difficulty believing a child would want to stick with this story that spends the first twenty pages simply describing each horse in the community.  It isn’t until midway through the book that anything resembling an actual story commences.  Once the story is fully rolling, however, the book becomes quite engaging.

The artwork by Roland Harvey is relatively simple but not without charm.  By and large, Harvey illustrates the scenes accurately and I particularly enjoyed his backgrounds.

I also found the glossary of Australian terminology a clever touch and helpful to the story’s clarity.

So while The Silver Horse Switch is overall a pleasant experience, it takes far too long for the actual story to emerge.

Nasreen’s Secret School by Jeanette Winter – A Book Review

Though not particularly full of machismo, I am not prone to cry, but this book made the old eyes water just a bit.

Based on a true story during Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, Nasreen is a little girl whose parents are taken by Taliban troops.  She retreats within herself, no longer smiling or talking.  Desperate, her grandmother takes her to a secret school—a place forbidden for young girls by the Taliban.  There Nasreen is given a glimpse of the outside world, a place where artistry, intelligence, and learning is valued.

Aimed at children, I picked this book up for my own daughter.  I wanted her to have a worldly view.  However, I think I learned just as much from Nasreen’s Secret School as she will.  It reaffirmed my faith in the power of education and the importance of allowing children all over the world to learn.  It reminded me that through academics, a child can realize self-worth and overcome isolation.  It made me proud to be an educator myself.

The art is magnificent as well.  And though delivered in a simple fashion, it only serves to bolster the emotional impact of an already powerful narrative.  They are stunning not just for their colors and style, but for the passion they convey.

I completely recommend Nasreen’s Secret School not just for children, but also for adults who may have forgotten the significance of a child’s education.

Peter and the Wolf by Chris Raschka – A Book Review

This children’s book is based upon the original work of Sergei Prokofiev.  In it, Raschka creates three-dimensional images placed upon a miniature stage to illustrate the events of the story.  If you are unfamiliar with Prokofiev’s original version, I don’t see you enjoying this book.

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan – A Book Review

Comprised of fifteen short stories, this beautifully illustrated, ninety-six page book is aimed at an audience of twelve and older.

Young people will love the magical realism of Tan’s charming stories, as well as the diverse and mesmerizing artwork.

Older teenagers and adults will appreciate the above aspects also, but they will also treasure the absolute expertise of Tan’s craft, noticing how no detail is left unattended.  For instance, the book’s table of contents is made to look like used stamps and the dedication a processed envelope.  His acknowledgements at the end of the book appear as a used library card.  The entire book showcases such excellent execution of Tan’s imagination, it boggles the mind that someone can employ so many different techniques within the same collection and still create a successfully unified, consistent work.

But Tan is more than simply a skilled artist.  His amusing stories are, at first-glance, seemingly irrelevant and only concerned with engaging young people’s interest, but I think some astute readers will pick up on certain social commentary in the subtext if they look hard enough.  My delight rose to a whole new level when reading it in this light.

Tales From Outer Suburbia is a fulfilling read with charming stories and splendid illustrations that will enchant children and adults alike.