October 2005

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Yo Ho Ho

When I was growing up in Florida we went to Disney World pretty much every summer. This was back in the day when the entrance fee was next to nothing and we had to buy tickets for all the rides (if you are of a certain age the term “E Ticket Ride” will mean a lot). My brother loved Space Mountain but it scared the crap out of me. My favorite ride as a kid, hands down, was Pirates of the Caribbean. I loved waiting in line down the long dark tunnel and the waterfall and all the crazy animatronic robots. We used to sit back and trail our hands in the water as the soundtrack blasted “Yo ho, yo ho a Pirate’s Life for Me!” It was all, quite frankly, pure bliss and a lot less terrifying than the Haunted House (my favorite a few years later). I got even more pirate crazy when Mel Fisher found the Atocha in 1985, which even though it was sunk by a storm still was all about masses of treasure and thus close enough to the pirate mythos for me.

Gideon Defoe’s book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is perfect for anyone who loves a crazy buccaneer story. It has all the clichés of the genre (walking the plank, the hunt for treasure and a need to fire cannons) as well as a boatload of new insane additions. Defoe’s pirates love ham! They like to argue over anything and everything but mostly over nothing and none of them have names but all have identifying characteristics. There is the Pirate Captain, the albino pirate, the pirate with a scarf, the male model pirate, the pirate in green and on and on. This makes perfect sense to me as the only pirates I remember from Peter Pan are Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, the rest are just a complicated bunch of swarthy men in scarves with cutlasses. Defoe’s method makes it all a lot clearer while also being hysterical. In fact this whole book and its wild plot involving Charles Darwin, a chimp who communicates with flashcards and a serial killer who sucks the life out of his victims is all about hilarity. I don’t know whether to be impressed or appalled that Defoe managed to include P.T. Barnum’s circus, the London Royal Society Gentlemen’s Club and the Bishop of Oxford in his story but mostly I spent too much time laughing while I read the book to care. Yes, it’s a book set in Victorian London that includes mention of things like Post-it Notes and Starbucks but who cares. This is the kind of book from the kind of imagination that you read for sheer joy and nothing else. It is action and adventure and first rate humor. And with all due respect to Johnny Depp, it has everything I always loved about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Continuing with my theme of all things water, Chronicle Books put out a new title late last year from Eric Chase Anderson, Chuck Dugan is AWOL. Fans of the publisher will know to expect something both literary and artistic from Anderson’s book and it succeeds on both counts. Chuck is, sadly, not a pirate, but he is a sailor at the United States Naval Academy, or at least he was until his widowed mother became suddenly engaged to a psychopathic retired admiral. Chuck goes AWOL to save his mom and also to uncover the mystery of the sunken USS Minuteman.

The book is illustrated by Anderson throughout. There are maps, diagrams and drawings providing explanations and clues to every aspect of the plot. The maps in particular are critical to the storyline and are so well done and add such an element of fun to the book that I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them. Beyond that, the story is first rate and buzzes along at a very fast clip. From page one it is clear that action and adventure are the measure of the day and Anderson does not give Chuck or his readers a break. There are chases, captures, escapes, discoveries both underwater and above and a showdown involving a submarine, a deserted island and pirates. The admiral really is as bad as Chuck thought and his designs on the Dugan fortune and good name are truly villainous. He must be stopped! Fortunately Chuck is a cross between James Bond and Encyclopedia Brown and determined to save the day. He also has some friends and family along on the ride to assist him on his quest.

Anderson has three sequels planned for Chuck Dugan, including one that will delve into the mysterious past adventures of Chuck’s father. (Look for Anderson’s next book, Caesar Agosto! Five Time World Champion in the Spring of 2006. Subtitled as “A Novel for Young Racers," it will be followed by a return to Chuck Dugan after its publication.) Gideon Defoe is also hot on the sequel machine, the second book in the Pirates series, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab is out this month. As the title suggest this time the pirates are all about finding the mythical white whale although they detour first with Cutlass Liz in Nantucket (who looks a “like the actress Julie Christie from around the time of Billy Liar or maybe Darling”) and then head out to Vegas in search of fame and fortune. And yes, they get there by sailing across half of Texas and Nevada. It has pirates, cowboys, an excerpt from a bodice ripper, more ham and some angst via Herman Melville -- you didn’t want a geography lesson too, did you?

John Thomson has also written a book where a lot of the story takes place on the water but A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea is a more personal, and intense sort of adventure. Twelve-year-old Donovan Sanger is sent to spend his summer vacation with his aunt and uncle on Puget Sound because his aunt is very ill and the family is concerned. The problem is that Donovan’s Uncle Bix and his father have rarely spoken in decades largely due to Bix’s past criminal activities that landed him in prison. Donovan is caught up in a game of family commitments and confusion and quickly finds himself out in the Sound, with an uncle he barely knows, diving on a wrecked pleasure craft so they can tow it in and refurbish the motor. He thinks he knows what his summer will be all about but he doesn’t plan on having to follow his uncle in the dark, or hide in a cemetery or face down an older bully with a Crescent wrench and a lot of guts. The summer turns out in fact to be full of a lot of surprises, the biggest of which is discovering just who his Uncle Bix really is. That’s when Donovan realizes what it takes to be a man, a good man, and must make some decisions about the kind of man that he thinks he wants to one day be.

Small Boat is a significant book, a powerful book in all those ways that most good books are labeled and then forgotten. It’s a book that will make a reader pause and consider their own life and for young adults who are just starting to make their own way in the world, it is an excellent opportunity to place themselves vicariously in a situation that will prompt all the right sort of questions among its readers. Donovan is a real kid, and what he decides he must do for himself and for his uncle is the sort of significant decision making that most kids never have the chance to discover. I’m pushing this book on everyone I know because I love it that much and I know that everyone else will love it too.

So, here’s the thing. A lot of kids get dumped into a reading wasteland by adults who say “All Suzie likes is mysteries” or “All Mary likes is romance.” “We can’t get Bobby to read anything unless it’s about baseball,” or “Tommy only likes to read books that go with his computer games.” Big sigh and helpless look from the adult when they are talking about this and then, “We just can’t get them to try anything else.” I have a problem with this sort of conversation. A lot of kids do get into a reading rut, just like a lot of adults. Sometimes you do just want sci fi or chick lit; I read all the Travis McGee mysteries one summer and loved every second of it. But the difference is I knew that there were other things out there for me, I just chose to stay in my rut for a little while. If kids are only given a certain genre, or even worse a certain series, then they will not realize what they are missing. I read all three of these books and thoroughly enjoyed each of them. One was funny and smart, one thrilling and smart and one dramatic and smart. There is no reason why anyone else, 12 or 20, (or even 36) wouldn’t enjoy all three of these books as well. Push yourself out of your rut and take a chance on these. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by some of the great books you’ve been missing.

Finally, it is October and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a charming new picture book from Chronicle, Thirteen O’Clock,. Written and illustrated by James Stimson, it is a nicely creepy and funny adventure involving a little girl in a fairly normal house with one odd thing: “This old house had an old clock whose numbers counted not twelve but a spooky number thirteen!”

Stimson worked on the film James and the Giant Peach which is what initially attracted me to his book. I loved the artistic style in that movie and was interested to see what Stimson could do with the page. His art is fantastic; visually this is one of the most impressive picture books I’ve seen in ages. The black and white pictures (with tones of sepia and olive green) are dead on for the haunted house atmosphere Stimson was shooting for. The pacing is oddly rhythmic -- it takes a couple of reads to see what Stimson is doing word-wise, but the story is just the right balance between scary and charming. This is not a book that will keep the kids up all night in terror; it is far more likely to make them laugh. It’s an original take on an old fashioned genre and belongs perfectly in the little kid section of October County. Read this, read Bradbury, go trick or treating. It’s what the month is for people; don’t disappoint yourself.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe
ISBN 0375423214
133 pages

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab by Gideon Defoe
ISBN 0375423850
147 pages

Chuck Dugan is AWOL by Eric Chase Anderson
Chronicle Books
ISBN 0811839206
223 pages

A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea by John Thomson
Milkweed Editions
ISBN 1571316574
148 pages

Thirteen O’Clock by James Stimson
Chronicle Books
ISBN 0811848396
29 pages