Melonhead. By Katy Kelly. Illustrated by Gillian Johnson. Delacorte Press. $12.99.
The Princess and the Unicorn. By Carol Hughes. Random House. $16.99.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth. By Carrie Ryan. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The gulf between preteens and teenagers is nowhere wider than in book publishing, where many works for ages 8-12 retain a level of frivolity and lighthearted amusement throughout, while those aimed at teens tend to be altogether more serious and even frightening. Melonhead and The Princess and the Unicorn are quite clearly preteen books, the former likely to be of more interest to boys and the latter to girls. Melonhead is the first book of a planned series by Katy Kelly, whose popular character Lucy Rose has appeared in four novels and who in this book is responsible for giving round-headed Adam Melon his nickname. Melonhead is a 10-year-old inventor, snake fancier and occasional homework champ whose mom at one point cooks “cheeseburgers with double pickles and BBQ sauce for dinner…I knew it was a big celebration because she usually likes to cook things that don’t stain.” This book is not big on plot – Melonhead finds things, invents things, the inventions misfire, and there are lots of references to the Washington, D.C., area, where he and author Kelly live. Melonhead and his friend Sam think up such things as vegetarian snake food and a Sweep the Nation invention to clean everything it touches. This is one of those good-hearted, old-fashioned books in which the problems are minor and easily solved, the adults supportive if sometimes clueless, and the kids free to indulge in sweets and taking shortcuts across rooftops – a pleasant exercise in escapism.
The Princess and the Unicorn escapes to a different place in a different way. Carol Hughes weaves a tale of royal life, unicorns, fairies, and a forest that sickens and will die after Princess Eleanor naïvely leads away its unicorn to live with her at Buckingham Palace. The young fairy Joyce sees the princess and her governess, Miss Merrieweather, take the unicorn, and so she must journey away from her comfort zone and discover the wider world outside the forest – just as Eleanor, in her own way, needs to probe the edges of her insulated and comfortable royal world. The style here is straightforward in modern-fairy-tale manner: “Now all the riders adjusted their cravats and gloves, slipped their booted feet into the stirrups, and, with a clicking of tongues and kicking of heels, began to steer their steeds through the main gate.” The mixture of helicopters with fairies, of real-estate brochures and newspaper gossip with palaces and misty moors, is an amusing one, although the story is thin and the happy outcome obvious from the start: when you know that a princess feels neglected by her royal parents, there are bound to be teary hugs by the book’s end.
The world of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a far more frightening one. Carrie Ryan’s debut novel is set in a land devastated by a deadly virus that leaves the living dead roaming at will and the rigid and uncompromising Sisterhood ruling unquestioned in a small village that represents one tiny bastion of apparent normality. It is in that village that Mary lives, amid the Guardians who are supposed to protect everyone; Sister Tabitha, strong-willed and inflexible leader of the Sisterhood; Travis, with whom Mary is in love but whom she is told she may not have; and rules, rules, rules. “Theirs is the word of God, not to be questioned,” says Mary of the Sisterhood. “They are the ones who teach us not to second-guess their proclamations, not to second-guess our survival…” It is obvious from the outset that this hidebound ruling class is hiding secrets, obvious that the walls protecting the village from the infected Unconsecrated will not – cannot – hold forever, obvious that Mary will be forced to choose between the safe (if constricted) life she has known and a far more dangerous life filled with unknown opportunities as well as hazards. There is nothing particularly new in the sorts of risks Mary must take, nor in the kinds of revelations through which she learns the truth about her village and those who supposedly take care of its residents. Mary’s deep desire to see the ocean becomes an important theme, and leads to a confrontation with Travis and an important bit of insight for Mary: “I had once hoped that, as it did for my mother, love would keep all other dreams at bay. The realization that it will not washes over me…” And when Mary finally makes it to the ocean, after much sacrifice on her part and even more from others, the arrival is at best bittersweet, as is the ending of the novel. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a dark book about a dark world, in many ways not a very original story, but a suitably gritty and chilling one for teens ages 14 and up who seek temporary escape to a world even grimmer than their own.