September 08, 2016


Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath. By Alexis E. Fajardo. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

Enzo’s Very Scary Halloween. By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.

Monster Trucks. By Anika Denise. Illustrated by Nate Wragg. Harper. $17.99.

Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch. By Diana Murray. Illustrated by Heather Ross. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud Spooky Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $4.99.

     Monsters have always been with us, certainly from the first epic ever written, Gilgamesh, and down through the ages to the first-known epic poem in English, Beowulf. Never mind that the poem’s language, Old English, is more distant from Shakespeare’s than Shakespeare’s is from our own – Beowulf is a grand Germanic-English tale of heroism, of battles fought and won, and above all of the conquest of monsters descended all the way from the biblical Cain: Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Beowulf is so resonant that it has not only been translated innumerable times but has also been rewritten, adapted, modernized, updated, interpreted and reinterpreted to such a degree that it would seem hard to find anything new to do with it. Alexis E. Fajardo has, however, figured something out: a story very loosely based on the epic poem, reinterpreting the whole central theme of Beowulf in significant ways, aimed at 21st-century preteens and young teenagers, and packaged as a series of graphic novels. The whole notion could easily have been both silly and depressing, but Fajardo handles it so well that it is merely silly – and in some respects not silly at all. Fajardo makes Beowulf and Grendel into brothers, and yes, that is the silly part, but Fajardo twists the legend enough to make this foundational premise barely plausible and, more importantly, to turn this series into a journey both of geography and of self-knowledge. The first book, The Blood-Bound Oath, sets the stage neatly, introducing many characters named in the original and some that deliberately echo more-modern heroic tales (including a pair loosely modeled on French comic-book stars Asterix and Obelix). Fajardo takes young readers through several generations of war and depredation here, and a good deal of introduction of monsters of various sorts that are not always particularly monstrous – including Beowulf ‘s and Grendel’s mother and a one-eyed dragon. A couple of ghosts appear at appropriate places, too. The typical question of “who is the real monster?” is not really an issue here: all the characters are shown to be functioning within the rules of their time and their world, although some do so more adeptly than others. Fajardo goes out of his way to include up-to-date dialogue for the sake of modern readers: “stop, drop and roll” for fire extinguishing is the heart of one scene, and in another, 12-year-old Beowulf calls the Heathobard tribes the “Heathotards.” In addition to the main story, Kid Beowulf has some attractive extras, including unusually detailed how-to-draw instructions, a well-done family tree of the characters, an unusually well-chosen bibliography, and a once-over-lightly discussion of the original epic poem. There is also a happy choice of colorists in the book: Jose Mari Flores does the main story, and does it in suitable tones that complement the narrative well – but the prologue, which lays out the basis of the original Beowulf, is colored by Brian Kolm using an entirely different palette, a striking one that brings those few pages to life with exceptional skill. The Kid Beowulf series will, it seems, be mostly free of easy slapstick humor (assuming that a companion pig, introduced late in The Blood-Bound Oath, does not take on too large a role in future books); and as a completely new take on a very old story, Fajardo’s sequence may even interest young readers in going back to the original sometime, although not likely to the language in which it was written.

     Most monster stories for kids are played primarily for humor nowadays, and many of them appear, understandably, at or near Halloween. Some, though, have an undercurrent of seriousness, as does Enzo’s Very Scary Halloween. The adorable puppy, who narrates Garth Stein’s latest book as he narrated earlier ones in this series, does not really understand Halloween despite the explanations of Zoë and her father, Denny. Enzo’s impulse is to protect his people, and they certainly seem to him to need protection against the sneering pumpkins, fluttering ghosts and giant spiders that appear in the neighborhood as Halloween draws near. R.W. Alley does an excellent job of showing Enzo’s confusion as he tries to help in his usual, sometimes-misguided way, even though he does not really understand how to help, or even what sort of help is needed. For instance, Enzo is too scared to watch Denny carve a pumpkin, but when the carving is done, he thinks the pumpkin “has been transformed into a demon” by the magic wand that Zoë is carrying – Enzo says, “I fear that Zoë’s magic has accidentally released an evil pumpkin spirit inside our house.” The costuming of Zoë and her father also makes Enzo concerned, and when Zoë gets out Enzo’s costume, he tries to get away – but soon finds himself transformed into a dragon. Readers will agree that he is absolutely adorable, but Enzo himself is far from sure: “I want to think it’s fun. I really do. But I don’t feel the fun.” During trick-or-treating, Enzo becomes especially frightened when dressed-up kids hear him bark and teasingly say he is a fire-breathing dragon: “I am frightened by my own fearsome power!” Alley here shows Enzo fully changed to a dragon, of course only in his imagination; and soon Enzo is leading the costumed kids – also shown as if they really are witches, skeletons and the like – on a chase as he tries to get away from the monsters. Zoë catches up to Enzo and assures him he is not a real dragon, and all ends well as Enzo takes the lead of “the parade of pretend monsters” as they go from house to house trick-or-treating. But Stein is sensitive enough to Enzo’s well-developed personality – and to the fears of any kids ages 4-8 who may not fully understand Halloween – to have Enzo come out with a little gulp of uncertainty at the end of the book, when he is told that Halloween will come again next year.

     Halloween tales are usually more straightforward than Enzo’s Very Scary Halloween. For example, Anika Denise’s Monster Trucks is about monster trucks that really are, well, monsters. Nate Wragg’s illustrations are the big attraction here: if you ever wondered what a werewolf truck or vampire truck would look like, this is the place to find out. Denise pits the trucks against each other in a full-moon Halloween race – which takes an unexpected turn when the five huge, scary rigs are joined on the track by “a little blue bus, looking perky – and cute.” Something is clearly wrong here: the big-eyed bus (modeled on the old, boxy Volkswagen bus) certainly does not fit in with the much larger trucks that “sneer” and “snicker” and “leer” while looming over her: “She’s a MEAL ON WHEELS to this FRIGHTENING bunch.” But wait! Although she initially looks alarmed, the little blue bus soon proclaims that she is not scared, and off she goes around the track: “Hope you monsters are hungry – you’ll be EATING MY DUST!” And soon she leads the monster trucks “over rugged terrain” as her speed proves more than a match for theirs – and eventually, guess who wins the big race? Yes, the little blue bus – but how did she win it? Ah, that would be telling: Denise and Wragg prefer to show kids, at the very end of the book, that this innocent-looking little blue bus is not quite what she seems to be.

     Grimelda the witch, on the other hand, is exactly what she seems to be, which is messy. Very. She is a child witch, not a grown-up one, and she likes living in a grimy, moldy, slimy, smelly house: “Messed is best,/ I always say./ That’s the proper/ witch’s way.” The problem for Grimelda in Diana Murray’s book is that sometimes when things are messy, she cannot find the specific thing she is looking for. In this case, Grimelda needs some pickle root to make a pickle pie – but she just can’t locate it anywhere. Heather Ross seems to have had a great time showing the extent of Grimelda’s messiness: everything is sloppy, overstuffed and topsy-turvy, from Grimelda’s wearing of a single boot to the grass (or something) growing in her sink to the green slime oozing out of a pot and onto the floor and some books haphazardly tossed there. Of course, being a witch, Grimelda knows how to find the pickle root: use a finding spell. But for that she needs her spell book, and – hmm, where did that get to? Grimelda searches and searches, without success, although she does turn up last summer’s bathing suit and her missing stinkweed potpourri. Giving up, Grimelda decides simply to buy pickle root; but unfortunately, Zelda’s General Store is all out, and the pickle shoot she is offered instead just isn’t the same. So Grimelda is stuck: she has no choice but to clean her house. And she does, arranging her jars neatly and hanging up her clothes and matching all her socks (“it took all night and half a day”). Grimelda finds all sorts of things she has been missing, including her other boot, and eventually, yes, she does find the pickle root. And as a bonus, she locates her spell book, which has been stuck in her super-messy, never-combed hair!  “Her house was sparkling, neat, and clean./ The strangest sight she’d ever seen!” So all ends happily – or, well, no, at least not yet. Thank goodness for the rediscovery of the spell book, because now Grimelda can use it to weave a super-strong spell that completely messes up her house once more. Just the way she likes it! And now, at last, she can make that pickle pie – if she can only find the pickle root again….

     Picture-book amusements are on a different level from those of one-liners and knock-knock jokes, but all’s fair at Halloween, and kids who prefer slightly spooky writing without pictures (well, without many pictures – there are a few drawings of spider webs, costumed kids and such) will enjoy Rob Elliott’s Laugh-Out-Loud Spooky Jokes for Kids. There are the usual monsters here, handled in less than monstrously amusing fashion: “Where do monsters go sailing? On Lake Eerie.” “What happened when the vampires had a race? They were neck and neck the whole time.” “What kind of ghost always comes back to you? A boo-merang.” A few entries here are the slightest bit off-color: “What happens when an ogre eats beans? It’s gas-tly.” Some are not spooky at all: “Did you find the missing apples from the orchard? No – my search was fruitless.” And some are not Halloween-focused: “Mother: We’re having your aunt and uncle for Thanksgiving. Daughter: I was hoping we were having turkey and stuffing.” As a whole, this is a (+++) book, whose primary advantage is that it is small enough to carry in a back pocket or a trick-or-treat bag or pumpkin, to be read to Halloween companions while everyone waits to head out for the evening’s entertainment. It may not be particularly scary, but at least it’s a mildly amusing boo-k.

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