June 15, 2017
(++++) FRIGHTS OF FANTASY
Nnewts, Book Three: The Battle for Amphibopolis. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
The Too-Scary Story. By Bethany Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
The conclusion of Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts trilogy is so packed with slam-bang, hyper-colored action and activity that the silly parts will go almost unnoticed by anyone who has enjoyed the first two volumes, Escape from the Lizzarks and The Rise of Herk. The power of the third book is as much due to the excellent color provided by Katherine Garner as it is to TenNapel’s story, which here takes a series of largely unsurprising turns and which readers will quickly realize is going on a familiar arc that involves great heroism, great sacrifice, and great but not unalloyed triumph at the end. It is impossible to understand this third volume without knowing the first two, since it picks up exactly where the second entry left off and makes no attempt to look back. Herk, as small as ever but increasingly potent as a magical being, tries to remain true to the good-guy amphibians even though he is slowly gaining scales that will turn him into a bad-guy Lizzark; it turns out the Lizzarks were created for the express purpose of spoiling the idyllic world of Nnewts, who were created by the constellation Orion – this is one of the silly elements of the story that readers should simply accept. Orion is essentially the same constellation visible in Earth’s night sky, but in TenNapel’s world he is knocked out of the cosmos by the bad guys as they grow in power – and then, at a crucial point, is rescued by Herk and other “fry” (kids, that is) and helped back to power by the White Stag, a star creature he has hunted for a billion years. In gratitude for the help, Orion at the very end of the book is again hunting the White Stag – well, maybe that isn’t gratitude after all, but another of the silly elements. Then there is Anthigar, the very first of all Nnewts: a twist of the story, although not a particularly surprising one, shows that the Lizzarks exist because of the jealousy of the second Nnewt, Denthigar, to whom Orion gave a smaller crown than he gave Anthigar. That seems a pretty trivial slight, but not an especially silly one – the silliness comes in when Anthigar, fighting on behalf of Herk, suddenly starts talking in wholly atypical dialogue, his usual portentous pronouncements transformed into, “You’ll stay as long as I please and I’m all outta please!” The really important thing in The Battle for Amphibopolis, though, is not the silly elements: what matters here is that the heroic quest, complete with a typically heroic decision to make a typically heroic self-sacrifice, is so well illustrated and so dramatically and colorfully presented that the trilogy’s conclusion is tremendously involving and ultimately satisfying despite its narrative hiccups. Herk and his brothers still need their mother’s permission before they can save the Nnewts’ world, and thank goodness she gives it to them. It turns out that the primary weapon against the rampaging Lizzarks and the monsters they have created is neither more nor less than beauty, which in its various forms stuns the Lizzarks (especially their rulers) and eventually gives the Nnewts the upper hand. Any young readers who know something about real-world amphibians and lizards, and who therefore may be wondering why the imaginary Nnewts spend all their time on land in Amphibopolis, will be especially satisfied when, at the end of the story, the Nnewts discover that they really belong in a watery environment after all. And the Lizzarks? They conveniently cease to exist, turning out to be Nnewts whose scales resulted from an evil spell that is broken thanks to the heroics of Herk; his siblings, Sissy and Zerk; and the other Nnewts. There are plenty of intense and scary scenes in The Battle for Amphibopolis, and if the eventual victory of the good guys is never really in doubt, there are enough cliff-hangers scattered through the book so fans of TenNapel’s dramatically paced story will be carried along with it to its satisfying conclusion.
There is nothing anywhere near as frightening in Bethany Deeney Murguia’s The Too-Scary Story, but that makes sense: TenNapel is writing for preteens and young teenagers, Murguia for significantly younger children. The issue in Murguia’s book is just how scary Papa should make a bedtime story for Grace, who insists that it be scary, and Walter, who insists that it not be scary. Now that’s a dilemma! Papa starts telling about the “two brave explorers and their dog walking home through the forest,” and Murguia immediately shows Grace pulling a resistant Walter into the imaginary woods. “Too scary!” exclaims Walter, so Papa throws in twinkly fireflies to relieve the darkness. That is not scary enough for Grace, who wants bears in the story. So Papa talks about creatures in the bushes, and Murguia shows eyes of all sorts peeking out at the children in the woods – but again Walter says that is too scary. So Papa says the creatures “were just settling into bed for the night.” Now Grace is dissatisfied, so Papa conjures up some footsteps and a shadow – then has the kids in the story run home and discover that the shadow is only Papa himself. The result: enough scariness to satisfy Grace and enough reassurance to make Walter, the younger child, happy as well. In fact, both kids are seen smiling from their beds at the end of the book – Papa has managed to give them both what they wanted. Now, what will he do the next night? Murguia does not get into that, but the whole scenario suggests that Papa is clever and caring enough to manage another scary-but-not-too-scary story if that is what Grace and Walter want. Parents may find this book to be an enjoyable read-aloud, since the mildly scary pages lend themselves to a deeper, darker voice than the ones focused on fireflies and sleepy woodland creatures. And the illustrations – which feature kids, dog, Papa, and a tiny owl that observes the proceedings and ends up cuddled against the dog in the kids’ room – will be fun both for kids who are like Grace and for ones who are more like Walter.