February 11, 2021


Unicorn Island. By Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     There are pluses and minuses to the standardization of storytelling for specific age groups. On the one hand, preteen readers can know almost exactly what to expect of a story within the first few pages, since they will recognize elements they have seen many times before. If they have liked similar material in the past, they will probably like the new book they have just picked up. On the other hand, there is a sameness and often a blandness to plot lines that foundationally vary very little from book to book, taking young readers through the same gyrations again and again without opening up new horizons. Realistically, though, that is more of an adult concern than one for the intended readers of books such as Unicorn Island, which is yet another of the traditional-book versions of stories from a digital library for kids called Epic! (Yes, with exclamation point.)

     Unicorn Island has many of the tropes of preteen fantasy. Protagonist Samantha Wells wants nothing more than to stay put in Brooklyn, where she and her musician mom have lived for a year; so of course readers will know that won’t happen. It’s just Sam and her mom living together, since her father “had abandoned them when [Sam] was born” – another very familiar element of stories like this one. Sure enough, Sam’s mother gets a great opportunity to perform for two months in Europe (she plays the flute in orchestras), and “they don’t have accommodations for children,” so Sam will have to spend the upcoming summer at the home of her Uncle Mitch, whom she does not know at all. Again, this kind of story arc is extremely familiar, so much so that it takes only a dozen pages to set it all up – because, of course, this background is not the point of Unicorn Island.

     The point becomes quite clear soon after Sam is hustled off to Foggy Harbor, South Carolina, which “looked like the loneliest place ever” after the big city. It turns out that Uncle Mitch never agreed to have Sam stay with him, but somehow his message to Sam’s mother, “I’m glad you’re okay,” was interpreted as it being okay for Sam to stay with her uncle for the summer; and while this makes not a lick of sense, it scarcely matters, since the point is to have Sam feeling like the proverbial fish out of water, isolated and alone and with no friends and just generally in a miserable situation (but not a seriously threatening one: this is not that kind of book).

     Of course, cellphone communication is intermittent-to-absent in this isolated area, so there is no way for Uncle Mitch to reach Sam’s mom and somehow have Sam leave; so both have to make the best of things, even though, as her uncle soon ominously says to Sam, “there are darker dangers here than you can ever imagine.”

     And there you have it: the mystery underlying the plot of Unicorn Island and the first hint of how Sam will be key to handling those “darker dangers” through her relationship with, of course, unicorns. Sam soon makes a friend named Tucker Thompson – his mother is the town veterinarian – and together Sam and Tuck explore Uncle Mitch’s house, finding, in the basement, a magical clock that proves Uncle Mitch is a “fog keeper,” which is a mysterious and important role.

     Then, unsurprisingly in a book like this one, Uncle Mitch mysteriously disappears, and a mysterious and previously invisible island shows up out of what had seemed to be a perpetual fog bank, and on the magical island are magical beasts – unicorns and wyverns – and it turns out that Uncle Mitch plays a crucial role in preserving and helping them. And, by the way, they can communicate telepathically with Sam. The rest of the plot is just as predictable: there is a baby unicorn, it is sick, Sam and Tuck save it with help from Tuck’s mom, and Sam realizes that what she wants out of life is to become a fog keeper and protect the magical creatures forever. But there remains darkness out there, great darkness, and it is – well, it is to be explored in the next book in this series, because of course this is only the first entry in a sequence that is sure to continue going in unsurprising directions but, for that very reason, will be highly enjoyable for young readers who will be able to anticipate pretty much everything that will happen but not how everything will happen. Straightforwardly written and unassumingly illustrated, Unicorn Island is nothing special: its purpose is simply to entertain young fantasy lovers for a while with an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow story, and it fulfills that purpose just as well as do the many other fantasy books with essentially the same reason for being.

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