Review of The Weird in the Wilds

The Weird in the Wilds [Tales of Triumph and Disaster!]
by Deb Caletti; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Putnam    272 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-9848-1308-4    $13.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-1309-1    $8.99

In our introduction to Henry Early in A Flicker of Courage (rev. 1/20), the big reveal was that this reluctant hero, a gothically neglected child, is a “spell-breaker.” In this second fantasy-adventure offering, Henry and his fellow spell-breakers tackle the dilemma of a boy who has been turned into a beast by archvillain ruler Vlad Luxor, an egomaniac with magic powers prone to impetuous attacks on his own subjects. (Lest you miss it, the satire is driven home with a parallel plot in which Luxor is determined to build a wall around his kingdom.) The narrative in which Henry and the gang go on a quest to free Jason, the beast-boy, is action-driven to say the least, with heaping handfuls of exclamation points and italics to help sustain the energy. What saves this from overkill are three original elements. First, the writing laughs at itself, winking at the reader with comparisons that would be strong contenders in a bad simile contest. Second, the illustrations are darkly and weirdly hilarious. Finally, there’s an undercurrent of moral subtlety: Jason is a whiny, homophobic bully, and the spell-breakers heartily dislike him, but they still fulfill their duty to rescue him. Without much editorial comment, Caletti presents Henry as an embodiment of the decency and justice that can override personal antipathy and disapproval.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sarah Ellis
Sarah Ellis is a Vancouver-based writer and critic, recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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