Friday, June 25, 2010

Five Hiccups

Not too long ago, I saw the animated film How to Train Your Dragon. I thought then, and I still think, that it was a very good movie. Perhaps it's just as well that I hadn't read the book it was supposedly based on. I tend to be lucky that way. If I had known then what I know now, I might have been unfairly prejudiced against a fine piece of motion-picture entertainment. Only now do I realize how very, very little the original book and its sequels have in common with the movie.

Officially, the "How to Train Your Dragon" series was authored by a Viking hero named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who lived some 1,500 years ago on an island called Berk. His memoirs have only recently been translated from the Old Norse by an Englishwoman named Cressida Cowell, whose husband Simon is apparently unrelated to the TV personality of the same name. Illustrated with whimsical crudeness suggesting the diary of a wimpy kid in the Dark Ages, the books offer a blend of rambunctious humor, adventure, diabolical wit, and a light touch of sentimentality that will win over many kids entering the "independent reader" stage. I plan to give these books to a kid who was a big fan of the "Measle Stubbs" series. I think the two series have similar appeal.

This series of books runs well beyond the five books reviewed below. Further titles include A Hero's Guide to Deadly Dragons, How to Ride a Dragon's Storm, How to Break a Dragon's Heart, A Hero's Guide to Sword Fighting (all by Hiccup), and How to Train Your Viking (by Hiccup's dragon friend Toothless). Plus, it all seems to have begun with a picture book for smaller children titled Hiccup, the Viking Who Was Seasick (alternate title: The Seasick Viking).

How to Train Your Dragon
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 1 of "How to Train Your Dragon" introduces us to a weedy, freckled, red-haired, hopelessly ordinary looking boy who is expected to become a mighty Viking Hero, chief of the tribe of Hairy Hooligans, who dwell on the isle of Berk in the Sullen Sea sometime in the Dark Ages. At least, it introduces Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III to those of us who haven't already met him in the children's picture book The Seasick Viking or in the popular movie that takes its name, but not much else, from this book.

No one expects Hiccup to become much of a hero. His instructor in Pirate Training Lessons is constantly telling him that he's never seen a lad with less chances of greatness. His boyhood rival, Snotface Snotlout, calls him Hiccup the Useless. He gets no respect for the fact that his best friend is a squinting, limping, allergy-afflicted fraidy-cat named Fishlegs, or that he talks to dragons in their own language. Every Viking knows dragons are supposed to be yelled at and terrorized into obedience!

Now the young Hooligans face a rite of passage. Each boy must prove he has the burglary skills to steal a fierce young dragon out of its nest, and the force of will to train his dragon to do tricks and hunt for him. Hiccup and Fishlegs have little chance of succeeding in this challenge, but if they fail they will be banished from the tribe. By some miracle both boys come away from their dragon nursery caper with all their limbs still attached and a dragon each. But when Hiccup's catch turns out to be an unbelievably tiny, toothless, and totally disobedient dragon of the "common or garden" variety, his hopes sink even lower.

This is the hilarious and heartwarming story of how the unlikeliest hero uses cleverness, kindness, and a surprising amount of courage to overcome disadvantages of size, strength, loudness, and sportiness. Banished as a disgrace to his tribe one day, Hiccup saves it the next from a monstrous, mountain-sized, man-eating crisis...
"I have come," said Hiccup, "to find out whether you come in PEACE or WAR."

"Oh, peace, I think," said the Dragon. "I am going to kill you though," he added.
...Hiccup shows unexpected leadership qualities and tactical genius. He discovers the love and pride secretly cherished by his gruff, manly, often-disappointed father Stoick the Vast. He makes imaginative use of his mum's underthings. He proves himself useful, even if his dragon remains Toothless. And he proves that it's the size of the heart that really matters.

How to Be a Pirate
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 2 of "How to Train Your Dragon" continues the boyhood memoirs of the great Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and Toothless, his disobedient little dragon. After having saved his village from an undersea mountain with fangs and an appetite for human flesh, Hiccup has returned to his normal spot at the bottom of the class in Gobber the Belch's Pirate Training program. His lesson on sword fighting at sea, for example, is about to end with Hiccup impaled on the sword of his bullying, swaggering, Snotface rival when their ship collides with a floating coffin.

According to the inscription on its lid, the coffin belongs to Hiccup's great-great-grandfather, a notorious pirate named Grimbeard the Ghastly. The grown-ups of Hiccup's tribe decide to open the coffin in spite of its warning of dire curses on anyone who does so. Instead of a treasure, however, they find a man inside the coffin. Not a dead man, either, but a hook-handed, smooth-talking stranger who calls himself Alvin the Poor-but-Honest Farmer. Actually Alvin is the murderous chief of the Outcasts, the most feared and evil tribe of Viking pirates, and his plan is to rob the Hairy Hooligans (that's Hiccup's tribe) of their ancestral treasure, then sell them into slavery.

The only person standing in Alvin's way is a skinny, freckle-faced, ordinary-looking boy with no apparent heroic qualities, a boy named Hiccup. No one listens when Hiccup warns of freakish danger and treachery. Somehow it is up to him to ensure the survival of his father Stoick and the entire daft tribe. And though certain bigger and stronger boys fancy themselves a more likely heir to the tribal chieftancy (cough-Snotface Snotlout-cough), Hiccup's resourcefulness and courage prove him to be the heir of Grimbeard the Ghastly, the equal of Alvin the Pirate, and able to survive a deadly horror that slumbers at the bottom of the sea...

How to Speak Dragonese
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 3 of "How to Train Your Dragon" tells how the unlikeliest boy ever to grow up to be a Viking hero fared in his first encounter with the Roman Empire. It begins when Hiccup and his wimpy friend Fishlegs accidentally board a Roman galleon during a Pirate Training exercise. They escape with their lives, but without Hiccup's dear, disobedient dragon Toothless and half of his notes on being a dragon-whisperer.

No one, including Hiccup's father and tribal chief Stoick the Vast, will listen when he tells them about the Romans' fiendishly clever plan to turn the Viking tribes against each other so that they can finally conquer the Barbarian Archipelago. So it is up to Hiccup, Fishlegs, Toothless, and a wild warrior-girl named Camicazi to foil the Romans' plan. Not that they have any choice, once the three children are kidnapped as phase one of the Romans' plan. Simply escaping the Roman garrison at Fort Sinister, eluding the malice of a strangely familiar Thin Prefect and the greed of a Fat Consul, and surviving a gladiatorial contest against creatures that combine the worst parts of sharks, alligators, and dragons, will be challenge enough.

Their only advantages are Hiccup's fading hope that Stoick will send a rescue party, and a life debt owed by an arrogant, beetle-sized nanodragon. Plus, of course, the uncommon courage and cleverness of a skinny, ordinary-looking boy with the heart of a hero. Will it be enough to hold back the vengeance of a seemingly unkillable enemy? Well, if Hiccup can get an ungrateful, selfish little brute like Toothless to hug him and say "Thank you," there's no telling what he can't do...

How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

In Book 4 of "How to Train Your Dragon," Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III defies the orders of Stoick the Vast, who is both his father and tribal chieftain of the Hairy Hooligans, and sets out on a quest to save his best friend Fishlegs from a dragon's deadly venom. All he needs is to burgle the Vegetable-That-No-One-Dares-Name from the chief of the Hysterics, a tribe of fanatically dangerous Vikings whose island is guarded by a colossal sea-dragon, and bring it back for Fishlegs to eat by 10 o'clock the next morning.

Even with the Sullen Sea frozen solid in the midst of the coldest winter in a hundred years, this is going to be tough to pull off. For one thing, the Vegetable-That-No-One-Dares-Name is probably a myth. Nobody really believes in potatoes, or in the faraway land of America from which they supposedly come. After all, the world is flat, right? If you sail too far west, you'll fall off the edge, right? And besides all that, Norbert the Nutjob, the chief of the Hysterics, has a personal grudge against Hiccup over, oh, nothing big, just an ARROW IN THE BUTTOCK. It's about to become an even bigger grudge when Hiccup, Toothless, a swashbuckling Bog-Burglar girl named Camicazi, and a one-eyed, saber-toothed, sleigh-driving dragon crash the Hysterics' banquet on a mission to steal their most cherished vegetable. And they don't have time to negotiate nicely, because the sea ice is breaking up and the terrible Doomfang seems eager to poke his scaly head into the business.

This is yet another highly entertaining installment in a series where laughs and thrills follow each other in rapid order. The passionate urgency of Hiccup's quest, the swiftly closing window of time for him to complete it, and the ever more dangerous odds against his success or even survival, make it perhaps the most exciting Hiccup adventure yet. It's an adventure decorated with mildly ribald touches (perfect for tickling a pre-teen's funny bone), a touch of daffy divination (take note, Harry Potter fans), some reptiles with charming personalities (and some that are just plain creepy), and a well-deserved spanking (it was the Dark Ages). It's quickly read, quirkily illustrated, and quaintly touching as it teaches its gentle lesson on the value of friends, good deeds, and the courage of small people.

How to Twist a Dragon's Tale
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 5 of "How to Train Your Dragon" sends undersized Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III on his most perilous quest yet when all life in the Barbarian Archipelago is at risk. A volcano is about to erupt, hatching the eggs of a rogue breed of dragon that kills and destroys senselessly. Old Wrinkly, Hiccup's soothsayer grandfather, has taken a vow of silence and gone to live at the bottom of a well until everything sorts itself out. It turns out that, in his younger days, the elder Viking set a train of events in motion that could cost the Hairy Hooligans dearly, and all their neighboring tribes too.

Twined up in Hiccup's present quest is a tragic tale of heroic heartbreak. A legendary hero has returned, having been captured and enslaved for fifteen years and presumed dead by all who knew and loved him. Humungous Hotshot is good at almost everything, but somehow after he gets hired as Hiccup's Bardiguard (that's bodyguard to a clan chief's son), the lad's life is in more danger than ever. Lurking in the background is a villain Hiccup can't seem to shake off his trail, a slumbering volcano about to awake, more than one stone of unguessed-at significance, and a wistful irony that binds two enemies together for life.

This is the installment of Hiccup's memoirs where we see Old Norse democracy in action--and by "action" I mean something suspiciously similar to American football. We see the unlikeliest of heroes pull off some all-but-unbelievable acts of survival, including one stunt so jaw-droppingly cool that it positively hurts not to spoil it for you. It's a rip-snortingly fun adventure for pre-teen readers, serving up a heady mixture of swashbuckling action, irreverent humor, heartwarming romance, and whimsical illustrations, in the midst of which you accept without question this strange world in which dragons and Viking pirates live in harmony. The only drawback is that you'll finish it so quickly that you won't be able to wait for Book 6!

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