Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bruce Coville

Goblins in the Castle
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

This story, by the author of Aliens Ate My Homework and I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, started its life in an elementary school classroom, where the author’s half-mad, hunchbacked brother Igor made an appearance every Halloween. The classroom tradition evolved into a storybook which finally got published, so the rest of the world can fall in love with Igor and gasp with amazement, horror, and laughter at the antics of the goblins.

The narrator is an orphan named William who was raised in Toad-in-a-Cage castle, where the Baron found him in a basket on the drawbridge one snowy night. As William grows up, he never leaves the castle or meets anyone except the Baron and a couple of servants. So he has little to do except read in the library, explore secret passageways and hidden rooms, and wonder about the moans and noises that he hears at night.

As Halloween approaches, the moans grow louder and more insistent. Even the discovery of a certain Igor, who lives in the deepest dungeons under the castle and bops goblins on the head with his toy bear, does not explain why the North Tower is never to be opened, or what is causing those noises. Finally, on Halloween night – the “most dangerous night” – a power beyond William’s control forces him to open that forbidden tower...and to unleash an angry power that has been bottled up for over a century, waiting for its revenge.

Soon afterward, William leaves the castle for the first time in his life, seeking the advice of the only one who can tell him what to do – the old witch named Granny Pinchbottom whose very name strikes fear into children all around the neighborhood. Then, aided by some magical objects, a girl of the forest, and a tiny but incorrigible goblin named Herky, William plunges into the strange and dangerous world of the goblins. He needs to save his friend Igor, who has been taken by the goblins; and he also needs to stop the enraged goblins’ plans to bring war to the human world.

Will he know the right thing to do when the time comes to do it? That’s what you’ll want to know when you read this funny, exciting tale, charmingly illustrated by the author’s wife, Katherine Coville.

The Monster’s Ring
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

Here is a funny, scary, magical story told by an author who had a deep insight into the feelings and problems of middle-school-aged children – perhaps because he is a school teacher, a parent, and a child at heart himself. It’s also the beginning of a series of four books about children very much like yourself, who enter a world of fantasy and excitement when they stumble into the Magic Supply Shop owned by Mr. Elives (say that name aloud!).

In The Monster’s Ring, the child is Russel Crannaker, who has been pushed around by the schoolyard bully one too many times. A basically good boy, Russell is beginning to develop an anger problem. Perhaps as an exercise in anger management, Mr. Elives sells him a ring that can turn Russell into a horrible, horned monster. Just in time for Halloween, too! But what begins as a harmless little joke, with perhaps a touch of “getting even,” gets out of control.

This book is both the first and the last in the series of “Magic Shop Books” by Bruce Coville. It is the first because it was originally published in 1982, but it is also the last because the author revised and expanded the story in 2002 after he had written the other three books. As it now reads, the story sets up a delightful pattern that is repeated, with charming variations, in Jennifer Murdley’s Toad; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; and The Skull of Truth. Between them, these books have won the state Children’s Book Award in no fewer than nine states, plus an IRA Children’s Choice and a School Library Journal “Best Book of the Year.” So, if you or your child would like to make a magical discovery, be sure to visit the Magic Shop.

Jennifer Murdley’s Toad
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

We should all be so lucky as to have a teacher or a father like Bruce Coville – if for no other reason than to hear the stories he tells, and to meet the characters he creates (some of them actually came to visit his classroom from time to time). But perhaps the best reason to wish for a Bruce Coville in your life is that he seems to understand the awkward problems children live with.

Jennifer Murdley’s problem is that she’s, well, ugly. Plump, beady-eyed, unpretty, she is well described as “the kid in the plain brown wrapper.” It isn’t easy to be plain in an age that reveres beauty to an unnatural degree. What does it take for Jennifer to begin her journey from being a beauty victim to learning to be happy with the beauty inside? In many other authors’ hands, it would take a magic spell turning her into a walking, talking Barbie doll. In Coville’s hands, it does involve magic, but of quite a different kind: a visit to Mr. Elives’ Magic Shop, a talking toad, a series of adventures involving kisses that turn people into toads, and a wicked witch become the ingredients in a magic spell that brings Jennifer’s special kind of beauty out for all to see. No, she doesn’t end up becoming fabulous in the end; but she won’t be so lonely or picked-on, either.

This book is somewhere in the middle of the series of “Magic Shop Books” by Bruce Coville. The other books in the series are The Monster’s Ring; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; and The Skull of Truth. Between them, these books have won the state Children’s Book Award in no fewer than nine states, plus an IRA Children’s Choice and a School Library Journal “Best Book of the Year.” So if you or your child would like to make a magical discovery, be sure to visit the Magic Shop.

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

The four "Magic Shop Books" by Bruce Coville are united by certain patterns, almost rituals, such as the hero child’s discovery of the mysterious shop where Mr. Elives sells powerful magic objects for pocket change. Another thread that runs through the books is that each child finds just the kind of magic that will help him deal with his own special problem – a problem that many of us faced at that age.

In Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, Jennifer’s problem is that she isn’t pretty. In The Monster’s Ring, Russell has a problem with anger. And in The Skull of Truth, Charlie is always getting in trouble for telling lies. So at first, Jeremy Thatcher may seem to break from the pattern. What’s his problem? What common ailment ails him? The worst of his problems, at first, is that he doesn’t want to be kissed by a very nice girl who has a crush on him. He is small for his age but not badly bullied. He is a talented artist and he has a great family. And, after a while, he doesn’t mind being chased by Mary Lou Hutton so much. So why does Jeremy Thatcher need magical help?

Well, perhaps it has something to do with the hateful art teacher who makes Jeremy’s best subject a nightmare. Perhaps it has to do with the feelings of sadness and loneliness that weigh on Jeremy. Could the scary-wonderful job of helping a baby dragon grow up be a way for Jeremy to deal with childhood depression? It hardly seems so, since the sadness and loneliness is really a result of his adventure. Perhaps in Jeremy’s case, he was needed to help the magic happen – to hatch the baby dragon, to keep it safe, to give it love (and lots of food), and finally, to let it go.

Each of the "Magic Shop Books" has its charms, but this is the one that I personally found most touching. The “letting go” bit is very hard, you know. It is a sorrow we all have to live with, a wound that never seems to heal. And though Coville’s answer to this common childhood problem (and that goes for children of all ages!) is not an “easy fix.” But it does show that having someone you love in your heart, in your memory, and in your imagination can make the loss more bearable.

The Skull of Truth
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

In the other three "Magic Shop Books," the adventure begins when a child, running from some bullies (or at least, from a girl who wants to kiss him) finds himself on a strange street, in front of a strange shop owned by Mr. Elives. And then the child spends a handful of pocket change to buy a magical item that can help him or her deal with his own special problem. Charlie Eggleston’s adventure begins a bit differently. Charlie has a problem with the truth, and perhaps it is the streak of dishonesty in him that leads him to shoplift a skull from Mr. Elives’ shop.

By and by, Charlie finds out that Mr. Elives knows he has the skull, knows where he lives, and could make him pay for it if he wants to...but doesn’t. Mr. Elives is actually quite relieved to get rid of the talking skull, which belongs to a medieval Danish court-jester named Yorick. As Yorick chatters straight into Charlie’s brain, something remarkable happens. Wise-acre he may be, but Yorick can only tell the truth. That’s how he ended up as a skull. And now everyone in Charlie’s house has to tell the truth, while Yorick is under the same roof. You would think a dose of truth would be helpful – and sometimes, it is – but it can also be disastrous!

Amid the humor and horror of family members and dinner guests uttering uncomfortable truths they did not mean to say aloud, this story also teaches some lessons about accepting other people as they are, not worrying about what other people think of you, and protecting the environment. It might be a bit preachier than it needs to be, and the vague sense of menace that Coville carefully builds may seem to simply evaporate without the expected, climactic resolution. Nevertheless, it is a funny, lighthearted adventure with a touch of suspense, a dash of fairy-tale, and a pinch of Shakespeare.

Juliet Dove, Queen of Love
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

I was mistaken when I said that the Magic Shop Books were complete in four books. As recently as 2003, this fifth book came out, once more featuring Mr. Elives and his Magic Supplies shop, as well as Ms. Priest and their “immortal vermin” friends, Jerome and Roxanne, the talking rats.

This time, the child who stumbles upon the Magic Shop is a painfully shy sixth-grader called Juliet Dove, whose defense mechanism of striking out with devastating sarcasm has earned her a reputation as a stuck-up jerk and the nickname “Killer.” While trying to avoid a confrontation with a girl whose feelings she recently hurt, Juliet blunders into Mr. Elives’ shop and meets...not Mr. Elives but...

Well, whoever the lady is behind the counter, she seems desperately eager to give Juliet a certain amulet and to shove her out the side door of the shop. As soon as Juliet puts the amulet around her neck, she finds out that she is in serious trouble. Now she can’t take the amulet off until she brings an ancient story to its conclusion, confronts her worst fear, solves a strange riddle, and dares to defy one of the ancient gods (albeit with the help of several others).

Even the fact that Athena, Hera, and Cupid are running around doesn’t seem strange compared to two talking (and later flying) rats and the crowd of lovesick boys who suddenly start following Juliet everywhere she goes. Throw in a little sister’s imaginary friend who suddenly takes on an eerie sort of old painting that comes to life...and a dangerous plot to destroy Juliet’s family, if not the whole world...and you have a recipe for one of Bruce Coville’s most exciting and magical school-kids’ adventures.

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