Saturday, January 12, 2008

N. E. Bode

N. E. Bode (the kidfic penname of novelist Julianna Baggott) has also written a story called The Slippery Map, a children's novel based on the film Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and a third book in the series below, titled The Somebodies. When opportunity arises, I will read and review these books too. Till then, here are my reviews of the first two "Anybodies" books. The end of the first review dates it somewhat, since as the second review indicates, both books are out in paperback.

The Anybodies
by N. E. Bode
Recommended Age: 10+

For a quick-reference guide to some of the best children’s fantasy books, there’s no better place to go than a children’s fantasy book about children’s fantasy books. A recent, famous example is the Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke. Another example is this book, whose elusive author owes a lot to adult fiction writer Julianna Baggott.

I have to admit, when I was first told to read The Anybodies by N. E. Bode, I was sure someone was pulling my leg. But there really is such a book! It begins with the story of a girl named Fern Drudger who has special powers, such as opening a book about crickets and letting thousands of crickets escape. This and many other weird happenings put a strain on Fern’s family, for – due to being switched at birth with another child – poor Fern has been raised by the dullest couple on earth.

Then one rainy night, a man who calls himself “the Bone” appears on the Drudgers’ doorstep and explains the whole mix-up. He has been raising the Drudgers’ true son, Howard, a boy whose passion for order and mathematical precision ensures that he will never be happy as the son of a circus hypnotist. So, before Fern quite knows what is going on, the children have been “swapped” for the summer, just to try things out with their “real families”.

Fern soon learns that the Bone is a gentle, sensitive man who avoids touchy-feely subjects, and who still mourns for Fern’s mother (who died in childbirth). The Bone also explains that he and Fern’s mother were Anybodies. Anybodies are people who can be anybody, by changing their shape and personality to perfectly impersonate another person – or even an object like a tree or a lamppost. Anybodies can also hypnotize people and even objects like books.

The Bone is worried, though. He hasn’t had his full powers as an Anybody since Fern’s mother died. He believes the key to what is missing can be found in a book called The Art of Being Anybody – which could be anywhere! Fern believes it is in the book-crammed house of her very eccentric grandmother. To find it, and decode it, means not only changing their identities to infiltrate the old lady’s house, but also racing against the Bone’s former best-friend-turned-worst-enemy, named the Miser.

What follows then has too many weird and wonderful facets to be summarized here. It includes a bit of shaking things out of books (bigger things than crickets); and some hypnosis and shape-changing; and a quest to thaw hearts frozen by grief and bitterness; and encounters with characters and scenes from new and old classics of children’s literature, from Alice in Wonderland all the way to Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I think The Anybodies is a delightful story, with a charming heroine and a touching conclusion. It establishes an interesting new fantasy world and populates it with adorable characters. I only have one complaint: the book could do without the bits where N. E. Bode confides directly to the reader, interrupting the narrative in rambling “asides” that have little to do with the story. Some of these asides had a bit of charm and humor in them, but mostly they just made me impatient. My guess is that N. E. Bode was trying to horn in on the Lemony Snicket mystique, but not as successfully. When you read this aloud to your kids (or your parents), you can easily remedy this problem by skipping over the parenthetical remarks. I would, and the rest of the book is simply too good to let such a little thing spoil it.

One more thing: there’s a sequel out, titled The Nobodies. It’s currently available in hardcover. You’ll know it’s out in paperback when I review it here.

The Nobodies
by N.E. Bode
Recommended Age: 10+

In this sequel to The Anybodies, Fern is eager to go to Camp Happy Sunshine Good Times, where she will be surrounded by other “anybody” children; that is, children who can hypnotize people and objects, shake things out of books, and shape-change. She wants to learn more about how to use her powers, and make friends with other kids like her. She also wants to spend time with her almost-sort-of-as-it-were brother George, who was switched with her at birth and has since been switched back; though George isn’t all that interested in being an anybody.

Fern’s first sight of Camp Happy Sunshine Good Times isn’t very encouraging, though. Brought there by a blind bus driver, she finds a run-down camp that seems light-years away from living up to its name. The camp director, who used to be a teepee-dwelling guru, now lives in an air-conditioned house with his domineering mother. The counselors are mean, mostly stuck partway through animal transformations, and addicted to a fizzy drink that makes them susceptible to mind control. Campers are warned about a dangerous hermit who lives in the woods, though someone even more dangerous is at work in the camp itself — a giant, talking mole who wants to destroy Fern and claim the unique book, The Art of Being Anybody, that only Fern can read. Meanwhile, Fern keeps getting messages (in empty fizzy-drink bottles) from mysterious people calling themselves Nobodies, who claim to need her help.

As you can probably already tell, this is a very odd story, filled with endearingly eccentric characters and weird magical transformations. Fern discovers new things about her own powers, goes up against another evil plan, suffers more vile injustices, and builds heart-warming friendships. The ending is rather weird, though, and the “author” (really a character in him- or herself) is even more given to extended, Lemony-Snicketesque “asides” than in the previous book, asides that occasionally deliver a chuckle, but mostly just slow down the story.

I enjoyed the book overall, but there is room for improvement. I will be interested in seeing whether the third book in the series, titled The Somebodies, goes into that room.

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