No, not those beasts—you know where to find them already! There are all sorts of bizarre creatures in books, both real and imaginary. Today’s stack includes a whole bunch of fascinating creatures—from cryptic wordplay to cryptids, from deep oceans to deep space. The books are arranged roughly in recommended age order—picture books, then comic books and middle grade books!
This alphabet book has a lot of silly creatures with names that are puns or portmanteaus: from the partially invisible elephantom to the wealthy ostrich. There’s not a story attached other than an introductory poem and a concluding poem, just a lot of fun wordplay. Some are very obvious and easy for kids to understand; others may require a little more explanation, depending on your kid (like the macawbre, for instance).
“How do you budge an unbudgeable curmudgeon?” That’s the question this book asks, as a young girl tries to retrieve her backpack from a fuzzy orange grump. As she cajoles and threatens, though, she starts getting a bit grumpy herself … and then the roles are reversed, as the curmudgeon turns out to be her little brother, who has to find his own ways to budge the newly arrived curmudgeon. Its a cute book about getting out your grumps and finding ways to cheer somebody up.
Here be dragons! Gondra is a little dragon who’s a bit like her mom and a bit like her dad. Mom is a Western dragon: fire-breathing, winged, and accustomed to a hoard of treasure. Dad is an Eastern dragon: mist-breathing, with a single pearl that he uses to control the weather. Gondra has inherited some of the qualities of both of them. The story is a little bit about biracial kids, but it’s also about the different portrayals of dragons from different cultures—the way that very different mythologies included giant reptilian creatures, perhaps inspired by dinosaur bones, and how different those dragons turned out.
This picture book is a companion to LAIKA’s new animated film, Missing Link, and it serves as a prologue to the story about a Sasquatch who winds up in London with the infamous adventurer Sir Lionel Frost. This book explains how Sasquatch learned to read and write and speak, and closes with the moment when Sir Lionel meets him in the forest, having received his handwritten note. I haven’t gotten a chance to see the film yet, but this is a cute introduction.
And while we’re on the subject of Missing Link, this coffee table book releases tomorrow, but I still have my review copy in shrink wrap so as not to spoil anything before I see the movie! So, I’ll share more about it later on, but wanted to give it a mention because I love poring over art books about films, and I always enjoy seeing how LAIKA’s stop-motion animations are made.
Not all fantastic creatures are from fantasy! So many creatures from the ocean seem alien and strange to us land-dwellers, from glowing fish to giant tentacled squids. This board book shows a little submarine exploring various regions of the ocean, and it’s beautiful. The text is fairly simple and mostly lists a lot of the creatures to look for, but the oversized format really shows off the artwork. The illustration style has a slick, graphic quality to it, and the submarine has a metallic finish so it really shines.
Animalsaurus: Incredible Creatures from Prehistoric and Modern Times by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Harriet Russell
For more real-but-fantastic creatures, this book pairs up prehistoric creatures with modern-day creatures that may have some similarities, either in appearance or habits. Each two-page spread focuses on one such pairing, with a map showing where (and when) the prehistoric creature lived, and how big it was compared to an average adult human. They’re grouped into four categories: herbivores, sea creatures, predators, and creepy-crawlies, and the book is a lot of fun to explore.
In the Star Wars universe, there are aliens—intelligent life forms—and creatures—usually unintelligent beasts. This book pairs up aliens and creatures and asks who will win: the Ewok or the Wampa? The Tusken Raider or the Tauntaun? Each pairing gets a two-page spread: first, one that gives details about each being, with a brief description and then a stats box. The next page sets up a battle, with a story about how the two may have encountered each other. (The book leaves the outcome of each battle up to the reader.) And then there are the sounds: on the battle illustration, each alien and creature has a small sound icon pictured—pressing them activates the sound board (on the back of the book) so you can hear the sounds that the aliens and creatures make. There are only five pairings, but it’s a funny—if noisy—thought experiment.
If you want a lot more of those creatures and aliens from Star Wars, this art book gives you 150 pages of them, taken from the various films and TV series. The introduction explains that these sketches were found in a journal believed to belong to the “famed Ithorian artist Gammit Chond,” and the book includes descriptions of various beings accompanied by snippets of text from the journal. I am curious how the archives include details about what happened, for instance, at the Battle of Scarif (since everyone died), but I guess somehow the information survived. The book even includes sketches and names for the various creatures in Dejarik, the 3D battle chess that C3PO plays against Chewie.
I’ve read the first two books in the Gamayun Tales series: The King of Birds and The Water Spirit. Inspired by Russian folklore, these stories are narrated by Gamayun, a magical bird with a human face. The first volume is about a war between the birds and the beasts, begun when a mouse wouldn’t share a golden apple with a sparrow. The war is brutal, and the king of birds ends up in the care of a human merchant who spares his life. The king of birds rewards the human, taking him to visit his sisters (and giving him some cryptic instructions). In the second book, the merchant returns home with his prize but—because of course he doesn’t follow all of the instructions he was given—he ends up owing a great debt to the water spirit.
The stories do have a sense of the familiar: strange instructions that must be followed, things that come in threes, creatures that transform into people. But they’re also very new to me—I haven’t heard these stories before, and I’m unfamiliar with the particular creatures and spirits that populate these pages. The illustrations are wonderful and fit the stories well, and I’m excited to see what comes next!
This middle-grade series (four books so far, with a Survival Guide coming in May and a fifth book coming in September) is about a band of middle school kids who survive a monster apocalypse that turns most of the people in town into zombies, and brings a host of other monsters from another dimension. That might not be great for most kids, but Jack Sullivan seems to be thriving in this new environment: he’s bounced around in foster homes and has never really had a family to call his own, so he doesn’t mind living in his tricked-out treehouse and hunting monsters. Eventually (spoiler alert, though you can guess from the cover of the first book) Jack finds his best friend, the school bully (who turns out to be a pretty great asset), and the girl of his dreams (who is also quite a bit tougher than Jack expected), and the four of them team up to battle monsters and try to figure out what’s going on.
There’s a lot of humor in the book—in particular, Jack has turned this dystopia into his own personal game, keeping track of achievements and awarding himself experience points. But he’s also kind of selfish, and a chauvinist, and tends to take the “I need to do this alone!” attitude a lot. Fortunately, I feel like in most cases he’s learning when he’s wrong, but he also still gets to be the hero of the book, sometimes even when he’s making bad choices.
The books are a more light-hearted look at end-of-the-world fiction, and I did enjoy reading them even when I found Jack a bit problematic. The series is actually getting turned into an animated series (coming to Netflix in September), so I’ll probably check that out when the time comes.
This is the sequel to A Problematic Paradox, and I would describe it as Eureka, but with aliens (well, “parahumans” here) and hints of Lovecraft, for middle grade readers. Nikola Kross’s dad has been captured by the Old Ones for unknown reasons, and so she’s taken refuge at the Plaskington International Laboratory School of Scientific Research and Technical Advancement, which is basically its own town (protected from the outside world by a bizarre defense system) full of genius kids (mostly parahuman, but some human).
In this book, Nikola has gotten a secret communication from her dad that doesn’t give her a whole lot of details about where he is, but she’s determined to figure it out and rescue him. But she has to watch out for the Old Ones, who are still after her, not to mention that the school’s defenses are just as good at keeping her in as they are at keeping the bad guys out.
I have to admit: I first read A Problematic Paradox thinking it would be mostly about time travel. But while there is a time travel element to it (and to this second book), it’s not really the primary focus of the books. Instead, it’s more of a wacky adventure with all sorts of imaginative technology and colorful characters. It’s also an intriguing spin on the Lovecraft mythos without, you know, Lovecraft himself and all his issues. I’m also looking forward to seeing where this series goes next.
I’ve enjoyed a couple of young adult books by Andrew Smith—Grasshopper Jungle and The Alex Crow—but this is his first book for middle grade readers, and I was curious to see how it would turn out. Sam Abernathy was trapped in a well for three days when he was four years old, and ever since then he’s been the Little Boy in the Well, even though he’s now in eighth grade (a year ahead). His parents have his whole life planned out for him: a life that keeps him safe and sends him to MIT, even though what Sam really wants to do is cook.
So where’s the fantastic beast in this story? That would be Bartleby, a talking armadillo that Sam met when he was in the well. Bartleby claimed to be a unicorn, though he made all sorts of claims that didn’t always turn out to be the truth. They didn’t turn out to be all lies, either. The story cuts back and forth between Sam’s present-day life and the three days he spent at the bottom of the well with Bartleby. What’s fascinating is that you never quite know if all the stuff with Bartleby actually happened or not, though there are hints that it couldn’t have been entirely made up, either.
The book is about a lot of things, but primarily about figuring out who you are, something that can be particularly challenging when you grow up in a small town and everyone has already defined you from age 4. Sam discovers this is true even for James Jenkins, the boy who pushed him into the well in the first place, who Sam is sure is going to kill him before eighth grade is over. It’s about the expectations that your parents put on you and figuring out what to believe. And it’s about the misery of middle school.
I really enjoyed this one. Sam is a great narrator, some curious verbal tics and a fascinating way of explaining things, and his dad is a really strange character who nevertheless figures some important things out by the end of the book, too.
Nathan Hale is known for his series of history-based comics, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, but he also has a couple of pure fiction where he can really let loose and tell even more outlandish stories. Apocalypse Taco is about a late-night taco run gone horrible awry. Axl and Ivan are helping their mom prep the high school theater for the upcoming play—the crew needs to get the set finished in time for the morning’s dress rehearsal. But when the pizza runs out, the middle-school twins hitch a ride with a high school student, Sid, to pick up some more food. And that’s when things get really weird.
Pretty soon, the three kids find themselves in a mirror version of their world: everything is weird and gooey, with lots of tentacles and teeth. I don’t really want to say much more than that because part of the fun of reading the book is trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but I loved the explanation that you eventually get. In the meantime, there’s a lot of creepy creatures running around (including goopy dopplegangers and a person made of arms).
Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D by David Kushner, illustrated by Koren Shadmi
I happened to come across this at the bookstore—it’s a slim, small comic book, and I was intrigued, so I bought a copy. The book tells the story of how Dungeons & Dragons was created, starting from Gary Gygax’s interest in war games and the first Gen Con gaming convention to the billion dollar industry and pop culture cornerstone that it eventually became. The story is told as if a game master is telling you your story: “You are Ernest Gary Gygax.” “You are Dave Arneson.”
We learn about the origins of D&D and TSR, Gygax’s company that originally published it. We read about James Dallas Egbert III, a college student who went missing, and the way that it thrust D&D into the public consciousness, along with a lot of mistaken assumptions. We learn about the way that D&D influenced video games. It’s a brief book, but it manages to cover a lot of different pieces of the puzzle, and I recommend it for anyone who has an interest in D&D and where it came from.
My Current Stack
This week I picked up a couple other comics from the bookstore, speaking of fantastic beasts. I finished the second volume of Monstress and then bought the third volume. It would be a great topic for today’s column, too, but it’s getting late and I need to go to bed! I also read the latest Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (with my 5-year-old reading over my shoulder).
In less-beastly fiction, I got a copy of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid after hearing part of a talk by him on the radio. The story is set in a war-torn country, where two young people fall in love and struggle with the realities of the conflict and societal expectations. But it’s also about mysterious doors that open up around the world, allowing passage from far-flung places. It creates new and different refugee crises, as people use these doors to escape their current lives, or militants use them to infiltrate cities, and so on. In the talk, Hamid drew a parallel between the doors in his novel and our smartphones, which are capable of transporting us across the world. I’m about halfway through now, and it’s really captivating.
So, what are your favorite beasts, and where did you find them?
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column, except where otherwise noted.