9.02.2011

The Wikkeling written by Steven Arntson, illustrated by Daniela J Terrazzini, 234 pp, RL 4

The Wikkeling, by Steve Arntson, a Seattle based writer and musician, is an eye-catching book. With a square shape instead of the traditional rectangular, no dust jacket and beautiful, thick, cream colored pages, I was drawn to it right away. Upon opening it, I was thrilled to discover even more to love. Besides vivid silhouette illustrations, artist Daniela J Terrazzini provides twenty-two pages of of magic in the middle of the book. Reminiscent of Tony diTerlizzi's gorgeous Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, a fully illustrated companion to the Spiderwick series of chapter books, the colorful pages by Terrazini in The Wikkeling reproduce a long lost book called The Bestiary, compiled by Aristotle Alcott, Henrift, and Friends. Examples of Terrazini's work can be seen below.
picture by The Book Smugglers

Of course, magnificent illustrations are difficult to produce without a wonderful book to inspire them and Steven Arntson's The Wikkeling is just that. Arntson takes familiar but disparate elements and creates a book in which a dystopian, futuristic city that has paved over a rich and magical past. In a clever passage that has been quoted in other reviews, the narrator tells us that main character Henrietta Gad-Fly is a girl who looked a "little like a brick" with "ruddy skin prone to pimples" and "small, black beady eyes" set closely together then cautions that "she will not become beautiful when someone gives her a new hairstyle. She will not find a miracle cure for her pimples when an angel sees she's a good girl inside. She will not find out that she is actually a princess, and she won't become happy forever when a prince marries her." And, while this story is about Henrietta becoming curious and brave and taking chances, she is not a great hero who rescues people and saves lives, nor is she a hero who is complex, flawed and conflicted. She's just a girl who somehow has managed to maintain a shred of individuality in a world that is increasingly awash in sameness and conformity.

picture by Kirinjirafa's Blog

The Wikkeling takes place in a part of the city now known as The Addition with the dangerous and dilapidated Old City rubbing up against it like a grungy stray cat. Shimmering and new, the Addition seems attractive at first, with its organized streets, new plastic everything (from homes to cars to clothes to books) and focus on safety and efficiency thanks to the computers that direct every aspect of their lives. However, it soon becomes clear what the citizens have sacrificed for this way of life. Life moves from home to work (or school) to home again in a circumscribed crawl of traffic with lilac scented exhaust. Instead of screeching horns when a car honks, advertisements known as Honk Ads, geared specifically to the interests and needs of the driver based on electronically gathered data, blare out taglines like, "BE FAST AND ACCURATE with Tincan's new Skipping-Stone phone!" and "IT'S TIME FOR A LURMY'S EGG SANDWICH!" Video cameras in the home allow parents to passively keep track of their children. Computers at every desk allow the teacher to monitor her pupils as they do their work and instantly compare their rankings within the classroom, school and city in order to assure success on the Competency Exam. As an adult reader, the similarities between life in The Addition and life in our modern world are chilling, but none more so than the regimented classroom scenes. There is a red alert on the school network that informs parents that "textbooks will no longer be used in classrooms. All classroom material will be accessed through the school network. This change is facilitated through a private-public partnership with TINCAN TELECOMM: HELPING SCHOOLS HELP CHILDREN HELP THEMSELVES AND US". Textbooks have many drawbacks. They cannot be easily updated, they are heavy, and they collect mold. As of the implementation date, dispose of all textbooks in a secure waste container. There are also school bus rides in which the children are latched into a web of safety harnesses, lights going on above their seats when they are all buckled in. Then the children forced to listen to the inevitable barrage of Honk Ads as the bus merges into traffic. Ads like "EDIBLE CLEANTASTE SOAP - IT'S THE CANDY OF SOAP!" and "YOUR PARENTS CAN AFFORD A BIGGER, BETTER HOUSE FOR YOU AT NEWVIEW ESTATES" tempt them.


Used to being singled out for her poor classroom work and picked on by her peers, Henrietta is comfortable with her outsider status and is more aware of others who are different. She notices a a passing kindergartener wearing "odd clothes. Instead of a polyester outift with a yellow safety stripe down the back, she wore a brown shirt made of . . . wool?" This acceptance of oddities, along with the suffering of debilitating headaches that their parents believe (somewhat rightly so) is connected to living in old houses, draws Henrietta to Gary and Rose, the kindergartener dressed in wool. Gary cements his outsider status, despite the fact that he is the teacher's son and the best performing student in class, by unbuckling is safety harness in frustration while riding the bus home, causing a even larger traffic jam and earning him the scorn of the bus driver. Rose's status comes from the secrecy her parents require of her since they are squatting in an abandoned library in the Old City. The three realize that they all see the same creature, a thing that resembles a person and is

the size of an adult, but its face was not a normal adult face. Its skin was pale yellow and even, like pudding smoothed over a tiny nose and an even tinier chin - its small mouth dangled precariously just above. It was dressed in yellow pants and a yellow button up shirt . . . Its fingers were bizarre, long translucent tapers, like candles.

Although they don't know it yet, this is the Wikkeling, and they watch as it moves about the children, tapping them on the head as he makes his way toward them. 

picture by The Book Smugglers


The story takes off when, in a creepy turn, of which there are a few in The Wikkeling, a drop of blood falls from the ceiling onto her textbook while Henrietta is studying in her room one evening. Looking up, she realizes that the ceiling panels must be concealing an attic that she had never realized was part of the old house inherited by her parents when her grandmother moved to a retirement community with her new husband. As a child who was raised "to pay such careful attention to safety and the making of sensible decisions" Henrietta decides to do something "decidedly unsafe and incautious" and place her desk chair on top of her desk so that she can climb up into this unknown world. She tries to convince herself to tell her parents about the blood, but Henrietta is "discovering something about herself that she'd not known before. She was discovering that she was an intensely curious person." And what an unknown world it is! First of all, she finds a space filled with all the non-plastic home comforts from the past that have been removed from the rest of the house, which is newly outfitted with plastic and electronic conveniences. Secondly, Henrietta discovers that the drop of blood has come from an enormous grey, wounded Wild House Cat which she proceeds to tend to using the safety practices she has learned from her overly protective education and name Mister Lady when she cannot determine its gender. Third, there are shelves and shelves of books made from real paper! Best of all, when Henrietta finds a way to share her discovery with Gary and then Rose, the children realize that time stops when they are in the attic and that the world they see outside the window is from decades past.

These elements - the outsider children, a secret attic full of books and an endangered cat, the headaches, school tests, Tincan Telecomm, The Addition and the Wikkeling all come together in the climax of the book that may not seem quite like the climax you were expecting. From the start, Arntson lets the reader know that this is not the kind of book you think it might be and, while there is a creepy, dramatic battle at the end of the book, there is no clear division of good and evil as in most fantasy novels and frankly, there is not really a clear ending. The Wikkeling, as a book, creates a world and a mystery within this world and the Wikkeling, the creature, feels like he is just one small, menacing, out of control part of this ordered world. While the origins of the Wikkeling are mysterious and not fully explained by the end of The Wikkeling, it almost doesn't matter. The characters of Henrietta, Gary, Rose and even Al, Henritetta's step-grandfather, as so compelling that, as a reader, I cared more about them than I did the creature. Happily, an interview with the author, which I strongly suggest you read if you read this book, if a wonderful supplement to the story and, in his last response, Arntson reveals that he is working on a sequel to The Wikkeling titled The Draggeling, which he intends to be the second of five books set in The Addition and The Old City. I finished the book before I read the interview and, aside from loving the characters and the world that Arntson created, was wholly pleased by the somewhat non-traditional ending. However, after reading the review I was also extremely pleased to learn that I would get to spend more time with these characters and this place (and more gorgeously bound and illustrated books) that I had so many questions about and, had come to love.

For more of Daniela J Terrazzini's beautiful artwork, click to read my review of The Seeing Stick, a picture book written by the amazing Jane Yolen and illustrated by Terrazzini.

Cover Image

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