I have so many reasons to recommend The Six Crowns series by Gary Chalk and Allan Frewin Jones I'm not sure where to start. The Six Crowns is a highly readable, fantastically illustrated fantasy series that can easily take its place next to standards like Brian Jaques' Redwall series and Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart's Edge Chronicles. In fact, The Six Crowns is a perfect blending of these two series. Also, The Six Crowns is unique in that each book in the series (thus far) comes in at under 175 pages - a downright rarity in a work of fantasy. The other reason I absolutely love these books is that they have been the perfect bridge that has carried my son from graphic novels and easy chapter books into something a little bit longer and with a more complex plot. Somehow, over the course of first grade, my son's taste in books (Squish, Zita the Space Girl, Stink and the Ottoline series) bypassed the road I thought he would take, skipping over standards like Magic Tree House and family favorites we read out loud to him a couple of years back like the Tashi series. While I do feel like, sadly, the window of interest has closed on quite a few books for him at this point, I think that Trundle's Quest, the first book in the The Six Crowns series, is pointing him down a very good path in terms of future reading.
When my seven year old son started watching the animated Redwall television show from the late 1990s the second time over, I knew I needed to capitalize on his interest. I thought about reading him the first book in Jacques' series out loud, but, knowing it would be a couple of years before he could continue to read the series on his own (and also painfully aware of the double-edged sword that comes with reading a favorite out loud, thinking your child will read it to her/himself in the future then realizing they won't...) and decided against it. I thought about MI McAllister's wonderful Mistmantle Series, which also shares many similarities with Redwall. But, at almost 300 pages, I knew that was more than my son was willing to tackle right now, great illustrations or not. Happily, I remembered the intriguing book with the hedgehogs on the cover and snapped up Trundle's Quest. One thing that struck me a few chapters into the book is how complete the world Jones and Chalk created is, from food and shelter to the names of the months and the strange floating islands. The reason for this became evident after reading the about the partnership between the two. The island of Mont St Michel, topped with its medieval abbey in Normandy was Chalk's initial inspiration. Mont St Michel seems to be floating in the sky, and this gave Chalk the idea to create and exploded world that was nothing more than chunks of land floating in the sky. From there he populated this world, creating Trundle Boldoak and Esmerelda Lightfoot, windships to travel between the islands, different animal breeds and songs. When he sent it to his editor Anne McNeil, she suggested Chalk partner with Jones and the series was born!
The prologue to Trundle's Quest reads,
The legends say that once - long, long ago - there was a single round world, like a ball floating in space, and that it was ruled over by six wise badgers. The legends also tell of a tremendous explosion, an explosion so huge that it shattered the round world into a thousand fragments, a vast archipelago of islands adrift in the sky. As time passed, the survivors of the explosion thrived and prospered and gave their scattered island homes a name - and that name was the Sundered Lands. That's what the legends say. But who believes in legends nowadays?
In chapter one, "The Lamplighter of Shiverstones," we meet Trundle Boldoak, a hedgehog who, despite his name, is a very domestic sort who likes a quiet life. In fact, reading of Trundle's important, but peaceful job and his cozy home where cabbageleaf tea, warm cabbage broth and a good book await him, I was immediately reminded of the snug homes of Mole and Rat from the great Wind in the Willows. However, Trundle's life takes a swift and dramatic change when Esmerelda Lightfoot arrives at his door and drags him to his destiny. Esmerelda, a Roamany (a clever play on the Romani people) who's auntie Millie Rose Thorn is Queen or the Roamanys, has been learning to read the Badger Blocks since she was a child. Convinced she has worked out a prophecy that will lead her to the Six Crowns of the Badgers of Power, she leaves her home and lands in trouble with almost every step she takes. Esmerelda hopes that finding and uniting the Six Crowns will bring the Sundered Lands back together and help rid them of Captain Grizzletuck and his evil band of pirates aboard the Iron Pig as well as the brutal slave trade that keeps the mines of Drune working night and day.
Esmerelda, a bit of a risk taker and world shaker, has complete faith in Fate and her ability to fulfill the prophecy of the Badger Blocks, although she has to drag Trundle along a ways before she can convince him to work with her. He really has no choice, though, since Captain Grizzletuck has laid waste to Shiverstones and is relentlessly in pursuit of them. However, once she smashes the window of a pawn shop in Rathanger, a town in Drune, and grabs a sword that looks just like the one in the image of the Lamplighter in the Badger Blocks and puts it in Trundle's hand, he is a changed hedgehog.
While the descriptions above sound quite dramatic and adventurous, the action and levels of intensity and suspense remain appropriate to a third grade reading level. Although some pigs in literature can prove quite frightening, Captain Grizzletuck and his crew probably won't give anyone nightmares. In each book the two hedgehogs face untold dangers, all with the crew of the Iron Pig in hot pursuit, as they travel around the Sundered Lands looking for clues to the missing crowns. Three of the six books in this series, Trundle's Quest, Fair Wind to Widdershins and Fire Over Swallowhaven are out now. Book Four, The Ice Gate of Spyre, is due out 23rd of October, 2012. Book Five, Sargasso Skies, and Book Six, Full Circle are hopefully not too far behind.