Skip to main content

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon, 372 pp, RL 4

Castle Hangnail is the special treat that we get from Ursula Vernon that comes between the ending of her fantastic  Dragonbreath series and the start of her eagerly anticipated new series, Hamster Princess, featuring Harriet, a an extraordinary princess who excels at checkers and fractions, despite the curse that a wicked fairy god mouse cast, leaving her looking toward a Sleeping Beauty-like curse that will plunge her into a deep sleep when she turns twelve, but also leaves her invincible (and unable to die) until then. Princess Harriet makes the most of this, fighting Ogre-cats and cliff-diving with her faithful friend Mumfrey, a quail. While Hamster Princess promises to continue Vernon's awesome combination of graphic novel panels and traditional chapter book, Castle Hangnail offers a bigger bite for readers sink their teeth into.

Castle Hangnail reminds me very much of the novels of one of my favorite authors, sorely underrepresented here, Eva Ibottson. Ibottson, who began her career decades before J.K. Rowling, was a master of writing spooky fantasy novels rich with witches, wizards, ghosts and other creatures and made special by equal dollops of humor and humanity. In this post-Harry Potter world, finding fantasy for young readers that is not dark or violent is a challenge. I created the label Good Fantasy - Harmless Bad Guys to address this, and Ibbotson and Vernon are definitely the leaders in this category. Castle Hangnail introduces us to Molly, an usurping witch who is wicked, but not evil, and just wants to be the twelve-year-old resident Wicked Witch of Castle Hangnail. The minions of the castle, characters you will immediately adore, are in a difficult situation. The Board of Magic is on the verge of "de-magicking" and selling Castle Hangnail since it has been without a master for so long. It seems that magic is, "a lot like water, and if there isn't a fit Master in charge it'll puddle up everywhere, the basement will flood, and weird things will start laying eggs." This is a prime example of Vernon's special talent - she can be creative, funny and a little creepy all in one sentence.
When Molly arrives at the door of the castle with her letter letter of introduction (stolen from mean girl and classmate Eudaimonia) the minions of Castle Hangnail accept this "plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair," hesitantly. While she does have serious black boots with purple shoelaces and metal caps on the toes that look like "they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it," Molly just doesn't seem like the right person for the job. Molly has to prove herself as a witch AND win over the minions of the castle - a truly amazing cast of characters. There is the Igor-ish guardian, renamed Majordomo by Molly, and Edward, the ghost in knight's armor. Then there is Cook, a minotaur who has an ex-husband that results in her hatred - and banning - of the letter Q. Pins, a gifted tailor, is a doll made of burlap with pins stuck in his head who is NOT a voodoo doll. He shares his small living quarters with a talking goldfish who is "intensely neurotic and convinced that she is always sickening for something." He takes "tender care of the fish" and knits her a "very small waterproof scarf." Finally, there is Serenissima, child of a djinn - a spirit of immortal fire - and a shopkeeper who unknowingly had a distant ancestor who was a mermaid. This combination of fire and water resulted in steam, and Serenissima spent her time in a teakettle when she wasn't steam-cleaning the castle.

I don't think that Castle Hangnail is intended to be a series, but another visit to the castle and its kooky-creepy inhabitants would definitely be a welcome


Ms. Yingling said…
I did love this one, and I really want to read Hamster Princess now! Hadn't thought of the similarities with Ibbotson, but you're right!
Tanya said…
It surprised me to think how rare books like Ibbotson's are! With dark fantasy being so popular, I would think there would be a flood of authors writing humorous fantasy. Maybe it's a lot harder than it seems to write in that genre and write well...

Popular posts from this blog

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff - Projects You Can Build For (and With) Kids! by Scott Bedford

On his personal website, Scott Bedforddescribes himself as an "Award Winning Online Creative Professional" working within the advertising and design industry. What is more interesting (and applicable here) is how hisWhat I Made website came to be. While sitting in a Starbucks with his restless young sons, trying to enjoy his latte, Bedford created something out of coffee stir sticks that ended up keeping his boys entertained, finishing his coffee in peace and sparking (re-sparking, really) his creative drive and reminding him of the "enormous joy gained from making things, even simple things, and that this joy is not the complexity or quality of the finished project but in the process of making itself. On Bedford'sWhat I Made website, he even shares Six Cool Coffee Shop Crafts for Kidsthat you can try out next time you want to enjoy your coffee and your kids are making that difficult. I've shared two below - be sure to check out the website and see the rest!


POP-UP: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings, illustrations by Frances Castle RL: All ages

POP-UP:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book with paper engineering by Ruth Wickings and illustrations by Frances Castle is THE COOLEST BOOK EVER!!!  I know that I haven't dedicated much time to pop-up books here, but they have always held a special place in my heart, and the phrase "paper engineering" is a favorite of mine. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I did go through a paper engineering phase when I was ten or so. I would sneak off to the back of the classroom during independent work periods and go to town on the construction paper and glue and make these little free-standing dioramas. A huge fan of The Muppet Show (the original), I reconstructed the all-baby orchestra from an episode, drawing and coloring each baby and his/her instrument then gluing them onto a 3D orchestra section I had crafted out of brown construction paper.  I also made a 3D version of Snidely Whiplash throwing Nell off a cliff with Dudley Do-Right wa…

The Seeing Stick, written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela J Terrazini

The Seeing Stick is an original Chinese fairy tale written by the prolific (and prolifically award winning) Jane Yolen. First published in 1977 with illustrations by Remy Charlip (author and illustrator of the brilliantly fun picture book Fortunately and friend and muse to Brian Selznick, who asked him to pose as George Méliès while he was working on the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo CabretThe Seeing Stick was reissued with new illustrations by Daniela J. Terrazini in 2009. I have not seen Charlip's version, but Terrazini's is a beautiful work of art and the book itself is yet another magnificently packaged book published by Running Press, the house that brought us Steven Arntson's The Wikkeling, yet another superbly and uniquely packaged children's book with artwork by Terrazini. Interestingly, both The Wikkeling and The Seeing Stick were designed by Frances J Soo Ping Chow.

The Seeing Stick begins, "Once in the ancient walled citadel of Peking there l…