Dr Fell and the Playground of Doom, the debut novel by David Neilsen and it is a marvelous mix of silly and supernatural inspired by an illustration of a nursery rhyme created by a legendary children's book illustrator. For more about how Trina Schart Hyman's illustration for the curious nursery rhyme Dr. Fell led Neilsen to write a middle grade novel, be sure to read his guest post, where you can also see the original artwork!
As I read Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, I was reminded of more than a few fantastic kid's books. Neilsen's creative naming of his characters and the streets and schools in the the town that Dr. Fell comes to took me back to a longtime favorite, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald. The heroes of the story are ten-year-olds Nancy Pinkblossom and Gail Bloom, and Gail's eight-year-old brother and mortal enemy of Nancy, Jerry Bloom. They live on Hardscrabble Street (near Vexington Avenue and Von Burden Lane) and attend McKinley Grant Fillmore Elementary School, where the heads of the PTA are Candice Gloomfellow and Martha Doomburg. Classmates include Sharon Rottingsly, Jud Fetidsky, Abner Fallowmold, Horace Macabrador, Ethel Pusster and Lars Ouzewuld. All these kids and many more are the gleeful guests of the most amazing playground EVER built by the curious new neighbor who has moved into to the dilapidated house at the end of Hardscrabble Street. The more kids play on the Dr. Fell's playground, the more they want to play on it. Soon they are skipping school, strangely, with the support of their parents and educators.
Nancy, Gail and Jerry are having none of this. Having met Dr. Fell, who has an antiquated way of speaking that he always feels compelled to translate, his first day on Hardscrabble Street, they formed their opinions of him quickly and refuse to set foot on even a climbing rope on his playground. The trio, uneasy in their union, watch as more and more children are injured on the playground, returning minutes after a consultation with Dr. Fell in his conveniently nearby home office, completely healed. When an enthusiastic Leonid Hazzardfall takes a tumble from the top of the crow's nest on the play pirate ship in the middle of an impassioned speech urging his fellow playmates to skip school to stay and play and is clearly dead, only to return later, alive and well, the trio really begins to worry.
Dr. Fell's playground calls to mind the Land of Toys from Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, renamed Pleasure Island in the Disney movie. Soon, the trio notices that those boys most frequently injured are starting to need to shave several years ahead of puberty, cementing their conviction that Dr. Fell and his playground need to come to an end. With the help of a crusty old neighbor, Nancy, Gail and Jerry find themselves at the heart of Dr. Fell's mysterious mission, fighting for their lives, or, more specifically, their childhoods...
I don't want to give away too much, but Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom and the purpose of Dr. Fell also calls to mind Cornelia Funke's marvelous novel, The Thief Lord, and Ray Bradbury's phenomenal Something Wicked This Way Comes. And, while I have (sadly) never read any, Neilsen, a professional actor, story teller and voice actor (you can hear him read the audio of his book HERE) is also well versed in the work of H.P. Lovecraft and is the creator of a one-man show based on his short stories, so I am sure there are influences from his work I am missing. While I can't go so far as to give this book the label Good Fantasy - Harmless Bad Guys, Neilsen weaves a good dose of levity throughout the book, but Dr. Fell and his mission are pretty dark. That said, Neilsen could have taken this plot point and gone in an entirely different, much darker direction and I applaud and thank him for writing a scary-but-not-too-scary book that is also long-but-not-too-long, making it accessible for younger readers.
Source: Review Copy