The Hero's Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy, 432 pp, RL 4
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is out in paperback and The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle is out now!
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy is a book that has caused me to do some serious thinking about what makes a book worth reading, the (sometimes unfortunate and unhelpful) perspective an adult reader can bring to children's literature and the value of doing something new that might feel old. I'll admit it - I was skeptical about this book at first. The title, the cover, the page count and the third person narrator who addresses the audience directly gave me pause. This felt familiar and, at first, a bit flimsy, but every time I put the book down I found myself picking it up again, wanting to know more about the characters and their plight. As I was reading the book, making notes and working on my review I read Adam Gopnik's review of The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and Jennifer Neilsen's The False Prince, which is a Young Adult (teen) book, in the New York Times Sunday Book Reivew. To me, it seemed that Gopnik's review missed both the point and value of these two books. Above all else, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom heralds (hopefully) the return of the prince in the medieval fantasy setting that, for many years, has been dominated by princesses - brave, battling, smart princesses, which we need, but almost exclusively princesses. The other fantastic thing that Healy brings to his debut novel is a big, welcome dose of humor that Diary of a Wimpy Kid-type books have cornered the market on for years. Best of all, this infusion of levity means that The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is a great book for sensitive readers who love fantasy! While the witch of the story is a force to reckon with, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom never even approaches the levels of grim darkness that has become a staple of middle-grade fantasy. Best of all, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is magnificently, perfectly, generously and amusingly illustrated by Todd Harris.
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is a familiar one and, as an adult who has read quite a lot of middle-grade fantasy and seen almost every fairy-tale themed movie that has come out in the last 20 years, Healy's setting feels very familiar. Todd Harris's animated and wonderfully copious illustrations add to this feeling. My critical mind viewed this negatively - at first. Then I realized that this seemingly routine setting is one that I love and am happy to visit again and again, and I know many others share this feeling. Even when I felt like I was treading familiar territory as the princes made their way across the kingdoms, I was always entertained and I have no doubt young readers will be as well. Like macaroni and cheese from a box, the fairy-tale-fantasy realm is one that kids seem to want to gobble up over and over and there's a good reason its been a staple of the fantasy genre for hundreds of years. Healy clearly loves this world that he created and the characters who inhabit it and that shows in his writing - and perhaps accounts for the length of this book. What Healy brings to this setting and genre is the skillful ability to take an in depth look at a convention and shake it up a little, but not entirely turn it on its head. Again, this is something that has been done before in books and film. Michael Buckley's phenomenal - and finished - Sisters Grimm series, Adam Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm, Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, E.D. Baker's Frog Princess series and Robin McKinley's Beauty all take a closer look at fairy tale characters and settings and add some twists. And, while I said that much of Healy's book felt familiar to me (not because he is mimicking the work of others, but because this is such a well tread territory) compared to these similar books in the middle-grade fantasy genre, it comes off as having quite a bit that is new and different to offer. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is closest in tone and content to Buckley's brilliant series, but different in noticeable ways. While Healy's book is as funny, if not funnier than Buckley's books (Deeb Rauber, the ten-year old Bandit King, and Puck are cut from the same prankster cloth for sure) Healy's book never approaches the darkly complex plot lines and antagonists that run throughout Buckley's series, despite the fact that Healy's characters are richly deteailed. There is only one wicked with in The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and the henchmen she recruits (a very funny, mild mannered, well meaning giant named Reese and a dragon who is tamed by dwarves) never come close to the bad guys in The Sisters Grimm books, who are also much more plentiful in number. And, while both Buckley and Healy's books give us heretofore unknown glimpses into the lives of fairy tale characters, Buckley's is set in the world of today and features sisters Daphne and Sabrina as protagonists. Healy's book is set squarely in the medieval-fantasy-past and has one thing that I will champion about this book until the end of time: The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom has a male protagonist. Not just one, but four! And, as I said above, in this time of princesses and sisters doing it for themselves, these four guys and their trials and tribulations are a welcome addition to the shelves, giving boys a much needed fantasy book to read that is not as battle-oriented as John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series or as dark as ND Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy. Healy ends his book with a very nice little twist that also just might point to another book featuring the League of Princes . . . Long live the Princes Charming!
I love Todd Harris's illustrations so much, I couldn't resist sharing everything I could find! However, you'll just have to read the book to find out who and what and where these come from in the book!