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 tells the story of the four Prince Charmings, or Princes Charming (the four argue about the wording at one point in the story) that we think we know from classic fairy tales. How these four princes came to be known by only one moniker is a very clever plot point and the crux of the story. It seems that the storytelling bards from each kingdom have a skewed perspective when composing the songs that will tell the stories of the exciting events of the day and this is ruining the lives of the princes. The bards have also done a disservice to Zaubera, the witch. While she started off her life as a farmer, healer and dabbler in the magical arts, she was mocked, teased and shunned by her neighbors. When a fire-breathing beaver goes on a rampage through her town, she uses her magic to protect her farm, but drops the shield and usea it on three of the children (who had "insulted her daily") to save them from the flames. Her good deed goes unnoticed as Sir Lindgren galloped into town, kills the beaver and "rescues" the children from Zaubera. "The Ballad of the Knight and the Beaver" seals her fate and, rather than fight the spread of misinformation, Zaubera decides to  embrace the role of evil witch. She concocts a plan to kidnap all the bards and force them to write accurate songs about her wicked ways and maybe get rid of a few heroes doing so. The disenfranchised princes, unwittingly at first, get in Zaubera's way as they try to figure out their fates. The true stories of the Princes Frederic (Cinderella), Liam (Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose), Gustav (Rapunzel) and Duncan (Snow White) are brilliantly conceived, richly detailed and their characters are well defined and well matched - to each other and their princesses. In a way, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is kind of a buddies-who've-been-dumped-by-their-princesses-road-trip book. When Ella finds Prince Frederic too sedate for her adventurous nature, she bows out of her engagement and begins to explore the kingdom she was always too busy working to experience. Prince Liam, a hero at heart, comes to the difficult decision that he cannot marry Briar Rose. This princess is a spoiled, selfish brat who wants to make up for time lot sleeping. Besides incurring her wrath, when Liam breaks off his engagement he also gravely upsets his greedy kingdom and even greedier parents. Worried about her big brother, the twelve-year-old Princess Lila takes a break from her true passions ("reading alchemy textbooks, dissecting grasshoppers, and designing elaborate imp traps) to help his cause. Prince Gustav, the youngest of seventeen brothers (and the only singleton born after two sets of octuplets...) desperately wants to prove his virility by rescuing a maiden but botches the whole Rapunzel thing and is mocked mercilessly by his brothers and the bard of the kingdom of Sturmhagen. After saving herself and restoring Gustav's sight, Rapunzel determines that she has a future as a healer and sets off to establish her own practice.
Finally, there is my favorite, Prince Duncan, who is prone to a "lifetime of astonishing coincidences." Duncan has come to believe that he has some sort of "mystical 'good luck' power" and takes some chances he really shouldn't. Also, Duncan is odd. Classifying his strangeness, the narrator says, "We all know somebody who's a bit eccentric - the girl who talks to herself, maybe, the boy who eats the erasers off pencils like they're gumdrops. They could be wonderful people, but thanks to their quirky behavior, they don't have the easiest time making friends. This was true of Duncan as well." A loner, Duncan stumbles across Snow White and is goaded into kissing her by the dwarves - a digression to mention another funny bit: The "persnickety" dwarves take issue with being called "dwarfs." After all, "if 'wolf' becomes 'wolves' and 'half' becomes 'halves,' they argue, why doesn't 'dwarf' become 'dwarves'? The Sylvarian dwarfs once started a war with the Avondellian elves simply because the elves were bragging about the fact that they got to pluralize with a V." Luckily for Duncan, Snow White was just as much a loner and outsider as the Prince of Sylvaria and the two wed and were mostly happy. Until Duncan got on Snow White's nerves. She was used to solitary pursuits and Duncan's odd habits, including shouting out the name of "every animal that ran through their yard (not the type of animal it was, but the actual name he thought it should have, like 'Chester,' 'Skippy,' or 'J.P. McWiggins)" among other quirks, began to grate on her nerves. When she suggests he take a walk by himself, he ends up hopelessly lost but, luckily enough, he stumbles across the path of the princes.
The setting for 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!

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