By Cheryl Morgan
It is probably a little late for me to be making recommendations as to what you might buy fantasy-loving children for presents this holiday season, but if any of the little darlings to happen to have been sent book tokens by cautious or unimaginative relatives, and are therefore forced to spend the money on paper rather than anything digital, here are a couple of suggestions that thudded through my mailbox recently. Both are coffee table book-sized, and both are lavishly illustrated with pictures of strange and fabulous beings.
The first is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, which appears to be the latest volume in the successful Spiderwick Chronicles series. Tony DiTerlizzi’s art is reminiscent of that of Brian Froud, and indeed the great man himself contributes an enthusiastic back cover blurb. DiTerlizzi is at his best painting goblins and trolls of various sorts, all of which have an earthy aspect to them, though I did very much like his lobster-tailed Caribbean Mermaid. He’s less good on fabulous beasts such as unicorns and dragons.
The book contains numerous large, foldout illustrations. In her Locus review Karen Haber warns that the picture of the Olde World Wyrm, which folds out vertically, is in great danger of tearing. Too late! Mine tore the first time I tried to open it. Thankfully that is the only picture so configured.
Holly Black’s text is authoritatively learned in style, and is full of useful facts by which various types of fantastical creature, or at least its presence, might be recognized.
Unusual organization of items is also common in houses with brownies. A brownie may alphabetize books by the middle initial of the authors’ names or file records by the titles of their favorite songs.
This is a very beautiful book, and liable to be a particular hit with kids who are already fans of Holly Black’s novels.
The other book I received is Fantasy Encyclopedia, by Judy Allen. This is not to be confused with The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. Indeed it is almost a polar opposite of that book, for where Clute and Nicholls strive to be authoritative, Allen is skimpy and vague in exactly the right way that will have nerdy kids yelling "that’s wrong! that’s wrong!" with monotonous regularity. Which is not to say that Ms. Allen is actually wrong, but rather that she has ranged so widely and said so little that apparent errors are inevitable, and when you claim to have written an encyclopedia people expect you to get things right.
Unlike the Spiderwick book, Allen does not have a resident artist. Various illustrators have been used, including John Howe, and it looks as if the pictures have been sourced from existing material rather than drawn specifically for the book. Consequently it has less stylistic coherence.
There are, however, two excellent aspects to the book. Firstly, as I said, it ranges far and wide. There are creatures listed from the mythologies of the Inuit and the Maori, from Mexico and Korea, from Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece. It will, I hope, encourage kids to explore different cultures and their legends.
In addition each entry comes with a short list of recommended books and movies featuring the creature or artifact under discussion. Thus the entry on mirrors recommends that kids read Alice Through the Looking Glass and watch Disney’s Snow White. The entry on harpies and gorgons recommends reading The Odyssey and watching Clash of the Titans. Recommendations for material on dwarves includes not only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also Time Bandits. Those for ghosts include entries for Dickens, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, along with the Ghostbusters movie. For some reason I can’t explain, Alex Irvine’s A Scattering of Jades is listed under mummies. It does have a Mayan mummy in the story, and it is a very fine book, but don’t let your kids read it if you want them to sleep through the night. Fob them off with Scooby Doo on Zombie Island instead. If your kids ask for only a fraction of the wonderful books and films that Ms. Allen recommends, this book will have been well worth the purchase price.