Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Care For Curious Creatures

A large variety of reasons can bring your attention to a specific book.  It might be the author's previous titles, reviews in professional journals, recommendations from trustworthy friends, a favorite genre or intriguing subject matter.  In the case of the series I wish to showcase today, it is the illustrator's posts on Twitter which got my attention.

Thankfully artists understand the need for readers to get sneak peeks at their current or upcoming projects. Sometimes they will post a complete illustration which did not find a place in the final book.  Author illustrator Dan Santat is one of those gracious people who shares his works in progress with his followers.

Over the course of two years every so often we have been given a glimpse of two children in an intriguing scene or portions of fantastical beings.  Having written thirteen posts about the work of Dan Santat, my curiosity at seeing these images was piqued. When I found out they were for a new series, The Imaginary Veterinary, written by Suzanne Selfors I was thrilled.  Needless to say I have read all four books to date, enjoying every single moment created by the words and pictures.  

The weird shadow swept across the sky.
Ben blinked once, twice, three times, 
just in case an eyelash had drifted onto his
eyeball.  But it wasn't an eyelash.  Something was
moving between the clouds---something with an
enormous wingspan and a long tail.  

Ten-year-old Ben Silverstein is riding in the car with his grandfather, Abe Silverstein, to the less than vibrant town of Buttonville; the only lively place with a weekly schedule being the senior center.  He has been sent to spend the summer here by his parents who need time alone to work out some problems.  As they pause at a stop sign in town, a girl leaning out her bedroom window is staring at the sky.  Ben rolls down the window looking up.  He sees it too.  Their eyes meet and she mouths a single word---dragon.  This is Ben's brief introduction to Pearl Petal, one of the few young people left in Buttonville since the factory's closing. 

Ben, cautious to the core, and Pearl, ready to take a chance at the drop of a dime, become fast friends when two unusual things happen.  A rather strange newcomer, Mr. Tabby, at the local market asks for two thousand boxes of kiwi-flavored jelly beans and announces there is a new doctor, a worm doctor, named Dr. Emerald Woo renting the abandoned ten-story button factory for her practice.  There is one more thing.  Ben's grandfather's cat, Barnaby, drops his latest catch on Ben's bed the next day.  It's a baby something not of the Known World but of the Imaginary World. 

A trip to the button factory aka the worm hospital while solving the problem of the hatchling releases even bigger trouble out into the town.  To complicate matters Pearl's Aunt Milly is the local police presence, Mrs. Mulberry, the town gossip and her can-never-keep-a secret daughter Victoria are busy snooping around and it's pudding day at the senior center.  (Sasquatches love sweets.)  Ben and Pearl are able to complete their mission but now they know too many secrets.  There is only one thing to be done.  

The Sasquatch Escape: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1 (Little, Brown and Company, April 2, 2913) leaves you wanting more.  You, like Ben Silverman and Pearl Petal, will hardly be able to wait from Saturday night until Monday morning to see what happens next.  Because after replying to his grandfather's question about what he will do the next day, Ben thinks...

Tomorrow was sure to be a day like no other.  Because the truth, for once, was better than any story he could come up with.

Pearl smacked the alarm clock until the loud
beeping stopped.
Is it morning already? she thought.
As she rolled over, something crinkled.  She rubbed sleep crystals from the corner of her eyes, then
rolled the other way.  Crinkle, crinkle.  What was
that?  Reaching under her pillow, she pulled out a piece of paper.  

What Pearl has hidden under her pillow is the certificate of merit in Sasquatch Catching given to her by Dr. Woo after she and Ben retrieved the wayward being.  They are now apprentices working at the worm hospital, a front for a clinic which cares for creatures needing healing from the Imaginary World.  When reporting for work their first day, it begins with an ominous warning to always use the time clock; otherwise they could end up missing and no one would know. 

Rather than helping cure a leprechaun of a cold the pair is sent to clip the sasquatch's toenails.  Arriving at the third floor forest residence, Ben begins as Pearl distracts the beast with chewing gum.  Three toenails down, Ben stops cold, turning white and staring behind Pearl.  She turns and can't believe what she is seeing looking at them in the window.

Pearl convinces Ben against his better judgment to leave and explore down by the lake where the creature vanished.  (Did I mention Pearl is known as the town troublemaker?) With Ben now captured by the lake monster Pearl is going to break not one, but several more rules to try to save him.  Every single attempt fails.  When it looks as though the two will be fired on their first day, a parakeet named Lemon Face gives Pearl an idea.  Will it work?

Dr. Woo cleared her throat.  "There is, however,
another matter we must deal with."  Her voice had
turned serious.
It was as if all the sunshine had been sucked from
the room.  Pearl's shoulders slumped.  "Uh-oh," said
Ben.  He sank back onto the box.
Trouble time.

It would seem that the duo is to be punished at the end of The Lonely Lake Monster: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 2 (Little, Brown and Company, September 17, 2013).  They should have stuck with toenails instead of messing with a leprechaun, his gold and a monster the size of a dinosaur.  Hopefully they have learned their lesson before something out of the ordinary presents itself to them again.

It sounded like claws scratching against the side
of the house.
Giant claws.  
Ben's eyes flew open.  Where am I? he wondered.

An intruder with a long black scaly arm, a huge paw and four sharp claws has opened the window in the kitchen next to Ben's bedroom in his grandfather's house.  Smoke is rising from a scorched hole in the tablecloth.  Barnaby is hissing like crazy. 

All kinds of metal objects are disappearing around town.  Ben and Pearl...and Victoria, the sneak, see the culprit, an enormous dragon.  It's the one living on the roof of the hospital.  Ben and Pearl need to warn Dr. Woo but they have to wait until Wednesday.  Scooping dragon doo was not what they had planned but Dr. Woo is gone again when they arrive in the morning.  Having the dragon return, catching them on the roof, was definitely not a goal for the day, scaring them into near paralysis.  

An emergency on the tenth floor grabs their attention as does the satyress operator who takes calls from the Imaginary World.  Ben and Pearl are about to go on the adventure of their lives jumping into a portal swirling like a tornado into the Land of Rain.  A dragon is dying.

Ben grabbed hold of Metalmouth's leg to steady himself.  "Whoa," Ben said as he almost
tumbled over.  The motion grew more turbulent.  Ben
felt like a sock inside a dryer.
Metalmouth groaned.  "I don't like the Portal," he
said.  "It always makes me feel sick."
Ben didn't feel so good, either.  And Pearl's face
was turning an odd shade of green.  "How long will
this take?" she asked.
The captain didn't reply.  Ben's head filled with dizziness.
His stomach clenched.  Metalmouth groaned
louder.  Oh no!  Were Ben and Pearl about to experience
dragon vomit?

Even with Metalmouth (the dragon from the roof) as a companion they are immediately in danger, losing their ability to return home.  The length of the rain dragon is several miles; the enormity of the damage done to it will take your breath away.  In The Rain Dragon Rescue (Little, Brown and Company, June 10, 2014) Pearl and Ben learn of an enemy greater than any they have ever known.  Someone from the Known World has found a way into the Imaginary World other than through Dr. Woo's portal.

The first thing many people do after getting
out of bed is put on a pair of slippers.
The first thing Pearl Petal did on that
Friday morning was slip her feet into a pair of leprechaun shoes.

As Pearl and Ben arrive at Dr. Woo's on Friday (it hardly seems like only a week has passed since Ben's arrival), Mr. Tabby, leaving for a vacation, tells them of the peril in the Imaginary World.  A human has indeed been discovered.  Extra security is evident at the hospital and Dr. Woo requests their presence in the basement immediately.

They are about to be introduced to one of the most deadly water creatures especially for children, a kelpie.  The task terrifies them but Ben is preferred by the kelpie and does as he is asked.  Before they can move to other required duties a plea comes over the loud speaker asking for assistance on the tenth floor.  

The blessing is broken.

A call for help has come from the unicorn king in the Tangled Forest; a unicorn is missing.  This time Pearl is essential to a positive outcome.  This time the children learn from Dr. Woo about Maximus Steele.  

A meeting with the unicorn king gives them a destination.  They must search in the Dark Forest, forbidden to the unicorns, to locate the youngest member of the blessing.  Only Pearl can enter the forest but will she be able to see or move quietly enough, will she be able to evade the flesh-eating plants and stay hidden from the most dangerous of men.

It is clear at the end of The Order Of The Unicorn (Little, Brown and Company, July 22, 2014) big changes are in store for Dr. Emerald Woo.  Her sole role as veterinarian is shifting to protector also.  Readers will hardly be able to wait until January 2015 for The Griffin's Riddle (Little, Brown and Company) to see what new excitement awaits the two apprentices.

The world Suzanne Selfors has invented in this series is fabulous.  She places Ben, coming from a high-rent district of Los Angeles in a controlled lifestyle, right in the middle of a fading community filled with truly likable characters except for the Mulberry gals.  His new best friend Pearl lives in the same building which houses the business her parents run, The Dollar Store.  

The interactions between the adults and the children are upbeat and filled with warmth...with the exception of Mrs. Mulberry and her daughter.  I expect there will be some eye-rolling from readers at their shenanigans, providing tension for the duo in the Known World.  Over the course of the four books, the development of the relationship between Ben and Pearl matures with them being more accepting of their individual outlooks in a given situation.  Dr. Emerald Woo, Mr. Tabby (Is he even human?) and Violet the satyress along with the sasquatch, lake monster, Cobblestone the leprechaun, Metalmouth and the unicorn blessing all have fantastically wonderful mannerisms. 

In addition to fast-paced action, chapter endings which leave you wondering and spirited dialogue Selfors has inserted liberal amounts of humor in these books.  The contrast between perception and reality is downright funny.  Her descriptions will have you laughing out loud.  Here are a couple of examples.

No, he did not think it was a bird.  Ben Silverstein
was no dummy.  He knew what he'd seen.  But never
in a million years would he admit it.  That would be
like admitting he'd seen the tooth fairy.

Both Ben and Pearl cringed.  Victoria Mulberry
had sneaked up like a silent fart.

Dan Santat's dust jackets for these first four books are outstanding.  Looking at each of them you can't help but wonder where these two children are and what escapades they are experiencing.  His particular style adds to the liveliness found in the stories.  All the book cases have a similar style looking like old scrapbooks with important notices and pictures taped or attached to the background.  Inside each book after the title page, which has a smaller significant image placed under the text, is a map of Buttonville spanning two pages.  This helps give the reader a better perspective of where the action happens.  

Throughout each book no page turn is without some type of illustration done in black and white.  Sometimes it will cover an entire page or a portion of a page depending on the event.  In the first book squirrels, that play a rather hilarious part, can be seen running along pages, as well as scattered footprints from various creatures, jelly beans and buttons.  Pond grasses, more candy, lily pads, frogs, gold coins and rainbows are included in the second title as well as repeating some of the earlier elements.  Clouds, parched land, tennis balls, evergreen trees, a fence row and flowers compliment the text in the third title.  As you can imagine fireflies and flesh eating plants are added in the fourth book; and pancakes.  

The physical features Santat assigns to his characters convey every nuance of emotion.  Readers will find themselves becoming attached to certain characters. As Selfors does with her words, Santat does with his art giving us humor when we need it the most.  The more I look at his pictures, the more I see and the more I am moved by whatever he depicts.

I highly recommend The Sasquatch Escape: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1, The Lonely Lake Monster: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 2, The Rain Dragon Rescue: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 3 and The Order Of The Unicorn: The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 4 written by Suzanne Selfors with illustrations by Dan Santat for middle grade readers or anyone wanting to experience grand adventures filled with fun and heartwarming characters.  At the end of each book Selfors includes several pages of story stretcher activities for writing, art or science.  After having read each of these twice, I simple can't wait for book five.

To discover more about Suzanne Selfors and Dan Santat and their other work please visit their sites by following the links embedded in their names.  Dan Santat has many illustrations from these books on his Tumblr.  This link will take you to an entire site developed by the publisher where excerpts from each of the books can be read, an activity kit can be accessed and a book trailer can be viewed.  Here is a link to an interview/conversation between the author and illustrator about this series.

Update:  I just discovered a link for a gif Dan Santat created for the art process for the cover of  The Rain Dragon Rescue.

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