Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Imagined To Be Real

a strange or horrible imaginary creature
something that is extremely or unusually large
a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems

By these three definitions alone literature, mythology and legend from cultures around the globe are filled with monsters.  They inhabit dreams and reality depending on your sources of information.  Several have been the object of a lifetime devoted to discovering the truth.

No matter what you believe it is clearly understood by educators and parents, the subject of monsters is a highly popular one.  Empty shelves and late night reading by flashlight supply all the evidence you need.  M is for Monster: A Fantastic Creatures Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Press, August 1, 2014) written by former United States Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis with illustrations by Gerald Kelley provides readers with the perfect amount of information to satisfy their curiosity and whet their appetite for more.

A is for Amarok
  The Inuit were afraid of Amarok,
           a wicked wolf that pounced to the attack.
   And some who dared the forest of the night
            unluckily would not be coming back.

For each of the twenty-six letters a four line rhyming poem is embedded in the illustration.  Either to the left or right of the image on a column of color, readers are supplied with informative text about the being's origin, history and prominence in today's world.  Featured creatures range from the well-known to those rarely discussed outside certain circles.  

Perhaps readers learning about the Inuit people would be interested in knowing of the giant wolf named in the first letter.  If a mortar and pestle is seen propelling across the sky, beware of a house on chicken legs with the hungry inhabitant.  Half-men and half-horses, dragons that fly or dragons that crawl or dragons with no front legs at all, naughty or nice elves and an experiment not quite right will have readers wondering and wishing.

Are gargoyles placed to protect or frighten?  Is it logical to think of a griffin and horse as being friendly?  When was the last time a parent called their child an imp and why?  You might be surprised by this answer.  Would you walk alone after dark in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey?  Do you know what lurks in the depths of the oceans and would you dare to meet the Kraken?

From the Scottish highlands back in time to ancient civilizations to pools of fresh water and along the edge of forests, discoveries are made, welcomed and feared.  Full of light and renewal, the legend of the Phoenix has stood the test of time.  An immortal feathered serpent, a bird big enough to lift an elephant, a soul-stealing shape-shifting stalker or a troublesome troll are to be revered or avoided at all costs.

You might need a young girl pure of heart, a bushel of garlic, or weapons formed from silver, to attract or defeat these memorable monsters.  A headless being from ancient China, a hairy beast from the Himalayas and the undead close out this categorizing of things seen and unseen.  Regardless of the veracity of their existence all will be firmly part of your memory (and hopefully not your shut-eye time) now.

With some quick and simple reference checking (no back matter is supplied), it is evident J. Patrick Lewis has done his share of reading about these creatures of lore.  Of particular interest is his narrative on the origin of the monster and a logical, if possible, explanation for their presence in our cultures.  Each paragraph in his text reads like a conversation often posing questions to the reader, asking us to think about possibilities.  Here is an example from the first letter.

Was he five feet long and two hundred pounds, as some people claim?  Did he savagely carry off dogs and sheep?  If he was frightening, as the Inuit believed, he was also a good omen.  When the caribou population grew too large, Amarok, so it was thought, arrived to kill the weak and dying animals so that the herd could become healthy again, and the hunt could go on. 

Creepily inviting is an apt description of the matching dust jacket and book case.  You definitely don't want to stick around to find out what that vampire has in store for you but those eyes have you frozen in place.  What can you do but open the book?

Each image painted by artist Gerald Kelley is mesmerizing; alternately haunting, frightening, and at times comical.  Depending on the letter one or two pages may be devoted to his illustration, elevating the words of J. Patrick Lewis.  Emotional responses are triggered with each viewing; the feel of frigid winds howling, swirling the snow as a lone hunter meets the Amarok, a chill of fear as a determined Baba Yaga pursues dinner, a surge of courage as a knight faces the fierce dragon, a sense of calm as a mouse sits upon a gargoyle's head, unspeakable terror as the Kraken moves beneath the shadow of a boat moving on the sea or the head to toe warmth of the breathtaking Phoenix rising from the ashes.

For most of the paintings Kelley brings us close to the action; providing a human or other easily identified elements to give us perspective.  The colors used mirror the scene in which each monster could be found.  Readers are definitely there in the moment with all our senses on high alert.

One of my favorite illustrations is for

S is for Skin-walker

The blend of rust, brown and black, shadow and light, create an overall sense of sinister and supernatural.  The white sightless eyes on the raven, owl, wolf and human are downright spooky.  You don't want to look at those eyes, even for a second.

M is for Monster: A Fantastic Creatures Alphabet written by J. Patrick Lewis with illustrations by Gerald Kelley will be a welcome addition to classroom and library collections.  Don't wait for Halloween, hand this to readers who can't get enough of monsters. This will provide tantalizing extras about the familiar and introductions to those yet unknown.

To learn more about J. Patrick Lewis and Gerald Kelley please follow the links embedded in their names taking you to their websites.  This link takes you to Gerald Kelley's blog where he explains the fascinating process of sketching and painting these illustrations.  Be sure to explore.  There are more posts about his work on this title.  Author and blogger, Julie Danielson talks about this book at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and over at Kirkus. Several pages from the book can be viewed at the publisher's website linked here.

You might also enjoy reading, Monsters & Legends written by Davide Cali with illustrations by Gabriella Giandelli, Fantasy Encyclopedia: A Guide to Fabulous Beasts And Magical Beings---From Elves And Dragons to Vampires And Wizards by Judy Allen, books in the Fantasy And Folklore series published by ABDO Publishing Company and the Monster Chronicles series published by Lerner Publications Company.

Make sure to visit the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge page hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy to see the other nonfiction or informational books highlighted by other bloggers this week.

I like this tweet illustrator Gerald Kelley sent out about his process.


  1. Yikes. Creepy! I know you love alphabet books - This is quite the title. Looks like it prompts so much learning.

    1. It's creepy but not too creepy. Kelley really knows his audience. It was fascinating to see how he arrived at the various perspectives. I, as with every week in this challenge, learned. I made a trip to the public library to find other sources to support Lewis's narrative.

  2. I've 'seen' this somewhere, but you've reviewed it so well-looks interesting!

    1. It's just the title for anyone interested in the unexplained and spooky folklore. Thank you Linda.

  3. Oooh, this looks neat! I'm glad I read your review, I saw that you read it on my Goodreads feed, but I really had no idea where Lewis would take this book. Sounds fantastic!

    1. It is neat Michele. Thanks for stopping by to read the review. I think students who like monsters good and bad are going to love this. It would be a great book for storytellers to use for references.