Of Knights and Pirates

NOTE:  The following books were free copies sent to me by Owl Kids, for review.  I received no compensation for my review, nor have I in any way been influenced by Owl Kids regarding the nature of my review.

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Richard Thake.  Sir Seth Thistlethwaite and the Soothsayer’s Shoes.  Illus. Vince Chui.  Toronto:  Owlkids Books, Inc., 2010.

I can barely say the title in my head 🙂  Thake’s first Sir Seth book is full of amusing alliterative action – on a splendid Saturday morning, best friends Seth Thistlethwaite and Ollie Everghettz set out to the creepy kingdom of High Dungeon, where they must survive saber-toothed sloths, outwit evil bog weevils, and crack a centuries-old curse.  For they are the Mighty Knights of Right and Honor, trusted “to seek out injustice and uphold fair play and rescue fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons”…  You know, famous knight stuff.

The story reminds me somewhat of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, with its smilingly self-aware style that sounds exactly like something from a ten-year-old’s imagination.  It’s as if Seth and Ollie themselves are making up the plot as they go along (though not quite as randomly as the writers of The Exquisite Corpse).  Even the chapter titles have that goofy sense of humor (Chapter 4: “Boo! Hiss! It’s Prince Quincy!”).

And because of that make-believe game style, the story can get away with a few minor issues – a moment of contradiction toward the end, and a resolution that seems a bit too easy.  Overall, Sir Seth is a fun light read.

Frieda Wishinsky.  Canadian Flyer Adventures: Beware, Pirates!  Illus. Dean Griffiths.  Toronto:  Maple Tree Press, 2007.

While exploring the attic-tower in her family’s new house, Emily and her new friend Matt find an old sled left by Emily’s Great-Aunt Miranda.  “Fly it to wonderful adventures,” says Miranda’s mysterious note – and that’s exactly what Emily and Matt do!  The sled flies them back in time, to a 16th-century pirate ship headed for Canada’s Arctic eastern lands.

Soon they meet Minik, a young Inuit who says his friend is held prisoner on the ship.  Can Matt and Emily help him?

The Canadian Flyer series takes Matt and Emily to various points in North American history, from the age of Leif Eriksson and the Vikings, to the Klondike Gold Rush, to Alberta’s dinosaur days.  It’s definitely a cool concept, but – at least in this first book – not very well executed.

One of the biggest issues was the too-fast pacing.  I found it unrealistic that the kids automatically assumed that “Fly it to wonderful adventures” literally meant the sled was magic, and then immediately decided to test it out.  That just doesn’t seem realistic for kids that age – if they were younger, maybe, or if it was established that they’d already had experience with magic.  Otherwise, their literal reading of Great Aunt Miranda’s note just felt like an awkward way to speed the plot along.

There’s also the extremely exposition-ey dialogue.  For instance, here is part of the children’s first conversation with the pirate captain:

“Then you have surely heard of my exploits in the service of our good Queen Elizabeth.”

“Yes,” said Emily.

“You know that the Queen personally bid us farewell before our first expedition in 1576—only one year ago,” said Captain Frobisher.  “The Queen has great confidence in the success of this, our second expedition.”*

In these moments, the story is trying much too hard to be educational, at the expense of believable characterization.  What captain would actually talk like that to a pair of stowaway children he’s just discovered?

And then there’s the “Good old magic” that acts like an easy plot device or an easy way for the kids to overcome obstacles (how will Emily and Matt communicate with Minik, and vice versa?  Magic!  No language barrier!), or even as an excuse for Matt to use his digital voice recorder for no really important reason.

Yes, it’s a fantasy, but unless it’s being self-consciously and/or humorously random, even fantasy should have some stable, reality-based boundaries.  Yes, it’s a book targeted to young readers, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a more complex, more gently paced plot with more difficult obstacles.

That said, I would be interested in seeing how the style progresses in the later Canadian Flyer stories.   In the latest book, Arctic Storm, Emily and Matt must help a team of researchers studying climate change in the Far North.  The team has lost their supplies and a boy travelling with them is sick – and there’s a bad storm coming.

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Thank you, once again, to Owl Kids for sharing the following books with me!

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* Beware, Pirates!  pages 16-17.

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