Book Review: Spiderwick Chronicles

This set of children’s books is about to release as a feature film starring Freddy Highmore, who, I’m sure, will do a super job. Our eldest first found the Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, and being in the middle of an all-things-fairy phase, latched on to the gorgeous illustrations and interesting descriptions. As I often do, I borrowed the books in the five volume set to read ahead and get a sense of whether they were appropriate for her age and reading level. Where the Guide itself is terrific, the actual stories are rather simple and a bit of a disappointment.

The Field Guide is a great addition to any child’s library if there is any interest in fantasy, fantastical creatures, or fairies.  The five stories – Field Guide, Seeing Stone, Lucinda’s Secret, The Ironwood Tree, and The Wrath of Mulgarath – are not as gripping a collection.  The story lines are pretty skeletal and there are a lot of gaps – almost as though the story started out more complex and detailed but some editor whacked out a lot of the good bits.  They’re great to borrow from the library but I can’t see getting a set to keep.  The death of numerous household pets seems a bit unnecessary, and the death of large numbers of magical creatures (like the dwarf massacre at the end of book 4) are rather brutish.  It’s not that it’s entirely inappropriate; it’s just not very well developed.  I find this sort of book a challenge: the content skews older (the use of the word “crappier”, the hints of teenage love interests, the rather brutal deaths) but the writing skews younger.  Simon & Schuster, the publishers, suggest a reading age of 9-12.  Renaissance Learning gives the Field Guide a point value of 8, but the Field Guide story only a 4.2, both for “middle grades”.  So if you’ve got an older reader, even in the Simon & Schuster suggested range, they may not find the stories very challenging.

Like many books tied to movies, they’re now publishing Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles, and re-releasing “movie versions” of the original stories.  This is one film that I expect will be better than the books, but after reading the set, I can’t see how they’ll squeeze a full feature film out of them.

Some other choices for a young reader looking for better-written fantasy?  The Emily Rodda Rowan of Rin or Fairy Realm series, Septimus Heap by Angie Sage, are good choices.  I’ve got another young reader working through the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and he adores the adventure.

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