Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review of Curse of the Night Wolf by Paul Stewart

Stewart, Paul and Chris Riddell. Curse of the Night Wolf. David Fickling Books/Random House, 2008.

This first installment in the Barnaby Grimes series starts like this:

“Have you ever felt your skin being peeled slowly away from your arms and legs? Your muscles being torn and shredded as every bone in your body fights to burst through your flesh? Have you ever felt every tendon and sinew stretched to breaking point as your skeleton attempts to rip itself apart from the inside?

I have, and I’ll never forget it.”

With that, we are whirled into the action-packed Victorian London life of a certain young Barnaby Grimes, a young tick-tock lad whose job it is to hand-deliver messages to and from people all over London. He often employs the rooftops as a shortcut, spinning and leaping his way along the skyline of London in a practice known as “highstacking.”

In the course of his duties, Barnaby has a near-death encounter with a wolf. Soon, it is evident that this wolf has something to do with a rather dodgy doctor who has been administering doses, free of charge, of a miraculous elixir to some of the poorest and loneliest folks in town. Barnaby investigates, and eventually finds himself in that appalling situation described in the first few pages as he is transformed into a wolf himself.

Barnaby is a daring and intrepid lad who knows London – a rather fantastical and gravity-defying version of it, anyway – backwards and forwards. Full of pluck and plenty of hints about intriguing and outlandish adventures in his past, he caroms around his city like a Dickensian guttersnipe, wearing ragged yet raffish clothes (his extremely tall stove-pipe hat is a wonder) and bearing a slender swordstick at all times.

At 205 pages, this is a fairly short fantasy (much shorter than your average Edge Chronicles installment), and the large font size and small trim size make for a quick and breezy read. Reluctant readers who find themselves sucked in by Barnaby’s fast-paced adventures will find themselves challenged – hopefully pleasantly – by Barnaby’s employment of rather ornate and colorful turns of phrase, and by some unusual vocabulary. Running across a pair of young river-toughs with chin tattoos who threaten him with their swordsticks, he addresses them thus – “’No need for roustabouts, my dear ink-chins,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you sheathe up your slicers, I’ll sheathe up mine – and I’ll be on my way.’”

I’m betting that the large font, enticing opening, and colorful characters will lure kids in and that they’ll keep reading even when they encounter words and phrases that challenge them. Kids don’t need to know what “foppish, if tatty, double-knotted cravats and embroidered waistcoats” look like in order to savor the description of the two river-toughs – and if they wish, they can check out the detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell, which pepper the book and bring Barnaby’s grimy, intriguing London to life.

Hopefully we’ll learn more about Barnaby’s home life, as well as some of those adventures he hints at so tantalizingly, in the next installment. Recommended for grades 4 to 6.

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