CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 35. . . .May 11, 2018
The Creature of the Pines. (The Unicorn Rescue Society).
Adam Gidwitz. Illustrated by Hatem Aly.
New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2018.
167 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Cate Carlyle.
The professor led the group to the beginning of a trail. An old map, tattered, yellowed and torn straight through the middle, was pinned to a crumbling plywood bulletin board. Elliot stopped and squinted up at the map.
What are you doing?” Uchenna asked.
“I like to memorize maps when I go somewhere new, so I’ll know how to make an escape,” Elliot replied.
“Why would you need to make an escape?” said Uchenna.
“You never know.”
“How true,” said a deep voice behind them. They spun around. The professor was peering down from under his weed-like eyebrows. “You may indeed need to make an escape from the Pine Barrens, for as I have said, they can be deadly. But don’t bother trying to memorize that map. Between the many forkings of the roads, and the fire cuts that look like roads but are not, it is almost impossible to find your way out. It is almost like…a trap.” Professor Fauna smiled at them broadly, and then suddenly turned away.
Elliot and Uchenna watched the professor start for the woods. “Why would he say that?” Elliot asked. “Teachers are supposed to be reassuring. That was the opposite of reassuring.”
Uchenna just stared after the professor, shaking her head. “They say his office is a torture chamber, under the school. No one’s allowed in it. Even the janitors.”
“Also,” she added, “I heard he believes in unicorns.”
Elliot Eisner is the new kid at school, starting three weeks late and subjected to a field trip on his first day. Nervous and unhappy, he would much rather be at home reading. Elliot’s luck soon changes when he takes a seat on the bus next to Uchenna Devereaux. Uchenna has a cool punk rock vibe, and she and Elliot quickly bond over the fact that she was once the new kid starting late too. Their teacher, Miss Vole, brings Professor Mito Fauna along on their field trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrens to share his expertise in social studies with the class. Whereas Miss Vole is the typical caricature of an elementary teacher, meek and condescending with a high-pitched irritating voice and an overprotective nature, the Peruvian professor is a unique otherworldly presence. Tall and imposing, Professor Fauna makes a big impression on the class with his thick beard and wild hair that “stood up from his scalp like he was in the habit of kissing eels.” Professor Fauna is constantly frustrated with Miss Vole’s antiquated teaching style and tells the class that “your teacher is one of those ignorant people who believe that just because something is a myth, it cannot also be true. I have decided that you should not listen to your teacher!”
The adventure truly begins when Uchenna strays from the beaten path while following the class through the woods. When Elliot hears her screams, he, too, ventures off the path into the deep forest and finds Uchenna helping a creature tangled in ribbons. The mythical creature, a Jersey Devil, has blue fur, a red belly, red wings and the face of a tiny dragon on the body of a small deer. The devil attaches itself to the pair after it develops a taste for the bars Elliot’s mom baked for his field trip, and the pair name him “Jersey”. After catching up with the class, they all head into a cabin in the woods to listen to Dr. Thomas, Professor Fauna’s old friend. Dr. Thomas gives the students a brief American history lesson, as well as a lesson on diversity and human rights, and regales them with tales of the Jersey Devil. The class then returns to the school bus, ready to return home. The Jersey Devil sniffs out Elliot’s treats and climbs aboard the bus to find refuge in Uchenna’s backpack. Once back at the school, Jersey spends the remainder of the afternoon hidden in the backpack before escaping from the pack as Uchenna and Elliot walk home. Worried for Jersey’s safety, the pair approach Professor Fauna on the street with their secret and enlist his help in finding the little devil (it is not easy finding a creature who can suddenly become invisible!). Professor Fauna, Uchenna and Elliot eventually track Jersey to the grounds of the Schmoke Brothers’ mansion. Professor Fauna warns the children that the Schmoke Brothers are local billionaire industrialists who collect rare fauna and that they are evil and not to be trusted. As the Schmoke Bothers’ butler Phipps chases Professor Fauna, Uchenna, Elliot and Jersey through the billionaires’ greenhouse, it becomes clear that the brothers would love to get their hands on a prize like a Jersey Devil. All great adventures feature evil villains and these two brothers seem to fit the bill. When Jersey is finally apprehended and safely back in the children’s custody, the Professor invites Elliot and Uchenna to join his super-secret Unicorn Rescue Society. The duo accept the invitation, and the stage is set for more books to come in the adventure series.
American author Adam Gidwitz’s The Creature of the Pines is a fun, fast moving tale for middle graders with something for everyone. The tale is told in the third person, chapters are brief (two or three pages) and the action is nonstop. Each character is unique and interesting; Uchenna is the sassy cool girl who writes songs, Elliot is the cautious nerdy boy, Miss Vole is the quirky elementary teacher, and Professor Fauna is his own strange and mysterious super-heroesque character. There are plenty of fart and pee jokes, mythical creatures, a secret society and evil villains to satisfy an audience of young readers. Canadian illustrator Hatem Aly’s cartoon style black and white illustrations add to the narrative and are an important feature for readers transitioning to longer chapter books and independent reading. Gidwitz has also teamed with Mixtape Club to create an interactive website. Readers can join the Unicorn Rescue Society for free and read excerpts online or listen to audio clips from the book. Animated shorts featuring Uchenna and Elliot are also available on the site or on YouTube. The bonus chapter in the back of the book provides entry into the next book in the series, The Basque Dragon. The Unicorn Rescue Society could easily become an animated television series or movie and will no doubt garner many devoted fans as the series unfolds and tracks the adventures of Uchenna, Elliot, the Professor, the rest of the secret society, and those evil Schmoke Brothers. Parents, librarians and teachers alike will also enjoy reading this book aloud and appreciate the opportunities to expand on the themes of mythology, culture and environmental issues featured throughout.
Cate Carlyle is a former elementary teacher currently residing in Halifax, NS, where she is an author and librarian at Mount Saint Vincent University. She has yet to spot a unicorn, but not for lack of trying.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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