Fuse #8

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Review of the Day: The Spiderwick Chronicles - Care and Feeding of Sprites

The Spiderwick Chronicles: Care and Feeding of Sprites by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. Simon and Schuster. $15.99

I have fond memories of growing up reading various Flower Fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker as a child. Remember the Flower Fairies? The books were small child-sized creations containing intricate and elaborate illustrations of fairy children wearing wings and a variety of pedals, berries, and leaves. A bit short on text, those books kept me enchanted for hours (time that was intended to be used for napping). Now I am old, still unable to nap, and just as enchanted by realistic looking magical critters with wings as I ever was. Like most sane members of humanity, I was charmed by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s remarkable, “Spiderwick Chronicles” and, like every child who has fallen in love with them, I am sad that there have only been five proper books. Oh sure, there was, “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide To the Fantastical World Around You”, but that was more clever ephemera than any kind of narrative continuity. So using my admittedly limited definition, “Care and Feeding of Sprites” is not a real book either. It does include a little information about what some of the Grace clan members are up to today, but by and large it comes off more as an incredibly life-like and believable How-To guide on sprite maintenance. By the time you're halfway through the first page, however, you simply do not care.

Divided into fifteen sections, “Care and Feeding of Sprites” put together a variety of information so as to inform and aid those lovers of these unique little pets. Meticulously illustrated to even the minutest detail, Black and DiTerlizzi give readers an up close and personal look at sprite life. Everything from “Obtaining Your Sprite” to “Housing Your Sprite” to the eye-opening, “What Is Not a Sprite” offers newbie sprite owners just the kinds of tips and tricks they’ll need to keep these elusive little creatures in check. As it concludes with the Mission Statement of The Spiderwick International Sprite League, those who read the book cover to cover will gain a full appreciation for the rewards that come with being the right kind of sprite owner.

And the pictures? Oh the pictures. Ooooooh the pictures. First of all, I’d like to credit the team of DiTerlizzi and Black for realizing something that only a few truly clever marketing whizzes are apparently aware of; the more realistic a fantasy book feels, the more kids will adore it. Why do you think Ernest Drake's “Dragonology” sells so well in the stores, eh? It is, to my mind, part of the reason for Tolkein’s popularity. Create your own language and watch your fans multiply accordingly. The authors of this particular guide nail down right from the start just how realistic they want this book to be and then play along accordingly. As such, the first two pages are more key and definition of symbols than anything else. Latin names, details of a “distinguishing physical feature” or two, and even body height in millimeters are accounted for. Then you’ve symbols for the sprites' preferred habitat, primary locomotion, general disposition, and additional traits (explaining whether or not they are prone to steal infants, sing, or merely think they can sing). Got all that? Good, because that’s when Mr. DiTerlizzi really gets to work. We get front views, side views, and elaborate explanations of anatomy. As the book progresses, inserts display how one can determine sprite gender (answer: “Your best means is asking. Politely.”). And in the illustrator’s watercolors come magical creatures of ever color, shape, size, and mannerism. The man is at his best here.

A person might be fooled into believing that a guide book of this sort would be wholly reliant on DiTerlizzi’s pretty pretty pictures. A person would be askew in their assumptions. Not to say that Mr. DiTerlizzi (a.k.a. the hardest working man in kidlit) doesn’t bend over backwards to meld together human, insect, and vegetation in a wholly convincing manner. It’s just that alongside his pics are Holly Black’s funny and, dare I say, well-researched instructions. I can only assume that the woman in question went out, found numerous pet caring guides (perhaps regarding rare or exotic species) and studied them to the hilt before writing this book. Always accepting the natural professional tone adapted for this book, Black manages to balance “interesting” with “oddly informative” alongside a healthy smattering of “funny”. There are words of caution that inform readers about the dangers of buying your sprite through online dealers, why a dollhouse is not ideal housing for sprites, and how to give your sprite the optimum in entertainment. The warnings are funny. The tips are funny. And “The Many Moods of Your Sprite” is so good that you’re really going to have to see it for yourself to appreciate it.

Of course, Black and DiTerlizzi’s book isn’t the first of its kind. It’s just the best at what it does. I well remember Terry Gilliam’s, Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, in all its raucous grotesque one-joke glee. “Care and Feeding of Sprites” is reminiscent of that, but far better in the end. Gee whiz, how to best convince you that your kids might actually learn something from this book? Ah… how about this: they’ll willingly learn terms like thorax, tympana, and sepals without so much as a sigh. It’s just a sweet ride through and through. An oddly informative amusing text with more intelligence wrapped in it than it has any right to contain. Even if you’ve never read a single “Spiderwick” book in your life but you still harbor a sweet spot for well-thought out fantasy lit, you cannot go wrong with this book.

On shelves, oddly enough, December 26, 2006


At 11:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony's illustrations never fail to impress me. From The Spider and the Fly, throughout the Spiderwick series . . . Tony, I give you the John Tenniel Rights to draw me a griffin (gryphon) on my walls. Please?

Oh, and when S&F came out and I was handselling it and reading it at Storytime, I was SHOCKED by how many parents had never heard of it. Never. Not once. "Is that new?" "Oh, that story sounded like a poem!" *shakes head*

- Little Willow


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