3 out of 4 stars
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"Curiouser and curiouser", while commonly used to describe Alice's Wonderland, could also be a phrase to summarize Carmela Tal Baron's fanciful book, Down the Monster Hole, or Don't Be Afraid I Am Only a Child. This book meant for the young and young-at-heart tells the story of Tom as he gets lost in a wondrous world full of shape-shifting vehicles, talking animals, and singing flowers while trying to win the crown of "The Utmost Monstrous Monster in the Kingdom of Monsters".
Having fought off some "evil" clocks, our young morning-hating protagonist gets in trouble in school and running off, finds himself in a very unusual world. After being admitted into the Kingdom of Monsters, Tom is charged with finding the Dragon King, which would earn him the aforementioned title. It is while trying to reach this goal that Tom meets an interesting array of characters, including Rhino, Hippo (their actual names), and Ear-El, the giant red cockroach. There are also a huge shark named Jack, a royal guardian - part elephant, part lion, part eagle, and part whale - dubbed "Every-where", and a beautiful flower called "Seven". Gurgle, the talkative giraffe, and Bluebeard, the witch, are other characters that Tom meets along the way, all of whom teach Tom important lessons about life in very creative ways.
As in Alice in Wonderland, the outlandish but interesting characters - briefly mentioned above - don't always talk in a straightforward manner. I often found myself scratching my head at their riddles and cryptic ways of talking. Even so, like Tom, I also nodded my head at some of the wisdom being put forth by this motley crew. One of my favorite messages was acceptance of everyone and their unique talents, driven home by the inclusion of a kind cockroach, one of the most-hated creatures in our real world.
Overall, I thought that the author was very inventive, and I was in awe of all of the scenes she came up with, not to mention the world-building that she did and the puzzles that she created. While following along on Tom's journey, I was very much reminded of the fun houses in the amusement parks that I visited as a child. My favorite part was the section where Tom met Rhino and Hippo, but I also had a special fondness for the chapter listing the Membership Rules in the Kingdom Monsters, the scene where Tom attends Hippo's Feast, and the part where Jack the Shark Teaches Tom a Lesson in Friendship (all capitalizations are chapter titles). The chapter titled "The Seventh Meeting" also struck a cord with me, though I don't know that the lesson contained therein will stick.
Throughout the book were pictures that heightened the sense of wonder, many of them drawn in a watercolor-like motif. Unfortunately, the styles of the pictures varied in such a way that even while I enjoyed them, I thought that some of them just didn't quite fit. Since the author also illustrated the book, I urge her to pick one style and stick with it; doing so will definitely up her illustrating game.
The author filled this tale with flowery writing befitting such a story, and I couldn't wait to see what whimsical words would be next. Unfortunately, the grammar wasn't as fabulous, as there were errors galore. Most of the missteps included punctuation mistakes, but there were also compound words written as two words and vice-versa, awkward phrasing, and sentences that should have started new paragraphs or been part of the previous paragraph. Additionally, there were several inconsistencies. For instance, in one scene, Hippo says not to tell anyone about the monsters and their land, but then the giraffe says, "“My dear monster-in-training, may your neck stretch out longer and longer until you can see what the neighborhood kids are up to on the roof, and then tell the other kids waiting in the courtyard downstairs what you have seen.”" Lastly, the uniformity of writing sometimes fell off; for the most part, Tom's thoughts were italicized, but then there were parts when they weren't, taking me a little aback.
I had to think for a while to settle on a final score since half-stars aren't allowed. I almost went with two because of the pictures, but I finally decided that this book is worthy of more, so I went with 3 out of 4 stars for Down the Monster Hole. I also have no hesitations recommending this tome to fans of Lewis Carroll and fish-out-of-water stories as well as readers who enjoy enigmatic language. The language used was also fairly complex, so while it's a child-like tale, only older children will be able to enjoy it without having to constantly turn to a dictionary. Grown-ups who never actually grew up will also like this.
"Have I gone mad?"
"I'm afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are."
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Down the Monster Hole
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