The sad demise of Jack Pumpkinhead from The Land of Oz

A boy with magic powder. A scarecrow come to life. An adventure through Oz. And a death with barely a passing mention. This is the tale of Jack Pumpkinhead, a character I quickly fell in love with, but who met a sad demise at the hands of his author.

Jack Pumpkinhead was a character introduced in The Land of Oz, the first sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1904. I bought the book on a whim at a used bookstore for $20, and was entranced by the delightful world L. Frank Baum created. Jack is a lovely character, my favorite from the story, but his fate bothered me. As an author myself, one who has created numerous characters in numerous fantasy stories, I found that examining Jack’s arc revealed much about how to create, and how not to treat, one’s character.

Let’s jump in!

Cover of The Land of Oz

Tip manufactures a pumpkinhead

The Land of Oz is curious in that it doesn’t concern Dorothy, the Wizard of Oz, or even the Cowardly Lion. While the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman eventually feature prominently in the adventure, the tale doesn’t begin with them. Rather, we are introduced to Tip, a little boy under the care of a mean ol’ witch, Mombi.

Wanting to play a trick on Mombi, Tip carves a pumpkin, a “pumpkin-jack” as he calls it, then builds a spindly wooden body for the head. He puts clothes on the man, then proclaims:

“I must give him a name! So good a man as this must surely have a name. I believe I will name the fellow ‘Jack Pumpkinhead!'”

His creation finished, Tip waits until Mombi leaves the farm for business. Tip stands Jack Pumpkinhead near the road so as to scare Mombi on her way home.

Mombi, however, is not fooled, and decides to pull one over on Tip. She has just returned from a wizard’s home, where she traded goods for the Powder of Life. Wanting to see if the powder works, she sprinkles it on Jack, bringing him to life! Jack says a few words, testing his voice, then analyzes his situation:

“For although I feel that I know a tremendous lot, I am not yet aware of how much there is in the world to find out about. It will take me a little time to discover whether I am very wise or very foolish.”

Jack Pumpkinhead comes to life

Mombi secures Jack in the stable, then devises a punishment for Tip for his foolishness. She decides to turn him into a marble statue for trying to trick her, but her potion needs to cool before the transformation can take place. Mombi goes to bed, and Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead run away in the middle of the night.

And with that, Baum shows us what’s needed for a character to live: a body, a voice, a purpose, a name. These are the kind of stories I like. This character is what hooked me on this 113-year-old tale.

Jack learns to be alive

While on the road, Jack comes to grips with what it means to be alive. And he quickly realizes that he and humans are quite different:

“I don’t seem to be made the same way you are,” Jack said.

“I know you are not,” returned Tip; “for I made you.”

“Oh! Did you?” asked Jack.

“Certainly. And put you together. And carved your eyes and nose and ears and mouth,” Tip said proudly. “And dressed you.”

Jack looked at his body and limbs critically.

“It strikes me you made a very good job of it,” he remarked.

“Just so-so,” replied Tip, modestly; for he began to see certain defects in the construction of his man. “If I’d known we were going to travel together I might have been a little more particular.”

“Why, then,” said the Pumpkinhead, in a tone that expressed surprise, “you must be my creator–my parent–my father!”

“Or your inventor,” replied the boy with a laugh. “Yes, my son; I really believe I am!”

“Then I owe you obedience,” continued the man, “and you own me–support.”

Jack Pumpkinhead and Tip go for a walk.

While Jack recognizes that he is a creation, Tip seems not to understand the implications of creating life. Tip decides to go to the Emerald City, and along the way, teaches Jack how to be alive.

He tells Jack to sit and rest his joints, but when Jack tries, “he came clattering to the ground with such a crash that Tip feared he was entirely ruined.”

Tip decides to make a sawhorse for Jack to ride on. He creates a reasonable facsimile of a horse, then bemoans “And of course it can’t ever be alive, because it is made of wood.”

Jack points out, “So am I,” and Tip has some inkling that Jack really is alive. Tip uses the magic powder on the sawhorse. To make the magic work, Tip begins by saying the magic words:

“Teaugh!”

“What’s that, dear father?” inquired Jack.

“It means you must keep quiet!” replied the boy, provoked at being interrupted at so important a moment.

“How fast I am learning!” remarked the Pumpkinhead, with his eternal smile.

It’s scenes like this that make Jack an enduring personality. He’s overall portrayed as very stupid, yet he knows more than he thinks he knows, and often inadvertently says profound things.

While Tip is often quick to make snide comments about Jack’s lack of intelligence (“I think I understand,” Jack once said after a conversation about ears, Tip replied, “If you do, you’re a wonder. But there’s no harm in thinking you understand”), the story frequently reveals that those around Jack are just as stupid.

There’s a wonderful scene when the party arrives in the Emerald City and is taken to his Majesty, the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow, having received his diploma at the end of the first story, is supposed to be the one with brains. Jack, after all, has no brains inside his head. Yet the Scarecrow quickly proves that his intelligence is illusory:

The King was the first to speak. After regarding Jack for some minutes he said, in a tone of wonder:

“Where on earth did you come from, and how do you happen to be alive?”

“I beg your Majesty’s pardon,” returned the Pumpkinhead; “but I do not understand you.”

“What don’t you understand?” asked the Scarecrow.

“Why, I don’t understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner.”

“Ah, to be sure!” exclaimed the Scarecrow. “I myself speak the language of the Munchkins, which is also the language of the Emerald City. But you, I suppose, speak the language of the Pumpkinheads?”

“Exactly so, your Majesty,” replied the other, bowing; “so it will be impossible for us to understand one another.”

“That is unfortunate, certainly,” said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. “We must have an interpreter.”

Jack Pumpkinhead meets the Scarecrow

The two go back and forth for some time, “failing” to “understand” the other’s language, even though they are both speaking English. Through the intentional interpretation errors of a child, Jack inadvertently insults the King. The King then rudely condemns Jack for daring to be alive, and Jack, having no proper guide in Tip, sadly agrees with the assessment:

“This should be a warning to you never to think,” returned the Scarecrow, severely. “For unless one can think wisely it is better to remain a dummy–which you most certainly are.”

“I am!–I surely am!” agreed the Pumpkinhead.

“It seems to me,” continued the Scarecrow, more mildly, “that your manufacturer spoiled some good pies to create an indifferent man.”

“I assure your Majesty that I did not ask to be created,” answered Jack.

It’s at this point in the story that the insults on Jack’s intelligence, and his very being, his very existence, begin to pile up. Jack has the disposition of a carefree, optimistic, mentally-challenged child. And rather than celebrate his fragile, miraculous existence, those around him tear him down and afford him no respect.

And scenes like the previous make me ponder whether the author, Baum, understands what he’s created.

Jack discovers he’s mortal

From here, the story takes a dark turn. The Emerald City is overthrown by a usurper, the main characters are expelled, and they go on an adventure to find more friends and formulate a strategy to retake the city. Jack, meanwhile, realizes that unlike the Scarecrow, his life will not last forever.

While the group is in the castle, trying to escape, Jack remarks:

“Should I remain here a prisoner for any length of time,” protested Jack, “I’m liable to spoil.”

“Ah! then you would not be fit to associate with,” returned the Scarecrow. “The matter is more serious than I suspected.”

“You,” said the Pumpkinhead, gloomily, “are liable to live for many years. My life is necessarily short. So I must take advantage of the few days that remain to me.”

Whereas the Scarecrow is composed of dried straw and wood, Jack’s head was created with a fresh pumpkin, and pumpkins don’t last forever. The introduction of this element adds a lot of intrigue to the story, and raises the stakes considerably. If Jack really wants to be alive, he must also accept that all living things eventually die. Life is lived with this ever-present reality hanging over us all.

Throughout the journey, Jack has many brushes with death. Once, after falling, his head dislodges and falls into the water. “Dear me!” Jack said. “What a dreadful experience! I wonder if water is liable to spoil pumpkins? If water spoils pumpkins, then my days are numbered.”

Jack Pumpkinhead's head falls into the water.

Death permeates Jack’s every conversation. “I am in constant terror of the day when I shall spoil,” he says to the Tin Woodman.

Those around Jack constantly make light of his mortality. The Tin Woodman responds to Jack’s fear by saying, “Do not, I beg you, dampen today’s sun with the showers of tomorrow. For before your head has time to spoil you can have it canned, and in that way it may be preserved indefinitely.”

The irony of all this is that the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are both themselves creatures with unnatural bodies, yet they fancy themselves higher lifeforms than Jack, precisely because they contain no living flesh.

Yet isn’t Jack, with at least the most important part of his body made of living material, more alive than they?

All this discussion of Jack could easily be enhanced, had I the space, by referencing the numerous other creatures Tip brings to live, such as the wooden Saw-Horse, and an amalgamation of furniture called a Thing, or Gump. The Scarecrow even has a near-death experience when his stuffing is removed. His friends bail him out of that jam by stuffing him with money.

Toward the end of the book, it’s revealed that Tip is not a boy, but in fact Princes Ozma, heir to the throne. Old Mombi transformed Ozma into a boy when she was little to hide her. The witch transforms her back into a girl, to which Ozma’s first words are:

“I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know; only–only–”

“Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.

Somebody better versed in queer and gender theories than I could probably make much of the (unintentional?) transgender implications of this.

The end of Jack, barely a footnote

Ozma, formerly Tip, and her friends take back the kingdom, and the Queen begins her rule.

The Gump, a monstrosity constructed of furniture and a stag mount, makes a most unusual request:

“Please take me to pieces. I did not wish to be brought to life, and I am greatly ashamed of my conglomerate personality. Once I was a monarch of the forest, as my antlers fully prove; but now, in my present upholstered condition of servitude, I am compelled to fly through the air–my legs being of no use to me whatever. Therefore I beg to be dispersed.”

So Ozma ordered the Gump taken apart.

The Gump is more intimately aware of the wrongness of his existence than Jack is. Ozma, though, only partially complies with Gump’s request. She takes him apart, but puts the mount back on the wall, where the head “continued to talk whenever it took a notion to so.”

Jack’s fate is given scant attention, and we have no parting words from Jack or his creator:

Jack Pumpkinhead remained with Ozma to the end of his days; and he did not spoil as soon as he had feared, although he always remained as stupid as ever. The Woggle-Bug tried to teach him several arts and sciences; but Jack was so poor a student that any attempt to educate him was soon abandoned.

Having read that the first time, I was incensed. Baum had been building a powerful case for hundreds of pages about the aliveness and being of Jack, yet in the end, treated this character with disposable contempt. All of Jack’s friends, from Tip to the Scarecrow to the Tin Woodman, never seemed to grasp the significance of Jack’s life, and Tip seemed to take little responsibility for his role as creator, as father, of Jack.

While I’m not suggesting Jack should’ve lived forever–the rotting pumpkin for a head was indeed a problem–I would’ve liked the character to be treated with a little more care, a little more dignity.

I also didn’t have a problem with Jack’s lack of intelligence, but I did have a problem with his companions constantly knocking him for it. In today’s parlance, it’s easy to see how Jack was bullied for his stupidity. Yet Jack is never vindicated, even though a strong case can be made that all other characters, especially the fabled intelligent Scarecrow, are just as, if not more, foolish than Jack.

However, I have newfound anticipation for the character’s future. Apparently he returns in four more Oz books: The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, and the final Oz book, The Runaway in Oz.

How the character comes to grips with his mortality, and how those around him view him, remains to be seen. Despite the character’s unfortunate demise at the hands of Baum, and his terrible treatment by those around him, Jack Pumpkinhead is a stellar example of the power of life, whatever form it takes.

~Dennis

The Indian in the Cupboard books ranked

When I was a kid, I loved The Indian in the Cupboard series. The premise is simple: put a plastic toy in a cupboard, turn the magic key, and the toy comes to life. As a kid who spent countless hours playing with action figures, this fantasy was very attractive to me.

During a recent move, I uncovered many of my childhood books, and I thought, How well has this series aged? Would I still enjoy it?

After reading through the five-book series again (reading the fifth book for the first time even!) I’d like to share my thoughts on which books are best, and why.

Minor spoilers for each book follows:

The Indian in the Cupboard (1981)

The tale starts innocently enough. Omri gets a beat-up medicine cabinet from his brother for his birthday. He puts a plastic Indian in at night, and when he’s awoken by a shrill, tinny voice, he learns the Indian has come alive.

Omri brings Little Bear to life; Indian in the Cupboard

Omri brings Little Bear to life. Illustration by Brock Cole.

The wonder and amazement that Omri feels is contagious. He can’t stop thinking about the cupboard, even at school. He plays with the Indian, Little Bear, outside, but soon Little Bear is hurt, requiring the medical attention of another toy figure, this time a military medic.

Omri’s idiotic friend Patrick brings a cowboy to life, Boone, who immediately shoots Patrick, then later gets into a fight with Little Bear.

The boys learn soon enough that these are not toys, that they are real people that bleed real blood, and they must be treated as such. It’s a fitting message, and the boys send the toys back to their own times, vowing to never use the cupboard again.

One fundamental problem with the series as a whole is that the boys never learn their lessons, and continually create flimsy excuses for bringing the toys back to life. Their ignorance, though, is somewhat forgiven in this first book: how could Omri have known what was going to happen when he put the toys in the cupboard?

Because of the magic and wonder of this first tale, and the boys’ innocence in bringing the toys to life in the first place, I rank this book second out of five.

Rank: 2

The Return of the Indian (1986)

In the first book, Omri wrote a short story about an Indian in the cupboard: cribbed from reality, unbeknownst to his teachers and parents. The second book begins when Omri wins a contest for the story, as well as a cash prize. Excited by the news, Omri brings the cupboard out of storage to get an update from Little Bear, only to find that Little Bear’s tribe of Iroquois are under attack by colonials.

Vowing to help them, Omri uses the cupboard to bring modern soldiers to life, then brings many more Iroquois to life. A military commander, Fickits, teaches the Iroquois how to use machine guns, and it’s here that the story goes off the rails. Omri and Patrick learned the lesson (many times over) in the first book that these are real people, not toys. So Omri, whether he admits it or not (he reluctantly reflects on his actions only when people get hurt), he participates in war where real people get hurt and die.

Matron helps Little Bear; The Return of the Indian

Matron helps Little Bear. Illustration by William Geldart.

This book also introduces the concept of traveling through time the other way: Omri goes in a large chest, and using the magic key, Patrick sends Omri back to Little Bear’s time. Omri appears as a painting on the side of a tepee, and thus his experience in Little Bear’s world is minimal, but this plot device will dominate much of the narrative action in later books.

The book ends with skinheads breaking into Omri’s house to rob him. Omri brings the toy soldiers back to life to fight off the skinheads, damaging his house in the process.

Because of the amount of killing and violence in this book, I think this is my least favorite in the series. Not because I have anything against violent media, per se. Rather, it’s the casualness with which the kids decide to intervene in history, bringing modern weapons back to colonial times, to fight a battle they were never a part of. And while the skinheads are unsympathetic criminals, the boys go overboard in bringing real soldiers through the cupboard to fight them.

The boys relearn the lesson about the little people being real people. They vow not to send “now-guns” back with Little Bear, though they make no vows regarding the future of the cupboard.

Rank: 5

The Secret of the Indian (1989)

The third book picks off right where the last one left off. Omri and Patrick explain to Omri’s parents, and then the police, what happened with the skinheads. Meanwhile, a dozen Indians, plus the nurse Matron, are still in Omri’s room. The Indians are recovering from the vicious battle of the last book, and Matron is needed to help them heal.

Omri and Patrick decide they must stay with the Indians and Matron till everybody is recovered, then send them back to their old time.

But Patrick, being Patrick, is selfish and wants to travel back to Boone the cowboy’s time, just as Omri traveled back to Little Bear’s time in the last book. He whines that Omri got to go back to Little Bear’s time, and he won’t shut up until Omri sends Patrick back to Boone’s time.

Honestly, Patrick has gotta be the worst character in the series. He constantly has to relearn the lesson that the little people are real people, and that they can’t be toyed with. For all of Omri’s faults on this matter, Patrick is ten times worse.

Little Bear sees Boone injured in bed; The Secret of the Indian

Little Bear greets an injured Boone. Illustration by Ted Lewin.

Patrick wakes up in the desert southwest as a tiny person. He has a few misadventures with Boone, then things turn serious as a tornado in Boone’s time arises directly in their path.

Omri, unable to hide Patrick any longer (Patrick has been missing for a couple days, raising the suspicions of both Omri and Patrick’s families), just so happens to bring Patrick back to the modern time at the exact moment the tornado barreled down on him.

Completely by accident, the tornado also gets sucked into modern times, destroys Omri’s house, then proceeds to cut a path through London, causing astronomical property damage.

This book starts out well enough: it addresses the events of the last book, and shows that there are real consequences to Omri’s meddling in the past. And while Boone himself is a highly enjoyable character, the entire business with Patrick going into Boone’s time is completely unnecessary.

There’s no way Omri could’ve known that a tornado could get sucked through time, so the damage to his house and London isn’t entirely on his shoulders. That said, Omri and Patrick should have more than enough evidence at this point to convince them that the cupboard should never be fooled around with again.

Rank: 4

The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993)

By the time the fourth book comes around, the shtick of the series has worn off. We know that no matter what Omri and Patrick do, they cannot resist bringing the little people back even for a visit. Such actions inevitably lead to conflict and strife.

How refreshing it is, then, that the fourth book features almost no cupboard magic! Crazy, right? The entire series is about bringing toys to life, and yet, the fourth book throws out this formula entirely to tell a new kind of story, which I so love.

Since Omri’s house was completely destroyed in the last book, the family needs a new place to live. Coincidentally, Omri’s mother inherits a country longhouse from a distant relative, and the family leaves the bustle of London for quiet, pastoral hills.

Omri has deposited the cupboard in the bank, finally realizing that the cupboard should not be played with. He appears to have truly learned his lesson.

The titular mystery begins when thatchers repair the old house’s roof. Omri digs through the discarded thatch and discovers a journal of his relative Jessica Charlotte, an actress and fortuneteller who was the black sheep of Omri’s mother’s family.

Through the journal, Omri learns about his family’s past, conflict between members, and Jessica’s fortunetelling powers. Omri also learns that she was the one who created the magic key, the very same key that makes the cupboard work.

While this book has very little action or conflict in the modern setting, it’s so interesting to read the backstory of the cupboard, and of the woman that made it all possible.

After finishing the journal, Omri can’t help but use the cupboard again to bring the little people to life, the very people discussed in Jessica’s journal. In a 246 page book, the cupboard is first used on page 176! And the book does not suffer as a result.

Omri and Patrick meet Jessica Charlotte; The Mystery of the Cupboard

Omri and Patrick meet Jessica. Illustration by Tom Newsom.

I’ve often wished that authors of genre fiction would take greater risks in successive works. Instead of repeating the same formula ad nauseam, put the characters in new situations to see what they would do.

Considering that this tale is carried largely through flashbacks, and not use of the cupboard, this book really establishes how strong of a character Omri is, despite his faults.

There’s also a fun meta-moment when Omri brings Jessica herself through the cupboard. The book veers into time travel confusion territory here, as Jessica’s becoming small was instrumental in giving her the idea of making the key, which was necessary for all of this to happen in the first place.

The book also has a touching side story about an old man named Tom who had a little woman of his own, whom he married and lived with for several decades until her unfortunate death.

Obviously this book wouldn’t exist without the first one. Even still, this is my favorite book of the series, precisely because it is so different than all the rest.

Rank: 1

The Key to the Indian (1998)

The major cliffhanger of the fourth book was Omri’s dad accidentally discovering the magic of the cupboard when he cleaned up Omri’s room, put the toys inside, and turned the key.

This book begins with Omri explaining to his dad everything that’s happened. And he takes it surprisingly well.

At first, this concept is exciting. It’s good for Omri to have somebody to share the secret with other than Patrick and Patrick’s cousin. While Omri’s dad is a bit too eager to use the cupboard at times, he seems to understand intuitively that it is not a toy.

Omri's dad and Omri meet Jessica Charlotte; The Key to the Indian

Omri introduces his dad to Jessica Charlotte. Illustration by James Watling.

However, Omri uses the cupboard to bring back Little Bear, and Little Bear once again reports that he’s having a problem. This time the British are attacking the Iroquois, and Little Bear needs Omri’s help to fight them back.

The book regresses to the same struggle as the second book. We already learned before that a modern man like Omri shouldn’t mess with events in the past. In fact, in the fourth book, Omri attempts to change history once again, albeit on a smaller scale (and luckily for Omri, his plan didn’t work properly, conveniently keeping the status quo of the timestream).

Omri’s dad researches everything he can about the Iroquois and their struggle with the British. He and Omri then conduct an elaborate plan to go back to Little Bear’s time.

Omri recruits the help of Patrick who once again proves that he’s more of a liability than an asset, as he immediately whines about not being able to go back to Little Bear’s time.

While Omri and his dad never should’ve gone back to Little Bear’s time, it is exciting to see Little Bear in his element, to catch up with him after his absence in book four. It makes me wish for a book solely about Little Bear’s adventures, sans Omri.

Omri and his dad are naturally tiny, and unable to really do anything to help Little Bear. The chief asks Omri over and over again for help with fighting the British, and the best Omri’s dad can come up with is encouraging the Iroquois to go north to Canada, where they will be safest (though not safe) from the white man.

Considering that’s all Omri and dad accomplish, it makes you wonder why they went back to Little Bear’s time to begin with. Couldn’t they have just brought Little Bear back through the cupboard, read to him from the history books, and left it alone?

The author tries to give Omri something else to do when the British attack the Indian camp. Omri alerts the Indian women that a baby is in a burning longhouse, and Omri’s dancing in front of some soldiers scares them into (briefly) dropping their arms. But other than that, Omri and his dad accomplish very little in returning to Little Bear’s time.

Upon returning, they discover that Patrick has been dinking around with the cupboard on his own time. He brought back Boone and wife Ruby Lou, put them in the bathtub in a toy boat, then promptly lost them down the bathtub drain when the family cat Kitsa came into the bathroom and attacked the little people. It’s all so unnecessary and superfluous, and only serves to reinforce that Patrick is a moron.

Rank: 3

At this point, the Indian series has run its course. The concept of bringing toys to life, and the parallel concept of sending people back in time via the key, seems to have been explored to its potential. I thoroughly enjoyed the series upon rereading them, despite the stupidity of the boys.

It’ll probably be some time before I read through all five books again. If I get the urge to return to this world, I’ll pick up books one and four and leave the rest alone.

Maybe when I have my own kids and they turn 8 or 9 or 10 years old, I’ll introduce a new generation to these characters!

~Dennis

Review: Are the Star Wars Little Golden Books Appropriate for Kids?

As the world approached the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015, Disney got a several month jump start on merchandising. Star Wars products started appearing everywhere, on everything. I was quite surprised to find that Star Wars had even taken over my local grocery store!

Next to the birthday cards was a little stand with Little Golden Books, that generations-old beloved children’s series. Among the 30 or so titles were Star Wars books! One for each movie!

The artwork in these books is great, but immediately a question arose in my mind: is Star Wars the best series to adapt for books largely targeted at preschoolers? All the films are there: even Revenge of the Sith, which is rated PG-13.

I love Star Wars, and I loved it as a child. But I wasn’t exposed to it until I was about 8 or 9 (and this was before the Prequel Trilogy came out).

After purchasing the books, and then reading them several times (they don’t take long), I’ve concluded that these adaptations are ultimately unsuccessful. The violence is toned down, so on that front, they are “safe” for kids. However, the Prequel Trilogy is so convoluted that I’m still not sure, after 15 years of puzzling over it, I understand all the plot points.

Boiling these complicated films down to 23-page stories for children is challenging. Let’s look at each book and see where the problems arise.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Cover of Star Wars The Phantom Menace Little Golden Book

The story opens with a shot of the Jedi flying to the Trade Federation command ship above Naboo. The classic words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” greet the reader. Followed by a massive block of text:

The peaceful planet of Naboo is under a blockage from the greedy Trade Federation! The Galactic Republic quickly sends Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to help. They are Jedi Knights, guardians of justice and masters of the Force—a power that connects all living things.

But when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan arrive, they are attacked by battle droids! The Jedi defend themselves with their lightsabers, but they are outnumbered and must flee the Trade Federation battleship.

Wow, already there’s a lot going on: and this is the first page! So many nouns are mentioned: could a child follow all of this? Most of the action is contained within the words, not the pictures. That entire second paragraph sounds pretty exciting. Too bad the only visual is a partial page illustration of Obi-Wan slicing one battle droid in half.

As the story progresses, it’s immediately clear what the problem is with these books: too many characters, not enough space to develop them. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Jar Jar Binks and Boss Noss. On pages 5-6, Queen Amidala and Viceroy Gunray. On pages 7-8, R2-D2, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul.

On pages 9-10, we are introduced to five (!) new characters: Padmé, Anakin, Watto, C-3PO, and Shmi Skywalker It’s not until pages 11-12 that we get our first break in all the introductions: no new characters! Pages 11-12 cover the podracing sequence.

On page 13 we see Qui-Gon and Darth Maul duel for the first time, and then on page 14 it’s back to new characters. Yoda is mentioned by name, though two members of the Jedi Council are in the background, evaluating Anakin’s readiness for Jedi training.

We’re past the halfway point, and fortunately, no new characters are introduced the rest of the tale. But we’ve already had 15 named characters in as many pages: the book’s only 23 pages long!

As far as the adaptation goes, the book sticks close to the movie. We see Padmé reveal herself as Amidala to the Gungans. Then the Jedi battle Darth Maul and the Gungans fight the droid army. Anakin even gets two pages where he goes to space and destroys the droid control ship!

On pages 21-22, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan finish the duel with Darth Maul. The illustration is striking, but look at how much text is used to explain the action:

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul

In the palace, the Jedi fight Darth Maul together. But the Sith Lord is driven by the power of anger and hate. Darth Maul strikes Qui-Gon down with his double-sided lightsaber and knocks Obi-Wan into a deep pit. Just when it seems that Obi-Wan is defeated, the Jedi springs into action and destroys Darth Maul with one mighty blow!

Obi-Wan runs to his master’s side. With his last breath, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin as a Jedi.

Now you see how the story avoids mentioning the stabbing of Qui-Gon and the slicing of Darth Maul in two.

The story ends with the main characters celebrating on Naboo. Boss Nass holds up that glowy sphere thing (no explanation of what that is, of course, just like in the movie).

The artwork in the book is fantastic: praise goes to illustrator Heather Martinez. But instead of telling a coherent story, adapter Courtney Carbone tried to fit all the major plot points in. While she did the best with what she had to work with, maybe the real problem is The Phantom Menace itself: maybe it can’t be simplified in a coherent way.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Little Golden Book

AotC opens with Padmé arriving on Coruscant, now a senator, no longer a queen. Her ship blows up, but she survives! No mention of her body double dying, however.

As in The Phantom Menace, the first few sentences of this book are incredibly dense:

The galaxy is divided. Many planets are leaving the Republic to join the Separatist movement.

I’m not sure if preschoolers understand what a Republic is, or what a Separatist movement entails. And if they’re already confused, tough cookies: the book will never explain it.

Maybe the problem isn’t with the book: maybe it’s with me. As I read those first couple sentences I realized that I still don’t fully understand what the central conflict of the Prequel Trilogy is. In TPM, some group called the Trade Federation was blocking trade to Naboo. Who is the Trade Federation? I still don’t know. Why did they not want to trade with Naboo? And why did they have their own army?

In AotC, the Separatists uses droids, and our pal Viceroy Gunray appears here and there. So did the Trade Federation become the Separatist movement? Why do the Separatists want to separate from the Republic? Is it because the Republic told them in TPM that they can’t blockade a planet?

And why does the Republic care if a few planets decide to leave: do they not have that freedom? After all, from the looks of the Senate chambers, it appears that there are thousands of systems in the Republic already.

I’m so confused.

Anyway, back to the story. Like TPM, AotC introduces a ton of named characters: 15 in this book as well. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Obi-Wan and Anakin. R2 is seen in the background, as is the assassin droid that tries to kill Padmé.

On pages 5-6 we meet the assassin, Zam Wesell—hey, I learned something! I never knew what that assassin’s name was.

Page 7 shows us the entirety of Padmé and Anakin’s love story on Naboo. Palpatine is mentioned, but never seen (the first book didn’t mention him at all).

On page 8 we are introduced to Jango and Boba Fett, and see the Kaminoans in the background, along with the clone troopers. Hey, we’re making some progress! At least that overweight alien diner cook Jax isn’t mentioned.

AotC is more action-focused than TPM, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the movie being more streamlined. Pages 9-10 show Obi-Wan and Jango battle, both on land and in space.

Pages 11-12 show Anakin’s showdown with the Sand People. I always thought that this was the point in the Prequel Trilogy that Anakin irrevocably turned to the Dark Side. I actually like that scene a lot; it’s powerful. The book, naturally, sanitizes it for young readers:

The young Jedi races into the desert to rescue his mother, but he is too late. He finds her just in time to say goodbye. Anakin feels rage and anger growing inside him—and that is not the way of the Jedi.

On pages 13-14 we’re introduced to more characters: Dooku, C-3PO, and the Geonosians. Mace Windu shows up on page 17.

Pages 13-22 are more tightly focused than TPM. For half the book we are on Geonosis: we see Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan get captured, then they escape the area. The Jedi descend to fight the droids. Then Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda fight Count Dooku. There are fewer new characters introduced, and this part might be the easiest for children to follow, as the plot is at least coherent, though the extreme violence of this part of the movie is missing.

Here’s how Jango Fett’s death is described:

Jango Fett tries to blast Mace, but the Jedi Master is much too powerful and strikes the bounty hunter down with one blow!

The accompanying visual is Jango on one page, shooting his blasters, and Mace on the other side, deflecting blaster shots with his lightsaber.

One part that I thought was funny was this panel:

Count Dooki fights Obi-Wan and Anakin with lightsabers.

Count Dooku has twin crimson lightsabers? I don’t remember that part of the movie! The only person in that fight with two sabers is Anakin after he picks up Obi-Wan’s. I’m sure it’s an honest mistake, but I think its humorous when children’s books have errors of fact like this. After all, how long does it take to copy edit a children’s book?

The book ends with Anakin’s marriage to Padmé on Naboo. His robot hand is not shown.

Overall, this book is slightly better than TPM due to its more focused plot. But it still introduces a bantha load of characters when it doesn’t have the space to develop more than a handful of them.

Let’s conclude this review by looking at the final book, based on the most violent film in the trilogy.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Little Golden Book cover

The story opens with a beautiful picture of the chaotic space battle over Coruscant. After the obligatory Star Wars beginning, little readers are once again greeted with a dense two-paragraph intro the introduces a ton of characters and political terms:

War rages between the Separatist army and the Galactic Republic. Evil General Grievous and his droid army have just captured Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galatic Senate! The brave Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker blast off in their starfighters to rescue him.

With the help of their astromech droid R2-D2, Anakin and Obi-Wan evade the Separatist vulture droids and land on General Grievous’s flagship.

On page 3, there’s an illustration of Anakin and Dooku clashing with sabers. The text summarizes Dooku’s defeat, beheading unmentioned:

Vwoosh! Dooku attacks with his crimson lightsaber. Obi-Wan is knocked aside, but Anakin defeats Dooku on his own.

This book makes some quick cuts to the plot of the movie. After Anakin lands Grievous’ ship on Coruscant and says hello to Padmé, the immediate next page introduces us to Yoda and Chewbacca fighting on Kashyyyk. The page after that shows Obi-Wan on Utapau riding the lizard thing. At least I learned something else from these books: that lizard is called a varactyl.

From there, Obi-Wan fights Grievous on page 9, and Palpatine reveals to Anakin on page 10 that he’s Darth Sidious.

The plot of pages 11-12 are hamstrung by LGB’s obvious need to censor the violence. On page 11, Mace Windu enters Sidious’ office and attacks him: Sidious stands opposite him on page 12. But then with no explanation, Sidious suddenly looks different on the bottom of page 12:

Anakin kneels before Sidious.

The Sith Lord sends Mace Windu crashing through a window! Anakin kneels before his new master.

Why does Sidiou look different? Who knows? No explanation is given for the preschool readers. Maybe the publishers think that little kids are too stupid to notice the character change.

From here, the story hews closely to the plot of the movie. Anakin attacks the Jedi temple. Order 66 is issued (though it’s not called that in the book). Sidious declares himself Emperor, and Obi-Wan and Anakin fight on Mustafar.

The Mustafar battle is interesting: four illustrations are provided of Anakin and Obi-Wan battling, just various lightsaber poses. Then two pages later we are introduced to Darth Vader in robotic suit. Here’s the explanation given for why Anakin now looks differently:

“I hate you!” Anakin cries.

Saddened that he had to destroy his friend, Obi-Wan leaves the planet with Padmé.

At least on the two-page spread when the Emperor greets the new robotic Vader readers are not subjected to Vader’s infamous “Noooooo!”

The book ends with the introduction of yet two more characters: Owen Lars and his wife (unnamed) holding a baby Luke while Obi-Wan smiles in the background.

Conclusion

I’m being a little harsh and nit-picky on these books, I realize. They are children’s books after all. But Star Wars, especially the Prequel Trilogy, is not appropriate for preschoolers, the 2-5 age bracket that the books are targeted at. It’s inappropriate not just because of the violence, but because of the complexity of the films as far as the politics go.

I wouldn’t say these books are without merit, though. I think the target audience is actually adults like myself. As summaries of the films go, they are accurate, and again, the artwork is amazing.

The Little Golden Book format doesn’t seem conducive to summarizing two-hour science fiction movies. A better take would be shorter stories, based on certain characters in the Star Wars universe, that are better suited to the reading and cognitive level of preschoolers.

Thankfully, such a series exists. LGB recently released their “I am” series of Star Wars books: I am a Droid, I am a Jedi, and I am a Pilot. And more are forthcoming this summer. I haven’t seen these books in the store yet, but based on Amazon reviews, it seems these books are a better match for their target audience.

For $5 each, the movie adaptation books are a fun bit of nostalgia for adult audiences. If I pick up the books based on the Original Trilogy, I suspect I’ll have more affinity for them based on my overall appreciation of that trilogy.

Has anybody else read any of the Star Wars Little Golden Books? What’s your assessment of their quality?

~Dennis

Book Review: The Krampus Chronicles; the Three Sisters

The Krampus Chronicles: The Three Sisters coverThe Krampus Chronicles: the Three Sisters is the debut novel of writer Sonia Halbach. This historical fantasy novel about the families connected to the famed ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas poem shows us that magical worlds exist right underneath us, if we have the courage to seek them out.

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Format: Paperback and Kindle
Length: 238 pages
Intended Audience: Young adult, though it’s tame enough to be enjoyed by children and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by adults
Genre: Historical, Low Fantasy

The Krampus Chronicles begins with a family feud over the rightful authorship of the famous poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Maggie Ogden always believed her grandfather, Clement Clarke Moore, was the author of the beloved poem, until one Christmas Eve a teenage boy, Henry Livingston, shows up at her grandfather’s mansion, claiming his grandfather, Major Henry, wrote the poem.

The family scoffs at the boy and dismisses him. Later that night, when sneaking into the house to find the proof he needs to vindicate his grandfather, Henry bumps into the curious Maggie. Before she can compose herself before the burglar, the two of them witness a mysterious elf-like creature sneaking through the house, and escaping through the fireplace.

Maggie and Henry follow after and are surprised to discover a secret tunnel leading down to Poppel, a underground village, right under New York City! This city is connected to the original St. Nikolaos, a revered man who was lost to history. Now Maggie, Henry, and her cousins are trapped in Poppel, and the only way to escape is to reunite the spirits of the Three Sisters. They must do this by Christmas Day, or be trapped forever.

The Krampus Chronicles is a story about the magic of Christmas, but it’s much more interesting than the trite Christmas tales you’ve seen on TV. Halbach’s done her homework into the legends behind Santa Claus, and weaves European and American folklore together to craft a Christmas story that threw into question everything I thought I knew about Santa Claus.

While the story takes places on Christmas Eve, it’s more than “just a Christmas story.” There aren’t any clichéd messages about the power of family, the joy of giving, the holiness of Christmas, or any of the fare we’re used to seeing this time of year. Not that those messages aren’t good, or that stories that contain those messages are bad. But Halbach gives us something new to think about, especially in the figure of the Krampus, a sort of anti-Santa Claus that punishes the bad kids instead of rewarding the good ones.

Despite being the character mentioned in the series title, the Krampus is more of a shadowy figure in The Three sisters, operating outside the perception of most of the characters. The Three Sisters mostly stands alone as the first book in this series, though a few plot points are set up regarding the Krampus that I’m sure Halbach will delve into in future books.

In interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I personally know Sonia. We were both raised in North Dakota and went to school together, but our connection back then was minimal. I might be a bit biased in that I want my friend to succeed with her new series. At the same time, as somebody who doesn’t read a lot of historical fiction, I can honestly say that this novel hooked me in a way I didn’t expect.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about secret knowledge, about magical places that are right around the corner from our everyday, ordinary world. This story starts out a bit slow, but a few chapters in, we’re suddenly transported to a Christmasy, almost steampunk (in only the loosest sense) world. The story is grounded enough in reality that it feels real, and it feels like maybe there is some truth to these legends. I frequently took breaks in my reading to look up the various locales and folk stories Halbach referenced to see how she took these disparate, somewhat contradictory ideas and used them as the foundation for her own mythology.

In a way, this story reminded me of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly his story The Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft was fascinated with secret knowledge, and in the Mountains of Madness, an expedition team in Antarctica discovers a giant, abandoned alien city hidden behind mountains of ice. That story was written at a time when Antarctica hadn’t been explored yet; there was no satellite imagery of the continent. It was possible that people had lived in Antarctica at one time, and I’ve always been fixated with that possibility.

Similarly, it’s possible that in the 19th Century there was a city built into the bedrock of Manhattan. Why not? That city has miles and miles of subway tubs going every which way. And stories still circulate today about so-called “mole people” who lived under New York. Regardless of what the reality is, in Halbach’s fictional universe, this underground city does exist, and for me, that’s enough.

The fantasy elements in the Krampus Chronicles are fairly light. They mostly concern magic “sister wheels” that the main characters seek to collect so that they can end their imprisonment. The story has some violence, and some killing, but most of it happens off-screen (or off-page, as it were). When I heard this was a Young Adult novel, I braced myself for a novel in the line of the gritty, angsty, violent, and even sexified YA novels that have proven popular in recent years.

Fortunately, I was way off! The kids are teens, and there is a hint of a love triangle, but Halbach stays away from the trappings of YA as of late to tell a story that can be appreciated by older children, teens, and adults alike.

For all that this book accomplishes, it’s not without faults. Perhaps the most serious is the overwhelming amount of characters. Maggie’s family is quite large, and she has half a dozen cousins who all play a role as the story unfolds. Once the teens get to Poppel we meet a least a couple dozen new characters, and new characters even come up in some of the later chapters. It’s a bit hard to follow at times, especially because I wasn’t sure which characters would be important and which were throwaway.

However, this criticism is mitigated somewhat because there will be more books in the series. The trouble with any first book in a fantasy series is not only telling a solid story that payoffs by the end, but also in establishing a (typically) large cast of characters, plus building the fantasy world and establishing the rules for how it works. It’s a lot of tasks to juggle, and Halbach handles it well.

The other part of the tale I wasn’t in love with was the idea that all of this happens over the course of a day. Lots of stories, from books to television shows to movies, use this format. I personally think it’s hard to have significant character development in such a short span of time. Sure, these characters see a lot and learn a lot about their own family and world, but learning a lot doesn’t correlate to inner change. I don’t know about the reader, but in my own life, it seems that those moments of intense busyness and revelation actually require a long time to process what actually happened to me.

On the other hand, I can forgive this plot structure a bit because the day that everything happens is Christmas Eve/Christmas morning. Christmas is a magical time, and I think the most magical part of the holiday is that transition between Eve and Day. The waiting for Christmas to arrive, and then the first few hours of wakefulness of Christmas morn when all the waiting finally pays off. So if you had to pick a single day out of the year to condense your story into, Christmas would be it.

After all, who hasn’t gone to bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads?

~Dennis