“Nurk,” Ursula Vernon, Harcourt; 2008; 131 pp.
What makes “Nurk” such a readable little tale? There’s nothing tingly and new about an adventure story in which the hero is a reluctant adventurer. A quiet homebody finds himself thrown into a situation where he must display his inner courage (if he has any) — we’ve all heard that one before.
Perhaps it’s the startled shrew after which this book is named — I mean, can a hero get any cuter? Or maybe it’s the homegrown wisdom from the journal of Nurk’s aunt, Surka Aurelia Maxine Shrew, who was a real adventurer, in the truest sense of the word.
She writes: “Most adventures begin at home. You don’t really want them to, but they do anyway.” That’s how the book begins, setting the tone for the entire affair — nothing too ambitious or lofty, just cozy and truthful. Picture Nurk, sitting on his front stoop, dreaming of following in his aunt’s footsteps, but feeling daunted by the general messiness of most adventures.
Then a letter arrives, asking for help, and Nurk heads downstream in a boat made out of an empty snail shell, not sure of who would want his help, or what a tiny shrew like him would do even if he were to find the sender of that letter.
Along the way, he meets all manner of weird thingies, from giant caterpillars to salmon that grow on trees. And in a final challenge, he duels with the Grizzlemole, a monster with plowlike claws and a fleshy mop of tentacles growing out from under his nose.
Telling you what happens next would be stating the obvious, but some books are worth reading even if you know how they are going to end. This is one of them.
Note: For kids 8 to 12 years.
“A Beginning, A Muddle, and An End,” Avi, Harcourt; 2008; 164 pp.
“All ages” says the blurb, and it’s true; anyone can read this. At its simplest level, “A Beginning, A Muddle, and An End” is a quirky narrative about a small snail called Avon and his friend, Edward the Ant. Avon is suffering from a bit of a writer’s block, and Edward is trying to talk him into writing again. But on another level, this is a philosophical take on the act of writing itself, with equal parts wisdom and humor.
After much debate, Avon finds a beginning for his story. “Something,” it begins, because, as Edward puts it, “You might start off on the right foot by writing something.” And then, book-writing aside, the two characters quibble and quip over everything from how to write to how to live.
My favorite part? “Avon, what’s writing? Scribbled letters on paper. It’s the reader who has to make sense of it.”
This is offbeat storytelling at its most clever. Avi puns upon words, stands entire sentences on their heads and plays around with meaning, yet manages to bring a Confucian wisdom that parents, kids and all would-be writers will appreciate. Making sense out of a muddle has never been more enjoyable.
Note: For all ages. If you haven’t already, read Avi’s “The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant).” Equally delightful, if not more so.