Hi, my name is Cecelia, and I just fell in love with a book for 10 year-old boys. Hi, Cecelia. Wait, WHAT?! Yes, that's right. Bill Willingham's Down the Mysterly River has crazy powers of amazing. This book? Would have been my brothers' favorite thing on the planet when they were younger. I'm not even joking. It would have gone in the camouflage backpack right alongside the machete, walkie-talkies, and beef jerky. But it was published NOW, so I, city-dweller, older person and girl that I am, have unwittingly become its latest conquest. How did THAT happen?
Down the Mysterly River is the children’s book debut of Bill Willingham, the creator of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel series Fables. Complete with illustrations by Fables artist Mark Buckingham, it is a spirited, highly original tale of adventure, suspense, and everlasting friendship.
Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.
Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world.
Talking animals. A Boy Scout. An unfamiliar forest. I know what you're thinking, but NO, this is not some Narnian mash-up. Oh, that wasn't what you were thinking? Good. Because this story is all its own, and what that is, is wonderful. It's about a boy named Max the Wolf. He may be lost in unknown terrain, but he's resourceful, and he's an expert at woodcraft and solving mysteries. There's just one problem: Max isn't the only one in this forest. He finds that he and some newly-made friends are being hunted by a bunch of unsavory characters called the Blue Cutters, and their fight and flight towards safety make up the majority of the story.
What shall I say about the characters? Max is resourceful and strong and generally very good, but he's also just a boy, and so he has his minor shortcomings. One of his strengths is his cleverness. I do love clever middle grade characters (a la Max, and the crew from The Mysterious Benedict Society). They're just so wonderful! Max doesn't change over-much in during the course of the story, but he does come to several realizations that change his outlook on life. Of the other characters, I think McTavish was my favorite. He learns no shortage of lessons (most of them subconsciously), and in so doing influences his fellow travelers in ways they wouldn't have imagined possible.
Down the Mysterly River was witty, exciting, adventurous and even frightening in parts. Willingham's writing had a bit of the flavor of Mark Twain, and it felt like an perfect mix of a boy's outdoors guide and a rip-roaring adventure serial, crossed with your favorite childhood talking-animals story. I laughed while reading and loved it whole-heartedly. If it has a failing, it is that it will not appeal to girls as much as one would hope. There aren't any female main characters, and I think that's unfortunate. That lack didn't change my enjoyment of the book, but I can't know for sure if my childhood self would feel the same. In the end, I think it will be one of my best books of 2011.
Recommended for: brave explorers (and those who would be, if they had the chance), boys and tomboys of any age, lovers of fantasy, and anyone who compulsively read adventure-mysteries in their childhood and day-dreamed of starring in their own story and saving the world.
Fine print: I received an ARC of Down the Mysterly River as a contest prize from Tor. It will be released on September 13, 2011.