Recently, my six-year-old left the library with two thick books in her little hands: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and its sequel, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed, both written by Holly Grant, illustrated by Josie Portillo, and published by Random House Children’s Books. These novels feature a child named Anastasia McCrumpet who falls into the clutches of a pair of mysterious, silver-toothed “great-aunts” who live in a former Victorian psychiatric institution.
My daughter can read on her own, but she’s not quite able to read middle grade books, so I read the first in this series out loud to her.
It was like reading a 294-page tongue-twister thanks to the author’s penchant for overstuffed sentences, alliteration, and arcane vocabulary. Here’s a random selection (similar examples abound on virtually every page):
(1) Anastasia soon discovered that every day at St. Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather. Standing outside one week later, after seven days of rain and fog, she blinked through the twilit mizzle at the moss fuzzing the asylum bog. (page 59)
(2) Because would-be sickie Mrs. McCrumpet had consulted every expert medic and smooth-talking quack in Mooselick, Anastasia was familiar with many pills and syrups and cure-alls. For example, she knew that waving a bottle of smelling salts beneath someone’s snoot was supposed to jozzle them awake. (page 94)
This wasn’t a quick read, but I powered through it because my daughter wanted to find out who Anastasia’s “great-aunts” really were and why they took her to St. Agony’s. Honestly, I got sucked into the story too, enough to convince me to keep reading even though the novel contained many of my literary pet-peeves, including (but not limited to):
- Coincidences that resolve the conflict.
Basically, a couple of half-baked characters show up near the end, save the day with random powers, and then turn out to be more than merely superheroes. Some could argue that there are causal connections between these events, but they are weak at best. These characters come out of the blue.
- Unnecessary negative emphasis on physical characteristics.
How do you know who a villain is? By their unibrow, and Anastasia even refers to an unsavory character as “The Monobrow” instead of using her name.
I also didn’t like certain descriptions in the novel, such as this one, which presents larger body-types in an unfavorable manner for comedic effect:
From somewhere in the house crooned a noise like EEEEEEEE-ooooooooooaaaa. Of course, it was just St. Agony’s settling into its foundations, like a lady with a large rump trying to squeeze into her bikini bottoms. (page 52)
I found myself cringing several times while reading this book.
- No diversity.
All of the characters in this 2015 book are white. Penguin Random House should try harder to offer alternatives to the homogeneously white narratives that already flood the market. They should publish books that (1) reflect the identities of readers from non-white backgrounds, and (2) introduce readers from racially homogenous families and communities to fictional friends from diverse backgrounds. Fictional friends are no substitute for real-life experiences, but it’s a start.
I used this book as tool to teach my daughter about plot structure, kindness/acceptance, and the importance of diversity in literature. Our discussions were interesting, and I’m happy to report that my commentary did not ruin her enjoyment of the story. We will read the second book of the series together–we already have it from the library–but it’s too soon for me to commit to the third book, which is scheduled for release next month (August 2017). My daughter might have to read that one on her own. She is much closer in age to its intended audience than I am anyway.
At the risk of “spoiling” one small piece of the plot, here’s what my six-year-old had to say about The League of Beastly Dreadfuls:
“It’s a good book because I liked it. It shows you how important librarians are.”
Yes, it does. I have nothing to add about the lovely librarian in the story, but when it comes to real-life librarians, we are certainly grateful. Thanks to them, my daughter has access to books I wouldn’t necessarily choose for her, and I think that’s a good thing.