One of the oldest debates in the history of literary criticism is the age old battle between storytelling and writing. For those of you who aren’t writers, this sounds whack, I know, but stay with me a sec.
Ask yourself this, “Have you ever read a book that you loved?”
Now ask yourself, “Can you remember specific aspects of how a book you love is written?”
If you can’t, you probably loved the story, even if the way it was written wasn’t significantly enhancing the experience.
As many a passionate writer will tell you, things can be nicely written, but not a story.
So, can’t the reverse be true?
Great stories with a strong voice can make up for less ambitious or elegant prose.
(Note I didn’t say “bad.” While content is always subjective, typos, grammar snafus, and misspelled or misused words distract and get in the way of the experience, no matter how you define a good book) After all, think of some of the most popular books of the last decade-
- SkippyJon Jones (Picture Book)
- Captain Underpants (Comic/Early Reader)
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (MG)
- Twilight (YA)
What do all these books have in common? Aside from all being the first books in popular series, they let characters and storytelling trump HOW they were written, and “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye” is first in a series of adventures starring a persnickety newspaper mouse, Geronimo Stilton, does just that as well.
I know, there’s adverbs, adjectives, and some books have the “Insert culture research” info-dumps. Oh my! (This first one doesn’t, though, the culture info dumps, I mean)
But here’s the thing, for years my love of this series was my dark secret, for all the reasons above, and it seemed like one of those WFH (Work For Hire) series that like “Goosebumps” and a lot of “The Babysitter’s Club” books were hired out, meaning more than one writer wrote them, and while I think these were all by the same author from Italy, it’s packaged here in the states like it’s WFH, but I’m not 100% sure either way.
For some readers, this isn’t as big a deal (Though I know many picky readers in this regard), but as a writer trying to earn some street cred and respect with my own original work, I do have to work hard through my personal issues on this.
I know many writers start out writing work for hire books, and I respect that it’s not easy to write to a certain formula and in such a short amount of time. (I’ll touch on that in detail in a future feature on T.A.A.)
Still, I finally swallowed my writer’s pride, let curiosity have its due, and purchased/read the one that started it all listed above.
Guess what? I LOVED it!
And the rest is history.
I guess this is my “Nancy Drew” of sorts.
These are the books I would’ve read under the covers if they existed in my grade school youth. If I could write for this series I would. Yes, I love it THAT much. (If ANYONE from Scholastic wants to contact me about such an opportunity, please feel free!)
Plus, the art’s nice, and in COLOR, too often these types of books have black and white art, if any at all beyond the cover, and with respect to those of you with limited color vision, I love color!
I’ve read and own nearly all of the books in the main numbered series (There are also now spinoff series I haven’t yet explored), one of the graphic novels, all four “Kingdom of Fantasy” hardcover side stories, and most of the audiobooks from the first 25. In other words, less “Old Yeller” or “Black Beauty” in terms of the prose, and more cartoonish in look and the story, but with more depth in terms of characterization than say something more one-note.
The first book in the series “The Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye” really sets up the kind of ride you’re in for in this series.
Apart from our persnickety but plucky and resourceful hero, his various family members, friends, rivals and every-rodent in between has as a more extensive supporting cast than most movies or television shows for readers in this age group. But not to worry, every book in the main numbered series (Outside hardcover stand alone Kingdom of Fantasy titles, which are good reads, too)have a visual mural photo in the pre-story pages of the most prominent secondary characters of the series, but if you become a fan like I have, it’s easier to keep them all straight, as they appear when relevant to the book at hand.
The three who appear most often are Geronimo’s sister Thea, nephew Benjamin, and his cousin (From you-know-where), aptly named “Trap.”
This first adventure finds Geronimo and his assorted trio of relatives in search of a lost treasure. Through various mishap and mayhem, they end up beached on a seemingly uninhabited island, and while you think you’ve heard this plot-line a zillions times before, I promise there’s nary an Indiana Jones or Gilligan’s Island/Lost cliche in sight.
Not even the now infamously obligatory “Boulder Chase” scene. While younger readers may not be familiar with certain “Rodent Re-imagined” movie and television references, for older tweens or adults reading the book to, or with their kids, can be great conversation starters.
In my opinion, though, they avoid making it sound annoyingly “dated.” Besides, there’s always one kid in every family that’s into “retro” something, and I sure was one of those kids. (I knew about A-Track tapes and LP vinyl records when other kids my age didn’t, and knew about audio cassette tapes before Thirteen Reasons Why made them trendy again, so there!)
For those of you “Wimpy Kid” fans, there’s plenty hi-jinks, pranks, and comic situations. If you’re willing to invest a bit, the unabridged audiobook is a great alternative if your reluctant reader might stumble at the more complex sentence structures reading on the page, as it’s more ambitious in terms of the writing than say, “Judy Moody” or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
The audiobooks of the first 10 books feature music and sound effects, feeling like an old-fashioned radio drama (Don’t know what I mean? Ask you parents/grandparents, or just Google it), but of course, way better audio quality. So, what makes this series so compelling in spite of all the “rules” to the contrary? Three key factors: Characters, Insider Rewards, Takes “Unlikely” Risks.
Let’s look at these in more detail-
On the surface, you’d think this book would be overly didactic and predictable, and admittedly, in the wrong hands-er paws, it could very well by the case.
When you’re going into the first book of a series, this can often be the case, but this book manages to avoid a lot of those pitfalls by giving twists on the characters that could too easily be the stereotypes most writers try hard to avoid.
Our hero, despite being a persnickety worrywart, is also patient and resourceful, and dealing with his daredevil kid sister and a greedy narcissistic cousin, you need all the patience you can get, and the cute charmer kid doesn’t come of as too good to be true, and while his role here is minor, he plays more clever and bigger roles in future books in the series.
Daredevil sis can show her vulnerability, without taking away from her extroverted nature, and while not ashamed of being plucky and a little tomboyish, isn’t averse to her feminine side.
On that note, worrywart dads of daughters beware, she’s a bit of a flirt, but these being kid’s books, it only goes as far as blown kisses and mild lovey-dove talk, but nothing that would send “typical boys” screaming away from this or other books (You might want to skip #10 if your boys are still in the “Not into Girls” stage. Good book, but you have to be open to goofy first love to enjoy it The Valentine’s Day books are more funny than lovey-dovey)
Even the cousin from you-know-where has his good points and cool moments, surprising our hero almost a bit more than the readers, proving that people (Or mice in this case) are more than we see on the surface, if only for a moment…
If you’re familiar with Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters, there’s a similar vibe in terms of how the Stilton family’s dynamics in particular work, often complicating, and bringing much of the humor to the plot at hand.
The Stiltons aren’t “The Brady Bunch” nor “The Simpsons” but rather something
in-between, and one thing you learn quickly in this book, long before our ragtag rodent crew sets out to sea.
Though Geronimo’s not as down on his luck, or indecisive as Charlie Brown, and good at what he does, running a newspaper, he does makes his share of mistakes,
(Being late for work, soft-spoken to a fault, and a bit clumsy at times)
Thea’s not as snarky as Lucy, and while she often likes to tease her brother’s brainy introvert ways, she often plots and schemes for Geronimo’s benefit, even if it often causes him more stress than assistance. There’s hints of Peppermint Patty here, too, as she and Trap (Like how Peppermint Patty always calls Charlie Brown “Chuck”) refers to Geronimo by various nicknames he REALLY cannot stand.
(As someone whose name is constantly mispronounced, I feel for you, Geronimo)
Benjamin could arguably be similar to Linus (minus dependence on a security blanket) but not as introspective, but proof that little kids can make a big difference, something you’ll see in later books more than this first one.A nice non-preachy benefit if older kids read it to their younger siblings.
While you could argue there’s some commonality between Trap and Lucy in personality (There’s a lot of “Pulling the Football” moments between Geronimo and Trap), not even Ms. Van Pelt can defuse this one, for unlike Charlie Brown’s more predictable patterns where she knows every possible button to push at her leisure, Trap’s too crazy to call or calculate.
“A real character” as Geronimo himself says in this book. Obnoxious one minute and selfless the next, in that sense, Trap is more like what Snoopy is to Lucy, though that might be pushing it in relation to Geronimo and Trap’s “Opposites Retract” dynamics, which actually describes Trap and Thea dynamics dead on, but you get the point. (I hope…)
While Geronimo often unjustly gets the “blockhead” treatment from his own family (Except from his nephew, Benjamin), they love him a lot, and speaking as someone who’s the odd one out in his own family, I can both relate/commiserate, and feel envy at the same time.
Unlike Harry Potter or Percy Jackson where there’s a clear end point and thus, a smaller number of books, this series is a LONG one, at this point we’re up to 55 books in the main series, plus three spin-off series focusing on secondary and supporting characters.
But unlike other open-ended series, this one rewards it’s longtime readers with referencing previous books (relevant to the current story of the book you’re reading), bringing back various characters of the secondary, and supporting cast, as needed (If you’re going to have a supporting cast as “Mega-huge” as Geronimo’s fridge, which I’d LOVE to have in my future home, you may as well give them layers that can be peeled back with every appearance).
While some books have the “characters that don’t retain what they learn” issue (A real pet peeve of mine), for the most part, you get the feeling there is a defined, well-scoped world.
But as zany as some books in the series are, as the reader I feel there’s a level of consistency, without being so weighed down by the world’s rules that something fresh can’t jump out, while at the same time, not breaking those rules of the world.
Because there’s not a strictly linear storyline, readers can really read any book in the series without feeling lost. The adventures are self-contained.
BUT, loyal readers of the series are rewarded with in-jokes and references from earlier books, that are relevant to the current book you’re reading, enriching the overall experience.
You genuinely feel you know a little more about Geronimo and his world each time, even though the books don’t follow a linear path. That’s hard to pull off, especially for a series boasting 50+ books (and GROWING), at the time this review is being written.
Takes Unlikely Risks
Now this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.
Though more subtle in this first book, having read most of the other books in the main series, I can assure you there’s more depth to the characters than what the back of the book blurb might indicate.
As funny and approachable as the story is, it’s also not afraid to get emotional, and don’t worry, I don’t mean the overly saccharine melodrama kind of emotional, I mean the “Gets you right here…” kind of emotion and heart any book needs.
Well, some books more than others…
One thing I often notice with entertainment from Europe or Japan is how sophisticated the characters and humor can be compared to what you often see in the U.S.
Heck, there are some Canadian programs that are more sophisticated than the average U.S. equivalents,
I‘m not knocking America here (We have our gems, too,of course), but I do see a difference, something I’ll talk about in more detail on the blog at a later time.
As for how this relates to my review of the book in question, let me give you a key example-
Near the climax (Spoiler free example), Trap says-
“It’s bad enough to brought me to the wrong island, but did you have to bring me to a tourist trap?!”
It’s so funny when you figure out that he’s using the term “tourist trap” to describe the situation at that point in the story, not just because of his name, but also at the same time not get how he himself would fit that description a few chapters before.
It’s like how the bullies in our lives don’t see their bullying you or others for what it is.
But to end this section on a positive note, Trap gives Geronimo an idea that will become one of the key hallmarks of the series, which I won’t spoil here, but while it’s not surprising, it’s another subtle way of avoiding the “annoying cousin” cliche, in that it gave our humble hero the idea he might not have thought of on his own.
Something writers, and any other entrepreneur for that matter, can relate to. Something you need to read (or listen to the unabridged audiobook version) to appreciate.
Climax and Verdict
One thing writers always hear is some variant of “Never talk down to your audience.”
Let me tell you, one of the WORST things you can do as a writer (Apart from boring the people you want to engage)is insult a reader’s intelligence. This is one of the FEW absolute truisms all writers should live and work by.
While this is one series I follow that makes up for less ambitious writing with voice and storytelling, it also takes brave risks that avoids a lot of the formula inherent in more open-ended series.
Anyone who loves well-defined characters, bold humor, has a sibling or siblings, and perhaps a cousin or two from you-know-where, you’ll find a friend and inspiration in Geronimo Stilton.
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