November 12, 2010

Field Guides to the Creatures of Fantasy

        Earlier this year my son P declared his intention of being a cryptozoologist when he grows up.  I'm pretty sure he views the job more as fiction than as science, but in any case I thought it was an admirable aspiration for an eight-year-old.  It also got me thinking about what a great branch of fantasy cryptozoology can be.  At P's instigation we've been combing the library for all sorts of books about mythological and fantastic creatures - but not just stories that involve these creatures.  No, P likes the trappings of science.  He wants field guides, histories, descriptions of attributes… in short, he likes "non-fiction" books about fictional creatures.  And we've found quite a number of excellent ones, too.
        First and foremost on the list have to be the Dragonology books and Monsterology "by" Dr. Ernest Drake.  There's a whole series of "Ology" books, and not only are they fabulous, but they must have been so much fun to create that I go giddy with envy at the thought of it.  (P and T's other favorite is Wizardology.)  The Ernest Drake books have proven successful enough that  Candlewick Press have spun them out into all sorts of additional volumes, including The Dragonology Handbook, Drake's Comprehensive Compendium of Dragonology, several books that come with model kits, and a series of novels, The Dragonology Chronicles.  All of these books maintain a veneer of history and science that adds to the fun.  I was particularly impressed with the Homework assignments in The Dragonology Handbook.  They're cleverly designed so that everything a child is instructed to do involves researching and working with actual facts, including lessons in geography, history, food chains, and the Mohs mineral hardness scale, all seamlessly integrated into Drake's assertions about dragons.  And of course the books are beautifully made, with gorgeous illustrations, lots of flaps and envelopes to explore, and a nice faux-singed finish on the edges of the pages.    T especially commends the "specimens" of unicorn hair, dragon skin, and so on in Monsterology.  We all highly recommend these books for any lover of fantasy cryptozoology.  (They aren't cheap books, but we've checked many of them out of the library, and been able to pick up a couple at library book sales.  But I'd say it's worth it to splurge on your favorite.)
        The Ology books are by no means the only ones in the game, however.  This is a genre that's been quite trendy recently.  Isn't it wonderful when fashion actually coincides with your own tastes?  Here are our reviews of a few others that we've checked out at our house.
        Life-Size Dragons by John Grant and Fred Gambino.  Personally, I don't agree with this book's vision of the origin and science of dragons, and wasn't crazy about the computer-style illustrations… but P loved them, and the poster printed on the inside of the book-wrapper sealed the deal for him - he bought this book with birthday money.  The poster adorns his bedroom wall.
        Mythical Beasts by Katie Torpie and David Deen.  This is a Groovy Tube Book, and while its content is a serviceable if uninspired introduction to various mythological beasts of the world (with an emphasis on Greek mythology), its real claim to niftiness is that it comes with a board game and a collection of fifteen small plastic models of beasties, from a gorgon to la chupacabra.  These models (along with all the others T and P have collected - and made for themselves from polymer clay) have recently found habitats all over the house, so that everywhere I look I'm liable to come face to face with a miniature dragon, chimera, or roc.
        The Discovery of Dragons by Graeme Base.  Again, gorgeous illustrations, and witty short tales in the form of facsimile letters describing the discovery of each species of dragon.  P found it a little short on scientific details, but the rest of us enjoyed it.  (I guess the satirical "scholarly" introductions were a bit over the eight-year-old heads.)
         Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling.  We like this mainly because of the Hogwarts connection.  It lists plenty of interesting creatures and displays Rowling's usual wit, but on pure cryptozoological handbook basis, it wouldn't be able to beat some of the fancier, more lavishly illustrated competition in the field.  (But I do also have to commend it for having been written and published to raise money for the Comic Relief charity.  As far as I'm concerned, anything that combines mythical beasts and making the world a better place has got to be pretty good!)
        Gruesome Guide to World Monsters by Judy Sierra.  This book is aimed at older children or perhaps adults with its über-hip graffiti-like mixed media illustrations and gleefully bloodthirsty descriptions of each monster's modus operandi.  While I liked that the creatures represented folklore from all around the world, for my taste the book had too much of an emphasis on ghosts and bogeymen, fantasy I don't happen to care at all about.  P and T (who were 7 at the time we checked it out from the library) found it somewhat too scary for enjoyment.
        A Field Guide to Monsters: Google-Eyed Wart Floppers, Shadow-Casters, Toe-Eaters, and Other Creatures by Johan Olander.  This is another book that must have been fun to make.  Like the Ology books it includes facsimiles of sketches, pages from journals, and other alleged evidence regarding its monsters.  In this case, however, the monsters are not classics of folklore but are all imagined by the author.  Many of them are quite silly, as for example the Balloonster that P & T thought was highly amusing.  Some were a bit creepier than the kids could enjoy.  Its general tone seems calculated to amuse adults more than children.
        A Practical Guide to Dragons by Lisa Trumbauer and A Practical Guide to Monsters by Nina Hess.  These books are from the Dungeons & Dragons game world.  They feature the standard D&D monsters and the D&D types of metallic and chromatic dragons with their various affiliations of good and evil, which seems rather constraining to me.  Be that as it may, they are fun field-guide-style collections of creatures.  T really likes the detailed illustrations of lairs, and P especially commends the boxes with facts for each creature such as habitat, diet, weapons, and your best defense.  Both of them give these books an enthusiastic thumbs-up despite not even being aware that they're spin-offs from a game.
        Aahhh, what a wonderful richness of field guides is available to the fantasy cryptozoologist now!  And what a delightful trend their publication is for one who wrote many a fantasy field guide in her youth.  I envy the authors and illustrators who have made these books, and I'm grateful that my family and I have been able to enjoy them.  Why not nip over to your local library and check out a few?


        P.S. Here's a supplement: More Field Guides (Part II).

[Picture: Fiery Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010.]

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