Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Books Bought and Borrowed: Beast Quest

An evil Wizard has enchanted the magical Beasts of Avantia – only a true hero can free the Beasts and stop them from destroying the land. Is Tom the hero Avantia has been waiting for?

I mean really.  The cover of these books alone would give one nightmares.  Lurid green creatures with pointed fangs, dripping with slime and snarling viciously.   However, my nine-year old son doesn't seem fazed in the least by the ghastly spectres in this apparently popular series.  He alternately sits, then lolls about on the sofa, for hours systematically working his way through the books.  He's up first thing before we all rise with one in hand. That, in itself, is a huge commendation to the author.

The Beast Quest series currently runs to 54 volumes bunched into six-book series with nicely benign titles such as, "The Golden Armour" and "The Amulet of Avantia".  Another series is in the offing according to our twelve year old neighbour whose brother is also an addict. 

Apparently, the kingdom of Avantia depends on the exploits of Tom, his best friend Elenna, a spirited girl, and their companions, Storm the jet-black stallion and Silver the faithful wolf.  Tom and his companions appear to be caught up in repeated quests to free the kingdom from the evil curses placed upon the beasts that protect it.  Oh, and to defeat the evil wizard, Malvel.  We can safely assume the successive plots must be action-packed to sustain the imagination of small boys. 

The books include an intricately illustrated map on the opening pages so the reader can gain his bearings for the key locations, such as the Rebel Settlement of Kaloom and The Black Ocean.  The text is interspersed with line drawings, mostly of Tom in various action poses - on horseback or with sword and shield raised aloft.   Enough drawings to add interest and break the reading into digestible parts for the target age group which is, I suspect, about 8-10 year old boys with an interest in fantasy, mythical creatures... and swords.

The series is clearly a great hit with independent readers.  It has generated spin-offs such as the mandatory website with games and competitions, collector cards and the Beast Quest Annual. 

I'm also quite taken by the biographical details about the author and want to know more about him.  Despite the popularity of the books and his prolific output, he seems to be quietly anonymous (and so young!).  From his website, I glean the following:

Adam Blade is in his late twenties and was born in Kent, England. His parents were both history teachers and amateur artists and Adam grew up surrounded by his father's paintings of historic English battles--which left a lifelong mark on his imagination. He was also fascinated by the ancient sword and shield that hung in his father's office. Adam's father said they were a Blade family heirloom. Sadly, Adam does not have his own Fire-Dragon or Horse-Man...but he really wishes he did!  

Yesterday, I happened to give my son the old wooden tai chi sword that belonged to his grandmother and he grabbed it with glee.  I understand now that my timing was impeccable.  It is his Beast Quest sword.  The perfect accessory for the books.

However.  As a post-script, I took a look at some Amazon reviews and noted that one parent thought it was an outright "hyper-violent fantasy series" and " highly inappropriate for younger readers".  The reviewer goes on to note that:

We wonder why kids are desensitized to violence when this type of material is deemed appropriate for pre-teens. I know many of the other parents say that "their boys love it!" - to each their own. As a parent of an 8 year-old and 5 year-old twins I don't want them reading about a little boy's back being shred to the bone by some demon wolf. Magic School Bus, Zac Power, Magic Tree House, Jack Stalwart - these are books for the 6-10 crowd!! 
So, this made me wonder whether I needed to censor the booklists of my independent readers.  Frankly, when we bolt to the library, I am happy to let the children make their own choices from the junior sections. I sort of hope the local library, if not the publishers, might have weeded out the dross. But can middle primary children distinguish between fictionalised violence involving fantasy creatures and malicious real world terror?  Do the hideous beasts signify our worst fears and horrors, and their conquest therefore convey a positive message?  The triumph of good over evil?  A parable that children can understand to help them be brave and resilient?  Or is it the stuff of bad dreams and twisted values?   Are modern-day stories any worse than Grimm's fairytales or the derring-do of comic book superheros?

I did baulk at bringing these books home from the library, based on the covers alone, but the fearless exploits of Tom and Elenna seem to captivate my boy with no obvious ill effects.  When asked why he likes Beast Quest he simply said he loves books which come in a series and continue with the same characters and familiar storyline. He guffawed at the suggestion that were too violent or gory. 

Nevertheless, it does raise interesting questions about fantasy violence, of which there is considerably more these days thanks to gaming, and its impact on children.


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