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An Exellent Story Self-Destructs in Final Chapters
on August 15, 2014
Spoiler alert: I am writing this review for parents who want to know whether they should recommend this book for a child, so there will be spoilers.
I have five children ages 22 to 11, I've been prereading children's books for 20 years, and I pride myself on knowing about most of what is out there. So I was dumbfounded when last week I stumbled across a book series by Lynne Reid Banks that I had never heard of before: Harry the Poisonous Centipede and its two sequels. (BTW: Lynne Reid Banks is best known for her Indian in the Cupboard series.)
As I began reading Harry the Poisonous Centipede I continued to be baffled: "This book is a sheer and utter delight!" I thought to myself, "so why have I never seen it on a recommended book list or featured in a school library?" Add to that the fact that it has only 6 Amazon reviews and you KNOW it is not a book teacher's are recommending (since writing a Kid's Review on Amazon is a common school writing assignment these days.) Harry the Poisonous Centipede was first published in 1997, and the sequels came out in 2001 and 2006: that's recent enough for it to not have been forgotten accidentally, so what gives?
First, I disagree with the review written by Wendy D. Caldiero in the School Library Journal (a review featured on the Amazon product page). She faults the book for being didactic (instructive) but children NEED didactic books and they welcome them as long as the educational content does not detract from the story. She also knocks the book for "uncomforably imposing" human characteristics on centipedes, but that's what anthropomorphic animal stories do (can you say Charlotte's Web? Amos and Boris? Bambi?) and there's nothing wrong with the way Lynne Reid Banks approaches anthropomorphism in this book. Finally, Caldiero says this is a "disappointingly dull book," a "simplistic fantasy which is a stretch even for the most accepting readers." The book is not dull and overall the story is not a "stretch" to accept . . . until you get to the final chapters. Maybe Caldiero's distaste for the way the book ends (which is also my distaste) colored her opinion of the entire story.
I'm pretty sure the reason this book is not recommended by teachers is because it self-destructs in the final chapters and ending. Harry and his friend George not only crawl out of their underground world into the house and bed of a HOO-MIN (human), but they crawl all over the HOO-MIN's body and even INTO HIS MOUTH. YUCK. OOOK. DISGUSTING. Maybe this grossed me out just because I am an 'uncool adult,' but my 13 year old read this part over my shoulder (and looked at the illustrations - yes there are illustrations of centipedes crawling all over a human body which add to the creepiness) and he had the same reaction, "GROSS!" Then the ending is very predictable and anti-climactic.
Here's why the crawling-on-a-human part of the book destroys the story: up until then you are on the side of the centipedes and you empathize with them as characters. You see the world from their perspective and share their point of view. Once they begin crawling on a human, however, it is impossible to share their point of view. The story becomes personal and all you can think about is how much you would not want two centipedes crawling up your body (from toes to MOUTH, of all things). This is the unrealistic and uncomfortable part of the story which (in my opinion) simply RUINS an otherwise good third or fourth grade read.