I read a lot of “meaningful” books without wanting to. When you review books for children there’s a sort of assumption that if you want to be familiar with the cream of the yearly crop then you need to immerse yourself in a smattering of dead moms, deadbeat dads, anger issues, historical fiction, etc. And that’s all well and good for a while, but after months and months of it, a person begins to crack. Maybe, just maybe, I should read something fun and funny and well written and just downright bizarre. Maybe, I should read “Medusa Jones”. I look at it this way; if you can’t find humor in the idea of a kid with snakes coming out of her head then you’re not considering it properly. It’s a fabulous concept! Taking everyone’s favorite myths and plopping them smack dab in a middle school muddle, author Ross Collins creates new humor from very VERY old material.
You would think that being a Gorgon would have certain advantages, wouldn’t you? Yet for Medusa Jones, the fact that she has snakes instead of hair makes her nothing but a freak in the eyes of her fellow students. She’s particularly loathed by “The Champions”, Perseus, Theseus, and Cassandra. It’s not like Medusa doesn’t have friends. There’s her nerdy buddy Chiron the centaur and Mino the Minotaur (perpetually late due to his maze-like house) but they’re no more popular than she is. Then, to top it all off, the worst possible thing happens. There’s to be a class trip and Medusa’s crew is stuck on a hike up Mount Olympus with, you guessed it, the Champions. She’s certain that this will be a misery for everyone involved, but to the surprise of everyone, the trip turns out very well in the end.
Myths filter through this book lightly. Kids who already know the stories will get some of the in-jokes as well. It makes perfect sense that Perseus would be Medusa’s main tormentor. And an author must possess a certain kind of mindset to take a character like Medea and make her a teacher. Talk about a nightmare class. You do wonder why Collins chose Cassandra to be the girl Champion when others might have been better suited. How about Helen of Troy or Atalanta? Atalanta could have been cool. She could have been on the track team or something. Well, there are always sequels, I suppose.
The real selling point of this book, however, is that it’s an early chapter book. Early chapter books, particularly GOOD early chapter books, are as rare as four-leaf-clovers in May. They’re out there, but you’re gonna have to rip through a lot of disappointments before you find them. What Collins is offering us here is a chance to sate the mythology-minded third to fourth grade set without having to hand them 500+ page fantasy novels. The illustrations struck me as particularly good too. They’re just simple line drawings done in pencil, but they’ve got “it”, baby. Collins melds the old-timey with the contemporary well. Sure, everyone’s wearing sandals, but Medusa’s have the thick soles you’ll see on kids’ shoes today. I was also unaccountably fond of Medusa’s “headsnakes”. If you’re going to have a full head of them then they’d better have personality, and boy howdy do they ever. And the kick-butt moment near the end when Medusa uses her powers for good is awesome. Collins is good at the quiet little moments too. There’s one shot of Medusa sitting forlornly against her mother, contemplating great misery to come, that is surprisingly touching. Medusa is leaning up against her mom in an entirely natural position. It may not be much, but I liked it.
It’s a lighthearted jaunt. A whimsical joy. A saucy n’er-do-well spree, if you will. It’s fun and the kid who finds it and reads it will enjoy it. It is also, however, just a bit gory at times. There were two moments in this book that threw me completely off guard. At one point Medusa attempts to change her entire look by getting her hair done. Unfortunately for the stylist, he mistakes her snakes for a clever hair choice and learns his mistake too late. There’s an image of him staring in abject horror after the first snip at his scissors, now dripping blood, that’s a bit with the gross. And then there is the last page of the book. I won’t give it away or anything, but I kind of felt that it was an unnecessary gag and that the entire novel would have been far stronger without it.
As I’ve mentioned, a good early chapter book is a joy and a wonder. “Medusa Jones” isn’t going to go about winning any literary awards but it’s bound to be beloved. And that, I think, is reward enough. A great read for those kids still too young for The Lightning Thief.
Other Blog Reviews: The Goddess of YA Literature
Notes on the Cover: I like it. It got me to pick up the book in the first place. I’ve seen this cover promoted on the web with a sea green background as well, but obviously the yellow stands out and demands to be noticed. Good stuff.