By Hal Patnott
Not all characters are suited for sword-swinging, dragon-fighting heroics. This week I looked at two titles from our collection with unlikely heroes that are thrust into their role with no choice but to fight to survive. Both protagonists come armed with knowledge of video games, pop culture, and the mechanics of a good fantasy story. Their “geeky” passions help them along the way, but ultimately they both have to learn about the importance of friendship and family to save the day.
Josh Baxter has no friends at his new middle school, but he’s had no problems making enemies. On his very first day he puts his lock on the wrong locker, accidently stores his gym clothes in the girl’s locker room, and becomes the target of the popular and evil football star Henry Schmittendorf (aka “Mittens”). Video games are his only escape, but when his grades start to tank, his mom takes those away too. That’s when Josh realizes his life is like an adventure game. If he wants to survive, he needs to build up his skills, make some allies, and face his problems head-on. Since the day school began he’s “been playing not to lose” but now “[it’s] time to play to win” (35). Josh Baxter Levels Up is filled with video game and pop culture references. As Josh learns to navigate friendships, school, and his relationship with his family, his health points go up and down. Every chapter tracks his new skills and experience points. When Josh has to make tough decisions, he first considers what his favorite heroes—including Superman, Han Solo, Link, and Steve the Minecraft Guy—would do in his situation. This fast-paced middle school adventure is a good read for an avid gamer.
Fourteen-year-old, aspiring-game-designer Ralph Stevens only has one rule. He “must never, ever, make a wish. Not under any circumstances whatsoever” (4). His parents are so serious about this rule that, back in the fifth grade, when he brought in frosted cupcakes for his birthday treat, he was forced to sit in the hallway just in case one of his classmates tried to pressure him into making a wish. Of course, Ralph has no idea of his family’s dark and tragic history of wish-making. When his long-lost, British family invites him to stay for the summer, the last thing Ralph expects is to get tangled with his three cousins in a twisted and magical adventure of wish-fulfillment. As it turns out, granting wishes is not as simple as waving a wand. Ralph must help his cousins journey through fairy tale lands, and fight their evil duchess aunt. Meanwhile, the fourth-wall-breaking narrator hiding in the rafters keeps trying to kill him, and Ralph’s time is running out, because “by the rules of narrative economy, [each] wish has to finish within a hundred pages” (78). A lighthearted, over-the-top quest, Geek Fantasy Novel will appeal to gamers and fans of fractured fairy tales.