THE CREATURE OF THE PINES: The Mythical Jersey Devil

Lynn: Adam Gidwitz’s The Creature of the Pines (2018) introduces Elliot Eisner on his first day at a new school, which has started badly. It’s already three weeks into the school year—surely far too late to make friends. Even worse, the class is on a field trip to Pine Barrens with the terrifying Professor Fauna, whose office is rumored to be a torture chamber! Contrary to Elliot’s gloomy fears, he does make a friend right away: the exuberant Uchenna Devereaux. Hearing snarls and whimpers, the two discover the strangest creature either child has ever seen tangled in a balloon string, unable to move. It has a blue body like a tiny deer, bat wings, claws, sharp teeth, and a red belly and wings. Could it be a mythical Jersey Devil? It follows the children, eventually burrowing into Elliot’s backpack before disappearing into the city.

Unicorn Rescue Society: Creature of the Pines by Adam Gidwitz

Elliot and Uchenna confide in the fearsome Professor Fauna, who so happens to be a member of the Unicorn Rescue Society. Together, the trio sets off to save the creature from the nefarious Schmoke brothers—get it?— whose business motto is “Making the World the Way We Want It to Be.”

As difficult as it is to write early chapter books, writing one that is enticing, smart, imaginative, and laugh-out-loud funny is even harder. Adam Gidwitz shows his versatility and his chops with this romp of a start to the Unicorn Rescue Society series. Short chapters, relatively simple vocabulary (with a bit of Latin here and there), and a whiz-bang story makes this a book kids won’t want to put down.

Cindy: Professor Fauna has a Unicorn Rescue Society ring engraved with the slogans Defende Fabulosa and Protege Mythica, which translate to “Defend the Imaginary” and “Protect the Mythical.” When Uchenna asks, “Uhhhh, you rescue unicorns?” Professor Fauna is forced to admit that he’s never seen a unicorn, but it’s his intent to rescue them when he does. I can relate.

In the early 80s, I joined the Unicorn Hunters, a group from Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. I still have my membership pin! (See below.) These are the folks who started the List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness released on New Year’s Day each year. I suggested “Cybrarian” for the 2000 list, and it was accepted. They also started a tradition of burning a snowman on the first day of spring and holding a sauntering contest. (Whether you live or attend college in the Upper Peninsula, you make your own entertainment.) The professors and public relations director who started all this nonsense are to be commended for their sense of humor and their understanding of PR. Don’t miss their funny list of unicorn hunting regulations. You can also get your own unicorn questing license, even though the group no longer has a campus presence.

While I am something of a card-carrying expert on unicorns and their mythology, I had not heard the legends of the Jersey Devil. Thankfully, Gidwitz included some in his novel, so I went in search of others. New Jersey children are probably far ahead of me, and will love having their local legend get some national attention. Hatem Aly provides delightful spot illustrations throughout the book, and it would be fun to have students draw their own Jersey Devil from imagination—or from their own sightings (wink). Coming in July is book 2: The Basque Dragon, co-authored by Jesse Casey. Happy hunting / questing / rescuing!

About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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