Monday, August 22, 2011

Review - The Monster's Ring by Bruce Coville

Short review: By discovering his inner monster, a bullied boy learns how to assert himself, but also learns to exercise restraint.

Russell is bullied
A magic ring from Mr. Elives
Frees his monster self

Full review: The first of the Magic Shop books, The Monster's Ring is a story about growing up, facing your fears, and learning how to confront difficulties without losing your head. It is also a silly story about dressing up and having fun on Halloween.

Russell, the central character of the book, is a fifth grader who is fascinated by monster (owning a huge collection of monster comics) and even though some of his classmates say it is "kid stuff" is excited about the prospect of dressing as a monster for Halloween. To Russell's chagrin, his father doesn't listen to him, and his mother babies him. He is also tormented by the class bully Eddie. While fleeing his nemesis, Russell stumbles onto Mr. Elives magic shop, where the mysterious proprietor sells him "what he needs": a ring.

The ring, it turns out, is magical, and by following some instructions included with it, Russell can turn himself into a monster complete with fur, horns, fangs, and claws. The instructions also say that each turn of the ring will make the transformation bigger and scarier, but warns of possible side effects. Russell, of course, ignores this warning. Using the ring seems to have the side effect of making Russell bolder and more pugnacious, resulting in a fight with Eddie in the cafeteria and a confrontation with Russell's father that finally gets him listening to Russell.

Emboldened by his ability to turn into a scary monster, Russell decides to wear his monster shape as his costume for his class Halloween party. The "costume" is a big hit. Unfortunately, Russell finds himself acting in a most monster-like fashion, behavior he cannot control. The resulting trouble ends up in a confrontation with his mother in which Russell demands that she stop treating him like a baby.

Finally, on Halloween Russell takes the last step and transforms into a hideous winged creature. Halloween is also the night of the full moon, so the transformation is extra powerful. During the night, Russell finds Eddie being bullied himself, and comes to his aid, eventually learning to understand his adversary, and even begins to feel sorry for him. In the end, Mr. Elives comes to Russell's rescue, and all ends well except for the minor side effect that Russell seems likely to turn into a monster every full moon.

The story is, at its heart, a coming of age tale. Russell has to deal with growing up, changing from a little boy into a teenager (growing hair in odd places, uncontrollable urges, and increased assertiveness sure sounds like a boy starting puberty to me). He has to learn to balance his new assertive nature with a bit of sympathy and control, and that story is skillfully told with a humorous bent in this book. This is one of the few books aimed at kids about growing up that is subtle enough and funny enough that it seems to me that it would hold their attention.

My copy of The Monster's Ring is a revised version. In his afterward, Coville explains that when he wrote it, he did not anticipate writing more Magic Shop books. He later revised this book to include cameos from some characters from later books, but based upon his description I don't think that the revision affects the story in any significant way (I can't be sure, since I have not seen the unrevised version). Coville also likes to sneak in references to other books aimed at young readers: In the early part of the story Russell reads Bellairs' The House With a Clock in its Walls. Overall, this is a great beginning to a very good series of books for children, and highly recommended for any elementary school age child.

Subsequent book in the series: Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher

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  1. My son really liked this book. He read it last summer. He finished it in a day... he wouldn't come out of his room! It was pretty cool.

  2. This is a great kids' series. So glad you reviewed the book. I'd forgotten all about it.

  3. @flashlight_reader: It always makes me happy when my kids turn down things like video games or watching an episode of Spongebob Squarepants for the umpteenth time in order to read a book.