Simon & Schuster, 2011

Just as in the Harry Potter stories, the William Joyce tales begin with a younger reader in mind and, then, as the pages turn, both child and story grow.

The first volume, The Man in the Moon, scarcely seems to be in the same series as the later books.

It’s a picture book, though an advanced one, whereas the next two books are elegantly bound chapter books.

Although seemingly-level appropriate, with just enough demanding vocabulary to keep it interesting and not overwhelming, my eight-year-old reading companion was not as smitten with this story as I expected. (Mind you, her older sister was playing “Minecraft”: hard to compete with that.)

But I thought the artwork was brilliant, literally. The colours are vibrant, the lines are bold, and each image creates a strong atmosphere. The darker images, devoted to the sombre tones of the Nightmare King, Pitch, are equally striking. (The snapshot below doesn’t do the artwork justice, only hints at the expansive style of each piece.)

Of course, when it comes to the story, one has to buy into the archetypal dark=bad and light=good motif for this story to work.

Moonbeams traditionally battle shadow creatures, fearlings and nightmare men. As the story explains, many children are afraid of the dark and the nightmares that live within, so the epic battle begins. (All of that is changed by the Man in the Moon, or, Mim, as the story goes.)

Illustration of the Guardians

If you have strict ideas in place about the Man in the Moon, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, Mother Goose and Santa Claus, this series might contradict that doctrine; each of these is a Guardian of Childhood and they come with their own histories and personalities, which might challenge those who consider these personages sacred.

I read this series as folklore rather than myth, heavily influenced, from a very young age, by L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which presents his tale as just that.

(I’ve long been troubled by the idea that though one wants to teach children to be honest, it’s acceptable — even encouraged, to lie to them throughout their younger years, in saying  that Santa Claus is real: surely the corollary should be that one is okay with hearing “but it was a nice story to tell” later on, when the same children are spinning “stories” for you.)

The first volume for older children introduces Nicholas St. North and, in some ways, it feels like a tale distinct from The Man in the Moon.

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King does hearken back, however, to The Man in the Moon by recreating a Moonbeam Vs. Fearling battle while two children sleep at the opening.

It’s clear that Pitch and Tsar Lunar (more commonly known as the Man in the Moon) are still at odds. The story is summarized and retold a little later, as “The Story of the Golden Age”, so that readers who have missed the first volume can understand the history of the battle between light and dark.

But this tale introduces many more sophisticated elements of the story that will be particularly satisfying for slightly older children (the jacket suggests ages 8 to 11).

Clever means by which children avoid bedtime (including hiding in paintings), insect languages (slug is a variant of the worm dialect), and a beautiful home in a magic tree (which can sprout bunkbeds): these details add a pleasing dimension to the outline presented in the earlier volume of the series.

Nicholas St. North is a well-known bandit who becomes embroiled in the events of this story because a wizard draws him into the plot. So it’s not surprising that magic abounds; spells go wrong, and spells go right, and both states are equally entertaining. And then things get serious: the battle takes hold.

In E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core, readers are reminded of their Heroes with a double-spread of illustrations. (Itemizing them would reveal some key plot points.)

But readers have yet to meet the “most ancient,  mysterious, and peculiar creature the world had ever known. Or not known, actually.”

He has not been glimpsed in living memory, but he knows about the battle depicted in the last volume and he knows about “the terrible battles to come”. His nose twitches. His massive ears flinch. (The cover — and the covers are gorgeous, so readers cannot complain about the slight spoilers — gives it away.)

And this is not the only new character in this volume; readers also meet Mr. Qwerty, the librarian. He is a glowworm”who loved books above all other things”, who could often be found “meandering up the spine of one book or down another, cleaning the covers or repairing torn pages”.

There are familiar characters though, of course. Early on, the residents of the village of Santoff Claussen get updates from Katherine about all the goings-on far away where she (and her fellow travellers, well known to readers) remain.

She updates them using a magic book, which resides in Mr. Qwerty’s library; she can sketch the events on the page using ordinary ink and paper, and her imagination empowers her listeners to feel as though she is sitting right there with them. That’s the magic of storytelling, right?

And the series does remain rooted in magic and wonder. In this volume, readers learn that there are not only seven wonders of the known world, but there are wonders of the unknown world as well. And, of course, the epic battle continues.

Beyond the power of belief, other themes which endure across the volumes are the vital importance of friendship, and the need for bravery when one feels their courage is tested with a long battle; these two themes are intertwined throughout the tales.

Some of the stories’ elements are overtly predictable (when a spider appears, there is no question that it’s an agent of evil and darkness), but this stereotypical approach fits with the traditional theme of light battling the dark and will undoubtedly satisfy many young readers.

Older readers, who are looking for something more, may well be seduced by the lovely illustrations (I mean, illuminations) and the attractive packaging, even if some of the characters and magical details do not win their readers’ hearts.

Still curious? You can check out this video from the author’s point of view. If you’re looking for more Once Upon a Time reading, look no further!