Hatem Aly, Illustrator
Dutton, 2018, 167 pages
Unicorn Rescue Society series #1
A letter from Professor Mito Fauna opens this book, insisting that unicorns are real. We next turn to the point of view of new kid Elliot Eisner, who not only has to start a new school three weeks into the school year, but his first day is a field trip. Luckily, the best choice for a bus seatmate turns out to be occupied by budding musician Uchenna, who is also fairly new. The two become instant friends and hang out together on an unconventional trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrons. The trip is led by eccentric social studies teacher Professor Fauna, who is an expert on the region. While tramping around the marshy Pine Barrons, the new friends encounter a strange creature that the children free from a pink ribbon and feed home-made granola bars. Once reunited with the group, Elliot and Uchenna learn more about the Pine Barrons and the mythological creature known as the Jersey Devil. Could this be what the mysterious animal they encountered is? The Jersey Devil is smuggled out of the region in Uchenna's backpack, from which he escapes. The children confess to Professor Fauna what has happened, which leads to a chase, and encountering bad-guys: the Schmoke brothers. All ends well with the professor confessing to the children his involvement in the secret Unicorn Rescue Society, who pledge to protect unicorns and other mythical creatures and asks the kids to join its ranks. Of course the children agree, which will lead the reader to the next installment in the series, The Basque Dragon.
I had to read this new series opener, both because I'm from New Jersey and was excited to see a book featuring Jersey Devil and because I love the work of Adam Gidwitz. This new series is lighter and meant for a younger audience than his previous titles and a bit more fun. Readers will relate to the main characters, Elliot and Uchenna, who struggle with fitting in with their classmates and the relief they feel in finding a companion. With both a male and female protagonist, both genders will feel comfortable reading this series. The books are at a perfect level for early chapter book readers and can serve as a great introduction to the fantasy genre. Short chapters, large print and cliff-hanging chapter endings will encourage readers to keep turning pages. Cartoon-like black and white illustrations are generously sprinkled throughout the book and further encourage the target audience to pick-up and complete this story. The professor is a wonderful, eccentric character, much like the professor in Back to the Future and readers will be envious of Elliot and Uchenna in that they get to run around with him. The projected series will be written by various authors under the leadership of Gidwitz and his creative team, who all receive credit in the back of the book. A three chapter insert of the next installment in the series is included in the back of the book as is information about the series' website, which is well-done. A great new series which stands a cut above the usual fare for this age group.