August 22, 2010

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Salt Water Taffy Volume 2

Written by Matthew Loux
Illustrated by Matthew Loux
Oni Press

When last we left our pair of protagonists, Jack and Benny, they'd learned that a vacation away from the modern attractions of the world could be a lot more fun then they'd ever imagined. Chowder Bay might not have a television in its cabins, but who needs that when you have talking animals and larger-than-life creatures against whom you must quest to save the day?

Fresh off helping Angus save the town against a giant, taffy-loving lobster, the boys are ready to take on a new challenge--climbing up Mt. Barnabus, a massive, scary mountain filled with dangers unkown and guarded by a hat-loving eagle. Once scaled by their father, Jack and Benny must return in order to gain something lost. Can they do it, with a hungry wolf and a tip-taking turtle in their path?

The road to the top won't be easy, but if they stick together, anything's possible in this world of imagination played out in a world that's exactly the same as a real New England hamlet--if animals talked, of course. That same sense of wonder which I found so charming in the first book is present again. Jack and Benny never leave "our world", which is what distinguishes this series from other fantasy stories. They've merely stepped into a world of fable, where anything can happen and the humans involved don't think anything of it. This is a place where John Henry might show up, with the three little pigs trailing behind.

Loux writes about a place I'd have killed to be a part of as a child. (Aww, who am I kidding? I'd still kill to be in a world where tall tales were real!) His setting is perfect for a series of engaging, separate stories that can contain linking parts but don't have to be read together. Will you get more out of this book by reading the adventures in order? Certainly, but it's not required. Given that there's already been a book three (and I hope that means Loux is working on book four), having a solid and interesting setting is key.

This doesn't mean that Loux skimps on characters. Far from it. Jack and Benny, having developed a love for Chowder Bay, are now ready to explore it with an open mind, regardless of the risks. Watching them grow up as brothers and people is as important to the plot as finding a way to capture that which is lost. If you're looking carefully, you can see Angus monitoring their progress and making sure they are safe. I'm not sure about the parents yet. Right now, they're still outside the more fantastical parts of the story, but I have a feeling that's going to change eventually. I continue to appreciate that they are real (if a bit exaggerated) people. Jack and Benny love their parents and their parents love them. They aren't there to be mean or objects of ridicule. It's part of why I think this is a perfect book to give young people--having a good family dynamic isn't idealized, but neither is it mocked.

The story itself follows more of a typical quest narrative than I'd have normally liked, but it has several good laugh lines and improbable situations (a wolf who doesn't like to bleed and can't abide fruit) to keep it moving. The animal interactions are frequent (and often funny), and the overall message is a positive one about looking outside yourself. Best of all, it's not even preachy in the process.

I am a huge fan of the Salt Water Taffy books, and I definitely hope to be able to pick up the third volume at SPX this year. Can't believe I forgot to last time. Loux's story of two boys growing up over the summer just keeps getting better. If you haven't tried this series out yet, you need to do so right away!