‘The Creature Department:’ Book Review

Robert Paul Weston’s young adult novel The Creature Department is much more than a novel.  It is an experience. In collaboration with Zack Lydon and Framestore, Weston has created a modern, interactive reading experience for the modern kid . . . and modern learning. The cover of the novel, designed by Zack Lydon, has three-dimensional text and graphics that glow in the dark. When you look closer, you realize each letter in the title is an actual “creature” contorted to make the letter’s shape. It is a visual, tactile explosion that creates a magical experience before you even open the book.  Framestore, the visual effects studio whose work has been used in films like Avatar, Harry Potter, and most recently Gravity, created interactive versions of the characters for The Creature Department’s promotional website. One such virtual creature even made a pit stop to Comic-Con to dance and laugh with kids and adults alike. The Creature Department is a novel that will not only delight and inspire its readers, but it also offers an endless amount of cross-disciplinary curricular opportunities between English, Science, Art, Theater, and Computer/Graphic Arts Departments. In fact, it is a book that I think is desperately needed in the classroom ASAP, because, as the creatures quickly reveal, science and reading are fun!

The Creature Department takes place in a little town called Brickleburgh with nothing exciting or special to offer except the fact that it houses the headquarters for DENKi-3000, a company internationally recognized for its unique inventions. A lesser and, in fact, secret fact is that the employees who create the products/inventions are “creatures.” To look at, one might react, “Monsters!” when, in reality, they are completely harmless; however, DENKi-3000 is in danger of being sold, as it hasn’t come out with a new invention in a year. It is up to twelve-year-olds Eliot and Leslie to help Professor Archorchimedes von Doppler (Eliot’s uncle and Chief of Research and Development), along with the creatures of R&D (a.k.a. “The Creature Department”), to create the perfect, new product to stop DENKi-3000 from being bought out.

While the kids are the heroes, it is the creatures we learn from and whom I fell in love with. First, we have Jean Remi, a vampire/fairy hybrid who serves as “Chief of Fiddly Bitology,” or small items/tools, but who also serves as the author’s voice to deliver sound words of wisdom for people of all ages.

 “Zere are some who say,” Jean-Ramey began, hovering above the platform, “that to be as young as yourselves is to be free of trouble. But, of course, as we have just seen in ze expectavator, it is not true at all. All of us, no matter who we are-how old we might be-we all have a bit of ze troubles from time to time. But please, you should not worry! Ze troubles, zey come and ze go, but among the creatures of creaturedom, I tell you zis: We believe ze troubles, more than anyone else, ze make you who you are. It is true, non?”

 
Name your pain, he advises the children. Jean-Remy named the pain of his failed romance with a fairy princess . . . “Bernard”

 “I told you, ze fairy princess-she is gone. Probably I will never see her again. But ze pain! Ze pain, it is still here.” He tapped his chest with one tiny little finger. “And it is ze pain whom I call Bernard.”… “Now you see, ze pain-it becomes like a companion. A strange one perhaps, but a companion none-ze less. Now, whenever I feel ze pain, I do not feel sad or frightened. Instead, I say, “ah! Bernard, my old friend! You have come to visit me, once again, you little coquin, you!”

 
I must admit, I am looking forward to naming my pains, not in a mischievous way, by any means!

Next up we meet Grügor the Knucklecrumpler (Chief of Rickum Ruckery), an eight-foot muscled salamander who speaks in third person, Harrumphrey Grousman (Right-Hand Head), who has “the enlarged noggin of a fairytale troll: leathery skin, beady eyes, wild hair sprouting in every direction, a bushy beard streaked black and brown and gray, and a big, bulbous nose, upon which was perched a pair of dainty glasses . . . The creature had no arms just two fat yellow horns. They curved upward on either side of its head, while from behind, stretching out from the base of its enormous cranium, was a long furry tail.” Patti Mudmeyer (Head of Design) appears to be human at first but is rather a tall, silver, scaly bog-nymph with gills, fins, and green glob from hair she uses to mold/sculpt. The character most made fun of by the group is Reggie (Head of Security), who claims to be a former Colonel Admiral and twirls around, breaking things in panic from nightmares, when not sleeping. All are wonderful characters with consistent voices and personalities . . . but I think, deep down, Jean-Ramey and Reggie hold a special place in my heart.

As you can see, Robert Paul Weston is quite creative with his character names but is also just as creative and clever in his dialogue. He uses challenging words and phrases for young adults, like Seuss on fire. Every name, location, invention, and potion is its own tongue twister. The villains have some of the best “Moe and Curly-like” moments, which leads to one of the most literarily challenging sentences of the book and my favorite quote. After arguing on the correct vernacular for threatening Elliot and Leslie, one of the villains bursts out,

“That’s enough! We’re not here to discuss the etymology of certain idioms that may or may not be applicable to our present situation.”

 
That is a heck of a sentence, but, of course, because it’s Weston, it’s preceded by gags about boogers, bones, and ears to pick. My second favorite comedic moment occurs when the children are riding the “expectavator” for the first time. An expectavator is like an elevator but can go in any direction and runs on hope, part of “creature technology.” In order to operate it, you must pull the knottub (a finger). A small fart sound occurs and Walla!, the door opens. Because hope can be an unstable emotion, you must have someone like Gabe to operate the machine, keeping it grounded.

“[Gabe] has a medical condition: born with extremely low expectations.” . . . “Sorry to hear that,” said Elliot. “Meh,” said Gabe.

 
(I now visualize The Creature Department Meh t-shirts being made. Product placement, anyone?) 

When the children’s hope shoots the expectavator too high, Humphrey’s makes the observation…

“We’ve come a bit too far,” Humphrey’s explained. “We’ll have to lower our expectations. Gabe?” “Alright,” said Gabe, slumping a bit lower on his stool. “I’ll try to think about my divorce. That usually helps.”

 
Language is also explored using science. “Creature Technology” is based on “The Periodic Table of Intangibles.” Elliot and Leslie quickly notice this table has more elements than The Periodic Table of Elements, and the first element is Harmony rather than Hydrogen. Which brings me to a greater conceptual reason of why I am in love with The Creature Department.  As an educator, I see a whirlwind of classroom opportunities.

English: Read novel, discuss topics, vocabulary, and “Intangibles”

Science: Create your own “Period Table of Intangibles;” list the 3 elements for your product and why you chose them

Art: Design and build a model for their product

Theatre: Act out “Intangibles;” create a skit/commercial for their product or another student’s drawn from bowl

Computer/Graphic Arts: Use graphic design programs to create a “blue print,” Use computer to take theatre class commercial to the next level, create your own “creature,” describe their role at the factory and their personality.

And, of course, these are just a fraction of the multitude of curricular ideas and opportunities this novel could spurn. It’s the perfect, multi-faceted experience that provides young adults with more than just one way to absorb and learn from a story.

Robert Paul Weston more than lives up to his reputation as Silver Birch Award Winner, as does the team at Framestore, who should be commended on their job for adding such a rich additional layer to The Creature Department's experience (including the brilliant cover art of Zack Lydon), and Penguin Publishing for backing such a massive undertaking. I only wonder if sometimes the dialogue and concepts might be over the heads of the age group that would be most interested in the novel and vise versa. My hope, though, is that that any age could love it, as I did. To best capture my thoughts, I will endeavor to pick the three most “complex intangible essences” that best describe The Creature Department experience for me.

1.      (Excitement) Learning you won the lottery while speeding down the highest hill of the world’s tallest rollercoaster

2.      (Creativity) The bursting sensation of having so many ideas you are at a loss for words

3.      (Comfort) The warmth you get snuggled in a blanket being held by your best friend

 
In conclusion . . . ”Wow!”

Last modified on Friday, 10 January 2014 13:36

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