Monster in the Woods is a historical fantasy in which Frith, her family and their village find themselves at the mercy of a set of events caused by a mysterious monster in the woods, but after a trip to the city Frith comes to realise the truth is much more dangerous.
Frith is a young girl living in a medieval village with her father, the carter, her mother and her younger brother Spuggy. Spuggy spends much of his time wandering the local woods with the family dog Cabbage and imaginary friend, Edward, while Frith hunts to help feed the family. The villagers are poor but have always been able to look after themselves until recently: all the animals and fish that are usually hunted for food have disappeared. While local gossips blame the monster in the woods for their misfortune, Frith and her family survive on cabbage and turnips until her father is offered the chance to earn money taking weapons made by the smith to the city to supply the King’s army for his war with the North.
Using the smith’s map, Frith joins her father for a journey through the Barren Wasteland, where they meet the Big Wise Head, an oracle who assures Frith there are no monsters in the woods, but there are monsters within the kingdom. Arriving in the city, Frith bumps into the King (literally!) and inadvertently becomes embroiled in a chain of events that sees her and her brother Spuggy at the mercy of the most vicious monster in the land. After hair-raising adventure, sacrifice and courage, and as a result of Frith’s own kindness and ingenuity, the tale ends well, with many of the mysteries plaguing Frith’s family are solved in surprising ways.
This is an engaging and comedic adventure underpinned by serious messages about the importance of looking beyond appearances and of taking care of each other. The story is illustrated, meaning the 389 pages and 40 chapters are not overly text heavy, making this a novel that would support reluctant readers or younger independent readers wanting to move on to longer, more involved stories. The historical references, such as the naming of characters through their job roles and description of weapons, are not intended to be a focus of the story: they provide a backdrop for the characters, who in the main are living very normal and recognisable lives within the context. For example, the family dynamics between Frith, her parents and her brother feel timeless despite the fantastical elements of the story. There are a range of themes covered explicitly, such as family, friendship, kindness, courage/ bravery and the consequences of action without thought; and many more touched on fleetingly or implicitly, such as loneliness, the (non-violent) impact of war and the abuse of power.
Monster in the Woods would work as a class novel although this may make sharing the illustrations difficult. It may better suit individual, paired or guided reading, where time can be spent enjoying the words, images, characters, setting and events in as much depth as the reader is able to reach.
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