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Tortoise Reform by Piers Anthony reviewed by Kathe Gogolewski
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Tortoise Reform by Piers Anthony

Reviewed by Kathe Gogolewski

Fantasy Adventure for Middle Grade and Young Adult

Publisher: Mundania Press

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About two years ago, Piers Anthony sent me the manuscript for Pandora Park, a fantasy adventure novel he had written for middle grade readers. I had offered to read the story to my 4th and 5th grade schoolchildren at Lake Elementary in Oceanside, California, where I worked as a school volunteer. Over the course of two weeks, I did just that. The children loved it, which didn’t surprise me as the premise was exciting, original and magical. The children gave it high marks in their evaluations, which I sent to Piers. As yet, the story has not been published, but if it is, I highly recommend it for both children and young adults.


Piers Anthony has written another children’s novel, Tortoise Reform, published by Mundania Press.  I received a copy in December and read it with great interest. The story revolves around a ten-year-old girl, Rowan, who is displaced from her home for reasons beyond her control and made to stay with her kindly yet kid-clueless aunt and uncle. Feeling lost and lonely, Rowan discovers a tortoise who ventures into her world from another realm through a huge sink hole. This is no ordinary tortoise, however, bearing a sapient and telepathic mind. Rowan learns from Gopher, the tortoise, that most animals from his realm are similarly endowed. As if in a reversal of the natural order, Gopher is surprised at the power and complexity of Rowan’s mind, as humans are considered dull, unimaginative creatures in his world; indeed, they are used as beasts of burden. With delight, Gopher introduces Rowan to his burrow mates - an owl, a snake, an armadillo and a rabbit - all sapient creatures who teach Rowan to transmit thoughts telepathically. One by one, they bond with Rowan and she with them, in part as a result of her efforts to rescue the animals when they fall into mishap. All wish for the relationships to continue, but there’s a problem.


A construction project is slated for the area over the sink hole, which provides the only known exit and entry between their worlds. If the hole is cemented over, Rowan will not be able to visit her new friends and vice versa. Using their shared telepathy, they identify the man in charge of the construction project and set out to find him. The story also entails a visit by Rowan to the animals’ realm, where she feigns dullness to pass as an inhabitant. The animals are short one burrow mate in their world, which they must find before they can apply for official recognition as a burrow. Naturally, they consider Rowan for the role. Adventures abound for all in both realms.


I found the story delightful, but then, I’m a fan of Piers Anthony’s writing.  In Tortosie Reform, he does not dull-down the vocabulary, yet most of the more difficult words are aptly presented in context, creating meaningful and digestible text for ten-year olds and up. This treatment is atypical of the majority of current children’s literature, which tends to incorporate large doses of popular kid-patois. Piers’ treatment is reminiscent of the literary works of C. S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll, who present language considered adultish, yet is much enjoyed by children.


I also love the characterization of Rowan. She remains charming, enthusiastic and relatable throughout the tale. Piers has a good grasp of the concerns and interests of children, in my opinion, and I’ll post an excerpt here of Rowan’s thoughts to show you what I mean:


     She didn’t like deceiving Aunt and Uncle. She knew they were nice enough people. It wasn’t their fault that her folks were having problems and had to farm her out for a while. In fact they were being pretty decent about boarding her. But they did not understand children, having none of their own. Sometimes they acted as if she were a little adult, and sometimes as if she were two years old. They hadn’t found the range for age ten. So they expected her to do her chores, like laundry, which was adult, and to be in bed and asleep by nine PM, which was child. And they had no understanding at all of her need to interact with her friends.


     The last was the worst. She had a slender slew of fine friends in fifth grade, and some vile villainous enemies, and had had every intention of keeping in touch with them all over the summer. The bad things could be almost as much fun as the good ones. She was good at being bad, when she tried. It was maybe her last real chance to be a tomboy before she had to start orienting on (ugh!) young lady hood.


Aside from equating badness with tomboy tendencies, I enjoyed this. His characterization creates a well-rounded and believable little girl.


I didn’t feel, however, that the animals differed significantly from each other in their characterizations. They felt homogenous; I could easily trade the dialogue of one with another. I felt Piers missed an excellent opportunity to create anthropomorphic differentiation in their characterizations, such as the treatment given to animal characters in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or the Harry Potter series.


My other objection concerns the temporary nudity assigned to the girl in the animals’ realm. Whereas it is alluded to only once as she washes her clothes and hangs them up to dry, it is left to the reader to consider that she is thereafter left without a stitch of clothing. Culturally in our westernized society, nudity is not a topic found in children’s literature. It may be argued that it is realistic to assume that in this story the girl must wash her clothes after crawling through a muddy tunnel, but it is also realistic for people to perch upon a toilet at least once a day, yet one rarely reads about it unless the plot demands it. I think it’s best to keep such illuminations out of children’s stories entirely.


All in all, it is a tale well-told, and I hope it gains enough readership to prompt Anthony to write the sequel (it does beg for one). I felt compelled to return to the story each evening until I had finished the book. Piers Anthony is, after all, a master storyteller.


Kathe Gogolewski - Muse Book Reviewer


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