The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller

Cover of "The Extraordinary Adventures of...
Cover via Amazon

As regular readers know, I have long had an interest in both well written and/or beautifully illustrated children’s books and chapter books/young adult fiction.  Lately I have been checking out some books that fit in between picture type books you read to your kids and full fledged fiction they read themselves.

One such example, I picked up at a local library sale was Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil written by the creator of the Non Sequitor comic strip Wiley Miller.  Allow me to steal the plot description from the School Library Journal:

It’s 1899, and 12-year-old Basil lives in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. A dour, gnomish lad with an oversize head, he longs for adventure. When a balloon piloted by a kindly, mysterious man appears outside his window, the boy leaps aboard and soars off to a fantastic city in the sky. Professor Angus McGookin has brought him to Helios, the home of a secret, advanced society, and Basil is soon caught up in an adventure involving evil scientists, pteranodons, and mechanical armies.

I read the book to my daughter who is almost five years old and she enjoyed it enough to sit still and listen to it over the course of two nights.  I found it clever and interesting.

The bright fun color illustrations add some zip and visual excitement to the story. The story itself is certainly not all that unique (boy finds secret world, has been chosen to play a role, bad guy threatens all that is good, etc.) but I found it entertaining and a nice mix of adventure and mystery. There is sense throughout that not only is a sequel in the works but there is a whole lot to the story that isn’t being told.

There is also an undercurrent, a mix of mythology and political philosophy, that is deeper than most kids are likely to pick up on.  The people of Helios exist to keep civilization from being destroyed but mankind’s violent and warlike tendencies keep getting in the way. The bad guy’s plan is “World Peace Through Domination.” It never becomes overt but this sort of thing seems like a commentary on more modern political issues.

If you are looking for finley honed literature you may be disappointed.  SLJ describes it this way:

Miller’s plentiful, full-color cartoons expand on the story, but there’s little invention or character development in this rambling story. The narrative flow is clunky, with awkward shifts in perspective from Basil to that of an all-knowing narrator.

While Booklist added:

Miller’s lack of experience with longer narrative forms shows in the simplistic story arc and thin characterizations, and also in the episodes’ choppy flow, in which the rhythms of a serialized cartoon are still apparent. Even so, the book’s unusually plentiful illustrations make this worth a second glance.

While reading it to my daughter I didn’t particularly notice such literary flaws and I think Booklist’s conclusion points to why:

Varied in size and design, the full-color artwork amplifies the contrast between Basil’s pinched, austere appearance and the extravagant wonders he sees–from flying reptiles to a boat suspended beneath a hot-air balloon. Together with such visuals, the spaciously designed text and plot-driven action will help struggling readers (or those new to chapter books) build confidence.

The point is that this is somewhere between picture book and chapter book and that something kids will enjoy – mine sure did.  As usual expectations play a big role in your reaction.

Overall, I found it to be a quirky, and fun, adventure story with some great illustrations to break up the prose.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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