Once Upon a Tim by Stuart Gibbs, illustrated by Stacy Curtis. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 9781534499256
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
Format: ARC (publication March 2022)
Genre: Historical fiction, humor
What did you like about the book? Tim is a peasant and doesn’t want to be one. He humorously imparts the sordid details of his feudal existence, and expresses his frustration at his lack of prospects for any other way of life. So when Princess Grace from a neighboring kingdom is abducted by a Stinx (a malodorous two-headed flying lion), Tim answers the call of Prince Ruprecht to attend him as a knight and rescue the damsel. He attends knight tryouts along with his best friend Belinda, who disguises herself as a boy and rages against the system that keeps peasants down, with peasant women even further oppressed. The two are chosen (in fact, they are the only two that show up) to accompany Ruprecht and his advisor Nerlim (a purported wizard), as well as the village idiot Ferkle, a silly boy who keeps putting mud in his pants. The unlikely heroes traverse the Forest of Doom, cross the River of Doom, and scale the Mountains of Doom (after defeating the Butterfly of Doom) before arriving at the Lair of the Stinx. Along the way they uncover the true intentions of the cowardly prince and his manipulative advisor, and learn a bit about their own value as well.
This is a really fun start to a new series from a favorite writer. Tim’s humorous narration is rife with the requisite gross-out references that come with any medieval tale, but he also makes sly asides to his modern readers about technology and conveniences such as libraries and air conditioning. He also interjects an “IQ Booster” icon whenever he uses a big vocabulary word (and gives a definition and a sentence a la Lemony Snicket). Belinda’s feminist stance is likely to strike a contemporary chord, as will the themes of class self-identity. Most characters present as white; Ruprecht and Belinda both appear brown-skinned on the cover. Short chapters with funny illustrations and diagrams will keep readers engaged, as will the entertaining and exciting plot. Readers expecting a standard Stuart Gibbs high-tech, danger-filled adventure might be surprised to see him delve into the medieval world and write for a slightly younger audience, but it is a refreshing take.
Anything you did not like about the book? The ‘village idiot’ appellation might be a little jarring to 21st century readers. Ferkle is a funny, foolish character, but kids might not understand the reference and find the term insulting or inappropriate.
To whom would you recommend this book? Readers in grade 2 and up who are anxiously awaiting further installments of Lincoln Peirce’s Max & the Midknights will certainly enjoy it. It’s also a good fit for kids who plow through easier series like Dragon Masters and The Last Firehawk. The humor and medieval detail also compare to a couple of older series that are still somewhat in circulation – Dragonslayers Academy (McMullan), and Moongobble and Me (Coville).
Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries
Where would you shelve it? Fiction
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.
Date of review: February 24, 2022