The YA Fantasy novel, The Shells of Chanticleer, by Maura Patrick has many things to recommend it for the 12 to 15 year old female reader. The first person narrator, Macy, is a fairly typical 16 year old who has some atypical fears – she will not enter one of the rooms in her house because of her fear of a stuffed giraffe, she is sure there are kidnappers in every ice cream van, and she doesn’t like crossing bridges because she fears she will jump off.
As the novel begins, Macy gets a splinter after falling down when out for a run, and she later develops a serious infection as a result. By the time her parents realize she doesn’t just have the bug that is going around, the situation is critical. Her doctors induce a coma to try to give her body the rest it needs to heal. Once Macy is in the coma, the real story begins.
Macy wakes up in a cottage in the beautiful and strange world of Chanticleer; a place where no one can be injured, food is plentiful and delicious (and mostly comprised of sweets), and school is not about book learning. The fantastical world of Chanticleer exists specifically to help kids who are unable to fully live their lives because of their fears. Some of them will succeed in throwing off their anxieties, and others will fail. Macy fails her first test and reacts very badly. Later, she begins to grow beyond her fears and tries to help the new friends she makes in Chanticleer with their own.
Typically, children’s fantasy stories don’t come right out with what the reader should learn. Instead, the characters are placed into testing situations in which the reader gets the sense of growth without an ongoing “here is what I’ve accomplished” conversation. It was interesting to see the test laid out in such a direct way.
Although Chanticleer is a supportive place, there are a few more ominous elements; the “shells” of the title (which really are pretty creepy as central metaphors go), the threatening “Prime Minister”, and the suspicious hot caramel drink that is the only available beverage. Plus, since the point of the school is to expose the students to their fears so that they can overcome them, a few fairly mean things have to happen if fears are to be provoked. However, since no one can actually be harmed, the book never moves into scary territory. Based on the build up, I was expecting the story to go in an entirely different direction than it did once Maura found out about the shells – a sinister, creepy, suspenseful one. But then it suddenly did an about face and turned into a romance. What?!?!
As it turns out, the story doesn’t always go where you are expecting it to go. That is a generally good thing in a story, but I find I wanted the story I thought had been foreshadowed — the creepy, sinister story in which the denizens of Chanticleer commit nefarious crimes under the guise of goodness. Even the “shells”, which originally represented a fear that needed to be overcome, turn into a metaphor for trusting the one you love and giving oneself over completely.
However, never let it be said that I can’t adjust my expectations. The story continued to have some interesting twists and turns as it became increasingly focused on the romantic relationship between Macy and Sebastian, a member of the Chanticleer staff. By the end, the story is entirely a love story. As I see it, the book’s flaw is that it started out being one thing (a girl fighting her fears to be able to live fully) and turned into another (star-crossed romance). To me, it felt like Dorothy and the Scarecrow had suddenly decided to go off for a cuddle instead of pursuing the Wicked Witch.
Having identified the book’s weakness, I also think it has considerable strengths. Ms. Patrick writes well, and the story flow is good. There is a smattering of minor grammar issues, but even corporate-published books have a few spelling and grammar errors. She does a good job characterizing the main and lesser characters, and Macy doesn’t feel like a “Mary Sue” to me (something far too common in Indie YA fiction). Thinking as a parent, I do find the conclusion of the story a little bit disturbing based on a decision that Macy makes, but I also think it was an overall well-told story that would easily keep young teen readers up at night to find out what happens in the end.
At 99 cents, The Shells of Chanticleer is priced right for the YA pocketbook. I recommend the book as a good read for the Junior High age range. It has age appropriate themes and language, and the physical aspect of the romance is confined to kissing. Specifically because the book is so well targeted to the interests and maturity level of YA readers, I do not recommend it as a book most adults would enjoy.