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Book Review: Down the Mysterly River By Bill Willingham

Bill Willingham’s middle-grade novel is an otherworldly page-turner.


Teen Review | by Lucas Sorensen

Down the Mysterly River is a story about a boy who wakes up in a strange world with strange inhabitants. Bill Willingham’s book follows a young detective named Max “The Wolf” as he journeys to find out more about this strange land and how to stay safe from the dangers that reside within. It is a story of mystery, drama, and fantasy that borders on classic fairy tales.

When Max finds himself alone in the woods, he’s unsure of how he got there or even where he is. With detective blood in his veins, he sets off on a mysterious journey, hoping to find his way back home. Along the way, Max makes some new friends: a badger in the military, a sheriff who happens to be a bear, and a not-so-domesticated house cat. Looking for sanctuary, Max encounters a prophet by the name of Prince Aspen who offers him sage advice by revealing a safe destination, providing directions to its secret location. Max encounters other interesting characters on his adventure and questions their integrity, including: The Eggman, a strange man who delivers eggs; a mystical larger-than-life dragon by the name of Lady Slider; and The Blue Cutters, with swords powerful enough to change the essence and memories of those afflicted by their blades.

The dark and powerful Cutters are pursuing Max and his friends. They must reach the sanctuary as quickly as they can for fear of losing their lives.

I didn’t want to stop reading Down the Mysterly River. I finished it in one day because every chapter posed questions that I was compelled to find answers to—even the epilogue raised more mysterious questions about Max’s journey. Although I wished for a more compelling character arc for Max, the characters themselves are each distinctly unique. The real excitement for me was the overarching mystery, which unfolds in a dramatic twist at the end of the book.

Overall, Down the Mysterly River is a solid book. It reminded me of a few other classic tales including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I would highly recommend the book to friends who like similar action- adventure and fantasy genres, as well as people who don’t mind losing a bit of sleep because of how addictive this book is. Once you’re pulled in, you can’t be pulled out of this adventure.

Lucas Sorensen is a seventh grader who attends Manhattan Beach Middle School in Manhattan Beach, California. Lucas is a competitive swimmer and obsessed with Fortnite, but his real addiction is reading. Lucas’s favorite book series is Inheritance Cycle.


Parent Review | by Tara Sorensen

I was excited to read a book with my son. Reading together is something we stopped doing when he was in first grade since he no longer required his mommy’s help. I must admit, though, I was slightly nervous to partake in a tandem reading assignment. My son’s natural gravitation is to heavy duty sci-fi/fantasy—mine is not. Some of his favorite reads include D.J. MacHale’s The Pendragon series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series.

Lucas is a voracious reader, and of course he finished Down the Mysterly River overnight. He prompted me to start the book when he dropped some hints which piqued my interest. “Mom, you’re going to enjoy the read. It reminds me of Wizard of Oz, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.” And so I dove in head first.

Down the Mysterly River follows Max “the Wolf,” an accomplished Boy Scout. He holds all the qualities I see and admire in my own children. He’s inquisitive, unafraid, confident, and ultimately a determined problem-solver. The author describes Max as a detective, which sets the reader off on a cryptic mystery. You see, Max has no idea where he is in a setting that should seem all too familiar for a Boy Scout. As he tries to secure answers to his whereabouts, he comes upon some woodland creatures. They seem like typical forest inhabitants, but his new acquaintances can speak!

Like Alice chasing answers as she chases the White Rabbit, Max, too, is thrust into a topsy-turvy adventure. With few answers and hundreds more questions which arise at every turn, Max methodically pieces each one together.

While I don’t want to give away the ending, the M. Night Shyamalan twist brought about a philosophical discussion with my son that I couldn’t have predicted, either. With elements of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Tolkien’s quests, Down the Mysterly River provides the reader with curious characters, heightened drama, and an unusual twist. It should come as no surprise that Bill Willingham is a comic book icon and known for his fairy tale mash-ups. His pen and ink drawings at the beginning of each chapter pay homage to Sir John Tenniel’s Alice illustrations.

Down the Mysterly River is an adventure story for the whole family, not just mother and son.

Tara Sorensen is a kids’ television programming executive with stints at Nelvana, Sony Pictures Television, National Geographic, and Amazon Studios. Tara’s all-time favorite book is The Giving Tree, or anything else she gets to read alongside her children.

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