Book review by
Patricia Tauzer, Common Sense Media
Instructions Book Poster Image
Slightly quirky life lessons for the older picture book set.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value
Positive Messages

Illustrates that by following certain rules, trusting your own heart, and keeping hope, you will find your way safely home, and find what you are looking for in life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Puss-in-boots remains calm, kind, and thoughtful as he wends his way. He sets the tone, and shows the reader how to act when faced with the scarier uncertainties of life, in this case within the world of magic and fantasy.

Violence & Scariness

Nothing violent is shown, but danger lurks everywhere. The imp hanging on the door knocker may bite your fingers, creatures cry for you to ease their pain, the trees are gnarled and menacing, you can't trust the younger princess, the ferryman is death incarnate, wolves lurk in the background, and so on.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that older readers will find this book intriguing with all its allusions to stories they have most likely read. Most younger kids may find it confusing since it's more a list of instructions for life than a story with a beginning and end. Younger ones may also find the lurking danger on many pages too scary, though nothing scary actually happens. It has previously been published in a collection of retold fairy tales by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling called A Wolf at the Door.

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What's the story?

This is not really a story at all...more a poetic sounding to-do list for the Puss-in-Boots character, and the reader, who finds himself in the realm of fairy tales, trying to wend his way along the "twisting path through the wild wood." Of course, metaphorically, the lessons apply to the real world as well. It begins with instructions about how to get in, then what to do as he encounters various situations: facing the red metal imp posing as the knocker on the door; peering into the deep well that leads to Winter's realm; meeting princesses, the ferryman, wolves, ghosts, eagles, and silver fish. Nestled somewhere in the middle is an almost zen-like moment, where we are all reminded to be true to ourselves. And, the lesson is that knowing ourselves and following the instructions of the wise storyteller will surely send Puss-in-Boots, and the reader, back to the spot where he began. There he (we) can decide whether to "go home, or make a home, or rest."

Is it any good?

Gaiman fans have come to expect the unexpected, slightly quirky twist in his books; paired with the illustrations of Charles Vess, his work becomes all the more imaginative and fantastic. This is not a book for readers looking for a warm and fuzzy fairy tale, but will definitely hit the mark with those who yearn to step into the more magical worlds of giants, ogres, and Brothers Grimm. 

The story evolves in the reader's imagination as Puss-in-Boots encounters dangers and moments of choice any reader of fairy tales will recognize. Because he is given a clue as to what he should do, he is able to make his way through all the scary nooks and crannies as the reader breathes a sigh of relief. The approach is quite original, and promises to snag older readers and draw them back to its pages over and over again. 

Charles Vess has illustrated several other books by Gaiman, and each time, he brings another level of originality and fantasy to the work. He uses his pen and ink like a magic wand and fills each page with twists, turns, and tiny details that create an eerie kind of spiritual aura perfect for a fairy-tale world full of mystery and looming dangers. Monotone washes enhance the eeiriness. Anyone who appreciates the Arthur Rackhman kind of fairy tale art will find the artistry of this book captivating.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the cover, to start with. What kind of world do you think this is? What characters do you see? Do you recognize any of them? Why do you think the book is called Instructions? Who is giving instructions to whom?

  • Now look inside. Stop at the frontispiece and look at that landscape. What characters do you find here? Then go on your way through the wooden gate and, one after another, talk about the characters you see, what instruction you are given, and how it would be helpful.

  • In the end, decide what is the most important instruction you have been given. Do you think the things you have been told would help you survive in the world of fantasy and make-believe? Can you think of any other instruction you might add to those that have already been given?

  • What does it mean to trust your dreams and your heart? How does the story change after that page in the book?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fairy tale worlds

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