The Creature Department

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Creature Department Book Poster Image
Whimsical, creative, and mild intro to monster fantasy.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The combination of "essences" Leslie and Elliot need to put together would make for a great word-use game. For example: For Invisibility, they use a drop of Obscurity, a drop of Bedazzlement, and "the overwhelming suspicion something big and hungry is hiding under your bed." Kids can think of their favorite inventions and decide how the essences of "creature technology" would construct them.

Positive Messages

Be yourself is a big lesson for one minor character. The main characters find friendship and hope as they discover their talents working with the creatures.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Elliot and Leslie are both outcasts who will do anything to help the creatures with their inventions, but still know they need to be home on time for dinner. Elliot's uncle is a good mentor who has faith in their abilities.

Violence & Scariness

Even the menacing creatures are silly rather than scary as bickering giant eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and hands. The nose creature attacks with snot balls. Security robots zap others with electricity to keep them in line; it annoys most and knocks one character out. There's one kidnapping and rescue, a fight with a fake sword, and a battle where good and bad creatures fight -- good creatures mostly get put in nets. Creatures have flashbacks to sad times when they were driven from their homes.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Creature Department is definitely a monster book the youngest tweens can handle. Nothing scary about the creative variety of creatures that work as inventors. Even the creatures meant to be the bad ones are bickering and silly, with each as an enlarged version of an ear, eye, nose, mouth, or hand who argue among themselves. Violence is pretty low, with characters hit by snot balls (thanks, giant nose) and zaps from electrified security robots. In the end battle, characters are mostly captured in nets. Elliot and Leslie, two 12-year-olds just discovering their promise as inventors, almost share a kiss but don't, and there's lots of talk about Leslie's grandfather, an amazing dim sum chef, dipping into the cooking wine.

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What's the story?

For years, 12-year-old Elliot has been begging his Uncle Archie for a tour of DENKi-3000 headquarters, where they make crazy inventions like Transmints, breath mints that use the Web to transmit memories. Uncle Archie works in the most secret department of all, completely off-limits even to the company's CEO. Finally the letter arrives, inviting him and, mysteriously, his classmate Leslie, whom he only knows as his fellow third-prize winner at the science fair. Together they discover a secret world right in their sleepy small town: a whole team of creatures working on those amazing inventions, using special \"creature technology.\" Only, they haven't built anything amazing that actually works in so long that the company's in danger of being sold. When Uncle Archie goes missing, it's up to Elliot and Leslie to help the creatures create an invention that will save the company, and they only have until casual Friday to do it.

Is it any good?

Big points for creativity in THE CREATURE DEPARTMENT: The monster technology that combines various essences is the best part. It would make a great Scattergories-like board game, and all the whimsical invention names that head the chapters add almost as much as the illustrations. There are a lot of big ideas and crazy creatures big and small floating around here.

Still, The Creature Department hasn't quite settled into the story details. For one, it relies a bit too heavily on the art to describe all the creatures. The descriptions of monsters seem more like rough sketches, and they take away the sense of wonder Elliot and Leslie must have for the incredibly weird world they've just entered. Also, when the kids get to inventing, the process seems too hasty. Can a telepathy helmet, even a flawed one, materialize in one night? And are Elliot and Leslie such quick studies they can navigate creature technology on their first try? As with every invention, and every great book, you can't rely only on style to make it work -- substance and attention to detail are key.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Chuck Brickweather. What was his big secret? (Did you notice the clue in the art at the start of Chapter 6?) What lesson did he learn from the company he's trying to help take over?

  • Monsters are everywhere in fantasy books. How are the monsters here different from ones you usually read about? Did you expect the book to be scarier?

  • The artwork helps tell the story throughout and adds to it, as well -- just visit each chapter heading for an invention never discussed in the story. What else do you think the art adds to the story? Would The Creature Department be as enjoyable without the illustrations?

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