Scholastic Seduction: The Spirit Animals Series
Book I:Wild Born by Brandon Mull (Scholastic Inc., New York: 2013)
Book II: Hunted by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Inc., New York: 2014)
Reviewed by Lee Duigon
As you work to train up your child in the way that he should go, there are people out there working just as hard to train him up in a way he shouldn’t go.
That’s where Scholastic Books come in, with their ongoing efforts to steer children away from Jesus Christ. The last time we looked, it was by means of Philip Pullman’s atheist fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials ( http://leeduigon.com/2010/11/03/satanism-for-young-readers-a-review-of-his-dark-materials/ ).
Remember that? Scholastic pushed it with everything they had: sold it in the public schools, along with student workbooks and teacher lesson plans for a closer study of the novels, contests, prizes, and finally worked up the first book, The Golden Compass, into a feature film.
All was well until parents got the word that Pullman’s books were very little more than venom-spitting rants against God and the Christian religion. The movie bombed, its sequels were never made, and the hoopla died away.
Let it not be said that the folks at Scholastic are incapable of learning from experience. Having failed to catch the flies with vinegar, they have switched to honey.
A New Concept in Publishing
Spirit Animals is a new concept—the multi-author series. Brandon Mull (Book I), Maggie Stiefvater (Book II), and their successors are established fantasy authors whose fans will follow them, thus giving Scholastic a ready-made readership.
Spirit Animals is an ongoing series with more sequels due to come out this year; but I have limited the scope of this review to just the first two books.
It was obvious to me, and to a number of Customer Review writers at amazon.com, that, having recruited these same writers, Scholastic tells them what to write. The resulting lack of originality is, I think, intentional. Certainly unavoidable.
But this whole series is focused on really cool kids interacting with really cool animal sidekicks; and a lot of children, their parents suspecting nothing amiss, are going to lap it up.
Most children love animals and are fascinated by them. What could be more alluring to a child than the idea of a special animal, maybe something truly impressive like a leopard or a giant panda, that’s uniquely and intimately bonded to you, and you alone, sharing adventures with you and giving you the power to do all kinds of spectacular things?
Scholastic is going to catch a lot of flies with this honey.
Substitutes for God
In my hometown there’s a gift shop owned by some women who, from time to time, offer lessons on “how to connect with your animal spirit guide.” This is New Age twaddle and warmed-over witchcraft, and is very much what is being offered in these books.
Pullman invested the characters in his book each with a personal “daemon” that sometimes took the form of a cuddly animal—a spiritual entity bonded exclusively to a human being, providing unconditional love and perpetual companionship. Who needs the Holy Spirit when you’ve got one of these? The “daemon” distracts the reader from the bleak hopelessness of what Pullman’s selling—nothing in store for anyone but death.
Spirit Animals is just as committed to offering a substitute for God. Out-and-out atheism came up short; so what we’ve got here is that tired old clunker, “the spiritual.” If you are “spiritual,” you get all the benefits of religion without incurring any obligations to God or His commandments. “Spiritual” individuals don’t have God telling them, “Thou shalt not.” In fact, they’re kind of their own gods.
These books depict civilizations spread over several continents, with nowhere any evidence of religious belief, religious practice, or religious institutions. See, boys and girls? You don’t need religion.
What they have instead is “spirit animals.” Upon turning eleven years old, children undergo a “nectar-drinking” ritual to see which of them will receive a spirit animal. It’s only for a chosen few, and there’s no way to predict who will be chosen.
The spirit animal stays with you all your life. You can bid it, at a moment’s notice, to enter a dormant state as a tattoo on your skin (because tats are just so cool), and just as quickly make it spring back to solid, 3-D life again. Even better, your spirit animal will give you special powers that other children and adults don’t have: kind of like the “power-ups” in certain video games. You can get super speed and agility, enhanced strength, ultra-keen senses, etc.
Where’s the harm in this? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want eleven-year-olds running around with superpowers. But this will certainly appeal to children. It can’t miss. Looking back on my own childhood, I doubt there was a single eleven-year-old boy in town who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to have his own live hand grenade.
Here It Gets Unwholesome
Oh, but these special kids are not unsupervised!
We see in this fantasy world a variety of local and regional governments; but over them all is a kind of loose, unobtrusive world government managed by the wisest of the wise. Their mission is to train the children to receive spirit animals, and induct them into their ranks when the training is completed.
They do this because their mission has a much more critical component: they have to defend the world of Erdas from an ancient enemy, The Devourer, whose return might destroy all life on Erdas. The only defense seems to be persons with spirit animals and superpowers. That the nature of The Devourer is not made clear in the first two books of the series is a product defect.
This wise, world-saving elite, whose authority is acknowledged everywhere on Erdas, are called the Green Cloaks. “Green” as in “Save the Planet from Global Warming—oops, Climate Change.” As long as you’re going to paint Christ out of the picture, someone is going to have to function as the savior. The Green elite to the rescue!
This is all rather blatant to us, but might not be so to children.
The special children and their spirit animals are led on perilous missions by adult Green Cloaks. These adventures feature lots of fighting, because the bad guys and their spirit animals support The Devourer. We are not told why.
There is something deeply unwholesome in these depictions of an eleven-year-old girl beating up or even killing a grown man. There ought to be a difference between fantasy and lunacy. We find a great deal of this violent silliness in these first two books. I feel sure it’s expected to be very appealing to children.
A Mixed Message
Spirit Animals speaks to the early teen reader’s hunger for autonomy. Why should they always be bossed around by adults? Why must they be powerless?
So these books offer a taste of radical autonomy. Is there an adult getting in your way? Well, he’s probably a bad guy, and you’ve got super powers, and a great big spirit wolf to back you up—what are you waiting for? A few seconds of super-fast kung fu, and that adult is history.
Now for the crazy part.
At the same time as the books whet the teen’s appetite for power and autonomy, Spirit Animals preaches rigid conformity. The Green Cloaks always know best, and the only characters who deny it are revealed as villains or fools.
Here Political Correctness reigns. The girls are every bit as tough as the boys, if not more so. A Navy Seal is nothing, compared to an eleven-year-old girl with a spirit animal. Every major ethnic constituency is represented by a hero. And in Book I, Brandon Mull brought in a couple of characters who are probably meant to be a pair of devoted homosexuals.
Every fantasy cliché is employed. If the reader is new to the genre, he won’t notice the extensive borrowing from Pullman, the Harry Potter books, and other sources. For readers familiar with fantasy, these books might be stultifying.
When you’re pumping children’s imaginations full of visions of themselves as rock-‘em, sock-‘em superheroes, while at the same time yoking them to plow for the elite, it’s wise to water it down with unoriginality. An adult reader will be able to predict everything that happens in these stories. A child won’t—at least, not consciously. But there’s little risk of these trite tales getting kids revved up uncontrollably.
Both Mull and Stiefvater, probably in obedience to instructions, write down to their audience. As is becoming usual in Young Adults fantasy, the dialogue often sounds like text messages, is chock-full of American slang, and constantly undermines any sense the reader might have of being in a fantasy world. The authors never use plain English where they can plug in a hypermodern cliché.
Bells and Whistles
Spirit Animals is a very slick package, and Christian parents ought to steer their children clear of it.
For one thing, the book covers are gorgeous. Kids are going to want them on sight. They’re sure to sell like hotcakes at a school book fair.
As an added bonus, there’s a Spirit Animals game you can play on your computer. “You’ve read the book—now join the adventure at Scholastic.com/SpiritAnimals! Enter the world of Erdas, where YOU are one of the rare few to summon a spirit animal …” Well, I tried, but my computer wasn’t in a mood to cooperate.
The problem is, it’s all very tempting. I found it tempting. Who wouldn’t love to have his own very special spirit animal—a pet that will never run away from you or get sick, and can help you do all sorts of fantastic things?
But when you open the door to that temptation, you’re ready for the next one: the notion that you can be “spiritual” without God, and in that sense, be your own god. It’s the same-old, same-old “Ye shall be as gods” that has served Satan so well since he scammed Eve with it.
You can always trust Scholastic to lead young readers up the wrong street. These books are no exception.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.