The fate of the “Under” realm lies in the hands of an “Over” girl in this entertaining children’s adventure that winks at myths and fantasies both ancient and contemporary.
It’s bad enough that 9-year-old Emma Sheridan and her jazz musician father have moved yet again, this time into a decaying brownstone, but having a mean old witch as their neighbor and a quartet of girls bullying her at school just adds to her misery. Then a pack of helpful basement-dwelling brownies arrive, and Emma departs her unhappy situation for an adventure beneath the earth, where the brownies’ world is being destroyed. Soon, it’s Emma in Wonderland, although when this girl falls down the rabbit hole—in this case, a bedroom air vent—she lands in a world that crosses Oz with Tolkien’s Mines of Moria. Recognized as a Wanderer, the one who will save Under, Emma burrows into the earth on a quest to vanquish an evil witch and restore the graying, crumbling brownie world to its former glory. She brings along her beloved storybook, a gift from her late mother, whose presence remains as close as the cherished tome Emma clutches to her chest at all times. Gough cleverly mines that book’s legends, folk tales and Greek mythology, along with the works of Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll, to create settings and challenges that pay homage to classic children’s literature. At times, the narrative, geared for children ages 10 and up, can seem a bit derivative, but the charm is genuine and the laughs are frequent, as when the goddess Ceres first appears as a female Jabba the Hutt, attended by nymphs gone to seed. Gough also makes ample use of nonsensical rhythms and onomatopoeia to keep a lively pace, and her imagining of Under’s vast framework of roots and rocks is richly realized in earthly textures and sounds. The theme of finding one’s place in the world underlies the plot in this, the first in the four-part Emma and the Elementals series. Although magic abounds, it’s satisfying to see Emma find her identity with her own power.
A lighthearted, whimsical confection that will delight both kids and their parents’ inner child.