Hercules Amsterdam

The Heroic Adventures of 
Hercules Amsterdam

By Melissa Glenn Haber 
 reviewed by Mrs. Farnum's Class 

    Publishers almost never find out what children think of new children’s books until well after their publication. The galleys, advanced reading copies and mock-ups which circulate prior to publication do not commonly reach beyond professionals in the book industry. While said professionals are often, through temperament and practice, good predictors of what children will like, their input, though valuable in its own right, does not preclude the different, and inherently valuable, feedback which actual children stand ready to provide if only given the opportunity.

    The desirability of bringing about such an opportunity occurred to me while working with a class of fourth grade students in the Junior Achievement line, namely Mrs. Farnum’s class at the Cascade Brook School. The students were so interested in the whole concept of advanced reading materials, and the pre-publication process in general, that I took thought to call a business associate, Kathy Space of Penguin Putnam Inc., and ask whether Penguin might not be interested in soliciting the opinions of a group of avid young readers regarding a particular forthcoming book of Penguin’s choosing. Space graciously provided a classroom set of a book coming out this summer, Hercules Amsterdam, by Melissa Glenn Haber, a first time author.

    That we may keep pace with the children’s commentary we should know that Hercules Amsterdam is a ten year old boy who is exceptional for being only three inches tall. Hercules lives in a dollhouse in the Amsterdam home, rarely leaving its comfortable surroundings. Hercules’ parents, though well intentioned, do not appreciate the terrors that the outside world holds for someone three inches tall, and are determined to send him to public school. Hercules, leaving a note behind, takes off into a mouse hole behind his doll house, from which he has heard strange, but gentle speech, emanating. He finds a city of mice, who take Hercules in, and he revels in both their kindness, and the pleasure of being in a world which is scaled to his own size.

    Two things trouble Hercules. First, his new friends age and mature one hundred times faster than he does. Second, he discovers a series of mouse cities farther within the walls, identical in every way to his own except that they have been violently destroyed and then abandoned. Futhermore, Hercules discovers that none of the mice believe him, nor feel inclined to consider the implications. When Hercules is taken on by the ancient (by mouse standards) steward of the mice he learns that a select few mice do know the truth, namely that Rats regularly destroy the mouse city. Mouse elders, it turns out, have decided that preventing the attacks was beyond their power, and that living in blissful ignorance, happy for a space of years, was better than living in constant anxiety and trepidation.

    Hercules, is unable to accept this fatalistic view. There is a great deal of urgency in that Hercules, examining mouse history, has realized that the attacks come exactly every seven years. The mice, who cannot count over three, had not realized this. The next attack is due almost immediately of his discovery. Accompanied by his friend, Quangster, Hercules seeks out the powerful sorceress Kitty Joas, rumored to provide help if given her price. Kitty, who requires of Hercules what he values most, his smallness, gives him seven pieces of juminy juminy, an old magic which has the power to turn him from three inches to four feet and back again. Doing the math Hercules realizes that if he takes all seven he’ll end up large for good.

    Kitty is rather an interesting figure. Her domain extends throughout the world within the walls, yet it exists outside of time so that it overlaps everything in a manner which is visible only at her choosing. She considers all creatures within the walls, rats, ants, mice, fireflies and squirrels, her children equally. She invites Quangster to make a wish, and he replies that he will, but must give thought first.

    Hercules ends up using a piece of the juminy juminy during his campaign to safeguard the mouse city, and encounters his next door neighbor, Juna Loch, a forceful, interesting character, who befriends him. Together they reenter the world within the walls to save the mice. In the end Quangster, in a scene with subtle allegorical implications, sacrifices his life to Kitty Joas in exchange for removing the mouse world from ordinary time, partially into her realm, thus safeguarding it forever. Juna, after some interesting exchanges with Kitty, leaves the miniature world within the walls. Hercules, who has only one piece of juminy juminy left, must choose between the world within the walls and the world without.

    Kjell Nordstrom, of Mrs. Farnum’s class, writes that his "opinion of Hercules Amsterdam is that it is a good book...because it is very original. You have to figure out a lot of the book! You have to exercise your brain! I think that not many average fourth graders will like it because of the plot." Rosie Cohen, his classmate, makes the observation that Hercules Amsterdam has "big words and a complicated plot which can be good or bad."

    Indeed, for some of our reviewers either the difficulty of the text or disinterest in the fantasy genre itself, presented obstacles to their enjoyment of Hercules Amsterdam. Chelsea McGraw "liked the book but...thought it had a lot of detail that was confusing. Also the vocabulary was confusing." Cherokee Luker found the book "difficult, boring, and confusing." Cherokee thoughtfully concluded, however, that "one of my family members might like it." This idea, aside from being polite, also speaks to the difficulty issue, clearly expressed in Christine Jones’ comment that while she found "the book a little too hard to read, my sister might like it because she is 13." Joe Burns observed that he "really liked it but...didn’t like it enough to finish it. It really caught my interest for a long time but then it didn’t anymore. But I think my Mom would like it. Maybe my sister would too. My sister is only 6 but she likes fantasy. She loves mice. It would catch her interest for sure." Joe’s observation that the book "doesn’t catch my interest" was shared by Hannoch Enoch who considered it "too difficult...and not my type of book. I like Laura Ingalls Wilder," and Morgan Shutters who did "not like this book because it is not my interest. I am interested in (the) fiction novel(s) of Sharon Creech." And why not!

    The students who enjoyed the book, however, were unanimous in praising Hercules Amsterdam’sinventiveness and unpredictability. Chelsea, who we noted earlier "said it was confusing in some parts. But that’s my opinion of that book!!..also like(d) it because it’s unpredictable." She also wrote that "the ideas the author had were cool." Autumn Obamsawin concured, stating that "I think Melissa Glenn Haber came up with a whole book full of ideas." Jaron Jones, who feels that Hercules Amsterdam is "good down to the last page," also considers that it "never seems to quit amazing you...a surprise around every corner...(it) has details in every nook and cranny...It’s like lava flowing down a volcano - you never know where it’s going to go." As far as Anthea Fletcher is concerned "the writer sticks to the topic but has many suspenseful details. It’s unpredictable and had many unexpected turns that make you want to keep reading. Its original and I love the plot."

    This sense of originality is keenly felt by these readers. Gwen Beacham "really liked the book because it was unique, not like any book I’ve read before." Rosie Cohen does point out that "many other books have a mouse/boy for their main character." Gwen argues, however, that "it was unique because who would think of a three inch boy who went to live with mice?" She also cites "those old cities that had been attacked by rats" and that "the mice had a different language."

    All these readers praise Hercules Amsterdam for its constant suspense. Anthea stated that "it’s exciting and captures the reader’s interest right in the beginning." Rosie found the book "exciting and hard to put down." Jaron considered it "very suspenseful from beginning to end...has quite a bit of action, could use a wee bit more." He concludes that it’s "one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read and my little brother Jonah Jones enjoy(ed it) very much also." Autumn suggests that "This is a good book for my mom to read to my 7 year old sister." An excellent point in that the book’s great virtues, its suspense, inventiveness, and "great word choice," as Jaron deftly puts it," would then be accessible to a broader audience, younger and older that is.

    Well, there it is. Every member of Mrs. Farnum’s class did a wonderful, thoughtful job reviewing Hercules Amsterdam, a book which, as Autumn observed, "anyone who likes fantasy, suspense and imaginative creation is sure to like."