Abigail is unhappy with her lot in life. She lives with her strict grandfather and nutty grandmother in a ramshackle mansion (partly burned in the fire that supposedly killed her father) in a small town, eighth grade isn't treating her very well, and everything seems dismal. But then a black cat shows up on her 13th birthday, with an envelope fastened to its collar...
The poem that Abigail finds inside leads her to a letter from a "Devoted Friend" that starts her on a secret quest to learn as much as she can about mythical beasts. "Send word of your progress via the cat," writes the anonymous author of the letter. "It's very important for you to begin this research. But even more important, tell no one!"
Abigail ignores the last instruction, and with the help of her best (and only) friend, Charley, she begins to fill her journal with information and illustrations about all manner of mythical creatures. But then a letter arrives from the Board of Mystical Management, warning Abigail to stop research, and her grandfather, always curiously restrictive, starts acting like a prison guard...
Undeterred, Abigail continues her study of mythological creatures. The secrets and mysteries she discovers will change her life forever!
Abigail's story and her research are presented in a scrap-book style journal, with her notes and drawings of mythological creatures (and even the occasional haiku) interwoven with diary entries detailing the trials and tribulations of her life. It makes for an interesting reading experience for a fast reader like me--the information presented was so fascinating and the illustrations so very much worth stopping to look at, that, instead of galloping through Abigail's story, I was compelled to read is slowly, allowing the mystery to build very nicely.
Abigail is a not unusual character--the outsider who finds herself part of a magical world. But her voice was compelling, and her circumstances certainly interesting! I can easily imagine many a pre-teen girl empathizing with her, and cheering for her as she pursues her quest for knowledge (which, in a nice touch, involves lots of surreptitious visits to the town's used book store and library).
Although I have read many, many children's books about mythical creatures, I learned new things (which I appreciated). Abigail's entries include quotations from original sources, and illustrations of actual "evidence" (photographs and the like), as well as Ralph Masiello's illustrations, and she doesn't just describe the creatures, but also critically considers mundane explanations for some of the sightings and legends. A bibliography and page of fascinating links is provided at the end.
This is the sort of book that would make a great present for the nine or ten year old girl just starting to find her way into fantasy. For one thing, it is attractive as all get out--it has that very appealing novelty book look to it, with copious illustrations look to it, vaguely reminiscent of the -ology books. But unlike those books, which some readers might find too fact laden, there's an interesting story carrying the reader forward. And the way the text is broken into small segments makes it a friendly book for the younger reader.
The book ends with many unanswered questions (the mysterious fire, the identity of the anonymous letter writer, and more), and the promise of a second book, focused on fairies, to come. I'll be looking forward to it!
Disclosure: I met Ralph Masiello the first year I blogged, and he gave me a lovely dragon picture--his Dragon Drawing Book, had just come out. So, knowing that The Mystic Phyles would feature lots more of Masiello's art, I was predisposed as all get out to enjoy the book!
Disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the author