February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Spellbound: Ursula Vernon’s “Castle Hangnail”


Looking for a great read-aloud? In this column, you’ll find book recommendations that will entertain, enthrall, intrigue, and elucidate your listeners. Use the plot descriptions below as the basis of a booktalks, or read aloud the first chapters to your students and pass the book to their teachers to continue. These titles also make fabulous book club, literature circle, and guided reading selections.

Castle hangnailCastle Hangnail. Vernon, Ursula. Illus. by the author. (Dial, 2015; Gr. 4-6) RL: 4.3
On a “dark and dour” twilight, the castle guardian, a very old man, hunched over and dressed in layers of rags, with scars across his face and one white, clouded eye, awaits the arrival of the new Master or Mistress at crumbling Castle Hangnail. With the Board of Magic ready to decommission it, Castle Hangnail is in dire need of a makeover. Who or what will it be this time? An Evil Wizard? A Dark Sorceress? A Loathsome Hag? Hearing a hard bang on the door, the castle guardian allows the door to creak open, its hinges squealing “like a dying rabbit.” There stands a short, frizzy-haired 12-year-old girl dressed all in black and sporting a silver necklace with a vulture on it. “My name is Molly,” she says brightly. “I’m here to be your Wicked Witch.”

“You’re the wicked witch?” the guardian asks, doubtfully. “Yes.” “Are . . . Are you sure?” “Quite sure.” The guardian is skeptical, even when she tells him she is so extremely Wicked it would curl his hair; that she’s so smart for her age, she reads at a 10th-grade level; that she is an Evil Twin; and that she can turn invisible if she holds her breath. However, she does have the magic invitation letter the castle minions sent out, addressed to Eudaimonia, whom she claims to be; she is wearing an excellent pair of seriously Wicked black leather boots with steel caps on the ends; and she renames the guardian Majordomo, which he quite likes. Still, it’s hard to believe she’s truly a witch. Is she? Well, yes and no.

All the minions of the castle are taken instantly with spirited Molly Utterback—including Lord Edward von Hallenbrock, a talking, enchanted empty suit of armor; Pins, who is 18 inches tall, made of burlap with pins sticking out of his head, and in charge of all the laundry and tailoring; and Cook, an eight-foot tall Minotaur with a human body and a cow’s head, who bakes delectable pastries. Cook tells Molly, “Is learning to cook from first husband. Then is cooking him. Lousy husband. Second husband is chef. Much better.”

Aware that Majordomo doesn’t quite accept her, Molly tells herself, “I’ll show him. He’ll see I’m the best Wicked Witch around. I’ll be great at being bad.” If she’s lucky, she’ll get to stay at Castle Hangnail and they’ll never find out that she’s not exactly who she claims to be. However, to save the castle and the jobs of its five minions, she will first need to complete four tough tasks required by the Board of Magic: taking possession of the castle and its grounds, securing and defending the castle, committing at least one act of smiting and three of blighting, and winning the hearts and minds of the townsfolk by any means necessary. Unfortunately, she knows almost no magic and only a handful of spells, but she’s a fast learner and the castle has a whole library of interesting books. How hard could it be?

Readers will learn the difference between being a White Witch, a Wicked Witch, and an Evil Witch. “Wicked was turning somebody into an earwig and letting them run around for a week to give them a good scare. Evil was turning someone into an earwig and then stepping on them.” When the imperious Lady Eudaimonia, a teenaged Evil Sorceress who was Molly’s friend back home, arrives at the castle to take over what she considers her rightful place as the new Mistress, it sure looks bad for Molly.

Listeners will be eager to do a bit of research on the all animals Molly helps (and vice versa), including donkeys, bats, and moles, not to mention Pins’s neurotic pet goldfish who thinks she has fin and tail rot, ich, and shingles. (Being sick is her hobby.) After experiencing Wormrise, kids will gain newfound respect for earthworms. (Just for fun, have them look up the name and a picture of the largest earthworm in the world. Children’s book nerds like me already know the answer to this, having read this year’s informational picture book, We Dig Worms by Kevin McCloskey (TOON, 2015). It’s the Australian Gippsland earthworm.)

In the tradition of offbeat and humorous English fantasies like Roald Dahl’s The Witches or The BFG, Eva Ibbotson’s The Ogre of Oglefort, and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, Vernon’s Castle Hangnail is a delight. With droll dialogues between the many characters, wildly off-the-wall but on-target observations from the omniscient narrator, a pleasingly preposterous plot, and illustrations in black-and-white cartoon washes that capture every personality with verve and clarity, this breezy fantasy rocks. Long live Wicked Witch Molly!

Wait! Wow! Look at this! “Disney has optioned the movie rights to Castle Hangnail, for an adaptation to be produced by Ellen DeGeneres,” announces The Hollywood Reporter. Ask your kids which actors they think would be right for each part. In the meantime, they can take pages of dialogue from the book and write a series of mini-scenes as Reader’s Theater scripts to act out with their classmates.

Next, you’ll want to segue into Vernon’s other comical read-aloud treasure, Harriet the Invincible (Dial, 2015; Gr. 3-5; RL: 4.3), first in the new “Hamster Princess” series. Upon learning that she was cursed at birth by an evil fairy and will prick herself on a hamster wheel when she turns 12 and fall into an endless sleep, 10-year-old daredevil Princess Harriet Hamsterbone figures that until then, she must be invincible. What, you’ve never heard of a hamster princess? As Harriet says, in balloon dialogue on the very first page of this irresistible hybrid text-and-graphic-novel-mashup, “Trust me, for a hamster, I’m stunning.”

She spends the next two years riding her quail, Mumphrey, across the countryside; cliff-diving; dragon-slaying; and jousting. The other animals call them “Crazy Princess Harriet and her mad fighting quail.” But now it’s only a week until her birthday and she must return to the palace, where Ratshade, the wicked and vengeful fairy god-mouse (“third on Fairy God-Mouse Today’s Most Wicked List for eleven years running”), awaits.

Illustrations in black, gray, indigo and violet spill across most pages, and the loony hamster humor will keep listeners and readers in a state of mirth. Send children over to 636.935 in your library to see what real hamsters are like. Have them come up with a list of ways Harriet does not fit into the usual princess profile. Naturally you’re going to need to share this send-up with a good version of Grimm’s classic fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty,” with which kids can compare and contrast Harriet’s situation. Never assume your kids know the original story. Here are several stellar picture book versions:

Craft, Mahlon F. Sleeping Beauty. SeaStar, 2002.

Grimm, Jacob. Sleeping Beauty. Retold and illus. by Margaret Early. Abrams, 1993.

Grimm, Jacob. The Sleeping Beauty. Retold and illus. by Trina Schart Hyman. Little, Brown, 1977.

There’s a wonderfully practical post on the Nerdy Book Club blog by Rachel Cone-Gorham, Director of Digital & Social Marketing at Penguin Young Readers, on how to create a good book trailer, using the Penguin trailer for Harriet the Invincible as a model. Perhaps you’ll want to use this as inspiration for having kids make their own book trailers.

The next in the series, Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic (Dial, 2016), a mouse-based recasting of the Grimm Brothers tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” is already garnering starred reviews.

And don’t forget to backtrack and introduce Vernon’s equally nutty Dragonbreath (Dial, 2009) and its 10 sequels in that graphic novel-ish series about Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon who can’t yet seem to master the art of breathing fire, and his other reptilian pals. With illustrations in shades of green, black, and white, the series is a fitting boy counterpart to Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse books. My favorite in this series is Dragonbreath: Curse of the Were-Wiener (Dial, 2010), which features a deadly hot dog from the school cafeteria. (A teacher’s guide to the series is available.)

Finally, you’ll enjoy this interview (though not for kids) with author/illustrator Ursula Vernon. She’s as quirky as her books.


Blackwood, Sage. Jinx. Harper, 2013.

Coville, Bruce. Diary of a Mad Brownie: With Supporting Documents. (The Enchanted Files series) Illus. by Paul Kidby. Random House, 2015.

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. Farrar, 1983.

Epstein, Adam Jay, and Andrew Jacobson. The Familiars. HarperCollins, 2010.

Ibbotson, Eva. The Ogre of Oglefort. Dutton, 2011.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Earwig and the Witch. Greenwillow, 2012.

Magaziner, Lauren. The Only Thing Worse Than Witches. Dial, 2014.

McCoola, Marika. Baba Yaga’s Assistant. Candlewick, 2015.

Paterson, Katherine, and John Paterson. The Flint Heart: A Fairy Story. Candlewick, 2011.

Pratchett, Terry. The Wee Free Men. HarperCollins, 2003.

Prineas, Sarah. The Magic Thief: Book One. HarperCollins, 2008.

Shurtliff, Liesl. Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood. Knopf, 2016.

Shurtliff, Liesl. Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin. Knopf, 2013.

For another great read-aloud selection, see Judy Freeman’s February 2016 Spellbound column.


JUDY FREEMAN (www.JudyReadsBooks.com) is a well-known consultant, writer, and speaker on children’s literature, and the author with Caroline Feller Bauer, The Handbook for Storytellers and The Handbook for Storytime Programs (both American Library Association, 2015).

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  1. Again…Judy Freeman has put together a great list that helps me as a librarian see books in a new light that I can share with my students and teachers.