The Secret History of Giants

Ari Berk, The Secret History of Giants (Candlewick Press, 2008)

Anyone first laying eyes on The Secret History of Giants must surely exclaim as I did: “What a charming little volume!” From its textured cover featuring an intriguing root-bedecked giant face (with a serious reflective gleam in his eye) to its earth-toned tassel, this is a book meant to enchant and captivate.

The marvelous nature of this book continues on its title page, where The Secret History of Giants is given the subtitle Codex Giganticum and author Ari Berk is described as “Magister and Scribe.” Yes, indeed, the book’s conceit is that it reads as if it truly were a secret historical document chronicling the affairs and natures of giants. This is not merely a collection of folklore and fairy tales about giants from around the world. Instead, this is a fully immersive experience: a text woven into a mythological whole cloth from the worldly and diverse fibers of myth, legend, folklore, fairy tale and imagination.

Besides The Secret History of Giants featuring such a marvelous text of giant history and society, the book itself is physically enthralling. Within its pages are smaller books with their own tiny pages to be turned, documents to be rifled through, wide spreads to be folded open: these extras explain the meanings of gems and stones to giants, the game Quoits, recipes for giant cuisine, and so much more. Considering how delighted I am about this book as an adult, I can well imagine I would have been over the moon as an adolescent!

As important to The Secret History of Giants as the authorship and design sense are the illustrations: cavorting or grinning or lazing about every page, the illustrations are weft to the words’ warp. The book features artwork by Wayne Anderson, Douglas Carrel, Gary Chalk, Kevin Levell, and Larry MacDougall. Through their pen and ink drawings, their grey-scale sketches, their watercolors are the Hall of Giants, the lovely giantesses, the giant companion animals, and earthfast kin brought to life.

This is a book that I want to share with children; it’s certainly staying on my shelf until I have children of my own to appreciate it as I do. Such a cleverly designed and captivating volume of fantasy demands nothing less than the inquiring and imaginative minds of children ready to discover tales of hidden folk– and then to imagine their own encounters with those folk with such enthralling new fodder. As an adult studying folklore and fairy tales myself, I have only one semi-complaint about Berk’s work: I want his bibliography!

I’m definitely pleased that Berk takes the time to establish “The Order of the Golden Quills” at the start of the secret history: a secret society (with some very honored members) whose members have been observing the habits of such hidden folk for ages. Not only does it give young readers another in with the history — they can now pretend to be agents of the Order too — but it signifies that Berk has future volumes planned. Indeed, The Secret History of Mermaids and Merfolk is due to be released this September (2009). For my part, I can’t wait to discover what new delights await in what I’m sure is a fantastic underwater realm.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on May 17th, 2009. It was also awarded an Excellence in Writing Award by the editors of that publication.