written by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Charles Vess

Neil Gaiman's Instructions
illustrated by Charles Vess

Book review by Natasha Withers

Ages 4-8

“Everything you’ll need to know on your journey” – N. Gaiman

As a writer, Neil Gaiman has written many tales of adventure like Coraline, Stardust and Odd and the Frost Giants; in fact, there are countless adventure books for children out there for readers that seek stories of brave warriors and heroes. However, what about us? If we were to ever come across the chance to experience an amazing adventure (whether it be flying to magical lands or simply walking home from school by ourselves for the first time) would we be prepared to rise to the task?

That’s where Gaiman’s Instructions comes in.

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before.
Say “please” before you open the latch,
Go through,
Walk down the path.

Instructions is a book that has two purposes: One is that it is a poem-like story depicting a young, anthropomorphic adventurer going to distant lands; and two is that it is like a tutorial, gracing the reader with tips and advice about how to handle various obstacles on a journey. The traveler learns many things as he wordlessly treks across a mysterious world lying beyond the gate (like if you come across a door with a red imp as a knocker, don’t touch or it’ll bite your fingers).

The book, while being fantasy, speaks to the reader as if one day he or she will also experience an adventure as incredible as this and that really brings the reading to life.

Gaiman does a nice job of advocating proper manners and actions of heartfelt kindness throughout the story. In a world and era where manners are labeled as “old-fashioned” and etiquette is an esoteric art, I have seen firsthand how far a person can go when they treat others with kindness and respect. That ageless concept of karma is seen vividly in this book as our traveler sees that his acts of goodwill are to be repaid to him by those he showed compassion to on his journey:

Favors will be returned,
debts will be repaid.

Something I love about this book is that no matter what happens on the traveler’s journey, there is always a way to overcome the obstacle (and the solutions have nothing to do with violence). In many ways, Instructions shows the reader that any journey, not just magical ones, will be wrought with trials to overcome and dangers to avoid, but if you have kindness, trust in yourself, and trust in others (while being clever enough to be cautious), there is nothing that is impossible to rise above.

that giants sleep too soundly;
that witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot,
somewhere, always….

Charles Vess’s illustrations have brought to life this beautifully breathtaking world that the reader is pulled into. He creates a land that has a perfect blend of danger and wonder; while the traveler is seen alternately entering both sides of this world, Gaiman’s instructions guide him through safely.

Which just goes to show how being a little informed can go a long way, even in the world of fantasy.

As the story ends, the traveler returns back the way he came to the place where his journey began (though his starting point, the little house, will seem much smaller than he remembers). Gaiman’s Instructions is a lovely little story that will not only inspire a healthy dose of imagination in the reader, but will also prepare them for an even bigger journey—one that can’t be found in the pages of a book.

Read more of Natasha's book reviews.

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