Bookworm: A rock legend and a parade of monsters

Terri Schlichenmeyer


  • By Elton John
  • c.2019, Henry Holt
  • $30, $38.50 Canada; 375 pages

Nobody said it would be easy. You have your eyes set on something but doing it will take time, sacrifice, and effort. You’ll get things right, but you’ll also get in your own way before you get to where you want to be and if you don’t believe that, then read “Me” by Elton John.

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On and off through most of his life, Elton John had a tumultuous relationship with his mother. She was sometimes angry, sometimes abusive, rarely loving, but she did one important thing for him: she introduced him to Elvis Presley music.

"Me" by Elton John.

Though John says he’d wanted to be a musician since he was very small, the 78 RPM his “mum” brought home opened a window for a huge record collection, a passion for seeing live music, and a dream of playing in a band onstage. Soon, he was gigging with regional bands and accidentally meeting people who would help his career.

At 19, he was still a virgin, still naïve about being gay, and rather blithe about his natural ability to write music. That was okay, though; he’d met Bernie Taupin, who wrote lyrics over breakfast and together, they’d pen hits by lunchtime.

At 21, John had fallen in love with a man, was no longer a virgin, and “things [professionally] were starting to move, very gradually.”

Just one year later, he performed for the first time in America.

Through his early career, stardom gave John a delightful platter of surprises and he seized most everything that came his way: singers he admired praised him, famous people he’d watched wanted to meet him. He later hobnobbed with royalty, both the music kind and the Buckingham Palace kind. He fell in love, married, divorced, and fell into an obsession over something that made his life so, so much harder …

There is a certain aura surrounding the first third of “Me,” and it’ll charm the socks off you: author Elton John writes about his childhood, quickly, before he leaps into the bits about his early career with a sense of wide-eyed awe at what life had just handed him. If he’d said, “Gee whiz!” even once, you’d understand.

Alas, after the kid-in-a-candy-store naiveté evaporates and his career takes off, John’s account of his young-manhood seems jaded; he says he was “exhausted” by constant work and pressures, and the second third of his book shows that in the voice readers see. Here – in the stories of parties, recording sessions, and industry goings-on – the tale starts to slip into that which plagues so many star biographies: name-dropping and seemingly unnecessary sameness. It would mar the book, were it not for the sense of droll humor that John continues to pack around his anecdotes.

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By the final third of this book, we get a settled John who’s clean, happier, less frenetic but still funny. Here’s where readers reach what is likely familiar, as though we’ve read this book before. But, of course, you haven’t because “Me” is John’s first and only autobiography and enjoying it is easy.

“The Big Book of Monsters”

  • By Hal Johnson, Illustrated by Tim Sievert
  • c. 2019, Workman Publishing
  • $16.95, higher in Canada; 171 pages

“Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters”

  • By Carlyn Beccia
  • c.2019, Carolrhoda Books
  • $19.99 / $29.99 Canada; 150 pages

It gets awfully dark, awfully early this time of year. If you peek outside, what once looked like trees and doorways now appear as creatures and places for them to hide. Is that because creepy things seem to lurk around this time of year? Maybe you really should know about those beings by reading “The Big Book of Monsters” by Hal Johnson, illustrated by Tim Sievert and “Monstrous” by Carlyn Beccia.

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There’s a scratch at the window, you hear that?  It could be just a branch. Or it could be something that’s gonna grab you, like a vampire or a zombie. How will you get away? How can you survive?

“The Big Book of Monsters” by Hal Johnson, Illustrated by Tim Sievert and “Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters” by Carlyn Beccia

“The Big Book of Monsters” gives you an idea where many scary monsters came from: books. Yes, Frankenstein’s monster was a book character before he was anything else. Same with Count Dracula and Grendel; the Golem came from an ancient tale, while Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man are both from stories that are over a century old. Here, author Hal Johnson and artist Tim Sievert re-tell the stories of more than a dozen monsters from literature, and Johnson explains a few things that go “beyond the book.” You’ll learn about poisons, spiders, “battle-sweat,” dragons, and a real poet who retrieved his work from a grave. Are you shuddering yet?

If not, then let’s turn up the Ick Factor with “Monstrous.”

First of all, here’s why you’re scared: because when you’re startled, your brain and body boost your adrenaline and you go into a “fight-or-flight” response that makes you want to run. That’s a scientific fact, and it’s just one of them in this book.

What, for instance, would a scientist need to reanimate the Frankenstein monster in today’s laboratory? How would such a hodge-podge monster be made today? What are the realities of being a vampire; where, for instance, is the best place to bite so that your victim’s body lets blood flow faster? And if you’re a victim, how do you stop the bleeding? And how do you know whether you need a doctor or an animal control officer for that werewolf outside your door?

Author Carlyn Beccia doesn’t deal with monsters by poking complete fun at them; instead, she explains to readers how science and scares can go hand-in-hand. That kind of takes a little bit of the “Eek!” out of things, but that’s okay. Trust this: knowing the facts and how to scientifically survive a zombie apocalypse, you’ll sleep much better tonight…

In every kid’s life, there comes a time when it’s fun to be safely scared. “Monstrous” and “The Big Book of Monsters” both give middle-schoolers an escape from that fright by taking a step back and looking at each monster from a different, less-frightening angle. Johnson helps kids see ancient monsters from a cool literary POV, which gives them a backstory as well as a few side-stories. “Monstrous” lets kids see the creatures from a scientific viewpoint. And for your 9-to-13-year-old, both books make for a frighteningly good time.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.