“Matchstick Castle,” by Keir Graff, is so whimsical it made me remember what it was like to be a young child and imagine the possibilities that lie behind mundane things.
Brian, who lives in Boston with his father, anticipates a summer playing soccer and video games and eating junk food with his friends, but that is all tossed out the window when his father gets the chance of a lifetime. Brian’s dad is an astronomer and gets a last-minute chance to go to the South Pole to use a high-powered telescope there. But because of that Brian has to go stay with his Uncle Gary, Aunt Jenny and Cousin Nora in — no joke — Boring, Illinois.
Uncle Gary’s house is the epitome of mundane. Gary and Jenny are by-the-book types, with lots of rules, a tight schedule and an immaculate house. To make matters worse, Brian is required to sit in front of a computer all day long using software Gary developed called “Summer’s Cool.” (get it, summer’s cool/summer school?). For someone like Brian, who prefers to kick a soccer ball or play video games, this is torture. His cousin, Nora, seems to go along with it, no problem.
But Brian manages to discover a whole different neighborhood just through the woods behind his uncle’s house. “Matchstick Castle” makes me think of stories of my childhood like “The Borrowers” (in which a parallel and mostly unseen world of tiny people exists alongside the regular world) and “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” (in which a parallel but fantasy world exists by going through the back of a closet).
The large wooded area behind Uncle Gary’s house is supposedly outside the limits of Boring and Uncle Gary absolutely forbids Brian from going there. One day Brian’s soccer ball rolls into the woods. Once he retrieves the ball, Brian decides to explore. He gets a little lost and then is surprised by an enormous wild boar (which he describes as a pig-goblin) and the sound of gunshots. He throws himself to the ground, avoids getting trampled or shot and then figures out he can follow his own footsteps back to the safety of the house.
While he’s happy he didn’t get trampled or gored, Brian is also excited at the prospect of some adventure. He tells Nora all about it and she warns him not to tell her parents. A few days later, however, Brian grabs Nora’s journal, she chases him, and they end up in the woods. This time they discover the most unusual house they’ve ever seen. It looks like it was assembled by a toddler; some parts tall, some parts short, all parts wobbly and on the very top, a large, red boat.
Nora and Brian meet a boy, Cosmo van Dash, who is their age. They help him re-capture some deadly Amazonian bees (!!) and meet Cosmo’s Uncle Montague, who takes care of Cosmo and the house (by trying to raise wild boar for meat, for example). The house is as crazy on the inside as it is on the outside. There are doors that open to solid walls, doors that open to 50-foot drops, and doors that open to tiny, doll-sized rooms.
The whole van Dash family is delightfully eccentric. Cosmo’s father, for example, is a famous explorer, (“’The famous explorer?’ Cosmo went on. ‘The man who discovered the underground pyramids of Madagascar? The first man to navigate from pole to pole in a bicycle-powered hot air balloon? The only person to ever survive a fistfight with the abominable snowman? You’ve never heard of him?’”)
Meanwhile, Brian realizes that the city of Boring is planning to demolish the Matchstick Castle and he tries to get the van Dashes to take this threat seriously.
Graff does a great job showing how someone (Brian) who might not be book smart or good at school can be good at solving problems and taking on challenges. Those skills really matter in the course of the story. It’s also fun to watch the evolution of Brian’s and Nora’s relationship.
“Matchstick Castle” contains a fun juxtaposition; the safe, hyper-organized and hyper-scheduled life of Uncle Gary’s house and the crazy, adventurous, not-always-safe world of the Van Dash’s house.
It’s that very contrast that helped me remember that the chance for adventure and whimsy is alive and well in the world, especially if you are a young reader!
This review was first published in the Urbana-Champaign News-Gazette in August, 2021