Natalie Babbitt‘s 1969 The Search for Delicious is a standalone children’s fantasy.
Prime Minister DeCree’s dictionary seemed a harmless hobby, until the day he reached the word “delicious.” The King was most displeased with the example DeCree selected. The Queen for her part agreed that DeCree’s example was poorly chosen, but disagreed with the King as to which food was the best choice for “delicious.” No agreement was reached.
Further discussion disclosed that each person in the castle had their own favourite food. Nobody was willing to compromise. Not only was this conflict a significant roadblock in dictionary production … government meetings devolved into arguments re the best example for “delicious.”
The proposed solution: a national poll.
DeCree’s adopted son Gaylen, all of twelve years of age, is sent out to do the polling. He must interview each person in the (small) kingdom and record their choice of favourite food.
The kingdom is just as incapable of consensus as the castle. Each person has their own favourite food. Nobody is willing to concede that other people’s choices are as valid as theirs. Arguments abound.
This is just the sort of opportunity for which the book’s designated villain, Hemlock, has been waiting. Wherever Gaylen travels, he discovers that Hemlock has been before him. Hemlock has lied outrageously about the purpose of the poll. What began as a simple disagreement over one word may spark social disorder and civil war.
Hemlock’s plans do not end there. He is scheming for the throne. He has a cunning scheme to depose the King and take power. The only person who stands between Hemlock and victory is young Gaylen … well, Gaylen and the mystery of a mermaid’s stolen whistle.
This is a YA novel so don’t get too attached to the sympathetic animal featured as a supporting character.
Humans (or “people”) are comparative latecomers to Babbett’s world.
There was a time once when the earth was still very young, a time some call the oldest days. This was long before there were any people about to dig parts of it up and cut parts of it off. People came along much later, building their towns and castles (which nearly always fell down after a while) and plaguing each other with quarrels and supper parties. The creatures who lived on the earth in that early time stayed each in his own place and kept it beautiful. There were dwarves in the mountains, woldwellers in the forests, mermaids in the lakes, and, of course, winds in the air.
Adding people to the mix seems to have been a bad idea. Few of the dwarves, woldwellers, or mermaids want anything to do with humans. In return, the humans have convinced themselves that the dwarves, woldwellers, and mermaids are myths. There remain only two humans who believe in and deal with the old races. Unfortunately for the kingdom, one of them is Hemlock. He trades rabbits to a woldweller in exchange for forgotten lore.
The woldweller is aware what sort of person Hemlock is, but dismisses the significance of the bargain.
He’s a bad man, you know. Evil. But it’s nothing to me. He can be evil if he chooses. He’s a man, after all. Men have had wars before and will again.”
From the POV of the old races, individual people don’t matter all that much. What’s good will disappear in a century or two and so will the bad. Also, the woldweller is a bit of a jerk.
This short novel starts off whimsically and moves surprisingly quickly towards life or death stakes for an entire kingdom. Granted, it’s a kingdom populated by gullible, argumentative knuckleheads, but one still cares about them.
The characters aren’t rounded out; they are who they are for the story. DeCree, for example, is established as having an interest in dictionaries, an enthusiasm for fatherhood without any apparent interest on the usual procedure for becoming a dad, and a curious, given his enthusiasm for fatherhood and fondness for Gaylen, nonchalance about sending his twelve-year-old out to poll the nation…but not much beyond that.
The plot moves along nicely, scaling up the challenge rating from “what’s your favourite food?” to “will anyone survive the coming civil war, drought, and famine?” in fewer pages than one might expect. Kids should enjoy this, and so might parents.