New Middle Grade Fiction From the Authors of ‘Wicked’ and ‘Knights vs. Dinosaur’s

Another reason writers may be drawn to anthropomorphized animals is for their absurdity. Once readers accept the reality of talking animals, what else will they buy into? In Matt Phelan’s up-tempo “The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck,” the answer is this: Three 18th-century French animal aeronauts also happen to be the most extraordinary secret agents in the world.

The premise, absurd as it is, is rooted in a bit of aviation history. In 1783 Versailles, before a crowd of thousands, the first hot-air balloon with passengers took flight. With King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette looking on, a sheep, a rooster and a duck stayed afloat for 15 minutes before crashing back down to earth. The animals all survived. What they probably did not do was go on to advise the Royal Navy, invent more ingenious airships and prevent a deadly heat ray (invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin) from falling into the wrong hands.

Without breaking a sweat, Phelan (“Knights vs. Dinosaurs”) spins an intoxicating yarn featuring secret societies, swordplay and spycraft. The swashbuckling rooster Pierre, the inventive sheep Bernadette and the strategic duck Jean-Luc are as winning and self-assured as Phelan’s brisk and clever writing. A parade of historical personalities figure prominently in the plot and add to the fun. The author’s note at the end helps separate facts from flights of fancy. Readers may have heard of Mozart, but they’re less likely to be familiar with the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, the English spy Edward Bancroft or the book’s colorful villain, Count Alessandro Cagliostro.

Phelan’s Cagliostro claims he is 3,002 years old and in possession of “enormous wealth and power.” He plans to establish himself in the New World as “the King of America,” a country “susceptible” to charlatans like him. “The King of Liars,” Pierre retorts, “is a menace to all creatures.”

Unlike Litchfield’s strikingly rendered narrative tableaus, Phelan’s penciled illustrations are drawn in a breezy style not meant to stop us in our tracks. Instead, the book’s 40-plus pages of comics have the opposite effect; these loosely sketched but tightly choreographed “comics sequences” (as the publisher calls them) propel us through his page-turner at an even more accelerated pace. “The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck” isn’t quite a graphic novel, nor is it a straight-up illustrated book; it’s neither fish nor fowl. It is, however, sheep and fowl, and it will be hard for young readers to put down.

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