Onward: The Search for the Phoenix Gem is a children’s book published by Disney Press, an imprint of Disney Book Group, and written by Steve Behling. The book follows the events of the hit Pixar film, Onward, but from the point-of-view from a high school journalist Sadalia Brushthorn. After witnessing the events that happen during the end of the film [spoiler warning], Sadalia is determined to uncover the truth of how her school came to life in the form of a magical dragon, and what it had to do with the quietest boy she knew.
The book is rather unique, in that it re-works the sequencing of the movie in a completely new order with a fresh perspective. Sadalia serves as the narrator of the story as she works her way through the events of Ian and Barley’s adventure, and work through it she does!
Sadalia Brushthorn is a high school journalist for the “Fortnightly Dragon,” and as she quite comically quotes, the paper publishes a lot more frequently than that, much to its readers’ confusion. During the climax of the movie, when her high school became a sentient magical dragon, she just happened to be on-site and caught the whole thing. The problem is, however, to be able to write a great article, she needs to understand how we came to this point. So Sadalia sets off to blow this whole story wide open, and to clear the names of Ian and Barley.
This is a really fun story, and at the time of writing this article, my kids and I have not seen the movie. So this was a way for us to enjoy it all together, but without tainting the Pixar story when we do eventually get around to it. The book, and the film, are very closely tied to the histories of the land when magic was in great abundance, and quests were undertaken regularly. In fact, Barly, the older Elf brother of Ian, is passionately involved in a role-playing board game, Quests of Yore. Essentially, this is the DnD of this reality.
Now, I was very lucky, Disney Publishing sent me out a copy of the Quests of Yore book, along with Onward: The Search for the Phoenix Gem, and a quick anecdote as to why I mention this. I read a lot of these books that I review with my children because what better way to gauge their performance? As I read The Search for the Phoenix Gem to my three children, my daughter would saddle up next to me with the copy of Quests of Yore to pretend like she was reading along with me. She wanted to be so involved in this story that she had to mimic my reading to her, and folks, when you read to kids, isn’t that the point? We want to inspire these young ones — to encourage them to fall in love with these stories and to imbue them with memories and a sense of wonder that will last for some time to come.
There were some excellent elements that Behling embeds into his arc for the young journalist. Her own quest is filled with multiple obstacles, ranging in difficulty. Whether that was her scooter breaking down on her constantly, or some of the folks she interviewed either being unwilling to give answers, (or simply not knowing what information was deemed important). Behling created Sadalia with a sense of dogged determination. She takes notes from every conversation, and you see that as the story progresses that those notes from the past become super important to get her to the finish line.
Behling molded Sadalia with great determination, but within the story he also highlights her moments of self doubt. The protagonist at many points hits a wall and her insecurities come rushing out. The biggest catalyst is one that many writers will be very familiar with; impostor syndrome. As a father, I feel like it’s so important that children hear these stories of heroes with real-world inner demons that they must overcome. That to have these huge doubts and battles with anxieties doesn’t make them weak or inhibit them, but rather, everyone battles these thoughts, and despite that, they overcome and keep going.
Overall, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, this is a great family read! The story is fun, and silly, and is layered with copious amounts of fantasy elements presented in a unique format.
Onward: The Search for the Phoenix Gem is available on Disney and in shops now.
Onward: The Search for the Phoenix Gem
Overall, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, this is a great additional read for kids in the middle school grade, or to parents/guardians to read with their kids. The story is fun, and silly, and is layered with copious amounts of fantasy elements presented in a unique format.
Aaron is a contributing writer at But Why Tho, serving as a reviewer for TV and Film. He is also the co-host and social media manager of the Nerds Social Club podcast.
Hailing originally from England, and after some lengthy questing, he’s currently set up shop in Pennsylvania. He spends his days reading comics, podcasting, and being attacked by his small offspring.