I like fantasy, but I don’t tend to read dragon books. Probably for the same reason I don’t often read animal books. I guess I just prefer stories about people. That’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing anthropomorphic stories out there. I like Charlotte’s Web as much as the next person, but I did always want to know more about Fern. Anyway I digress. Books about Dragons. Well I usually recommend Patricia Wrede’s series, The Chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, but I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read it. And there there is another dragon series, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called; I just know where it is in our store. I also recommend that series a lot, but I haven’t read it either. So when Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (Random House, $17.99) received a lot press over the summer and it became a contender for our store’s picks of the year, I was a bit reluctant (heh). Ahhhh! So Good! I was really impressed with the world that Hartman has created. Goredd is an alternative, fantasy medieval kingdom. It contains the castle, cathedral, market, and university that one would expect in a bustling medieval town. Religion is interwoven into the fabric of daily life, as you might expect in a medieval society. But the host of saints is indigenous to Goredd. Hartman has created an entirely new hagiographic network and I can’t wait to learn more about it (yes, there will be sequels, but I’m not sure how many). As for the dragons, she seems to have found the perfect balance. The dragons are distinct from humans, possessing strong analytical capabilities but minimal understanding of emotion and yet they can morph and blend in with humans, allowing them to function with ease in human society. Humans, however, cannot become dragons — at least not in the first book. Due to unresolved tension in Goredd, despite the long-standing peace-treaty, humans do not trust dragons and, therefore, dragons — other than some scholars who are exempt — must wear bells. This symbol recalls other identifying markers that cultural groups have been forced to don throughout history, like the yellow Stars of David and pink triangles of World War II. I suspect some sort of resistance to emerge as the story progresses. The plot is interesting, and Seraphina is an excellent character, who lives a closeted life and fears her own identity, but you can get information about that in reviews. It is Hartman’s fantasy world, very much in parallel with our own, that I found most compelling. So much so, that I might be persuaded to read some more dragon books in order to better understand the larger context of this particular genre and keep me occupied while I wait for the next installment.
I’ve decided to finish out this week on Fantasy with one of my all-time favorite books, with the promise that next time I revisit this genre I’ll include books that are a little more recent (yes, there are some amazing ones). Madeleine L’Engle is best-known for her sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time, but she has written numerous other books that are all worth reading, especially A Ring of Endless Light (Square Fish, $7.99).
A Ring of Endless Light is one of the later books in what is now marketed as The Austin Chronicles. Readers, however, do not need to have read the previous books in this series. Vicky Austin, a teenager and a poet, meets Adam Eddington, a marine biology student, and assists with his summer research about dolphins. The book has science, music, literature, family, and romance, but mostly it is about death and grief. And yet this is one of the most inspirational books I read as a kid: a book I read and reread. L’Engle weaves science, religion, and love together so expertly, it’s almost impossible to determine whether A Ring of Endless Light is fantasy or simply the reality we’re looking for. As a teenager, her books showed me how amazingly mysterious life could be and as Vicky began to learn how to communicate with the dolphins, I started to learn how to communicate with the intricate world around me.
I never meant for this week to be all about Fantasy, but I’m enjoying it so much I figured I’d finish out the week. According to J. A. Appleyard in Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adult, young children experience the world through fantasy, and that “they live in a magical, numinous world, where the boundaries between the self, the factual, and the imaginary are permeable and fluid” (22). As such, picture books often depict the self, the factual, and the imaginary all mixed-up together (think Where the Wild Things Are). The trend continues into early readers, so some might argue that most early reader books are fantasy, and certainly many of the classics are: Frog and Toad and Little Bear are prime examples.
The book I recommend most often for this age group, regardless of whether customers ask for fantasy specifically, is Tashi, by Anna Fienberg (Allen & Unwin, $5.99). Tashi is an imaginary friend . . . or not? There is a certain ambiguity about whether this book is fantasy — Tashi being a supernatural being — or realism — Tashi being Jack’s imaginary friend. Jack’s parents engage with Tashi, but it is unclear whether or not they actually see him. Like Appleyard’s arguement, Tashi (book and character) blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Kim Gamble’s illustrations depict Tashi’s adventures, but the text remains uncertain. The books (there are several in this series) are perfect for kids who are not *quite* ready for chapter books, but are well-written and will even be enjoyed by kids who are already reading longer stories.
Two excellent fantasy series that are often overlooked now are The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander, and The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper. Volumes in both series won Newbery Awards and while individual books of the two series can stand on their own, readers will get more out of both of them by reading the series in order.
The Prydain Chronicles (Henry Holt, $6.99) starts with The Book of Three is based on Welsh myths and legends and contains one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in children’s literature. This book sets up the remaining series and is vital to understanding the character of Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper. The Black Cauldron won a Newbery Honor Award in 1966 and is probably the best-known book in the series because it was made into a movie in 1985. Again, it is possible to read this volume as a stand alone, but the series is worth starting from the beginning. The third and fourth volumes are The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer respectively. Many readers might see these two volumes as filler, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of them and felt like they offered a tremendous amount of adventure and character development, although the final volume, The High King (Newbery Winner in 1969), does contain the final showdown. Although this series is close to 50 years old, there is enough adventure, excitement, and mystery to appeal to modern readers. The books are also excellently written and occasionally funny. They would be good read-alouds for early/mid elementary children, but warning: the end of The Book of Three really really is deliciously creepy.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (Simon Pulse, $8.99) is the first volume the series by the same name and also incorporates elements of Welsh mythology. It won the Newbery Honor in 1974. Over Sea, Under Stone is the second volume and adds further elements of Welsh Aruthurian legends. The Grey King, the third volume, won the Newbery in 1976. I started the series with this volume and did enjoy it, but I admit it took me a while to really understand what was happening and who the characters were. Cooper is an excellent writer and this series is nuanced and intricate: give it the respect that it deserves by starting with volume one. Greenwitch and Silver on the Tree are the two concluding volumes.
The big problem I have with Cooper’s series is the publisher’s formatting. The text is small and close together, which I find alienates some readers. These books deserve to be read and I continue to recommend them, especially when someone insists that their child is “a good reader”. Like Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Alexander’s and Cooper’s series demand active engagement and I would never recommend them to a child who is struggling or doesn’t like to read. The books assume that the reader is familiar with and can recognize certain narrative tropes. For example, Taran, in The Prydain Chronicles, struggles to be a hero and his character must be understood in the context of classic literary heroes. To make the readers struggle with something so basic as small font is ridiculous. I would like to see Cooper’s series re-typed so that a new generation of readers could re-discover this amazing fantasy series.
Rick Riordan is starting to become a household name. His book, The Lightning Thief, was made into a movie and most of our customers are at least familiar with his books. Of his series for middle-grade readers, The Kane Chronicles are my favorite. The two primary characters, Sadie and Carter, are brother and sister, but Carter has grown up traveling with their father, and Sadie lives in London with their mother’s parents. They have met over the years, but don’t really know each other until the beginning of their adventures in The Red Pyramid (Hyperion Books, $9.99). They have such a quirky and genuine dynamic. They bicker and save each other and bicker while saving each other. I laughed out loud several times during their conversations. Unlike Riordan’s other series’, The Kane Chronicles focuses on Egyptian Mythology. Sure sure, he’s taking some artistic license in these books, but it’s obvious that he’s done a tremendous amount of research and I honestly felt like I was learning something new along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the two strong female and male narrators and also really appreciated the subtle issue of growing up in a mixed-race family that occasionally surfaces in the narrative.
The series is currently in progress; the third volume, The Serpent’s Shadow, is in hardcover. Be careful, though! The covers of this series are almost indistinguishable from Riordan’s Lost Heroes of Olympus series, which is also in progress. Most readers will enjoy both series, but might be confused if they end up with the wrong book!
A common request in our store is for fantasy books for a child who “loved Harry Potter”. Now the Harry Potter series is a great read, and while there are people who loved it more than me (they made websites and wrote fan fiction), I’ll readily boast that I was the first in line, dressed as a Ravenclaw prefect, in a bookstore in London for the release of the 6th book. My friends and I were interviewed by CNN International and BBC Spain (thank you, thank you). The point is that I enjoyed HP immensely and it is still great fun to discuss the series with people. But there are a lot of fantasy books out there that are even better and I love having a chance to introduce these books to readers.
For any one who wants to ready quality, British fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones should be at the top of the list. She has an enormous following in her own right, especially in the UK, but has never gained the reputation that Rowling has. However, Jones’s books are incredibly well-written, smart, and engaging. Her books are also challenging. Readers have to work, and work hard, when reading her stories, but the results are well worth the effort. Jones has written for a range of readers and I won’t even try to cover everything here.
The Chrestomanci series is for later elementary readers (at least 4th grade) and includes The Lives of Christopher Chant, Witch Week, Charmed Life, and The Magicians of Caprona. Some of the newest additions to this series, such as Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg are probably more appropriate for 5th or 6th grade. All titles are also included in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volumes I, II, and III (HarperCollins, $9.95).
Her single volume stories are even better and are more appropriate for older readers in junior high and high school mostly because the narratives are complicated and require sophistication and critical thinking, as well as the ability to tease out the significant aspects of the books and then reassemble them into a cohesive story. Again, Jones demands that her readers actively engage with her narratives and it is this respect for kid — the belief that they are capable of such active engagement — that make reading her books such an amazing experience. These books appear to be currently out of print, so rush to your local library for a copy.
My favorite of her books is Fire & Hemlock. When you’re done reading, go do some research on the Scottish ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The Power of Three, Hexwood, and The Merlin Conspiracy are also excellent, but warning: reading Fire & Hemlock and Hexwood is like running a marathon. You have to train and pace yourself, but, and I can’t stress this enough, you will be so proud of yourself when you get to the finish line.