Sometimes, when I’m between books–i.e., I have too many projects and don’t trust myself to not be sucked into a new story to the exclusion of all else–I re-read snippets of my favorite series.
One of the things I love about long series is how they grow with the reader. It’s not just that Percy or Harry, or Alanna, or any of the others grow up. It’s that their voices, and their authors’ tone grows up, too.
Consider the Percy Jackson books. At the beginning of the series, Percy is twelve. He’s dyslexic, has ADHD, and has been kicked out of six schools in six years. His voice is delinquent, defensive, even slightly sad–and immediately gripping.
The Lightning Thief, chapter one
Look, I didn’t want to be a half blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever like your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.
But if you recognize yourself in these pages–if you feel something stirring inside–stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Come the fifth book, The Last Olympian, Percy is sixteen. His dyslexia and ADHD, while still occasionally mentioned, are no longer key parts of his character. And while he still has a Percy-voice, he’s grown up: not only does Percy worry about his relationship with Annabeth, his sense of mortality is (realistically) greater than in the previous novels (with the possible exception of book four, The Battle of the Labyrinth).
The Last Olympian, chapter one
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
Up until then, I was having a great afternoon. Technically I wasn’t supposed to be driving because I wouldn’t turn sixteen for another week, but my mom and my stepdad, Paul, took my friend Rachel and me to this private stretch of bead on the South Shore, and Paul let us borrow his Prius for a short spin.
Now, I know you’re thinking, Wow, that was really irresponsible of him, blah, blah, blah, but Paul knows me pretty well. He’s seen me slice up demons and leap out of exploding school buildings, so he probably figured taking a car a few hundred yards wasn’t exactly the most dangerous thing I’d ever done.
Hear the difference? They’re clearly still the same character, but there’s a distance between the two, a distance that’s less about age-related details (driving a car) than word choice and focal points. Would twelve year old Percy be as cool about Paul? Would he use “technically” in a sentence? Most importantly, though, is the sense of comfort in sixteen year old Percy’s voice: sure, he’s talking about the end of the world, but he’s not defensive, not hiding behind a tough persona. This Percy, for the most part, is strong, confident, and in charge.
Behind Percy’s voice is Riordan’s–also strong and immediately recognizable–with a tone that’s more YA than middle grade. It’s less “wow, this is cool, and I get to save the world while looking totally awesome,” less peppy and pun-filled. There are still moments of lightness (a satyr wearing a “Got Hooves” shirt in book four, a hellhound gnawing on a giant pink plastic yak and a hundred-eyed monster getting bloodshot in book five), but they’re fewer, and used to good effect to not just illustrate character traits (as in the earlier books) but to break up tension (and thereby highlight key scenes and interactions).
While these may seem like the natural outgrowth of writing a series–and to some extent, they are–they’re actually not that common. Not all series grow with their readers (Harry Potter is probably the most famous to do so): the Michael Buckley Sisters Grimm series attempts to, but fails; the Nancy Drew books remain the same, story after story; even Dianna Wynne Jones’ Castle in the Air, a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, doesn’t quite capture necessary changes in tone and voice.
Oftentimes, that’s okay. Some authors want to stay within a certain genre or age-range, because that’s what speaks to them. But it’s still impressive–incredibly so–when a character demonstrates such clear growth over the course of a series. (The Protector of the Small (Kel) books by Tamora Pierce are another great example, as are J.K. Rowling’s HP books.)
Have you read any age-spanning series lately? Did you like them? Hate them? Why?Read More
Over the weekend, I read Sarah Mlynowski’s Magic in Manhattan series. Although technically not on the lookout for more books–the stack by my bed is about four feet high–I’m a sucker for remainder shelves the way some people (okay, me) are suckers for lost puppies. Every book deserves a home, and books 1 & 3 looked so funky yet so lost and forlorn among old cookbooks and craft sets that I just had to bring them home.
Here’s the Booklist blurb for Bras & Broomsticks:
When 14-year-old Rachel learns that Miri, her “vegetarian, socially inept little sister” and her divorced mother are witches, her reactions run the gamut from incredulity and annoyance that she isn’t similarly gifted to shrewdness as she plans how her sister’s abilities can be marshaled to solve a passel of problems. Can magic move Rachel to the popularity A list? Revive a fading friendship? Prevent her father from remarrying? Guarantee a date for the Spring Fling? Yes, . . . but not before Rachel and Miri learn the hard way that all spells have consequences. Despite the provocative title and Chick Lit-ish cover, this isn’t just another breezy teen read. Mlynowski has a real ear for dialogue, and she displays a keen understanding of teen mores as she pokes fun at high-school cliques. Several lovely scenes break up the comedy, including one in which klutzy Rachel revels in her newfound coordination and the pleasure of dancing. Rachel is sassy, self-absorbed, shy and insecure, and her concerns will be comfortably familiar to readers.–Chris Sherman
Where Did My Sabrina Go?
In the introductory chapters of B&B (and the ensuing books) the narrator, Rachel, uses familiar witch characters to drive her point home: Glinda (The Wizard of Oz), Hermione (Harry Potter), and Sabrina (Archie comics, the television show). To me, this is a little like playing “spot the odd character,” because Glinda and Hermione are both out to do good and defeat evil in some (loose) sense. Sabrina, on the other hand, is a teen witch living life, having fun, and trying to adjust to her powers.
Sabrina-style stories were popular as early as the fifties–Bewitched was a huge hit (and is still fun to watch, if you’re a Hulu user) because it used Sam’s witchcraft to create a small amount of chaos and wish-fulfillment viewers, particularly women, could relate to.
Expectations, Stereotypes, & Rules Oh My!
Although I read–and appreciate–a lot of fantasy and paranormal YA, B&B was a surprise. The writing is simple and chick-litish, and the story a relatively simple (insofar as teen life is ever simple) take on divorced parents and highschool popularity contests. But B&B, for all its fun and shininess, seems to break a cardinal rule of contemporary paranormal and fantasy YA: there’s no real villain.
Villains are a widely recognized standard in fantasy and, to some extent, paranormal novels. The hero/heroine needs someone to fight, someone to turn those newly minted magical powers or what-have-you on. The Lord of the Rings has Sauron, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has the White Queen, Jadis. Newer books, like Harry Potter, and even those books with a strong romantic focus have a villain. Graceling (Kristin Cashore), The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare) series, Lament, Shiver (Maggie Stiefvater), and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), despite their very disparate settings, use the villain as the impetus for change in a very similar way.
But fantasy and paranormal villains are not all created equal. While they’re expected as part of these genres, there isn’t one overriding stereotype (outside of the David and Leigh Eddings/Terry Goodkind style novels, anyway) for villains. But the expectation of a villain, a plot to take over the world/country/school/mysterious land, and a couple of yay-we-did-it kisses between the friends-who-want-something-more heroes has become so common it’s rare to see a YA novel without at least two of the above.
Common elements in YA fantasy & paranormal novels:
- Evil villain
- Redemption for villain
- Good v. Evil talk
- Magical powers
- Non-human characters (elves, goblins, ferrets)
- Fighting/action scenes
- Romance between best friends
- Romance between main character and annoying-forced-to-work-with character
- Hot Guy/Hot Girl who is secretly evil
- Hot Guy/Hot Girl who provides distraction/fuel for jealousy
- Love scenes
- World building, new world
- A skeptical character
A large part of the reason hero vs. villain stories have become so popular is television. Television, especially teen television, feeds on the book industry, magnifying (and often distorting) popular stories and styles. Teens with power, from secrets, money, or both (Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Privileged etc) are everywhere; vampire spin-offs (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries) fill in the gaps. And villains, as any Buffy watcher can testify, make good tv.
Sabrina, Come Back!
Are villains in books bad? Well, yes, by definition (sorry, had to do it, sometimes I kill me). Generally speaking, villains–well crafted, three dimensional villains–are the stuff of excellent storytelling. But the current crop of good vs. evil books, while good reading, are also exhausting reading. Much as I love the moral dilemmas and grey areas such books often explore, I suspect the reason I read the Magic in Manhattan series in one weekend is because it was a relief, a return to light, fun fantasy I could read without a thinking cap.
Should we ditch thinking cap books altogether? Of course not (and not just because if we did, I’d be out of blog material). But Sabrina-style books have their own thought-provoking magic (pun fully intended). Sabrina-style novels are sort of like problem novels for reasonably well-adjusted kids, offering another look at common issues, issues as difficult as divorce, as marvelous as first love, as awful as first breakups in a safe, comfortable space. And while non-fantasy, non-paranormal novels can and do do the same thing, there’s something innately fun about magic and wishing and broomstick riding. I wish I could read more about it.
Do you have any favorite, lighter fantasy and/or paranormal books? Have you read the Magic in Manhattan series?
Last week, David Elzey (@d_elzey) over at Fomagrams posted some interesting thoughts on the Bechdel test, wondering how and if the test applied to YA and kid lit, and if commenters could list examples of books that pass and books that fail. (Head on over to Fomagrams for some interesting comment discussion, too.)
What is the Bechdel Rule?
Even if the name is unfamiliar, you’ve probably heard of the Bechdel test, more often called the Bechdel rule. It’s usually talked about in conjunction with television and/or movies, but the principle could hold true for literature, too. To borrow from David:
The Bechdel Test originated in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel. The “joke” in one particular strip from back in 1985 was that a character only watched movies if they met the following requirements:
1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man
There is a corollary point that says the female characters must also have names.
In a 2008 interview with NPR, creator Alison Bechdel said she was glad the rule was getting so much play (see this io9 post about SF & the Bechdel rule for more interesting linkage):
Yeah, I’m very glad people are talking about the “Bechdel Rule,” even though I’m a little ambivalent about that name. When I talked to the NPR reporter, I suggested changing it to “Ripley’s Rule,” after the Sigourney Weaver character in “Alien.” Since at the time of the rule’s inception, that was the only movie that fit its criteria. But she didn’t use that part of the interview.
It’s funny to me that it’s getting so much play all of a sudden. For me, the Rule is kind of like feminism in a bottle—applied theory, quick and easy. I think whatever name one gives it, the rule should be applied to everything everywhere, including real life.
Applying Bechdel Rule in YA & Kid Lit
Working out where and how the rule applies in YA and kid lit is difficult, because there are so many distinct audiences. Generally speaking, girls will read boy books, with boy protagonists (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and the Olympians), while boys won’t read girl books, with girl protagonists (The Goose Girl, Howl’s Moving Castle). YA and kid lit are also more distinctly broken into age groups than their adult counterparts, and have looser definitions of genres. That said, I think most contemporary kid lit does an excellent job of passing the Bechdel test, arguably more so than any other age group or genre.
Why the Bechdel Rule works–or should work–in Kid Lit
What exactly do I mean by kid lit? I’m talking about the books kids read themselves, past picture book level and beginning with books in the same vein as Nancy Krulik’s Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo, Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones, to middle grade (MG) and the lower end of YA (Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin series). Wondering why no picture books? Because most children reading picture books aren’t up to grasping as many ideas or subplots yet, making it harder to have more than one important character.
For the most part, kid lit and MG books fit nicely with the Bechdel rule because their readers aren’t up to discussing boys and riding the he-likes-me/he-doesn’t-like-me carousel. Most girl-centric books aren’t up to the envy/frenemy characters either–girls might have a boy or girl best friend, and a boy or girl nemesis, but the books rarely combine both (though Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is an excellent example of both done well).
What about boy-centric kid lit, like HP, or Rowan of Rin? In my (albeit limited) experience, more modern novels have two or three girl characters who aren’t simply there to be rescued. Hermione’s cleverness practically leaps off the page; in the first Rowan book, the girls (or teens) are tough, and although their fears eventually overcome them, fear overcomes the male characters (with the exception of Rowan, of course, who learns to work through his) as well.
And if there’s only one girl (or worse, no girls) in a boy-centric book? I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this. At first, I didn’t think it mattered, because middle grade reading boys probably aren’t interested in girls, so there’s not really an issue. Yet the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize my earlier response is wrong.
Should the rule apply, if the target audience is boys? Yes. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Kids learn through reading–they learn the way the world works, how to think about things, how to move past fears and so much more. If we present a world without girls, or with only token girls, it sends a message that this is how the world works, and that girls don’t matter.
What About the Bechdel in YA? Does it still apply? Should it?
To me, applying the Bechdel rule in YA is an exercise in frustration. Like most things in YA literature, nothing is clear cut about gender in YA. Half the books I’ve picked up since thinking about this meet the requirements easily. Others are borderline. Others fail miserably. Rereading my own work in progress, I can see how it could scrape by, scrape being the operative word.
The difficulty for me lies in not whether the Bechdel rule is important and applicable, but whether it’s always important and applicable. If a book is a slice-of-life story, or a genre-specific (insofar as YA is ever genre-specific) work, the rule should probably apply. But what if it’s a problem novel, a story addressing specific issues? From memory, Joyce Carol Oates’ Sexy doesn’t pass; neither does Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But both books are about boys with specific issues, on isolation and working through problems. If a wallflower rarely speaks to girls in real life, should we really force girls into the book so it can pass a test?
One argument is yes, a la the reasons I listed for kid lit: token girls/no girls sends a message that girls don’t matter. Worse, in YA, where girls do talk about boys, we risk sending the message that boys are all girls do–and should–care about. But YA audiences are different to kid lit and MG audiences. They’re more sophisticated, they’ve read more, they interact with adults on a more even level. The majority of YA readers should be able to understand the difference between style and genre, and see that a book like Wallflower doesn’t pass the test for a good reason, rather than because Chobsky didn’t feel like writing in conversations between girls.
And then there’s the opposite side of the coin, the reverse Bechdel. How many girl-centric books have two guys having a conversation about something other than a girl? In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the male characters discuss women exclusively–if the bard can’t beat a reverse Bechdel, should we mere mortals even try? Or is a reverse test moot, because the issue is feminism, rather than equal representation?
As an issue of gender equality, things get even more confusing with books like Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls*, or Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. These novels–along with many others–focus on two main characters, one girl, one boy. If the sexes are evenly represented, and can talk about something other than their respective love interests (regardless of whether they’re coupled up or not), do we need the Bechdel test? If a girl walks up to a guy and asks him about his favorite book, isn’t that as much a win as a girl discussing favorite books with another girl? If a boy walks up to a girl and starts asking about her music preferences or her iPod playlist rather than who she came with or if she likes him, isn’t that a positive thing, regardless of whether there are other girls around? Gender equality is about, well, equality. If a boy and a girl in literature–moreover, in real life–can interact on an even playing field without sex/attraction/gender issues entering into it, then the Bechdel rule loses some of its power, doesn’t it?
Of course, my view could be biased. My own WIP is about an isolated teen boy, and the female characters rarely interact, because said boy’s life is segmented, a necessary part of the story. As a card-carrying feminist, knowing I don’t quite meet Bechdel’s criteria bothers me, and I could be trying to justify myself and my story–and it feels good to throw my lot in with some of the greats, like Joyce Carol Oates and Dianna Wynne Jones (her latest, Enchanted Glass, fails too, though many of her other books pass with flying colors).
Do your books pass the Bechdel test? Fail it? Why? Does it bother you? Do you think the test should apply in YA?
*I know I list Wintergirls a lot–I love the book, and I’ve learned a lot from it. If you haven’t read it, go to a bookstore, pick up a coffee, and settle down to read over a cup of tea–now.
Image Credit: A boy, a girl, and a book, by Mexikids
We all do it, right? Glance at a group of letters, pull out a word. Reading is so ingrained in our minds that it’s almost impossible to not read signs, titles, anything with words on. But there’s reading, and then there’s reading.
Today, reading mostly falls into two categories: reading for pleasure, and reading for information. Reading as an art–really reading, reading deeper, to get within a story, to pick it to pieces and learn how it works–is fast becoming forgotten.
But What Does “Reading Deeper” Mean?
Reading deeper is about thinking deeper, about tapping into critical thinking skills. Instead of being carried away by surface currents, a deep reader asks questions. Unlike general reading for pleasure, though, deep reading requires active thought.
Anne of Green Gables – Why does Anne Shirley want a more romantic name?
Little Women – Why does Jo care about cutting her hair off?
Wuthering Heights – Why does the weather mirror Catherine and Heathcliff’s moods?
Another way to think of reading deeper is to think of it as reading between the lines. In the first Anne book, Montgomery establishes that Anne thinks herself unworthy of love and affection. But instead of simply telling the reader this, Montgomery uses contrasts. At first glance, a reader might chalk Anne’s dislike of her too-ordinary nose and freckles up to vanity. But when taken in context alongside the girl’s history as an orphan and her want of a more romantic name, Anne’s inner thoughts are made clear.
But what I think of as deep reading goes beyond reading between the lines–it’s sometimes called analytical reading. In an article for CopyBlogger, founder Brian Clark writes:
At this level of reading, you’ve moved beyond superficial reading and mere information absorption. You’re now engaging your critical mind to dig down into the meaning and motivation beyond the text. To get a true understanding of a book, you would:
- Identify and classify the subject matter as a whole
- Divide it into main parts and outline those parts
- Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve
- Understand the author’s terms and key words
- Grasp the author’s important propositions
- Know the author’s arguments
- Determine whether the author solves the intended problems
- Show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete
Reading for Facts or Fun
How is this different to reading for fun or information? When we’re reading for fun, we let our conscious minds drift, giving ourselves leave to be caught up in the story. If the action gets a bit intense and our favorite character’s in danger, we might skip ahead, looking for their name, or words that indicate everything’s okay in Trixie-land (I read a lot of Trixie Belden this way when I was a kid). Sometimes, we’ll go back to fill in the blanks. Other times, particularly if the book is something akin to a cozy mystery, we just keep reading and assume anything important will be covered later.
Reading for information also involves skimming, particularly if you’re a speed reader. Instead of taking in every word, we skim a page until we find relevant sections, then read more comprehensively–sometimes reading quite deeply, but only within a given section.
Of course, there are exceptions–as anyone studying literature, history, or even reading itself, like my crit partner and friend, Livia–will know. If you’re writing a paper on The Old Man and the Sea, you pretty much have to read deeply and pull the book to pieces because that’s where the information you’re using for the paper comes from, in contrast to, say, a biology paper on photosynthesis.
Unsurprisingly, deep reading and critical thinking are important skills for writers. But they’re especially important for YA writers.
Why We Need to Read Deeper, Especially in YA
It’s easy to dismiss YA and teen readers–we’re constantly reminded that teens have short attention spans, that there are half a dozen cute kittens and dancing hamsters just a couple of clicks away. To some extent, the YA bestseller list even supports the idea – Twilight, The Mortal Instruments series, even The Hunger Games are full of flash and bang. Why? Because it’s hard to be distracted when:
- things are blowing up
- a demon is chasing you
- the hot guy you’ve been dreaming about is leaning in close for a first kiss
Some flash-bang books are definitely worth a deeper read–there are a lot of layers in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare) that are lost in that quick, exciting first read.But for every popular action-packed book, there are a dozen contemporary YA novels being devoured every day. Yes, some of them are edgy, issue books about abuse, rape, eating disorders and the like. But the majority are not. The majority are, on the surface, simple slice-of-life books about school, or summer jobs, or a pair of pants that magically fits four girls with drastically different weights and heights.
Why are teens reading these books? Because they’re relevant. On the surface, the stories may seem as ordinary as Anne Shirley’s nose. In truth, the authors are catching hold of the things most important to their readers on a subconscious level. (Good examples include Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and On the Jellicoe Road, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big In This? and, to some extent, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire.)
Remember when I said deeper reading leads to deeper thinking? That’s just the first part of the chain – deeper thinking leads to deeper writing, too. Think about it–if you invest time figuring out why and how a book like When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) works, you suddenly have a whole lot of information about story construction at your fingertips (see Clark’s list above for ways to get started). And while you may not sit down and write out every detail you’ve gleaned (though taking notes is definitely useful), they’ll rattle around your brain and inform the next thing you sit down to write. And that information will help you write a deeper, more relevant story–the kind that catches hold of your reader’s mind, then doesn’t let go until it’s done.
Which slice-of-life YA novels have caught hold of you? Why? Do you read deeply?
P.S the kidlet has been trying to add to this post all day. Here’s what he has to say.
Image Credit: lusi, via sxc.hu
Tired of kids’ books that are good for you? Grab something off this list of wacky, touching, zany, gross, and generally feel good books. Some are trashy ( ), some are addictive (A Series of Unfortunate Events), and some are outright disgusting (Unmentionable). This list was compiled with the help of the NESCBWI yahoo group and a few good friends.
Full disclosure: I have not read all these–yet! But I’ll be making a trip to the book store later today…
Want to suggest a just-for-fun book? Email me, or leave a note in the comments!
* book may be hard to find.
1. GOSSIP GIRL, (series), Cecily von Ziegesar
Inspiration for the tv series, Gossip Girl chronicles the lives of “the Manhattan elite” (and a few of their have-not counterparts). Everyone wears a lot of designer clothes and drinks a lot of expensive booze. Though anyone hoping for character depth or emotional truth should look elsewhere, readers who have always wished Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz would write about teenagers are in for a superficial, nasty, guilty pleasure. The book has the effect of gossip itself once you enter it’s hard to extract yourself; teens will devour this whole. –PW ages 15 & up
2. TWILIGHT (series), Stephanie Meyer
Bella Swan’s move to Forks, a small, perpetually rainy town in Washington, could have been the most boring move she ever made. But once she meets the mysterious and alluring Edward Cullen, Bella’s life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn. Up until now, Edward has managed to keep his vampire identity a secret in the small community he lives in, but now nobody is safe, especially Bella, the person Edward holds most dear. Deeply romantic and extraordinarily suspenseful, Twilight captures the struggle between defying our instincts and satisfying our desires. This is a love story with bite.–Amazon ages 14 & up
3. A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, (series), Lemony Snicket
Narrated by the exceedingly well-mannered Snicket, these witty mock-gothic novels feature the misadventures of 14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and infant Sunny Baudelaire. From the first, things look unfortunate indeed for the trio: a fire destroys their home, killing their parents along with it; the executor of their parents’ estate, the obtuse Mr. Poe (with a son, Edgar), ignores whatever the children have to say; and their new guardian, Count Olaf, is determined to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. But by using their individual gifts the three enterprising children thwart the Count’s planAfor now. The author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect, even for readers unfamiliar with the literary conventions he parodies. Exquisitely detailed drawings of Gothic gargoyles and mischievous eyes echo the contents of this elegantly designed hardcover.–PW ages 9 & up
4. HARRY POTTER, (series), J.K. Rowling
As the story opens, mysterious goings-on ruffle the self-satisfied suburban world of the Dursleys, culminating in a trio of strangers depositing the Dursleys’ infant nephew Harry in a basket on their doorstep. After 11 years of disregard and neglect at the hands of his aunt, uncle and their swinish son Dudley, Harry suddenly receives a visit from a giant named Hagrid, who informs Harry that his mother and father were a witch and a wizard, and that he is to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry himself. Most surprising of all, Harry is a legend in the witch world for having survived an attack by the evil sorcerer Voldemort, who killed his parents and left Harry with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Enchantment, suspense and danger galore follow Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione throughout the series. –PW ages 8-12.
5. THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA, Tom Angleberger (pre-order, available April 1, 2010)
In this funny, uncannily wise portrait of the dynamics of a sixth-grade class and of the greatness that sometimes comes in unlikely packages, Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami finger puppet of Yoda. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Dwight’s classmate Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. With contributions from his puzzled classmates, he assembles the case file that forms this novel.–Amazon ages 8-12
6. THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, Adam Rex
When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens – called Boov – abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod? Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion. Fully illustrated with “photos,” drawings, newspaper clippings, and comics sequences, this is a hilarious, perceptive, genre-bending novel by a remarkable new talent. –Amazon, ages 8-12
7. THE PROBLEM WITH THE PUDDLES, Kate Feiffer
A simple drive from the country to the city becomes an adventure for the Puddle family, which includes eight-year-old Baby; her older brother, Tom; and their two parents, who cannot agree on anything. The trip includes moments of catastrophe (noticing that they have inadvertently left their dogs, Big Sally and Little Sally, behind; realizing that their car has broken down and tipped over) and some happy reunions as well. The alternating human and canine narratives converge near the story’s end. Capturing the story’s somewhat daffy but entirely likable characters to perfection, Tusa’s expressive drawings (seen as pre-publication sketches) add their own element of humor. The very occasional space where readers are encouraged to write in the book should not keep libraries from adding this amusing and original story to their collections. An offbeat but rewarding chapter book for reading alone or aloud.–Carolyn Phelan
for Booklist, ages 8-12
8. A BARREL OF LAUGHS, A VALE OF TEARS, Jules Feiffer
The story of Roger, a prince with such a sense of humor that the king’s wizard sends him on a quest to sober him up a bit. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the quest backfires: Roger enters the Forever Forest, traipses over the Dastardly Divide, and ventures downward into the Valley of Vengeance only to find himself on an entirely different quest than the one the wizard sent him on. Lucky for us, Feiffer’s cartooning experience makes him an adventurous author, and he takes us on the ride of our lives, complete with timely asides, wizened wisecracks, silly drawings of characters walking in and out of the story, and more. will give people of all ages (especially rowdy teenagers who sneak comic books to classes) a barrel of laughs and a wallop of wisdom! –Amazon, all ages
9. ONCE UPON A MARIGOLD, Jean Ferris
In a gratifying fantasy that contains elements of classic fairy tales, Ferris breathes new life into archetypal characters by adding unexpected and often humorous dimensions to their personalities. The protagonist, Christian, has been raised in the forest by a troll named Edric. As he nears manhood, Christian decides it is time to see the world-or at least the section across the river, where the lovely Princess Marigold resides. Having spent many hours gazing at Marigold through a telescope and corresponding with her by “p-mail” (letters sent by carrier pigeon), he has already felt the sting of Cupid’s arrow by the time he lands a job in court. Marigold readily returns his affections, but unfortunately, she is about to become betrothed to Sir Magnus. Meanwhile, Marigold’s evil mother, Queen Olympia, is plotting to murder both Marigold and her kindly, doting father, King Swithbert. Readers swept into the lighthearted spirit of this novel will likely not be bothered by the predictability of outcomes. As in fairy tales of old, jabs are made at social values and norms, and concepts of nobility and ignobility are painted in very broad strokes. Nonetheless, heroes and heroines emerge as convincing, well-rounded characters embodying flaws as well as virtues. Their foibles-Edric’s tendency to mix up adages, Christian’s stubborn streak and Marigold’s penchant for “awful” jokes-make the good guys all the more endearing.–PW, ages 10-up.
10. MR. MYSTERIOUS & COMPANY, (& others), Sid Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Von Schmidt *
A magic show is in town! See Jane float through the air. Watch the head in the box move its lips and talk (that’s Paul behind the whiskers). See tall, light-hearted Mr. Mysterious–Pa himself–make a cow lay an egg and a chicken give milk. Follow the adventures and high comedy of this family of magicians traveling in a show wagon through the Old West. The wonder workers are heading for California, where Pa intends to retire the show so that the kids can go to school. But the frontier has tricks of its own up its sleeve, and the magicians find themselves in hairbreadth escapes and nose-to-nose encounters with villains galore–including the notorious and short-tempered Badlands Kid.–Amazon, ages 10-14
11. A MOUSE CALLED WOLF, (& others), Dick King-Smith
Wolf is such a minuscule mouse that his mother decides to give him a big name. A slightly chewed piece of sheet music yields “Wolfgang Amadeus Mo”?hence W. A. Mouse or Wolf for short. The family mouse hole is just behind the leg of a grand piano played twice a day by an elderly woman. Wolf loves the music and, to the delight of Mrs. Honeybee and the bemusement of his mother, he becomes the first singing mouse. His special talent even enables him to summon help when Mrs. Honeybee falls and can’t get up. The three central characters are nicely crafted in this sweet story. Budding young musicians will relate to Wolf’s struggles to develop his talent and share it with his not-so-musical mother. Those who haven’t discovered their talents will enjoy this small mouse as they have the other creatures King-Smith so lovingly creates. Goodell’s black-and-white illustrations, done in an engaging style similar to the work of Garth Williams, have all the warmth of the text. An appealing beginning-chapter book for young readers ready for a bit of substance, and a surefire read-aloud.Jody McCoy, Lakehill Preparatory School, Dallas, TX for School Library Journal, ages 5-12
12. THE SQUIRE’S TALES, (series), Gerald Morris
A perfectly delicious, not entirely serious, reimagining of part of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Sixteen-year-old Lady Lynet, younger sister of the beautiful, shallow Lyonesse, is tired of watching the Red Knight slaughter Lyonesse’s suitors and stealthily rides to Camelot to ask King Arthur to send a knight to defeat Red. She’s worried, though, because her father died opposing Arthur. She’s aided by a dwarf she meets along the way, a polite, knowledgeable fellow, who helps her navigate the paths to Camelot, joining her and the kitchen knave Beaumains–or is Beaumains really someone else? As they travel, Lynet sees a lot of knights fighting, learns that appearances can be deceiving, and finds true love.–GraceAnne A. DeCandido for Booklist, ages 13 & up
13. THE GREAT TURKEY WALK, Kathleen Karr
“I’ve always been fond of birds, poultry in particular.” From that first sentence, readers will gobble up Karr’s (Oh, Those Harper Girls!) hilarious novel of a boy who resolves to walk 1000 turkeys from the Show-Me state to Denver, Colorado. Simon, who’s 15 and newly graduated from the third grade, may not be too bright, but he figures he can make his fortune by buying Mr. Buffey’s bronze turkeys for a quarter apiece and selling them in Denver for $5 each. With his schoolteacher as an investor, Simon picks up a former drunk and a runaway slave to be his partners, and starts herding those turkeys 900 miles down the road. In their travels, they encounter a raging river and a swarm of locusts, each of which the turkeys conquer. But peskiest of all, they’re tailed by Simon’s no-good father, a circus strongman, who decides he wants in on the deal.–PW, ages 10 & up.
14. MR. CHICKEE’S FUNNY MONEY, (Flint Future Detectives series), Christopher Paul Curtis
A humorous and exciting tall tale about nine-year-old Steven, who loves helping his blind neighbor, Mr. Chickee, run his errands. When the elderly man tells Steven he is going on a long trip, he gives the boy a present and tells him to keep it secret. When Steven finally opens the surprise, he finds a quadrillion dollar bill. With the help of his younger friend, Russell, and Russell’s drooling, giant dog, Zoopy, Steven manages to evade the smarmy and slightly inept Agent Fondoo from the U.S. Treasury Department, who is desperately trying to get the bill back. Curtis piles the laughs on in this fast-paced mystery. The interactions between Steven and his dad, who uses every opportunity to educate his son (much to Steven’s irritation); the dictionary whose copyright page constantly writes insults; and the boy’s miraculous spying invention called the Snoopeeze 9000 all serve to give the novel a sense of whimsy and magical realism.–B. Allison Gray, John Jermain Library, Sag Harbor, NY for School Library Journal, ages 8-12
15. GYPSY RIZKA, Lloyd Alexander *
Tells the story of Rizka, a young Gypsy living alone in her wagon on the outskirts of Greater Dunitsa while awaiting the return of her father. Her irrepressible and quick-witted style of helping the townspeople exposes their ridiculous foibles as she tricks them with ruses that create hilarious situations yet turn out for the best. Rizka has her finger in everything: runaway lovers; floods; magical caves; and the dreaded Zipple, a relentless breeze that drives the citizens a little crazy. While she evokes either adoration or aggravation in the town, at the book’s conclusion, when the Gypsies finally return but with news of her father’s death, Rizka learns the real meaning of family and community. Fun in an imaginary land; an array of wonderfully exaggerated characters; events as a series of comic twists and turns; and humor that is farcical, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and often derived from playing on words. But what is most quintessential Alexander is the creation of a strong heroine adept at triumphing by her wits.–Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME, for School Library Journal, ages 10-14
16. THE GIGGLER TREATMENT, Roddy Doyle
What, you might well ask, is the Giggler Treatment? Better yet, what precisely is a Giggler? You won’t find out until chapter 6 of Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment, but for those of you who can’t wait, here’s the answer: Gigglers are “baby-sized and furry. Their fur changes color as they move.” Their main occupation in life is to look after children and to punish adults who are mean or unfair to them. And the Treatment? Four words: “Poo on the shoe.” The Gigglers have always been there. Since the first dog did its first poo. Since the first caveman grunted at his first cavechild. He stomped out of the cave, straight onto a huge lump of prehistoric poo.–Petra Williams for Amazon, ages 9 & up
17. SAFFY’S ANGEL, (Casson family series), Hilary McKay
A sparkling novel once about an eccentric, entirely engaging British family. The Casson parents, both artists–delightfully distracted Eve paints in her backyard shed and comically distant Bill spends weekdays painting in his London studio–named their children from a paint color chart: Caddy (for Cadmium), Indigo and Rose. All but Saffron, “so fierce and alone,” who learns at the start of the story that she is actually the Italian-born daughter of Eve’s twin sister, who died in a car crash when Saffy was three. Eve explains that Grandfather had been visiting Saffy and Saffy’s mother in Siena at the time of the accident, and delivered the girl to the Cassons, who adopted her. Now elderly and catatonic after two heart attacks, beloved Grandfather sits in silence when he visits the family, as the children hover around him, endearingly sharing news of their lives. When Grandfather dies, “They felt as if they had lost a battle they might have won if only they had tried a bit harder.”The man leaves something to each of the children: Caddy receives his crumbling cottage on a cliff in Wales; Indigo his aged Bentley (which Bill dismisses as an “absolute wreck”); Rose his remaining cash (L144). Attached to the will by a rusty pin is a note scrawled in a shaky hand, “For Saffron. Her angel in the garden. The stone angel.” As McKay shapes an intriguing plot around Saffy’s angel, the Cassons’ capricious capers and understated, droll dialogue will keep readers chuckling.–PW, ages 8-12
18. FREDDY THE DETECTIVE, (Freddy the Pig series), Walter Brooks *
Freddy, inspired by a book he had found in the barn (THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES), decides to become a detective. Mrs. Wiggins, the cow, becomes his partner (Freddy supplies the imagination, she provides the common sense!). Freddy will play many roles in the books which follow but that of detective is probably the one he will most often be required to fill. This book, incidentally, marks the first appearance of Simon the rat and his family as Freddy’s chief antagonist(s)–Freddythepig.org, ages 5 & up
19. Mythic Misadventures, (Pandora series), Carolyn Hennesy
Pandora Atheneus Andromaeche Helena (“Pandy” for short) lives in Ancient Greece, surrounded by gods, goddesses, heroes, mythical monsters and magical beasts. She’s also a typical run-of-the-mill tween. She has crushes on boys, trouble at school, best friends, fierce enemies, a mother who doesn’t understand and a brother who makes her crazy. Typical and average, right? Wrong.–pandyinc.com, ages 8 & up
20. TO FIND A WONDER, Jennifer Carson
Mortimer is the best squire in Sir Emberly’s troops, but his liege refuses to recommend him for promotion to knighthood. When Mortimer demands to prove his knight-worthiness, Sir Emberly charges him with an impossible task-finding a wonder in five days. With the help of his faithful mare, a scatterbrained wizard, a frog prince and a very special vegetable, Mortimer creates his own wonder-the first dragon to ever breathe fire! How much trouble could one fire-breathing creature cause anyway? Mortimer certainly discovers and learns along the way that being a knight is more than being talented with a sword.–Amazon, ages 8 & up
21. STARRING SALLY J. FREEDMAN AS HERSELF, Judy Blume
It’s 1947, and Sally J. Freedman is full of wild ideas. She’s got her eye on handsome Peter Horstein, the Latin lover of her dreams . . . on old Mr. Zavodsky, who looks suspiciously like Hitler in disguise . . . and on her father, who Sally misses terribly. There are so many things to worry and wonder about–but what ever happens, Sally’s school year will certainly be exciting–and unforgettable.–Amazon, ages 10-14
22. BUNNICULA, (series), Deborah Howe, James Howe, Illustrated by Alan Daniel
It all starts when Harold’s human family, the Monroes, goes to see the movie Dracula, and young Toby accidentally sits on a baby rabbit wrapped in a bundle on his seat. How could the family help but take the rabbit home and name it Bunnicula? Chester, the literate, sensitive, and keenly observant family cat, soon decides there is something weird about this rabbit. Pointy fangs, the appearance of a cape, black-and-white coloring, nocturnal habits … it sure seemed like he was a vampire bunny. When the family finds a white tomato in the kitchen, sucked dry and colorless, well … Chester becomes distraught and fears for the safety of the family. “Today, vegetables. Tomorrow … the world!” he warns Harold. But when Chester tries to make his fears known to the Monroes, he is completely misunderstood, and the results are truly hilarious. Is Bunnicula really a vampire bunny? We can’t say. But any child who has ever let his or her imagination run a little wild will love Deborah and James Howe’s funny, fast-paced “rabbit-tale of mystery.”–Amazon, ages 9 to 12
23. UNMENTIONABLE, (& others) Paul Jennings *
A collection of Paul Jennings’ imaginative, twisty tales, packed with fun and ridiculousness. Tales include “The Ice Maiden”, in which a boy finds himself frozen to a beautiful ice statue after daring to kiss her and the unforgettable “Little Squirt” in which a boy trains for a peeing contest–Amazon–ages 8-12
What are you favorite just for fun kids’ books?