Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fantasy Series (and standalones) for kids/YA

I'm giving a talk later this morning to families here for Parents' Weekend, and as a takeaway I made a list of books I like to recommend. These are almost all fantasy, almost all for pre-teen and up, almost all series. They are all also books I've read and therefore can recommend with some confidence--which is why, for example, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan isn't on the list even though Nick tells me it should be. I really want to read it, but just haven't yet. Also missing from the list are my "usual suspects": Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling. That's because they're in the talk.

So here's the list:

Some Terrific (Mostly Fantasy) Books for Kids and Young Adults

A highly idiosyncratic and partial list of books you may have missed, for people who’ve exhausted the Harry Potter and Twilight series

Most of these books are appropriate for kids 10 and up; starred books might be better for 12 or 13 and up.

*Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy. Most book-loving teens have already discovered this devastating dystopian fantasy, starring a fierce teenaged hunter, Katniss Everdeen.

Sarah Beth Durst, Into the Wild and Out of the Wild: fairy tale characters enter our world with devastating, but often comic, results.

Cornelia Funke, the Inkheart series: in a world where stories can become real, readers and writers become dangerous and powerful. See also her unrelated The Thief Lord, in which a pair of orphans must make a new life for themselves in a magical Venice.

Neil Gaiman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, *Stardust, Odd and the Frost Giants. Gaiman’s books are infused with a sense of the magical and the mythic; these standalone novels are all influenced by fairy tales and earlier literature, but bring new life to them. Coraline terrifies even my college students, but lots of younger kids adore it. The Graveyard Book has one of the scariest opening chapters I’ve ever read, but most readers are comforted by what follows

Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night: a book-loving girl teams up with a con man in a tightly controlled culture of folk deities and mysterious conspiracies. See also Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy, an unrelated tale of a magical realm where “the Lost” travel outside their bodies to keep the peace.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci: six novels all set in the same multiverse; not a sequential series but a loosely linked chronicle of the rules of magic in many different worlds. See also Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Ice, and other standalone fantasies.

*Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness trilogy: math may be magic and there is a mysterious portal between Sydney, Australia and New York City; Larbalestier’s Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy are also terrific, and quite different—Liar is darker, for older kids, while How to Ditch Your Fairy is a fairly light-hearted exploration of a high school for athletes where some kids have personal fairies.

Kenneth Oppel, Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber: adventures in the air and outer space in an alternate-history version of Victorian England.

James A. Owen, The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica: a five-book series about a map of imaginary places that turns out to be real; C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other literary figures are characters in this adventure series.

Terry Pratchett, The Bromeliad Trilogy, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, the Tiffany Aching books. Pratchett’s books are always funny and often very literary in their references; the Tiffany Aching books include the always-hilarious Nac Mac Feegle, a band of tiny but immensely fierce warriors, while the Bromeliad trilogy deals with a race of people who live in the spaces between floors in a large department store. The Amazing Maurice retells the Pied Piper story, with a surprising twist. See also Nation, a novel of exploration and attempted conquest in an alternate version of Victorian England and the Pacific.

Philip Reeve, Larklight series: Victorians in space.

*Michael Scott, The Alchemyst series: a twin brother & sister team up with figures from history and myth to combat mythic evil staging a return to power.

Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me: last year’s Newbery award winning book; time travel, A Wrinkle in Time, and New York City in the late 1970s.

Jonathan Stroud, The Bartimaeus Trilogy: alternate history and magic combined with a smart, snarky djinn; this series will get kids reading—and enjoying!—footnotes. A fourth book is apparently due out this fall.

Laini Taylor, Dreamdark series: so far there are only two of these novels set among fairy creatures who must reweave the fraying tapestry of the world; a third is anticipated.

*Megan Whalen Turner, Attolia series: theft, conspiracy, murder, romance, and intrigue in a Greek-inspired magical realm.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

teaching, again

The fall semester is upon us, and I'm teaching two sections of a class I'm really excited about: Twice-Told Tales, Fairy Tales in Literary and Popular Culture. I'm just focusing on one fairy tale (Cinderella), and I've had a terrible time narrowing down the syllabus. What I've got still feels like a work in progress, but classes start Monday so it's as done as it's going to be for now.

The biggest experiment in this class will be the use of freewriting and focused freewriting, which we'll do (almost) every day. I took a fantastic workshop at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking which introduced me to this technique, and consultants from IWT came and worked with our faculty on it (and other things) over the summer, as we all prepare for teaching our first-year seminars for the first time. I don't know if anyone else has converted as fully as I have, but I'm really looking forward to the experiment.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

a couple of lines

from Here, There Be Dragons...

"Astraues," Aven called out. "God of the four winds and friend to sailors. Say a little prayer when you look at him, so he will give us what we need to keep on our course."
"A little prayer?" said Jack. "To a constellation?"
"To what it represents," said Aven.
"But I don't believe in what it represents," said Jack.
"Prayers aren't for the deity," said Aven. "They're for you, to recommit yourself to what you believe."
"Can't you do that without praying to a dead Greek god?"
"Sure," said Aven. "But how often would anyone do that, if not in prayer?" (p. 218)

"The Summer Country is a land greater than any in the Archipelago of Dreams, because it has within it everything to be found in the Archipelago, and more. But where someone like Ordo Maas could find it anywhere, the Winter King would never find it at all. Because to him, it is always just out of his reach--when, in truth, he had it in reach all along."
"It sounds," John said, "as if you're talking about our world."
"Yes," said Bert. "Your world is the Summer Country." (p. 310)

The Finish Line

Here's the summary of my 48-hour book challenge efforts:

I read 7 books, including all four (to date) in The Alchemyst series, and the first in "The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica," Here, There Be Dragons. I can't wait to read some more in that series! All the books I read were fantasy (not a big surprise). I'm particularly intrigued by the overlaps in the two latter series--I want to think more about that, maybe after I read the rest of the Imaginarium Geographica books.

I read a total of 2778 pages.

I put in 16.75 reading hours, and 3 hours of social networking, for a total of 19.75 hours.

Thanks, MotherReader, for putting this together again! It was a weekend well spent!

and one more...

The last book I read for the 48 hour book challenge is another series book, Here There Be Dragons, by James A. Owen. What a great way to end! It's a terrific quest story, with a similar mix of characters and motifs as the Alchemyst books has, but put to entirely different effect--more comic, and more directly intertextual. There's great pleasure to be had in trying to puzzle out the references and connections, some of which come as quite a surprise at the end--though, really, they shouldn't, now that I know what they are. And there are three more books in the series, so I have plenty of fun to come...

(Nick told me I'd enjoy this one. Why is he always right?)

Saturday, June 05, 2010

is this it?

OK, I've finished my 6th book in the challenge, and put in 2 more hours and 389 more pages. So here are the updated totals:

2454 pages
14.75 reading hours
2.5 blogging/networking hours
6 novels

And now I've caught up in The Alchemyst series and I'm seriously annoyed that The Warlock is not yet available for me to read. The little teaser at the end of The Necromancer is pretty tantalizing...

There are other books on my TBR stack so I may pick up another one, but I have to say, I'm pretty close to done. And I'm still kind of stuck in The Alchemyst's world--and liking it--so I'm not sure I'm ready to break that spell. On the other hand, there's still plenty of reading time left this evening. I don't expect to do much tomorrow morning--my time is up at 10:30 and I'm headed to church at about 8:45. So this may be it. But I'll check in again tomorrow morning to confirm the totals, one way or the other.

48 Hour Book Challenge Update

Whew! I'm surprising myself by how much I've read. The quick totals, 28 hours in:

12.75 hours of reading
let's call it 2 hours of social networking, blogging, reading updates, etc.
2065 pages
5 novels

The last three I've read are the first three books in Michael Scott's Alchemyst series; we have one more in the house and that's the next up. This is one appealing series: gods, demigods, and monsters from all kinds of mythology, a nice mix of the historical and the present-day, and all kinds of ambiguity about who's on whose side. I'm only sorry that the fifth novel isn't out yet--I'll finish the weekend without closure, but at least caught up on a series I'm enjoying.

But now I really need to get out of the house. I hit the farmer's market this morning and now it's time to get to Trader Joe's.

Friday, June 04, 2010


First in a series, Byron Davis's Starlighter gives us two planets, linked by tales that each has told of the other. Jason, our human hero, is a warrior in training who isn't sure whether to believe the stories his family tells of humans abducted by dragons, and a world beyond his own. On the other planet, children slave in mines and memorize a story that may be their salvation. Storytelling is key to this novel--Keron, the Starlighter of the title, weaves stories of amazing power that hypnotize their listeners and reveal hidden truths, even to her. The story is fast-paced and the characters--especially Jason and Keron, but also Arxad (the "most human" of the dragons)--are compelling. I'll be on the lookout for the next in this series.

[I received a copy of this book from the publicist and then handed it off to Nick and only just rediscovered it. Book 2 in the 48-hour book challenge.]

The Prophecy

Dawn Miller's The Prophecy has a great cast of characters and a complicated plot--probably not the best choice for my first read-as-fast-as-you-can entry in the 48 hour book challenge. But it was at the top of my TBR list and it's YA, so there you go.

So, there's a war between good and evil (um, angels and fallen angels) but there are some humans who are really important to that war. So far, so good--though it did take me some 100 pages to figure that much out, at least with any clarity. The characters, though, make it: Sam, the martial arts instructor/painter, and his younger brother Jonah, the screw-up; J, the criminal; Jenna, who at 19 has a 5-year-old son (as she says at one point, "you do the math"); and red-headed Carly, whose small size belies her ability to get out of a jam, and fast. They are intriguing characters, and the slow pace of the novel (there are nested flashbacks, which keeps a reader on her toes but, again, slows her down) gives us time to try to get to know them.

There's a lot going on here, and I don't want to give it all away. In a quick read, I give it about three out of five stars: the plot points all do work out, and there's a satisfying conclusion (with a hint that the story could continue without making the reader feel cheated). And, as I said, there are some intriguing characters here, though some are better developed than others. Jonah's at the center, which is fine, but I wanted more of Carly and Jenna, myself--Jenna's story, in particular, is tantalizingly hinted out but remains undeveloped. So, all in all, a fine way to start out the 48-hour book challenge. More to come.

[edited to add: I received this book from a publicist some time ago and just got around to reading it...]

48 Hr book challenge

I haven't participated in Mother Reader's 48-hour book challenge in a while, but I'm trying it this year. I'm home alone today with no car--perfect way to start out!--and I warmed up with three picture books this morning. But now I've got two novels sitting by my right hand and a bunch of other things I've been meaning to get to--so here goes!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Keeping Score

So now that the list is out, it looks like folks are trying to see whether they've kept up with their reading. Like Tea Cozy's Liz B, then, I'll bold the ones I've read. How'd you do?

100. The Egypt Game - Snyder (1967) [honestly? This one I hadn't even heard of...]
99. The Indian in the Cupboard - Banks (1980)
98. Children of Green Knowe - Boston (1954)
97. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - DiCamillo (2006)
96. The Witches - Dahl (1983)
95. Pippi Longstocking - Lindgren (1950
94. Swallows and Amazons - Ransome (1930)
93. Caddie Woodlawn - Brink (1935)
92. Ella Enchanted - Levine (1997)
91. Sideways Stories from Wayside School - Sachar (1978)
90. Sarah, Plain and Tall - MacLachlan (1985)
89. Ramona and Her Father - Cleary (1977)
88. The High King - Alexander (1968)
87. The View from Saturday - Konigsburg (1996)
86. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Rowling (1999)
85. On the Banks of Plum Creek - Wilder (1937)
84. The Little White Horse - Goudge (1946)
83. The Thief - Turner (1997)
82. The Book of Three - Alexander (1964)
81. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon - Lin (2009)
80. The Graveyard Book - Gaiman (2008)
79. All-of-a-Kind-Family - Taylor (1951)
78. Johnny Tremain - Forbes (1943)
77. The City of Ember - DuPrau (2003)
76. Out of the Dust - Hesse (1997)
75. Love That Dog - Creech (2001)
74. The Borrowers - Norton (1953)
73. My Side of the Mountain - George (1959)
72. My Father's Dragon - Gannett (1948)
71. The Bad Beginning - Snicket (1999)
70. Betsy-Tacy - Lovelae (1940)
69. The Mysterious Benedict Society - Stewart ( 2007)
68. Walk Two Moons - Creech (1994)
67. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher - Coville (1991)
66. Henry Huggins - Cleary (1950)
65. Ballet Shoes - Stratfeild (1936)
64. A Long Way from Chicago - Peck (1998)
63. Gone-Away Lake - Enright (1957)
62. The Secret of the Old Clock - Keene (1959) [I must have--I had a serious Nancy Drew habit at one point--though I really couldn't tell you anything about it now...]
61. Stargirl - Spinelli (2000)
60. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi (1990)
59. Inkheart - Funke (2003)
58. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Aiken (1962)
57. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 - Cleary (1981)
56. Number the Stars - Lowry (1989)
55. The Great Gilly Hopkins - Paterson (1978)
54. The BFG - Dahl (1982)
53. Wind in the Willows - Grahame (1908)
52. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
51. The Saturdays - Enright (1941)
50. Island of the Blue Dolphins - O'Dell (1960)
49. Frindle - Clements (1996)
48. The Penderwicks - Birdsall (2005)
47. Bud, Not Buddy - Curtis (1999)
46. Where the Red Fern Grows - Rawls (1961)
45. The Golden Compass - Pullman (1995)
44. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing - Blume (1972)
43. Ramona the Pest - Cleary (1968)
42. Little House on the Prairie - Wilder (1935)
41. The Witch of Blackbird Pond - Speare (1958)
40. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Baum (1900)
39. When You Reach Me - Stead (2009)
38. HP and the Order of the Phoenix - Rowling (2003)
37. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Taylor (1976)
36. Are You there, God? It's Me, Margaret - Blume (1970)
35. HP and the Goblet of Fire - Rowling (2000)
34. The Watsons Go to Birmingham - Curtis (1995)
33. James and the Giant Peach - Dahl (1961)
32. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - O'Brian (1971)
31. Half Magic - Eager (1954)
30. Winnie-the-Pooh - Milne (1926)
29. The Dark Is Rising - Cooper (1973)
28. A Little Princess - Burnett (1905)
27. Alice I and II - Carroll (1865/72)
26. Hatchet - Paulsen (1989)
25. Little Women - Alcott (1868/9)
24. HP and the Deathly Hallows - Rowling (2007)
23. Little House in the Big Woods - Wilder (1932)
22. The Tale of Despereaux - DiCamillo (2003)
21. The Lightening Thief - Riordan (2005)
20. Tuck Everlasting - Babbitt (1975)
19. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Dahl (1964)
18. Matilda - Dahl (1988)
17. Maniac Magee - Spinelli (1990)
16. Harriet the Spy - Fitzhugh (1964)
15. Because of Winn-Dixie - DiCamillo (2000)
14. HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Rowling (1999)
13. Bridge to Terabithia - Paterson (1977)
12. The Hobbit - Tolkien (1938)
11. The Westing Game - Raskin (1978)
10. The Phantom Tollbooth - Juster (1961)
9. Anne of Green Gables - Montgomery (1908)
8. The Secret Garden - Burnett (1911)
7. The Giver -Lowry (1993)
6. Holes - Sachar (1998)
5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - Koningsburg (1967)
4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - Lewis (1950)
3. Harry Potter #1 - Rowling (1997)
2. A Wrinkle in Time - L'Engle (1962)
1. Charlotte's Web - White (1952)

Looks like I've read 83--B-, but still that feels pretty reasonable. Maybe I'll work on the rest over the summer!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Almost an anti-climax

Our long season of waiting is over, and Betsy Bird's countdown of the Top 100 Children's Novels has finally made it to #1. Are you shocked? For some reason, it was #2 that surprised me most--it hadn't occurred to me that Madeleine L'Engle could beat out J.K. Rowling in this day and age.

Seven of my top ten made the final list, by the way, with my top three in the top ten. And, for what it's worth, four books (and five series) I taught this semester were all in there as well. Not so much of an iconoclast as I thought, I suppose--though, on the other hand, three books I nominated didn't make the list at all, somewhat to my surprise.

Congratulations to all who made it, all who played, and especially to Betsy for that amazing labor of love. You can also see the whole list, minus comments, at Six Boxes of Books, as I mentioned before. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Finally a book I chose has cracked Betsy Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels List, over at Fuse #8. She even used my comments--hurrah! (And if you read the comments, you can see that her initial post for April 1 was, yes, a joke. I was so mad I didn't even click through to read the comments...)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

100 Best...

If, like me, you're having trouble remembering which books have already been mentioned in Betsy Bird's fabulous series of posts on the Top 100 Children's Novels, you can check out this wonderful resource--just the list, provided by Six Boxes of Books. It's about two days behind at the moment, but I'm sure it will catch up soon.

(Kicking myself that I forgot The Phantom Tollbooth; but what would I have dropped? Maybe The Painted Garden? Maybe?)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Top 100 Children's Novels ...

Can you believe Alice in Wonderland didn't even crack the top 10? Ah, well; at least one more of my choices made the list. But I'm thinking at least two of mine won't, now. Maybe more...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

who were your role models?

Some years ago I wrote an article about role models in children's literature, wondering how far we can take the question of "identification." Do strong female characters produce strength in their readers? I couldn't answer the question--I don't do empirical research!--but I do think it's worth continuing to talk about the issue. Here's a nice piece in Parent Central that takes up some recent heroines and how they differ from their predecessors.

Girl heroes take spectacular flight -

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

another lazy post

When You Reach Me When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Miranda's getting weird letters, and her mom is practicing to be on the $25,000 Pyramid, and her best friend doesn't seem to want to talk to her anymore. Middle school is bad enough--this all seems much, much worse.

I loved this book. Miranda's connection to A Wrinkle in Time makes her my kind of protagonist--nerdy, emotionally interesting, on the outskirts of popularity (but still fascinated by it and even hopeful that she might find it one day). The book raises some of the same kinds of questions that Miranda's favorite book does without seeming at all imitative or derivative. A keeper.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, March 01, 2010

a very lazy, and belated, review post

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1) The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like everyone else in America, I enjoyed this book--a clever way to introduce kids to Greek myths and a fun adventure as well.

View all my reviews >>

but should we see the movie?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Top 100 Children's Novels (#45-41) - still going strong

I'm pretty sure this is the first time one of my top ten has made it onto Betsy's list, so I'm excited to share this chunk of the list here. Scroll to the bottom to find the other installments--this is seriously a labor of love here, one that goes way above and beyond mere list-making--it's well worth checking them all out.

Top 100 Children's Novels (#45-41) - A Fuse #8 Production - Blog on School Library Journal

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Monday, February 08, 2010

100 Best

So that ten best list I gave you last time was just a teaser for Betsy Bird's list of the 100 best children's novels, voted on by her readers. Here are numbers 91-100, with all kinds of great commentary and links. None of mine are on this list...let's see if any of them break in a little higher.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ten Best

Betsy at Fuse8 is at it again. Last year she did a poll on the Top 100 Picture Books of all time--and I didn't participate, because--well, I didn't have a good reason. (Other than the whole not blogging thing, about which perhaps more another day.) Tomorrow is the deadline for her new poll, the Top 100 Chapter Books of all time--and this time I'm in. I just sent her my list, and since I don't expect all these books to make her top ten (though I'd be surprised if most of them don't turn up somewhere in the top 100) I thought I'd share my list here as well. It's a little idiosyncratic, as such things should be, and I'm sure it would look different if I did it tomorrow. I didn't go back and look at other lists I've seen over the years; I just went with what came to mind first. So here's my list:

1. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
This one changes the landscape for chapter books in mid-century. It's a perfect read-aloud, but also a great book for a relatively new reader to take on. It's got humor and pathos, and the best retelling of the Easter story I've ever read in secular form. I can't read the end without crying, even after all these years.

2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Another game-changer. Raises great questions about what it means to be a child and why we would want to think of children as different from adults, I think. Plus it's hilarious and deeply weird.

3. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I know all the reasons not to like this--the shift in focus from Mary to Colin, the reassertion of the patriarchy at the end, the well-intentioned but nonetheless problematic depiction of India--but it's still one of those books I return to year after year. If, as Perry Nodelman says, children's books are all about teaching kids how to be kids, this one is the quintessential children's book. And yet its depiction of "appropriate childhood" is so appealing to me, even now, that I keep coming back to it.

4. The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, Christopher Paul Curtis
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but also a great reworking of a historical shame. (And apparently a book I've never written about. Sigh.)

5. The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
Another game-changer, for me: this one is comfortable with ambiguity in a way that still feels radical to me in a children's book. By the end of the series good and evil get sorted out (a little too comfortably for my taste) but in this everything's still up in the air. Lyra is a work of genius--a worthy successor to Alice.

6. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Is it possible to be a bookish girl and not love this one?

7. Skellig, David Almond
My list skews towards "classics," I think, but this one is a modern classic. Just the right blend of fantasy/realism. A brilliant reworking of The Secret Garden, in some ways.

8. The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
Because who doesn't love little blue men?

9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling
OK, another game-changer in that it made fantasy cool again (and funny). I know Diana Wynne Jones was already writing funny fantasy, but I think the opening chapters of this novel really are brilliant. Roald Dahl meets Dickens meets Cinderella, or something.

10. The Painted Garden (also published as Movie Shoes), Noel Streatfeild
I loved this book when I was a kid because it was such a terrific reworking of The Secret Garden. I still think it's brilliantly intertextual and really smart about what it means to try to inhabit a book. I used to want to be "discovered" as the next, next Mary Lennox.

You've got about 25 hours left to play. Go ahead, you know you want to!