Category Archives: Fantasy

Coming Soon: Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Poking around Netgalley not long ago, I came across Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and, intrigued by the description, began reading and was quickly hooked. It is a lovely, moody contemporary reworking of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” set in a museum, no less. I find books set in museum to be tricky things — sometimes the setting seems more important than the rest of it. Fortunately, in this case, it totally works. Our heroine, Ophelia, has arrived in the never-identified city with her older sister while their father works on a blockbuster exhibit of swords. They are all mourning the loss of the family’s mother in their own ways: the father throws himself into work,  the older sister becomes eagerly distracted by the exhibit’s fashionable female curator, and Ophelia gloomily wanders the museum, counting the days and hours since her mother’s death. In her wanderings she comes across the Marvelous Boy of the title and so her adventure begins.  Ophelia is a winning heroine as she fights fear to do what needs to be done (just…you know..saving the world and stuff),  the Boy sad and stalwart (his own back story meanders through the larger story taking place in the museum), the writing elegant, and the plot compelling.  There are creepy creatures, ghosts, a deliciously evil villain, magical things, and plenty more to keep middle grade readers engrossed. 

Recently the publisher sent me a print ARC along with a key and a tiny tube of super glue (a particularly clever if — for those who haven’t yet read the book — enigmatic touch), all of which made me smile.

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Filed under fairy tales, Fantasy, Reviewing

Coming Soon: Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk

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After receiving an advance reader’s copy of Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk, I asked my class if they’d like me to read it aloud. Now keep in mind that while Neil Gaiman may have a huge adult fan base, he isn’t particularly well-known among young kids. Actually, I’d say he isn’t known at all. My 4th grade students were way too young when The Graveyard Book won the Newbery. As for Coraline which is even older, a couple said they’d found the movie scary and none knew the book. And so they were wary. At their request I read aloud the flap copy which intrigued them and so they decided I could proceed.

The author rightly describes the story as “very silly.” That it is! The basic premise is that a father goes out to get some milk for his children’s cereal and has a spot of trouble ….well, quite a bit of trouble to be honest…before making it home. There are dinosaurs (and I was very appreciative of those students who helped me to correctly pronounce their names), bodily fluids, a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier, wumpires, aliens, and a very intrepid dad.

The class really liked it. Many of them really, really liked it! Enough to beg me to read more and more of it over the next few days until I was done. (It was a quick read — I believe it took three or four sessions to finish it.) I had thought it might be a little young for them, but I was wrong. In fact, this shaggy dog of a tale ended up being perfectly calibrated to read aloud to nine and ten-year-olds. Not that they would notice or care, but it felt a bit in the tradition, humor-wise, of Dr. Who, Douglas Adams, or Terry Pratchett while being very much its own thing.

I tweeted to Neil that I was reading it and he asked if they were laughing and I was able to assure him that they were. There were chortles, snorts, and bursts of glee. And so I can say for sure that it is loads of fun. (And this was without the art as the ARC has mostly sketches.) For some enthusiastic student responses please go here.

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Filed under Fantasy, Neil Gaiman

Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood

I’m a far-ranging reader, happily reading a picture book one minute and a book for adults the next.  Professionally, being a 4th grade teacher and reviewer, not a librarian, I tend to read only YA that really intrigues me for one reason or another and I have to shamefully admit that until now what I’d heard about Marcus Sedgwick’s books — that they were dark and creepy — did not make me want to read them. But recently, I saw something interesting about his latest, Midwinterblood, just as a copy showed up in the mail and so I took it home to read.

Wow.

The book has an unconventional structure that someone told me is like Cloud Atlas, but while it does have a sort of similar time sense, I’d say it is otherwise completely different.  Beginning in 2073 on the island of Blessed, it moves back in time, with an epilogue connecting back to the book’s start. There are seven stories in total, all set on the island, heading back and back and back through time. And by way of these distinctive narratives we are startled to encounter characters we have already met in the earlier stories, characters who care, hate, most of all, two who love throughout eternity.  Separately these are ghost stories, love stories, and even something that might be termed dystopic. Playing on tropes of folklore, horror, myth, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Sedgwick imaginatively weaves something highly original and completely compelling. While Midwinterblood is its own distinct thing, mulling it over now, I think of Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times and the stories of Margo Lanagan.

Most of all, it is gorgeous. Highly recommended.

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Filed under Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, YA

Coming Soonish: Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire

Even though Mortal Fire isn’t out till June I want to write about it now to get the word out as it is simply spectacular. And to encourage those fantasy fans among you unfamiliar with Elizabeth Knox to go and read her two other also fabulous young adult books, Dreamhunter and Dreamquakethe later a Printz honor book. What, you may wonder, are they like? I would agree with Knox’s own answer (about Mortal Fire, but also applicable to the earlier books in my opinion) in this recent interview:

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, because of the machinations, vigour and sensitivity of the main character (plus the tricky romance). And my view of the magic as a kind of science owes a lot to Margaret Mahy (well—all my books do!)

As for Mortal Fire it is set in the same alternate New Zealand world of the Dreamhunter Duet, but later in 1959. The heroine is Canny, a sixteen year old math genius and daughter of a Shackle Islander (e.g. Pacific Islander in our world) who is known far and wide for her extraordinary act of heroism during the war. The novel begins as Canny, having just graduated from high school, reluctantly joins her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend Susan on a research trip to Southland to interview survivors of a horrific mine disaster and investigate local folklore.

Upon arrival Canny discovers the Zarene family, magic, and dark secrets, among them seventeen year old Ghislain who has been magically imprisoned by his family for something he did long ago. Canny discovers that she has even stronger magical talents than the Zarenes and quickly learns to use them. Why she has them and what she does with them are the center of this whirling complex and glorious story.

Knox, as she did in the Dreamhunter books, creates a mesmerizing world in which magic is real, powerful, disturbing, and profoundly spiritual. Canny is a remarkable character, tough, smart, and a teenager in all her complexity.  The other characters are richly drawn as well from the intriguing Ghislain to the caring Sholto.  The contrast between Ghislain and his siblings and Canny and Sholto is starkly and movingly rendered. Knox also writes like a dream, her descriptions of the natural world are superb as is her elegant development of the different and twisty plot lines of the story.

Have I piqued your interest?  Are you frustrated that you have to wait till June?  I hope so. Because then you will go right now, I mean RIGHT NOW, and read the Dreamhunter Duet.  And then I hope you will agree with me that Knox is one absolutely fabulous writer.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds

The One and Only Diana Wynne Jones

Invited to be part of the blog tour celebrating the grand Diana Wynne Jones (here’s what I wrote last year upon hearing of her passing), I’ve had her works on my brain for the last few weeks.  And so how serendipidous to have a very odd and intriguing link present itself. I have no idea if Diana Wynne Jones had any interest in Dickens, for all I know she hated him, but I’ve been listening with unexpected pleasure to The Pickwick Papers (expected tedium and found hilarity) and was delighted and surprised to encounter the bagman’s story of the queer chair.

Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old, shrivelled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the whole chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms akimbo. Tom sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes to dispel the illusion. No. The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart.

That sentient piece of furniture made me immediately think of another one, the scruffy and cranky “Chair Person” (in her collection Stopping for a Spell), a story that is quintessential Diana Wynne Jones — some children have to deal with an irritating magical being within a very domestic situation — and one I’ve always found a great read-aloud for my fourth graders. For as much as Jones appeals to older readers, she was and is spot-on for younger ones like my students. Happily for those new to this delightful writer, the recently posthumously published Earwig and the Witch is an excellent introduction for these younger readers to her delightful and unique style. There is irritating magic, much domestic mess, and a complicated child protagonist. Others I’ve found to be great for 4th graders are Witch Week (one of the many fabulous Christomanci stories), Dogsbody, and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are many other older works as well including A Tale of Time City, one I have especially fond memories of reading so am thrilled that is being reissued so that I can  reacquaint myself with it and pass it on to my students.

As for her books for older readers, I get an enormous kick out of her Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which she absolutely perfectly and hilariously skewers trope after trope. Ramdomly opening my 1996 edition (as I can’t seem to find my copy of the more recent and terrific definitive edition) I find on page 60:

Coats  do not exist in Fantasyland— CLOAKS being universally preferred — but TURNCOATS do.

Take that George R. R. Martin!

Quirky, odd, remarkable — Diana Wynne Jones is not to be forgotten.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds

NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for Teachers

Betsy Bird recently posted about a fabulous NEH institute being held at her library this summer reminding me of these wonderful professional development opportunities, several of which I participated in years ago.  The first was a 6 week children’s literature seminar at Princeton University with the brilliant U.C. Knoepflmacher; it did much to change the direction of my life. A couple years later I did a folklore institute at Bank Street College (where I first met Jack Zipes) and then further on I did one more seminar on Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast at Rochester University with Russell Peck. (whose Cinderella bibliography is amazing)  All three were wonderful, intellectually stimulating, and life-changing experiences.

Among this year’s offerings is one I want to do very, very badly:  Golden Compasses as Moral Compasses: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fairy Tales and Fantasy, a seminar at Harvard with Maria Tatar.  Here’s the overview:

What happens to children when they read and immerse themselves in other worlds? In this seminar, we will investigate how imaginative literature leads children into possible worlds, enabling them to engage in mind reading and explore counterfactuals in ways that are impossible in real life.

They are going to be looking at fairy tales, fantasy literature (Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and literature across cultures. You can see the schedule in detail here.  It looks amazing and it is going to take all my will power not to apply (because I’m deeply into two book projects and will need every bit of the summer to write).

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Harry Potter

Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

Talking Animals: Realistic or Fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library raised an interesting question after I nominated Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat for the Cybil’s middle grade fiction catagory. Asks Charlotte, “… when is a book with sentient animals acting as Persons and effecting the course of human events fantasy?”

I immediately apologized, writing, “My bad. I’ve been thinking about Cheshire Cheese Cat in terms of Newbery and was focusing on age and content not genre. You are absolutely right.” It looks like the Cybils’ folks agreed because they’ve moved my nomination to the fantasy/science fiction section. But then Charlotte responded to my comment, “I think it’s a fuzzy line–The Underneath, for instance, ended up in straight middle grade when it was nominated a few years ago.”

And this got me thinking about the way we parse genre. I’ve been reading aloud The Cheshire Cat Cheese to my class because I thought it would work nicely with our current study of E. B. White’s three children’s books, all featuring talking animals. Now of those three, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan seem clearly fantasy to me with Stuart being the son of a human and Louis with his trumpet and interactions with Sam and others. But Charlotte’s Web? That seems a harder call. After all, the animals never talk to humans (although Fern listens which worries her mother) and seem very, er, animal-like, more like those in The Incredible Journey and Black Beauty (both mentioned by Charlotte), books where animals talk to each other, but otherwise seem very realistic.

The more I think about it I do think The Cheshire Cheese Cat is more fantasy as the animals interact with people, read, and do other very human-like things.  But Charlotte’s Web and other stories where the animals basically act as animals, don’t interact with humans (other than in the ways we expect in real life), and talk to each other?  I wonder.

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Filed under animal stories, Charlotte's Web, Fantasy

The State of Fantasy

I’m a fantasy fan and while I may not like everything out there I’m never going to complain that there is too much of it. My great thanks to Ms. Rowling for changing the US publishing landscape in that regard — BHP there was mighty little — many of my fellow gatekeepers preferred realistic fiction and so that is what mostly got published. And then there were others who had problems because it was against their religion (really).  So, first of all, hurray for the popularity of fantasy!  May it never wane.

Since I love the genre  I read a lot of fantasy books and have had in mind a few posts on some recently read books, but they are complicated (thematic rather than straight reviews) and I’ve yet to complete them.  Unfortunately, what with school looming and some other pressing projects to get done first, I fear that it may be a while till they see the light of day (or light of the Internet? Whatever). In the meantime, I figured I’d at least provide you with some recently published and forthcoming fantasy titles that I’ve read and feel are worth seeking out for yourselves. These are titles that my students and I liked, a few I’m especially mad for, others my students are mad for, and a few we are all equally mad for. Most would probably work for an upper-middle-grade-fantasy-buff, but a few are very definitely YA.  That all said, here you are, in no particular order:

Already Published

Coming Soon

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Troy Howell’s The Dragon of Cripple Creek

Dragons and gold. Done and done, right?  But how about a dragon in a Colorado gold mine? That is just where Troy Howell puts his in The Dragon of Cripple Creek, a uniquely American literary fairy tale.

It is the story of Kat Graham who grew up insisting on gold everywhere: golden bedroom walls, a gold-bedecked bed, gold shoes, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, a golden-colored pony named Goldie, and even — when she was four and into pirates — a broken front tooth capped in gold.  And so of course when gold-besotted Kat sees an ad for tours of the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine she won’t rest until she goes. The ad is on the side of the highway Kat, her older brother Dillon, and her father are on, heading to a new life in California, their old one in Ohio having collapsed completely after a freak accident put her mother in a coma and caused her father to lose everything.

Shortly after starting the tour Kat lags behind, takes one false step, and falls Alice-like deep into the mine. Bruised and bleeding she stumbles her way through the dark looking for a way out when she sees the glint of a gold nugget which she pockets. Shortly after that she comes upon something extraordinary — a living and smoke-blowing dragon. His name is Ye and he is, she learns, the last of his kind in the world.  Smart, erudite, and philosophical, Ye tells Kat what that glittery mineral she loves so much really is and the two of them forge a strong emotional connection. Despite this, Kat’s lingering love of gold causes her to keep that gold nugget hidden from her new friend even though she has learned from him that it is not hers to take.

Back on the surface, the media is out in force as everyone looks for the missing girl in the mine. And when Kat returns and is recognized, she and the gold nugget end up on television, setting off a raging twenty-first century gold rush. Horrified that Ye might be discovered and guilt-ridden that she has taken his gold, Kat is then determined to return the nugget to the dragon and keep his secret.

Filled with playful language, quirky characters, and plenty of excitement, this is a delightfully unusual tale. Like Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Millions, it takes on big topics and ideas — say the nature of greed and avarice as well as the contradictions and complications of wealth. And like Boyce’s story this one has a thread of sadness underlying the lighter moments. Witty and tender this highly original tale should engage a wide range readers.

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