Category Archives: Fantasy

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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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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Diana Wynne Jones: An Appreciation

One of the great, great, great writers of fantasy is no longer with us. For so many of us who love this genre, there was no one more esteemed than Diana Wynne Jones.  Not only did she explore a wide range of the genre, but she did so happily, wittily, intelligently, and most uniquely.  There was and will be no one like her. I haven’t read all that she wrote, but those stories of hers that I know and love tend to involve bumblings and mix-ups, domestic complications, cranky yet endearing magicians, and a completely original and wonderful view of the world.  In her stories,  the fate of the universe may be at stake, but humanity still blunders about. It is this endless imagination, creativity, wit, and warmth that make her one of the greats in my pantheon of writers of any genre.

I’m sure there will be many more articulate appreciations to come, but for those unfamiliar with the brilliant work of this woman, here are a few of my favorites.

For whatever reason one of my go-to comfort books is Howl’s Moving Castle. There is that marvelous floating castle filled with the sort of magical domesticity that Jones excels at.  There is a heroine I completely identified with — capable Sophie who spends most of the story transformed into an old woman. There is the wonderful Calcifer, a fire demon, and of course the remarkable wizard, Howl, one of the great romantic heroes of fantasy literature.  Smart, irritable, and ultimately capable too, Howl is a brilliant and utterly Jones’ hero. The plot is also typical Jones, complicated and intriguing and difficult to summarize so I won’t bother. Instead I urge you to read the book for yourself. The great Japanese filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, made a film version which is gorgeous, but very much its own thing, distinct from Jones’ book in numerous ways.  There are also two subsequent books with many of the same characters, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.

I’m just a tad too old to have encountered Jones as a child so it was as a young teacher that I first did by way of her divine Chrestomanci books.  While there is a chronology to the stories (the first being Charmed Life), I read them out of order and it mattered not a whit.  They are based around Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter, and often set in his castle where a sort of school for enchanters exists (long, mind you, before Hogwarths existed).  Also set in a magical educational environment are The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin, both of which show Jones at her most playfulness when it comes to fantasy land tourists.  And since tourists need guidebooks Jones saw to it that there was one — the hilarious and spot-on The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

I love reading aloud to my class “Chair Person” and “The Four Grannies” from Stopping for a Spell and loved, for their similar domesticity The Ogre Downstairs, Archer’s Goon, and Eight Days of LukeHexwood, more science-fiction-y than many of her works, is terrific too.  And I love knowing that there are still many I have not read.  It is reassuring that this extraordinary writer will stay alive for readers through her most wonderful and wondrous works.

Also at Huffington Post

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