Category Archives: Fantasy

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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It’s a New Session at Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood

I can only tell you that the people who have read “The Lost Hero,” my kids, the editor, my agent actually told me that they like this even better than “The Lightning Thief.”

So says Rick Riordan about The Lost Hero, the first book in his new Heroes of Olympus series and today millions of eager young fans will be able to see for themselves if his kids, editor, and agent are right.  For those who don’t yet know, kids really, really, REALLY love his Percy Jackson series and have been eagerly awaiting this new one.  Many of them have already checked out the new book’s website, read the first two chapters, are planning to see Rick on his book tour, and be part of today’s series of webcasts (in which Rick promises to reveal some big news).

At a virtual press conference last week Rick told us that the story takes place right after the close of the previous series and we will be seeing Percy and friends again.  Evidently Hera is going to make trouble and Festus may too. There are three new main characters who will be telling the story together — three narrative strands similar to the two Rick employed in The Red Pyramid. Here are a few more tidbits from that press conference:

The new series, the Heroes of Olympus really allows me to cover some of the Greek and Roman myths that I haven’t been able to talk about. There’s so many. I mean after five books in Percy Jackson I thought that I would pretty much have covered everything but the mythology is just so deep the more I get into it the more I discover and the more I remember. And there were just so many stories I couldn’t – I couldn’t get into the first series. Plus Greek mythology really has some built-in sequels to the story that I told in the Percy Jackson series. So it seemed only natural that I would follow-up with that content. And it gave me a different view of Percy Jackson’s world too.

I know the series is often touted as a series for reluctant reader boys. And that’s great because I have reluctant reader boys at home and I’m perfectly satisfied to have the series promoted that way.

But when people say it’s a series for boys I know that a lot of my female readers get very annoyed with that because there are a lot of them and they’re quick to say this is not just a boy’s series. And you see that right away if you go to one of my events I mean invariably the audience is exactly 50/50 boys and girls.

It [Roman Mythology] is something that’s addressed much more in the new series, The Heroes of Olympus and it allowed me to explore this idea that is first put forth in “The Lightning Thief” that the gods follows civilization around. They’ve jumped from Greece to Rome to Europe to the United States.

With The Kane Chronicles and this new series the man has his hands full, committed to writing two new books a year. Can he pull it off?  Given his track record I’m very hopeful.  As an adult fan of both series I must admit I too can’t wait to begin reading The Lost Hero.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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Author’s Intent vs Reader’s Take

There is a fascinating discussion over at The Book Smugglers about Jackson Pearce’s YA fairytale reworking of Red Ridinghood, Sisters Red. The bloggers present clearly and compellingly why they were dismayed by the text while the author in the comments indicates that her intent was just the opposite.

(via Finding Wonderland)

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Coming Soon: Jonathan Stroud’s The Ring of Solomon

Farquarl had been rubbing it in for hours.  During the entire clear-up operation he’d been on at me, in fact, even while we’d been digging the burial pits, even while we’d been piling up the camels and trying to get them to light.  He’d never stopped the whole time.  It had ruined my afternoon.

The news that there was a Bartimaeus prequel in the works had many of us barking wildly.  Not to mention panting excitedly when we heard an excerpt at an ALA Disney-Hyperion fall preview. As there were no ARCs available and having plenty other great stuff to read I figured I’d be a good girl and wait patiently till November.  But then, out of the blue, I received a package from some kind folks at Disney-Hyperion. Ripping it open I discovered something that made me howl with enthusiasm. (Okay, no more dog stuff, I promise.)  Yep, it was an unedited version of The Ring of Solomon. (Not sure what unedited means as it seems pretty polished to me.)   Would I be jealous of me?  Yes I would. Big time.  Would I still want a spoiler-free taste of what is in store? Yes I would.  So here goes.

As Bartimaeus told us in his footnotes in the previous books, he had a long and checkered career serving a variety of magicians over the eons. (And by the way, he’s got a blog. It is brilliant.) This is one of those stories (and I sure hope not the last).   On the very first page we encounter Bartimaeus being his familiar self — snarkily shapeshifting and voiceshifting (Stroud’s switching from first to third person and back again as our djinni changes form) as he interacts with his master, a shrewd old magician.  It is 950 B.C.E.  Jerusalem and  Solomon is the king.  Soon we meet a young woman named Asmira who is a worthy new heroine, many bad things, and an engrossing new story. Oh, and a ring.  That does a lot and is, needless to say, fiercely desired.  And you know about those magical rings, don’t you?  This isn’t that one, but it is mighty powerful in its own right.

One of the themes of the book is a consideration of blind devotion versus slavery.  While Stroud may not have intended this it made me think about contemporary politics — particularly the nature of extremism, being raised to think a certain way, to consider self-sacrifice on behalf of a charismatic leader versus a leader doing the self-sacrifice, and the concept of enslavement.  But don’t worry — it is first and foremost a grand adventure, filled with magical beings, the wonderful Bartimaeus, excellent writing, and cleverness galore.

You’ve got a treat in store, I can tell you.

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Kurt Scaletta’s Mamba Point

Mambo Point is the story of twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle who moves to Monrovia, Liberia in 1982 when his dad gets a job at the US Embassy there. A highly anxious kid, Linus hopes for a chance to reinvent himself in a new place (something I, an academic brat who moved frequently as a child, totally identified with).  When they first arrive the family has a dramatic encounter with a black mamba snake, mambas being among the most deadly snakes of the region. Once in their new apartment Linus sees a black mamba everywhere. He then learns about kasengs, a belief that people can have special mysterious connections to animals. As the story goes on it appears that this is the case with Linus and his black mamba.

Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Sierra Leone a few years before this story takes place and having spent my 7th grade year on the fringe of US embassy culture in Germany I can say that those aspects of the setting are very authentically rendered. From the houseboy (as offensive as the term sounds that is what the household servants were called when I lived in Sierra Leone) to the curio seller and the music of that time and place, Scaletta’s 1982 Monrovia felt remarkably like my 1976 Freetown.  I did wonder about the parents seeming lack of interest in the local culture, but as I think about it I recall that sort of situation both in Sierra Leone and in Germany.  That is, US Embassy staff in both 1965 Germany and 1976 Freetown were highly isolated from the countries in which they resided.  In both places I recall a great effort to replicate America as much as possible.

Linus is an appealing protagonist and the interactions with “his” snake are gripping as are his complex relationships with his older brother and the few other kids he encounters.  There is a lot going on the book — cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings, some incredibly exciting and dramatic scenes, magic of the African sort, peer and sibling relationships — a powerful coming-of-age story.  An interesting,  compelling, and different read, well worth checking out.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Mashups

Dear Gatekeepers,

Where are the new genres?  If you feel compelled to place a book into one, why use the old ones?

On this Heavy Medal post, Cindy comments:

I’ve been sharing the medal winners and honor books with my students and have come across the same issue with When You Reach Me. According to the definition we use (takes place at least 30 years prior to date of publication), it does qualify as historical fiction. Since I was only a couple years younger than Miranda in 1979, it doesn’t feel “historical” to me. However, because of the time travel element, we probably wouldn’t offer it for either historical or realistic fiction assignments.

Or what about the Scott O’Dell winner, graphic novel The Storm in the Barn with its mix of fantasy and history?  J. L. Bell is dubious.

Not to mention other Newbery honorees, say the 2008 one.   Commenting on an earlier Heavy Medal post by Nina, Jonathan wrote:

I am leery of counting CARVER and GOOD MASTERS! as informational books. Yes, they both use poetry in service of history and the latter, in particular, is a hybrid of poetry, monologue, and nonfiction, but I worry that too many people like to list these as nonfiction because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” In other words, isn’t it lovely to have something to make those dry facts not so dry?

How about the loveliness of new genres?  Why, when everything else is merging and shifting and changing, are we still using categories that don’t work?  I just love the way Stead, Nelson, and Schlitz mixed and melded a whole bunch of genres into delicious new ones.  If it is so critical to tag them with particular genre names, rather than forcing them to be what they aren’t can’t we generate and advocate and come up with new ones?

Sincerely,

One of you (a gatekeeper too)

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Is this Year’s Scott O’Dell Winner Historical Fiction?

I was delighted to see Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn win this year’s Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction. Since historical fiction is of particular interest to me and since I  was wowed by the book from the get go, I found  J. Bell’s argument that it is not historical fiction most interesting.  He concludes:

I see The Storm in the Barn as a fable that’s set in the Dust Bowl, just as Edward Eager’s Half Magic is a fantasy set in the 1920s. Both books are informed by their historical settings, but that doesn’t work the other way around: they don’t offer a reliable view into history.

I can’t agree.  I felt the anguish and pain communicated in Phelan’s work was not unlike that in Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the Newbery verse novel, also about the Dust Bowl.  In Phelan’s case, he took historical material, vividly presenting the historic suffering, and then played with a fantasy resolution for the immediate situation confronting that community.  I think Phelan does give a sense of what individuals and communities were dealing with at that time just as Hesse does in her book. The specific resolution is poignant since clearly there was no such thing in real life — something I an confident child readers would understand.

On the other hand, while Edgar Eager does indeed set his tale in the early years of the 20th century, I don’t see that as particularly significant as far as the story goes.  And the going-back-in-time-adventure to that of Camelot seemed to me to be Eager playing with the child protagonists’ reading material, using some widely familiar tropes of readers at the era in which he was writing (1950s)  to put the four siblings in perilous situations from which they need to extract themselves (as was the case with his inspiration, E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet).  I remember reading this book over and over as a child and later aloud to my classes as a young teacher — never did I consider the historical aspects of the adventures as they were not central to the theme of the book (arguably “be careful about what you wish for”).

As for me, a fable points to a specific moralistic message and I  don’t get that with Phelan’s story.  That is, I don’t see it as a cautionary tale, pointing out things we today could do to avoid what happened in the thirties.  Rather I see it very much as historic, giving us a sense of the feeling of that time for one child, one family, one community.

It seems to me that there is a very long continuum as to what is historical fiction. At one end is the book I’m working on, about a child on the Amistad.  In order to make it more accessible to child readers I went from telling the story as nonfiction to fiction; however, it is mostly based on the facts of the time and event.  It is in first person with emotions and scenes that I made up.  So it is pretty close, as close as I could make it, based on fact throughout.  At the other end of the continuum there are works like Eager’s where the history is background and serving the tale not vice versa.  And in the middle, veering more to one end or the other, are works like The Storm in the Barn, groundbreaking ones that open the way for more innovative presentations of historical times and places.

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