Dragonsong

By Anne McCaffrey

One of the great things about fantasy books is that it can make the transition into reading adult fare much easier on the young reader. In a lot of cases, authors who transition from YA fare to adult (or vice versa) aren’t changing much of their style – the only difference is the length. (I have a 600+ page YA novel on my floor that says young adults can read books over 300 pages, publishers!) Patricia Wrede falls into this category, and so does Anne McCaffery, who served as my indoctrination into the genre of fantasy.

Most times, children fall into books (possibly a series) in their early years and move into the adult books because they enjoy the author and have run out of “age appropriate” material to read. In my case, I went backwards; one of the librarians showed me Ms. McCaffery in the adult section and that was it. I tried to read every one, adult or not. Until very recently, I don’t believe I even realized Dragonsong was a YA book.

Dragonsong is McCaffery’s second series set on the Pern. The protagonist is a young woman named Menolly, who is a gifted musician and singer who is not valued by her fishermen parents. When her mentor dies and she cuts her hand, it looks like any dream she ever had of becoming a harper (musician) is lost. All this changes the day she runs away and discovers a clutch of fire-lizards, miniature dragons, who imprint on her and become her second family.

The primary antagonist of the Pern books is a vicious thing called Thread, a silvery, worm-like matter that falls from the sky and devours anything organic until there’s nothing left. Being caught outside during Threadfall is a death sentence, and this is exactly what happens to Menolly one day while foraging. Trying to out-run the Thread she is saved by a Dragonrider, who takes her to a Weyr (where the dragons and dragonriders live). From there, she is discovered as by the Masterharper himself, and it seems that her dream to become a Harper might become a reality.

This is, of course the first in the Harper Hall of Pern series; the first two books follow Menolly’s growth, and the last follows one of her friends in his maturity. Gender themes and coming-of-age abound in these books, but they strike the right balance. Menolly’s parents are believable, though you aren’t meant to like them, and for me that’s one of the most important parts. You don’t sit there and roll your eyes and feel like Menolly is a spoiled brat; you feel that she has been wronged and is right to get away. At the same time, you realize that her parents do love her, but they cannot understand her. To their too-practical eyes, her music is useless in a Hold where one needs all hands to deal with the catch.

McCaffery does well at keeping her characters real, and I love her depiction of Pern. I love a good world, and Pern is one of the best. Including the other series and standalones that center on the Dragonriders of Pern, McCaffery has created one of the best worlds I’ve ever seen, complete changes in the times, circumstances and technology.

Mind you, these books are quite old; most were published in the 1970’s. I read them in the 1990’s, 20 years later, and I still thought they were fantastic. Sometimes the old is the best, and McCaffery is certainly one of the major players in this genre, despite the age of her books. If this appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to read something possibly so dated, I suggest The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as some options for teens.

Recommended ages: 9-12+

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

To see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief here.

Percy Jackson returns in his second book, The Lightning Thief. Another quest, a new family member, and the return of old favorites.

Trouble is brewing in Camp Half-Blood again. The tree that keeps the Camp safe, Thalia’s tree, has been poisoned, and the camp activities direction, Chiron, has been accused of this travesty and been fired. Amongst all this, Percy is having dreams of his friend Grover, dreams that include conversations. Realizing they’re real, Annabeth and Percy realize that Grover has found the Golden Fleece, which can be used to heal Thalia’s tree. Requesting that someone be sent to find the Golden Fleece (and Grover), the new activities direction elects to send Ares’ daughter, Clarice, rather than Percy and co. Not about to be left behind, Percy, his half-brother Tyson and friend Annabeth to help their fallen friend.

If you enjoyed The Lightning Thief, you’ll love The Sea of Monsters. It has all the same trademarks of humour, wit, mythology, and action. Sea of Monsters is a fast-paced adventure, with a deadline (the demise of a tree), a recurring villain (Luke and Kronos), traps, interfering Gods, and tribute to various Greek gods, demigods, titans and monsters.

For children roughly 9-12, this is a great book for boys. If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll understand that it can be hard to find books for boys; when you find one, hold onto it and make sure they read it all. The Percy Jackson is great because it targets all the things boys enjoy which still being accessible and enjoyable for girls. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m going to throw in a quick recommendation to look up Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid). They are similar to the Percy Jackson books, only they focus on Egyptian mythology and feature a brother-sister team.

A Horse Called Starfire

By Betty D. Boegehold

I had a conversation at work the other day, telling my coworker about my blog and how hard it was to find materials for boys. “I feel bad,” I told him, “that my blog is primarily female-centric.” Because I am, in fact, a girl, using a lot of my own books as materials. “What about the authors?” He asked. “Are they primarily women too?”

I paused.

“I’m not sure.”

“Has it always been this way, traditionally? Have books always been targeted to women?”

His questions got me thinking about the demographics of the books on my blog, and I resolved to try harder to find materials that were written by men or for boys. I tried; really I did. And yet, I present to you A Horse Called Starfire. Umm, it has male secondary main characters?

The book is set in the early days of British North America, when Europeans were just starting to come over and explore, and the Native Americans were relatively isolated from the white man. A Horse Called Starfire tells the story of a golden horse, Estrella/Starfire, who crosses over from Spain. Her master dies in the New World and she is alone. Luckily, it isn’t long before she’s found by a Native American father-son duo, Lone Owl and Wolf Cub, who adopt her and take her to their village.

Not much to the story, really, but then, this book is designed to help young readers make the leap from picture books to real novels (quote/unquote). It’s a level 3, so the highest level of transitional novels. Interestingly, for such a high level, there are a lot of illustrations; every page, in fact. If pressed, I would say it reads more like a picture book with more pages and text. But the illustrations are beautiful, rendered in colour pencil. I remember liking this book as a child simply for the illustrations, which are almost breathtaking. Especially well-done are the background scenes.

This book is a tad outdated, especially for its Native American themes, with the father-son listening to the ground to tell them where the animals are, or Wolf Cub communicating with the spirit of the horse. You probably wouldn’t see much of that around nowadays, for better or for worse. Regardless, any little girl will love this book. What’s not to love, after all? It has beautiful illustrations, pretty ponies, and beautiful illustrations of ponies!

Boys might be a little disappointed.

Suggested reading age 6-9.

Smoky Night

By Eve Bunting

The story of Smoky Night is set during the Los Angeles Riot, and is from the point of view of an African-American child named Daniel. He lives with his mother and cat in an apartment building located in the heart of the riots. The main plot revolves around Daniel’s family and their apartment neighbour, an Asian woman (Mrs. Kim). This dislike is reflected in the way their two cats fight.

Smoky Night tells a story of racism without overtly touching the race button. The setting of the Los Angeles Riots provides an interesting backdrop that is easily overlooked if you are young and unaware of what the name “Rodney King” involves.

The artwork is incredible. The heavy oils on one page, and the scattered mosaic of random household objects or rubble on the other. It will be one of the things you remember most about this book.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Bunting, E. (1999). Smoky Night. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt More

East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 4)

By Edith Pattou

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The book is written from five alternating points of view: Rose, Father (Rose’s father), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. Each chapter gives a different point of view, and each takes the tale a little farther forward. At first I found this gimmick off-putting, but as the book progressed I found it helped the pace, keeping me engaged and racing for the end.

East gives us plausible characters, realistic scenarios and reactions, as well as a real and solid world setting. Even differing religions and folktales are given a place in East, which makes the religious studies student in me pleased. It is what I wished Ice had been. Some may find the shifting points of view and size off-putting, since East comes in at roughly 400 pages. The chapters are short, however, and can be picked off slowly. A good book for those that love fleshed-out folktales.

Suggested Ages: 9-12+

Pattou, E. (2005). East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The Last Dragonslayer

By Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer is set in an alternative-reality where most of the familiar things – companies, telephones, roads, cars and all the other things we take for granted – intermingle with dying magic. Jennifer Strange is a foundling (orphan), who is currently in charge of a magical employment agency that works to find a new field of work for obsolete magicians: home improvement. Everything is turned upside down, however, with the announcement of the impending death of the last dragon.

Fforde handles The Last Dragonslayer with his trademark British wit. It does lack some subtly in its break-neck pace. There are themes of environmentalism, evil corporations, don’t-trust-strangers, capitalism, and necessary evil. Given that this is a book for children, I can forgive the heavy-handedness, and really it can be easily overlooked.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Fforde, J. (2011). The Last Dragonslayer. HarperCollins.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

By Roald Dahl

One of the great classics of children’s fiction is the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Most of us know the story: Charlie lives with his parents and both sets of grandparents. One day, Willy Wonka announces a contest that sends five golden tickets around the world; the five children who finds a ticket will be able to enter on the appointed day and get a tour of the factory.

The brilliance of Roald Dahl lies, for me, in his ability to craft over-the-top, and yet somehow relatable, characters, both in the main character and the supporting cast.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not a long story, but it covers an incredible amount in its pages. Familiar motifs play out in the pages in a whimsical style. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has that elusive, coveted timeless quality, and is appealing to a large age range.

Suggested Ages: 5-12

Dahl, R. (1998). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Penguin Young Reader Group.

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East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 3)

By Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to part 3! Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.

The main protagonist is Cassie, who has been basically raised in the research station, where her father tags and researches polar bears. On her birthday, Cassie is paid a visit by a polar bear, and told that she was promised to him as a bride. Spirited away, she tries to make a new life as the bride of a bear.

This book contains a lot of new elements, as one must to flesh a children’s book to a full-sized novel. Bear is not a cursed prince but a magical being in his own right. The trolls have been changed; they are now a race of gelatinous, ever-changing, ethereal beings who want to live but do not know how.

The book started off strong, but ended with a whimper, leaving me disappointed. Read for the good ideas, but be warned it will likely leave you scratching your head.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Durst, S. B. (2009). Ice. Margaret K. McElderry Books

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Wildwood Dancing

By Juliet Marillier

Set in in Transylvania in the early 1500s, Wildwood Dancing is an adaption of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The novel is told through the eyes of Jena, the second of five daughters.

Wildwood Dancing is the first YA attempt from Juliet Marillier that would be excellent for a young teenager or advanced reader. It has an excellently crafted story with a well-shadowed but still surprising twist ending (for which I would recommend this book alone). It kept me engaged and wanting more the entire time I read it, and evoked real sympathy and empathy for the characters. The cover of the book well reflects what is inside the pages – a beautiful, complex story that is still, at it’s core, very simple and powerful.

Suggested Age: 9-12

Marillier, J. (2007). Wildwood Dancing. Random House. More

The Canada Geese Quilt

By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock

The Canada Geese Quilt is a young readers novel about 10-year-old Ariel. She lives on a farm with her mother, father, and grandmother, sketching the wildlife around her house. Then her mother announces that she’s pregnant, and Ariel’s life turns upside down. Will her family forget her, or not love her, with the new baby? Only her grandmother is her rock, giving her advice and listening to her fears.

Designed for young readers who are making their first foray into chapter books. Children on the cusp (or just past) the double digits will empathize with the main character. Most children will understand the fear of a new brother or sister, as well as the fear of losing a beloved family member. The main focus of this book is not the story, but the revelation of feelings that are new and strange to the reader that they will face along with Ariel.

Suggested Age: 6-9

Kinsey-Warnock, N. (1992). The Canada Geese Quilt. Random House. More

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