Sunday, November 11, 2012

November Quick Picks: Middle Grade Magic

Here where I live it snowed and snowed the last few days, making me want to quote Winnie the Pooh. And to give you a handful of very cool middle grade fantasy books to read inside while it’s snowing. Or even if it’s not wherever you are—good books are perfect for a snowstorm or for a blue-skied summer day!

The Cup and the Crown by Diane Stanley

I liked The Silver Bowl, so I was pleased to get my hands on the sequel. Intrepid maid-turned-noblewoman Molly, who helped Prince Alaric in the last book, is going to help the boy who is now King Alaric by tracking down a magical loving cup that he wants to give as a bridal gift to the far-away princess he is to wed. Molly has some magic, and she has seen the cup in her dreams. Now she and a few companions, including her best friend Tobias, set out to find the cup. She finds more, though—a hidden city where her lost relatives live, second and third cousins. This should be a good thing, but it turns out the city of Harrowsgode does not let anyone go who comes there. What’s more, when the city fathers find out about Molly’s magic, they decide to add her to their pack of magic-makers whether she likes it or not. Now she has to escape, save her friends, and solve the mystery of the cup all at the same time.

This is a well-paced, satisfying story, and you really don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy it. A couple of plot points test credulity, but the whole flows so nicely that I really don’t think you’ll mind. Molly is a heroine to cheer for, and the discoveries she makes in this book build both her character and the story Stanley clearly plans to keep telling. Besides, any book with a hidden city, a clever rat catcher, kites, and magic should capture your fancy!

First line: The great hall was much as she remembered it: the tapestries, the massive iron candle stands, the enormous fireplace, the great gilt screen behind the dais.

Visit the author's website and find out more about the next book, The Princess of Cortova.

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz

Last year Gidwitz’s book A Tale Dark & Grimm made quite a splash—and the splash was the sound of an ax falling into a pool of blood. His second book is just as good, as long as you like your fairy tales with that traditional ingredient, horror. This book has more humor than the first one, mostly because of a frog who acts as part comic relief and part conscience (or at least the voice of common sense), a la Jiminy Cricket. We meet a boy named Jack who tries too hard to please the village boys, and then his cousin, a princess named Jill who tries too hard to please her cold-hearted mother. Also the aforementioned frog. Then a scary old woman promises the two kids their hearts’ desires in return for fetching her a magic mirror. This is all after an episode straight out of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And so it goes, with giants, mermaids, goblins, an enormous salamander, and the terrible Others all making an appearance.

I don’t know if I just got used to it with the first book, but the intrusive narrator didn’t bother me this time around. I did find In a Glass Grimmly a little more contrived, a little more messagey: the wizard behind the curtain is showing a bit here. However, this one is a more cheerful read, and I liked following Jack and Jill around the grisly realm of fairy tales. (Never fear—they do fall down a hill at one point.) Anyway, even with all of the blood and guts Gidwitz throws in, young readers will know the whole time that these two kids are going to make it.

First line: Once upon a time, fairy tales were horrible.

Watch the funny, visually stunning book trailer.

The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech

I’m trying to think how to explain this book, and I have to say it’s sort of a mix of Tuck Everlasting (the setting and tone), The Secret Garden crossed with A Little Princess (um, a different setting and tone that gets together with the first setting and tone and hangs out), and a dash of Jacob Have I Loved. Plus déjà vu. Naomi and her best friend Lizzie Scatterding live in a small American town with colorful characters like Crazy Cora, Witch Wiggins, and Mister Farley. Two strangers come to town, an elusive and appealing boy named Finn and an odd foreign man named Mr. Dingle. Meanwhile, an old woman named Mrs. Kavanagh and Miss Pilpenny across the ocean in Ireland are scheming to—well, it’s not clear what they’re scheming to do, exactly. But they’re the ones who sent Mr. Dingle to Blackbird Tree. As for Finn, he seems to have shown up by magic, and he may represent the quarrel that caused all the trouble for the two women in Ireland. Or he may be lost. Or magical. Or something. But Naomi gets jealous over Finn… and there are all these little statues of crows that seem to mean something. Not to mention a horrible fear of dogs.

This book is a strange jumble, but a likable one. Some parts of the plots are a little unclear, but I still liked The Great Unexpected. In fact, the way all these mysteries fit together is worth following. At the end, a few things are left floating in an Irish mist. But enough of it makes sense to leave readers happy. The book is perhaps more magical realism than flat-out fantasy—a whimsical, atmospheric story. As always, Sharon Creech knows how to tell a tale. And her language is just wonderful.

First line: If you have never had a body fall out of a tree and knock you over, let me tell you what a surprising thing that is.

Sharon Creech introduces the book in this video, reading from the beginning.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

This book is a National Book Award Finalist, and it’s got people talking. I’m always a bit dubious about that sort of thing. However, Goblin Secrets lives up to the hype—it’s beautifully told and has some wonderful world building, not to mention a nicely melodic theme of masks. Goblin Secrets is that rare creature, a steampunk novel for middle grade. Alexander’s genius is that he simply wraps the steampunk elements into the story, melding them so fluidly (or so clockworkedly) into the world he creates, which also has fantasy elements, that the whole thing feels complete and of a piece. So: Rownie is one of the children who lives with and serves a version of Baba Yaga—if the witch and her house had clockwork legs and chicken feet, respectively. In a city where the king won’t let anyone wear a mask and act in plays except maybe a troupe of goblins, Rownie’s older brother Rowan has gone missing. And he’s an actor. Rownie runs away from the witch Graba and joins the goblins, searching for his brother. Everything just gets more complicated from there, with plenty of magic, plotting, and a river threatening to flood.

I liked Rownie, and I liked this book. Alexander’s characters with their masks and secrets roam the fresh fantasy world he’s created like actors on a stage: the author has even titled the sections of his story Act I, Act II, etc. That stage is definitely one of Alexander’s strengths. The use of the clock tower and a train station are especially good. I highly and happily recommend Goblin Secrets.

First line: Rownie woke when Graba knocked on the ceiling from the other side.

Here's the author reading from the book. He seems really sweet!

Note: The book cover shown above is the older one. I like it better than the new one.

Update, 11-20-12: Don't take my word for itAlexander just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for this book. And it's his first novel!

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

More steampunk and deadly machinations, this time from a young writer named Stefan Bachmann. Like Alexander, Bachmann has a knack for world building. Mind you, I wanted to hold books like Eragon, also by a teen, against Bachmann, but to no avail. He's a very good storyteller. His alternate England includes hair-raising slums full of homely half-breed fairies, young changelings called Peculiars. Adults try to hide their Peculiar children from sight, and well they should: lately someone has been killing such children and throwing their bodies in the river with the insides missing. Yes, this is a dark world in many ways. It has a Privy Council that is being enthralled by an arrogant Sidhe lord incongruously named Lickerish. A young council member named Arthur Jelliby accidentally finds out about Mr. Lickerish’s diabolical plans and feels compelled to do something about them, albeit fussily. So does a young Peculiar named Bartholomew. Eventually the boy and the man team up. By then things are pretty dire since Bartholomew and his sister are at risk for being the next two bodies in the river. Certain problems are dealt with, but others remain, with a sequel obviously intended.

When I realized that this story included creepy Sidhe lords, I was afraid it would be predictable, but the author holds his own pretty well considering all those tropes about supercilious high elves. Bachmann blends the steampunk elements nicely into his tale, too, making The Peculiar another readable book for middle graders. Your child may find it a little too scary, but then, as Adam Gidwitz has pointed out, a lot of kids do like a horror element in their fantasy.

First line: Feathers fell from the sky.

Check out the book trailer. The author, who is now 18, composed the score for it because yeah, he's an underachiever. I actually like the intro trailer more because even though it doesn't have moving parts, the music includes the ticking of a clock, which makes it far more fitting as well as more intriguing to listen to.


Charlotte said...

I have yet to read Goblin Secrets...sigh. Nor have I read the Cup and the Crown. But I loved The Peculiar, and liked Through a Glass lots more than Gidwitz's first book!

KateCoombs said...

Charlotte--I think the first Gidwitz book was lacking in emotional appeal. This one nails it a lot better in that regard. Did you read The Silver Bowl? Stanley's books are shaping up to be a nice series. And you really should read Goblin Secrets! It's even better than The Peculiar, I think, though I really liked them both.

Unknown said...

I love middle grade novels. They are so full of adventure and fun! You have some really awesome suggestions here. Thank you for sharing these! Books for Kids

LinWash said...

I already have two of the books on your list: The Great Unexpected (read it and LOVED it) and Goblin Secrets (in the middle of it--incredible world building).

Yellow Brick Reads said...

I definitely want to read Goblin Secrets now. Excellent use of the word clockworkedly by the way. ;-)

Tammy Flanders said...

Great list. And, you've helped me out with a couple of titles I haven't come across and sound fabulous for the Doucette Library (curriculum library).
Thanks for your recommendations.
Apples with Many Seeds