Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Book of Three



In my continuing series of entries about kids books I no doubt should have read before but somehow never did, I give you Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three.

One of the perils of growing up reading in a small town peopled largely by non-readers is that there's no one to tell you about stuff like this. I had never heard of Alexander until Disney's The Black Cauldron, which was released the year after I graduated high school and which held no interest for me.

I never went back to see what I missed—I was too busy reading stuff for classes and, if memory serves, buckets of horror stories. Clearly, I was too grown up to read kids books (I'll pause here for all of my friends and every teacher I ever had to stop laughing).

Even though I heard these books mentioned as “classics” when I worked in bookstores, somehow they just never caught my attention. Which is a terrible shame, because as much as I enjoyed reading the book today, as a kid, I would have been over the moon.

Alexander's take off of Welsh mythology is staggeringly good: adventurous, scary, sad, and funny. It's everything I ever looked for in a book as a kid, and the formula works quite well for me still today. Sure, some of the tropes (lowborn boy with big ambition, kids who are more than they seem, ultimate good versus ultimate evil, magical weapons that only work for their rightful owners) are now so overused they don't carry the same weight. But if everything else is good enough: the story, the characters, the way the story is told, then the book sings, regardless of how familiar you might be with those tropes.

If you like tales of knights, magicians, good, evil, and hidden power, check out this opening chapter in the adventures of Taran of Caer Dalben, Assistant Pig Keeper of a most unusual pig named Hen Wen.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Frindle



Books are magical things, but sometimes that magic can be a little shaky, especially for books aimed at kids. If you read the book as a kid, the magic will work and you'll fall in love with the story and that will be one of your favorite childhood memories. But if you missed it as a kid and try to go back and fill in the gaps as an adult, or even if you pick up a childhood favorite you haven't read since you were small, you may find that you're no longer able to suspend disbelief the way you were as a kid. Plot holes jump out at you, or the story itself or the language used to tell it is so simple it can't hold your interest. But if you're lucky, the book is good enough and your disbelief-suspending muscles are strong enough that the magic still works.

While going through the kids books at the library, I saw a book called Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements. It sounded interesting—teenager wakes up invisible, tries to both live with it and figure out why—so I checked it out and gave it a try. It was a good book: well-written, believable characters helping to make an impossible plot-line plausible. So I poked around to see if we had anything else by Clements, and as it turns out, we did. I looked at the available titles and picked up the one that sounded the most interesting: Frindle.

Frindle is the story of fifth grader Nick Allen, a smart kid with lots of ideas, and Mrs. Granger, the language arts teacher who loves the dictionary. They collide when Nick learns how dictionaries came about and invents a new word; instead of a pen, he now uses a frindle. Everyone starts using the word, Mrs. Granger starts punishing those who do, and the whole thing grows way beyond anything Nick ever expected.

It's a really quick read--fast and funny. Clements has a gift for capturing the worldview and speech patterns of elementary school kids. Nick is a great character: smart and funny and believable. Mrs. Granger shines, too—instantly recognizable, a little intimidating, and ultimately delightful.

Clements does an excellent job in making neither Nick nor Mrs. Granger the villain of the story. Kids will respond to Nick's big ideas, and adults (especially bookish adults) will respond to Mrs. Granger's love of words and her fierce dedication to their importance.