In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest blogger: Adventure and peril in early chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It was an unexpected pleasure to read Grandpa's letter on trains.  Made me miss him all over again.  Thank you.

Classes end for the semester on Monday, so although I'll still be knee-deep in grading during finals week, I'll be back to blogging then.  Here's our last guest blogger for this round: my good friend Holly, mom of Eleanor's friend Ian, who has written for us before about outer space and map books:

I’ve just finished The Hunger Games, and it is no great testament to my cleverness to say that from the beginning I had high expectations that the heroine would survive, despite seemingly insurmountable odds to the contrary. However, for Ian, who is four and a half, reading books where a beloved character is in peril usually brings tears and certainty that they will die, despite all our best arguments and assurances. It reminds me of Eleanor worrying that the bad guy would win at the end of the Muppet Movie. How cool to be so new at all this that you really don’t know how it all turns out!

Maybe it sounds a bit cruel that I inflict this kind of suspense on my sensitive boy, but believe me he loves nothing better than a good swordfight. Also, if I have to read one more Beverly Cleary book, I’ll cry.

One of the first chapter books where we drag Ian onward a bit was How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell. The antihero, Hiccup, heir to the Viking Hooligan tribe, and his hapless friend Fishlegs, manage to be in danger of certain death on every page. The following is typical:

“I mean,” continued Fishlegs, “so far today we have narrowly escaped being 1. Torn to pieces by Skullions. 2. Eaten by Cannibal Outcasts. 3. Burned to death on board ship. 4. Drowned at the bottom of the ocean. … And now here we are, trapped in an inaccessible underground cavern facing DEATH BY SLOW STARVATION. … It’s just been a REALLY BAD day.”

Throughout the eight (yes, even the existence of sequels fails to reassure Ian) books they encounter dragons and villians each more [superlative] than the last. I was almost dissuaded from reading them by opening randomly to a page involving a character named SnotFaced Snotlout. There is a bit of gross out going on but the stories are fast paced, the characters flawed and charming and despite the swords, explosions, dragon fire, daring escapes and narrowly averted apocalypses no lives are lost (except one dragon -- I admit we edited that a bit).

The other series with great illustrations, fun characters and constant danger that we sailed through with Ian is The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Twin brothers and their older sister (who is amazingly cool) discover a Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. It opens up a dangerous and exciting world co-existing with our own where goblins, ogres and faeries try to gain control of the powerful book. Carried forward by the beautiful illustrations, we literally read straight through the series in a matter of days, despite one of the main characters being abducted by goblins and hung from a tree, etc. A few goblins do die actually, but I think I skipped that sentence -- kids don’t seem to bothered when bad guys die, but I sort of am. The future of the world is at stake, of course. Luckily, Mallory, the big sister, has a sword and the twins are brave and clever.

And you’ll have to take my word for it, everything turns out ok.

Thank you, Holly!

Love, Annie

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