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.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Griffins and unicorns and kraken, oh my!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your haiku summarization of the beginning of The Secret Garden is perfect, and gives me a new level of appreciation for the extreme condensing that some of these early readers provide.  (On a more adult level, have you seen these "ultra-condensed classics"? Some are pretty funny.)

Back in the world of unabridged chapter books, Eleanor and I have finished the Little House series.  We left Laura and Almanzo married and settling down on their own small farm, after a sweet, low-key courtship.  Our Little House sojourn has led to a number of chapter books piling up, and Eleanor's next pick was something totally different: middle-grade fantasy filled with mythological creatures and cliffhanger chapter endings.

I'm speaking of The Menagerie, the latest book by my friend-from-college Tui T.Sutherland, co-written with her sister Kari Sutherland.  Tui and Kari were in New York recently to promote The Menagerie at the great independent bookstore Books of Wonder, along with a number of other middle-grade authors, and we bought ourselves a signed copy there.  It turned out to be a terrific purchase -- Eleanor loves this book, and we swept through it in less than a week.

The plot: There's a secret menagerie filled with mythological creatures (unicorns, dragons, griffins, etc.) in the small town of Xanadu, Wyoming.  Before the story begins, six griffin cubs have just escaped, and their possible discovery in the town threatens the existence of the Menagerie.  There are two protagonists: Logan Wilde, a boy who's just moved to Xanadu from Chicago after his mother left him and his father, and Zoe Kahn, the youngest child of the family that has run the Menagerie for generations.  Logan stumbles into the mystery of the missing cubs, and finds an immediate connection with the animals, but struggles with the question of why his mother has abandoned him.  Zoe spends the book worried about saving the Menagerie: agents from a governmental agency tasked with overseeing mythological animals are due to inspect the premises, and the missing cubs are a huge problem.  There are a host of other characters, human and animal, and sometimes a combination of the two.

What I like most about this book, and about Tui's series Avatars, is the level of research that underlies the characters: each animal in the Menagerie comes from the mythology or folktales of a different culture, and the result is a kind of mythological mash-up.  There are windows into a wide variety of stories that a reader might pursue, from the phoenix to the kelpie (a Celtic water-horse spirit) and the kitsune (a Japanese fox spirit -- who knew?).  Several of the characters here suffer from enlarged egos, and the clashes between the phoenix and the goose who lays golden eggs are particularly funny.

The narration alternates between close-third-person chapters from Logan's and Zoe's point of view.  Both are appealing characters, of the observant quirky loner type I've always been fond of.  Logan is African-American, and there are sprinkled references to racial and ethnic diversity among the other characters: the school librarian, who may be hiding a secret herself, is Indian, and a variety of skin tones are mentioned.  There are a few too many mean-girls in the book for my taste: Zoe's older sister Ruby and adopted sister Keiko, her former best friend Jasmin, a host of mermaids.  That being said, both Zoe and her mom are down-to-earth, and Logan's mom, in absentia, becomes a really interesting character by the end of the first book.

Because yes, The Menagerie is the first book in a trilogy.  This came as a shock to Eleanor this morning when we reached the end, and only one of the many outstanding plot questions was answered, followed immediately by a dramatic twist and the words "To be continued...."  She was thrilled and frustrated in equal measure.  We're both sorry we have to wait until next March for book two.

The multiple cliffhangers throughout this book captured Eleanor's imagination all week.  Waking up, it was the first thing she asked for, and in the afternoons after day camp, she'd turn to me out of the blue and say, "But we still don't know who opened the gate to let the griffins out," or "What's going to happen to Logan?  He's right there, and the SNAPA agents are coming!"  A couple of times, when I had to pause in our reading to change a diaper or otherwise take care of Will, Eleanor read a full chapter on her own (putting the bookmark back where she and I had stopped, so that I would reread what she'd read and we could talk through the words and pop culture references she didn't know).  I love the way in which her independent reading is starting to dovetail with our reading together.

From her excitement over this book to the early readers and flashlight I found stashed under her pillow tonight, I have a feeling this is going to be an excellent reading summer.

Love, Annie

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