A pig, dark riders, and heroes! Oh my!
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
First Line: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”
Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, is what every great kid hero ought to be. He’s got humble beginnings, fierce loyalty, and a little bit of a stubborn streak. This is the kind of book that even non-readers will plow through because it starts with a bang. By page four we’re hearing about the Horned King (he’s the bad guy–duh) and we’re gripped with fear. By chapter two, Taran’s already gone and started his adventure.
The pace is quick yet steady and Taran’s solo quest gradually turns into a band of misfits story. Even if the characters seem a little familiar to more experienced readers (i.e., one guy sounds an awful lot like Gollum), they’re still entertaining.
In a sense, this novel is the ideal Intro to Fantasy. It’s a little more rugged and action-oriented than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but it’s at a comparable reading level.
Even better–this novel isn’t some fleeting 21st century “bestseller.” The Book of Three is a classic–it’s definitely going to go through dozens more reprints and re-releases. Until then, this 50th Anniversary Edition is pretty great to hold.
Want to encourage a love of reading? Give a kid a lux hardback with gold leaf. Because yes, the cover matters. Cloth and buckram bindings make the reading experience rich and epic and better suit the King Arthur-adventure-hero vibe. From Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (this is book one), they can graduate to Narnia, then Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and eventually The Lord of the Rings.
Bottom Line: It’s fiction and “make believe,” but having kids read stories like this can still build character.
Count Your Blessings in 550 Pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
First Line: “I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations.”
Death is the narrator and this opening line (I confess, it’s not the opening line) is a comment on his occupation. “Here is a small fact,” he says. “You are going to die.”
This book is not for the faint of heart. (But it’s Nazi Germany–what did you expect?) There are some heavy events, but I agree with the publisher’s assessment: it’s suitable for those as young as twelve.
My ho-hum review on this read stems mostly from the title. Young Liesel’s adventures weren’t as daring as I’d hoped. She takes one book from a Nazi book burning. She steals apples a few times. I think her “book thief” nickname is somewhat forced. Her collection basically comes from sneaking into the mayor’s library, and they leave the window open and have hundreds of titles, so it’s not terribly tricky.
Zusak has created some very touching relationships, though, and that’s what kept me reading. While I don’t feel compelled to rant and rave about this title, Liesel’s foster parents, her best friend Rudy, and Max, the family’s stowaway Jew, are very memorable characters. It’s also neat to hear Death’s view on life and war.
Bottom Line: Try this book if you’re in the mood for something depressing and/or your English class has assigned a paper for the historical fiction genre.
More Questions than Answers, and Giggles Aplenty
Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket
First Line: “There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.”
First, let’s talk about print. You know you’re in for a treat when you pick up this book. The dust jacket is magnetic, a word which here means that the art looks pretty damn cool. Plus, it’s got Lemony Snicket’s name on it. We’ve learned that leads to something delightfully twisted. Turn the pages, and there’s a stunning white, black and blue scene depicted at each chapter heading. And octopus wallpaper for the inside covers! That’s the charm of print.
Now for plot. Snicket still maintains the quick, dry wit we love from his Series of Unfortunate Events. This time, however, the story is about himself. Snicket recalls his days as an almost-thirteen-year-old, fresh from an “unusual education.” He’s part of some mysterious society and has just become the apprentice of a woman with crazy hair. Together they travel to the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea to investigate a theft.
With each chapter, the reader’s questions pile on—Snicket’s background, the stolen item, and the town itself are all foggy. It can be difficult to figure out the truth when the narrator keeps commenting on his own “wrong questions” I’m still kind of at a loss for what constitues as a “right question.”
Semantics aside, Who Could That Be at This Hour? is an exciting beginning for Snicket’s newest series. Ages 8 and beyond will get a kick out of the snappy dialogue and character quirks.
Bottom Line: Don’t worry yourself with questions about this book, keep reading, and enjoy the whimsy.