The Dragon’s Tooth, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2011 by Random House.
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.
I was fairly interested in The Dragon’s Tooth when I started the book, hoping that the title would promise Actual Dragons at some point. I had liked 100 Cupboards enough to give Wilson a try again (especially if there was going to be dragons!). The beginning seemed pretty interesting, too, if fairly formulaic: unassuming young boy meets stranger, is handed a Mystical Object, and is almost immediately chased by Shadowy Figures.
It’s after that point when the book descended very swiftly into quirky fantasy territory, and my interest and excitement plunged with it.
Also, there are no dragons.
By the time Cyrus and Antigone got to Strange Base/Secret Lair/Pseudo Hogwarts, I knew that the rest of the book would be difficult for me to finish. Every person Cyrus and Antigone met sounded stilted, and the incomprehensible jargon and blather that was disjointedly thrown in to make things more mysterious and worldbuildy got annoying, fast. Cyrus makes odd decisions, overly eager at one point and overly cautious at the next. His squabbles with Antigone slow the pace of the book down and do nothing but create obstacles (as well as solidify Antigone as a useless character) for Cyrus to either obey or reject, depending on what the plot requires.
In addition, the villain is cartoonish and strange and almost too powerful, in the way where you wonder, if things are so easy for him to accomplish, why he hasn’t done anything before that particular moment in the book (like, if it’s so easy to get to Secret Base (I forgot the name), why in the world hasn’t he done it sooner?) Nothing about the world Wilson created makes sense, and things are poorly explained.
I think Wilson was trying to go for “quirky fantasy” and went way too far, taking “quirky” into “incomprehensible mess.” I actually don’t think I would have minded quite so much if there had been one less strange character, and especially if the villain hadn’t been so cartoonish. If the villain had been a serious villain, rather than what he was, I think I would have been able to stomach The Dragon’s Tooth a little bit better.
The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Pushed from his family’s nest by his older brother, barn owl Soren is rescued from certain death on the forest floor by agents from a mysterious school for orphaned owls, St. Aggie’s. With new friend, clever and scrappy Gylfie, he uncovers is a training camp for the leader’s own nefarious goal.
Guardians of Ga’Hoole was one of my favorite book series growing up. I don’t remember how I discovered them (maybe the first few were given as a Christmas gift?), but I ended up getting every single one that came out. My favorite part about them (at least, the first six) is the gorgeous illustrations that adorn the inside front and back covers.
It’s been a while since I’ve read them and a lot of details have escaped me, so it was almost as if I was reading The Capture for the first time (almost). From the beginning, Lasky develops the “owl culture” of the Ga’Hoole series, complete with slang, profanity, and detailed information about owls themselves (such as species, flying, eating habits, etc.). The world is a post-human world, populated entirely by animals and it seems the only “sentient” ones are owls (to be honest, I’m not sure it’s revealed to be post-human until later in the series…this book reads as straight up “fantasy animal world”).
The series, as far as I can remember, is divided up into multiple arcs, so The Capture sets the stage for the first arc. St. Aggie’s is introduced, with its penchant for brainwashing (“moonblinking”) and desire to obtain the mysterious flecks, more valuable than gold (it’s not obvious, but there are several clues in this book that the flecks are iron). The mysterious, mythical Ga’Hoole Tree and the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole are the hopeful destination and the incentive of the characters. And of course, our intrepid band of heroes are introduced: Soren and Gylfie, the main two characters for the majority of the book, and then Twilight and Digger, who join up with them at the end of the book.
The Capture is a good start to the series, introducing a lot, setting up the world, and leaving enough mystery to carry on to the next book. The world is a little odd to get used to, at first, and the characters are sometimes a little bit stilted in dialogue (perhaps due to the oddity of the world). The villains are straight-up cartoonish and melodramatic, and they’re not present enough in the book in order to really seem as a legitimate threat (although, granted, the biggest enemy in this book is moonblinking). However, a lot of good groundwork is sown here—The Capture is, at its heart, merely a set-up story for the world Lasky is going to develop throughout the series.
I’m excited to reread this series again because in my memory, I thought the series should have ended at book eight (possibly six, even), but Lasky continued, (presumably) due to popularity. I’m looking forward to rereading everything to see if, yes, I still think that way, or if there is some merit in the last half of the series. And, of course, I’m eager to see if I will still enjoy the series as much as I did when I was younger.
100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.
100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.
His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.
This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.
100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?
Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.
And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.
The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.
The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.
Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.
As you might expect from the summary, Pax is one of those animal separation stories that is meant to be heartbreaking and full of “I have to find my animal who’s like my friend/family!” moments, complete with tears and angst. It reminded me a lot of The Fox and the Hound, except if the hound was a boy and there weren’t years between their separation. I’m not a huge fan of animal stories that have animals with their own point of view, but I must admit that Pax has a very tolerable fox point of view, much more focused on accurate animal behavior and language than on making the animals seem like humans.
Pennypacker writes beautifully, so it’s a shame that the story has an obvious, predictable plot as well as some subtle-as-a-brick-in-your-face messages about war. The entire middle portion has Peter talking with Vola for pages and pages while Vola gives the message of the book over and over again in increasingly sentimental, nonsubtle ways. We get it, Pennypacker. War Is Bad. The name “Pax” for the fox told us that. I also noticed that while the perils of war were mentioned over and over (and over and over) again, Pennypacker offer no suggestions about how to bring about peace besides not fighting. It’s the same problem that plagued Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War—the message was encompassed completely into “Don’t fight because fighting is bad and destroys people/nature/animals. If you don’t fight, everyone will get along.” Sure…okay.
Pennypacker’s message also hangs on a poorly developed setting. What war is going on during the book? Where does the story take place? It obviously takes place in the US (coyotes), but where and when? The future? Also, why is it so easy for Peter to get access to a war zone? What kind of explosion severs a fox’s leg from its body so neatly that later the leg of the fox can be found, rather than it being mangled beyond recognition if it’s still there at all? Part of getting absorbed into a good book is knowing where the characters are and what sort of obstacle they’re facing so that it solidifies the story into your mind. Pennypacker clearly just wanted to write an anti-war novel featuring animals, so she didn’t seem to put much thought into setting beyond “let’s have some sort of vague war and the cute animals will distract from the utter nonsense of the setting.”
For a book about cute foxes, Pax was an annoying read, what with its over-the-top antiwar message (with no reasonable alternative given), its unbelievable and vague setting, and its too lengthy middle portion with Vola the Philosopher and Moral Voice. The actual animal point of view was well done, and the writing was beautiful, but the delivery, pace, and mechanics of the world were poorly done and poorly conceived.
The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.
I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.
The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.
The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.
Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.
I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.
“New Folks coming, Mother—Father, new Folks coming into the Big House!” shouted Little Georgie the Rabbit. All the animals of the Hill were very excited about the news and wondered how things would change. Would the new Folks bring dogs, traps, and guns? Or would they be planting Folks who would care for the land and grow rich crops? It had been years since there had been a garden at the House.
I feel slightly guilty rating Rabbit Hill this low, as I really didn’t dislike it at all. But the 3/5 rating has become my default, go-to rating, which I’ve realized is making distinctions between books harder to figure out. And I don’t think Rabbit Hill is on par with some of the other 3/5 books, Newbery or otherwise, that I’ve reviewed—plus I kinda thought the book was a little ridiculous once I finished it.
Basically, Rabbit Hill is a really nice, feel-good story about field animals wondering if the “Folks” moving into the farm will be good or bad for them. They discover, eventually, that the Folks are the best sort of Folks there are—lovers of animals, determined to let no trace of poison or traps or dogs cross their paths, with a communal idea of living.
Yet, I read the book, and immediately I thought, “Come on! This could never happen in real life!” Now, I know talking animals means that the books is already straying away from reality. But at the heart of the book, Lawson seems to be saying that the best way to farm is live alongside the animals surrounding your farm—more than that, he’s saying that you should go out of your way to protect and feed the animals. So, at the end of the book, the skunk and the fox are fed every night with the scraps the cook leaves out for them, there’s a statue where food is laid out for the rest of the animals so they never go hungry (and never take from the garden), the moles are free to burrow wherever they like, etc. It sounds good in a book about talking animals who can think and have a semblance of a governing body, but the wonder of the book is really lost when you’re an adult thinking how dumb the whole idea of a communal living like that is, and how fast it would fail in reality.
It’s probably a good thing the book is marketed for children, huh?
I still finds lots of wonder in many children’s books, but Rabbit Hill is one where adult sense gets in the way of the imagination. The whole concept Lawson is going for is simply ridiculous to me. It’s a great little farm story, but the concept falls apart as soon as the Folks move in. I would have much preferred to read a story where the animals team up to survive a more cruel type of person, rather than the utopia they ended up getting. Not a particularly enjoyable read for me—Rabbit Hill is definitely one of the weaker Newbery Medals.
When Great-granny Brown packed up and moved to the Women’s City Club in Boston, Miss Hickory was faced with the problem of spending a severe New Hampshire winter alone. This might not have been so bad if Miss Hickory had not been a country woman whose body was an apple-wood twig and whose head was a hickory nut. Also, if her house had been built of stronger material than corncobs, however neatly notched and glued together. This is the story of how she survived those trying months, in the company of neighbors like Crow, who was tough, wise, and kindly; Bull Frog, who lost his winter clothes; Ground Hog, a surly man afraid of his own shadow, and a host of others. It is a fantasy full of the peculiar charm of the New Hampshire countryside, seen from an angle which most of us, city-bound in the winter, know little about.
I’ve mostly liked and enjoyed all the Newbery Medal books so far, with a few notable exceptions (The Dark Frigate, *shudder*). Miss Hickory, unfortunately, falls on the side of the ones I didn’t like so much. It’s not that the quality is low or the messages are poor. I actually thought the message was quite good; there was a delightful little scene in the middle where Miss Hickory realizes the cost of hardheadedness.
My main problem with Miss Hickory is that the premise is strange (a living wooden doll existing alongside animals, with no explanation as to how she got there or as to why there isn’t any creature like her) and there is nothing that reconciles that strangeness, and the ending is downright creepy. Seriously, I read the end and almost couldn’t believe what was happening; there is also a rather frightening picture to go along with the event. If, as an adult, I feel creeped out by a book, how much more so would a child be frightened? I don’t think Bailey meant it to be frightening, of course, and the story does end happily, if strangely, but nevertheless, it was the wrong tone to end the book on.
Miss Hickory should have been like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years or similar, but the premise was too strange and unexplained (why does Miss Hickory even exist? Why aren’t there others like her?) and the ending was frightening. I enjoyed the book, I suppose, but it’s definitely not a standout nor is it a book I would recommend to anyone anytime soon. Not every Newbery can be perfect, but it’s still a little disappointing.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: None, unless you count the end where Miss Hickory loses her head and then her headless body walks around.
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Children’s
“You have seen through Great-granny Brown’s kitchen window how deep the snowdrifts are in New Hampshire. I’ll wager that there were days when you could not see through the windows. The winters are long and hard here, Miss Hickory. “
“What could one do?” she begged. She would not believe him yet.
“Don’t feel too badly, as if they had forgotten you,” he said kindly. “Ann has other matters than dolls to fill her mind now. Great-granny Brown was born and bred in New Hampshire. She expects you to be equal to any weather. You’ll have to move, Miss Hickory.”
Alcatraz Smedry has successfully defeated the army of Evil Librarians and saved the kingdom of Mokia. Too bad he managed to break the Smedry Talents in the process. Even worse, his father is trying to enact a scheme that could ruin the world, and his friend, Bastille, is in a coma. To revive her, Alcatraz must infiltrate the Highbrary–known as The Library of Congress to Hushlanders–the seat of Evil Librarian power. Without his Talent to draw upon, can Alcatraz figure out a way to save Bastille and defeat the Evil Librarians once and for all?
It was a little bit strange starting off this book because the format of it was so different. Tor completely revamped the series, giving them much better cover art as well as illustrations, and the style fits the books really well—but the change was still jarring to me.
However, once I got used to it, I was able to enjoy all the usual Alcatraz nonsense. The footnotes were hilarious, especially the detailed list of deaths he never wants to die, and the book itself takes a drastic swing towards the dark as Alcatraz recounts his final tale. The change in atmosphere is abrupt, as the book is much more of a downer story than the first four, but I thought the bleak nature of it balanced well with the humor.
It’s actually quite hard to fully talk about this book, as the ending is quite surprising and saying too much would be a spoiler. It might be the best Alcatraz book in terms of mechanics (meaning it’s less formulaic), and Sanderson really upends and even makes fun of the prior books and what goes on in them. I appreciate authors who deviate from formulas, especially those who are willing to poke fun at what they wrote. And the illustrations really help the overall “serious-but-not-so-serious” nature of the books themselves—they are a great addition to the series.
The Dark Talent takes the series into a darker, bleaker place, but is almost arguably the better for it. The new look to the series adds to the overall atmosphere, and this novel in particular is the perfect balance of funny and serious. Sanderson is particularly devious in his plot mechanics in this book, though saying more would be spoiler-ific. This may be my favorite book in the Alcatraz series.
The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, was published in 1983 by Doubleday (1979 in Germany).
This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself….The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place—by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic—and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.
The Neverending Story is a movie that I’ve heard referenced many times, especially in college. I’ve never seen it, and I had forgotten that the film was based off a book until I saw it at the library. I like fantasy, so I decided to give it a try.
The Neverending Story is a story-within-a-story, cleverly written with different colors of ink to represent two different worlds, and solely designed to have the reader imagine that they, like Bastian, are able to participate in Fantastica. Even the cover art was carefully chosen to match the description given in the book. It was quite clever, one of the more creative uses of the story-within-a-story trope that I’ve read. I feel like this is what Cornelia Funke was trying to get Inkheart to be like, except reversed (characters coming into the real world rather than humans going into the fantasy one).
I always enjoy protagonists who fluctuate a bit in likeability—like Johnny Tremain in Esther Forbes’s book of the same title. Bastian starts out as the passive protagonist, then switches to the active one—and along the way experiments with villainy as his power gets away with him. Ende does a remarkable portrayal of the corruption of power, as well as the way living too much in your imagination results in your real life slipping away from you.
There is some grand message to the whole book, of course, but I feel like it’s done rather well, without being laid on too thick. Either that, or it’s interwoven well enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s too much. Ende has a lot to say about imagination, and the role that the reader has in participating in the fantasy world, and the way readers shape stories.
The Neverending Story gets a little bloated at times—it’s a long book—but I enjoyed the character development, the way Ende visualizes the writing process and the role of the reader, and the adventure feel to the whole thing. Now, I guess I’ll have to watch the movie!
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“My life belongs to you,” said the dragon, “if you’ll accept it. I thought you’d need a mount for this Great Quest of yours. And you’ll soon see that crawling around the country on two legs, or even galloping on a good horse, can’t hold a candle to whizzing through the air on the back of a luckdragon. Are we partners?”
“We’re partners,” said Atreyu.
“By the way,” said the dragon. “My name is Falkor.”