Category Archives: fantasy

Guest Post: John Claude Bemis, author of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky

Today’s post is a treat.  A guest post written by John Claude Bemis, writing about his latest novel, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.  I will post my own full review of the book soon, and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s about from his post, but I will say for now that I really enjoyed this moving, thoughtful book.  It’s hard to categorize–a good choice for fantasy lovers, animal book lovers, kids who enjoy family stories, and even younger fans of dystopian novels.  What stood out to me was how strong the characters were, how “real” their emotions felt to me, and I think John’s post below will help explain why.  When a writer loves their characters, it’s natural for us as readers to love them as well.

John Claude Bemis writes:

I’m a nice guy.  Really!  I snuggle up with my daughter and read Mo Willem books to her.  I don’t bark at my students when they talk out of turn.  More than that, I’m always there for them with hugs and kind words.

But get me behind my laptop and I can be downright mean.  A writer has to be mean to his main character.  It’s a funny thing.  You grow to love your main character, you desperately want him or her to succeed, but to make for an exciting story, you have to throw every terrible thing their way…and enjoy doing it.  Sadistic, isn’t it?

The main character of my new novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky is a bear named Casseomae.  She’s an outcast among the other forest animals because all her cubs have died at birth.  The animals whisper that she’s cursed or a witch.  Casseomae longs for cubs of her own.  She’s a sweet old thing, but tough and powerful and scary when she needs to be.  I deeply love her.

So why did I have to be so mean to her?  Why not fill the forest with generations of her cubs?  Why not spare her from her lonely existence?  Because she wouldn’t be a very interesting character, that’s why.

When the idea for Casseomae’s character came together in my imagination, I wanted something good for her.  I wanted her to find happiness.  I knew if I gave it to her too easily, I’d have a sappy, boring story.  So I gave her first the possibility of happiness in the form of a human boy.

Casseomae lives in a future where there are no people left on Earth.  All the animals of the forest however have legends about us and most aren’t too pretty.  When a spaceship crashes and the lone survivor emerges, Casseomae is faced with a choice.  Kill the boy, as she knows the ruling wolves of the forest would demand.  Or protect him from the animals that want humans to stay gone.  She decides to protect the boy, but I didn’t give her the happiness of a cub yet.  She has to earn that through the story.

Being a writer is like being one of those trickster gods from myth.  Those gods who stir up trouble, up-end people’s lives, take away what they love most.  But in the end, those trickster gods bring a lot of good to their victims.  I might have to begin a story being mean to my characters, but it’s for their own good.  I want Casseomae to grow and transform.  I want her to be happy.  But I can’t just give that to her.  That would be boring.  She has to work for it.

And work for it she does.  In The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, Casseomae faces unbelievable odds to protect her “cub.”  And I love her all the more for it!  I hope you will too.

Bio:

John Claude Bemis is the author of The Clockwork Dark, a fantasy adventure trilogy that takes place in a mythical America. The first book, The Nine Pound Hammer (Random House), was described as “a steampunk collision of heroes, mermaids, pirates, and good old-fashioned Americana” by Booklist and was a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book 2009 for Reading and Sharing.  The trilogy continues with The Wolf Tree and The White City and has been described as “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.”  His new book The Prince Who Fell from the Sky was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2012.   John lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.  http://www.johnclaudebemis.com

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Filed under animal books, dystopia, fantasy, fiction

Hunger Games for Youngsters, Part III

So, I’ve been asking this question, in various forms, to various people (kids, teenagers, adults):  “Should 5th graders read The Hunger Games?  Should they see the movie?”  They are reading it, in huge numbers at my school (in my last class of 20 5th grade girls, 11 had read it and 4 had seen the movie, and that seems like a pretty typical breakdown), but should they be?

Here’s an attempt at summarizing and analyzing what I’ve heard.

1.  Reactions from the younger kids themselves

The 5th and 6th graders who have read the books are not disturbed and upset by them, on the whole.  A few girls have said that they were a little disturbed, but for the most part, they are not having trouble.   I think the kids who would have trouble, and I’m sure there are many, are steering clear of the book, either by their choice or parental choice.  I’ve had a few kids ask whether they should read it, while sending me a very clear unspoken message that they want me to steer them away from it.  They are feeling pressure from peers to read it, though.

The peer pressure element is interesting.  It has come up in several conversations.  One girls said her brother (also in 5th grade) had begged her to read it.  A seventh grader said, ” My sister [5th grader] read it because it was the popular thing to do.  It’s like a peer pressure thing.  It’s not pressure, but it’s the thing everyone is doing.”  I’ve heard a LOT of “You HAVE to read it!” declarations from 5th graders to other 5th graders.

Here’s what I think about these kids reading the book:  I think that the horror of the premise (kids killing kids?  are you kidding me?) is beyond most of the younger kids reading this book.  It is so out there, so fantastical, it isn’t real.  They aren’t scared or freaked out by it because it’s more like reading about Lord Voldemort than about something that might possibly happen.  While I tend to read dystopian fiction as a sort of warning about what might happen in the future if we aren’t careful, these kids read it as pure fantasy.  They love the action and suspense of the book, and don’t really think too much about the premise.  I’m sure there are ones who do “get it,” but I haven’t talked to any young kid who expressed any sort of horror.  It has been all excitement about the action.

The movie is a different story.  I got really mixed reactions on that.  Obviously, since it just came out, I have a small sample size to work with, but there are kids who love the movie and kids who have been upset by the movie.

The most interesting comment I got was from a 5th grader this morning, a girl who had loved the book:  “When you read the book, you can visualize it in the way you can handle it.”  (I asked her to clarify, and I didn’t write down her exact words, but she basically said that you only imagine what you can handle, that your brain protects you from picturing something you can’t cope with.)  She said she had watched a youtube video of the scene from the movie where Rue dies, and said, “I was freezing cold for like the next hour.  I forgot that it was fake.”  That’s a pretty common reaction to trauma.

I also heard variations of, “It’s fine, unless you get freaked out easily.  If you get scared by Pirates of the Caribbean or Mission Impossible, you can’t read it or watch it.  If you can handle violence, you’d be fine.”  Lots of kids talked about how the movie doesn’t show the worst violence.  “It doesn’t focus on the killing.   It’s more focused on before and after the killing.”  One boy said, “One point in the movie was more violent than the book [the part with the wild doglike creatures].  I heard a bunch of people scream, and one person started crying.”  I asked if he was scared, and he said no.  A colleague wrote, “The violence was not gratuitous and could have been much more gory and explicit, but it was still pretty rough at times (as evidenced by the bawling 10 year old sitting next to us during a death scene).”

A few kids talked about vastly preferring the book because of how the book gives you Katniss’s thoughts.  “I thought it was really good, but they left out some major parts and a lot of the book was from Katniss’s brain’s point of view, and they couldn’t really do that.  I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much because of that.”  One boy talked about the book being a more “full” experience than the movie.

One girl said, “I hunt, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  I see this stuff, so it wasn’t a big deal.”  This comment really highlights to me how these kids aren’t seeing it as realistic at all.  I don’t think this kid would think it was “no big deal” to see an actual human killed, but the gore didn’t bother her because she has been exposed to gore via hunting.  The characters are more like animals than actual people.

2.  Reactions from slightly older kids (grade 7 and 8)

I was really surprised by the conversation I had with four of my book club kids.  Three are in 7th grade, and one in 8th.  These are hardcore readers, and all of them have read and really enjoyed the book, and three had seen the movie.

Asked whether 5th graders should read the book, three of them were emphatic that younger kids should NOT read the book.  One said, “It’s too violent.”  But then another said, “I don’t think it’s too violent, but the concept is too. . . mature.” The first agreed, “Yeah, not too violent.  Too mature.”  For these kids, the premise is not complete fantasy.  It’s disturbing to think about kids killing other kids, to think about a future and a government that would involve something so horrible.  And since they get how sick it is, they don’t want little kids reading it.  “I would NEVER let my brother [4th grade] read it.  NEVER.”

I’ve seen this before with other books.  Kids can be very protective of younger kids, of that innocence.  I think that for many 7th graders, there’s this sense of yourself that has come where you feel like you just aren’t a kid anymore, that you have lost some level of innocence.  And there’s a nostalgia for it.  The 5th grader wants very much to be older and read the books for older kids, and the 7th grader realizes that they can never be little again and kind of longs for that time.  (Of course, there are also ways in which the 5th grader wants to stay little, and the 7th grader wants to be in high school!  It’s hard to be that age!)

But here’s where I was surprised.  I asked about whether 5th graders should see the movie, and the responses flipped!  The one kid who had said yes to the book said, “No, no, no!  Not the movie.  The movie is too gross.  Too much blood for a 5th grader.  I would never take my brother [4th grade] to that movie!”  And the three who had been adamant that kids should not read the book were completely fine with the movie.  “The movie is fine.  My brother in 4th grade saw the movie, but I wouldn’t let him read it.”  They talked about how the movie cuts away from the really violent parts.  “It would not be rated PG-13 if it was violent.”  And listen to this: “If you’re reading the book, you imagine stuff in your head that’s not in the movie.”  The 5th grader above expressed the same sentiment, only for her, it was a gentler version in her head.  For the 8th grader, it was worse!

3. Reactions from older kids and adults

“Don’t take your daughter to see the movie.  It was too intense for my sister [6th grade].”

“We just got back from seeing [the movie] and I would be hesitant to bring a pre-teen to see it.”

“It was too much for 5th grade.  I wouldn’t let my 5th grade daughter read it or see it.”

“[Husband] and [13-year-old son] thought the violence in the movie was not bad; [10-year-old daughter] and I thought it was far worse in the movie than in the book. I wondered if the male gender imagines and sees violence in their head more than we do?”

“I thought the violence was well played because it was quick or more audio than visual or so blurry you couldn’t tell who was winning in hand to hand combat.   The whole premise of the book is that the games are not a good thing and even more than the books, the movie stressed the overall hatred for the violence of the games.”

“I do not think that kids are able to wrap their brains around how absolutely sick and twisted the underlying theme of this book is. The plot is so upsetting and disturbing to me that I had a hard time reading the first two chapters. My opinion is that adults are able to see how demented it truly is and can read it for what it is worth. I think kids (sorry to generalize- I know there are PLENTY of teenagers do not fall into this category) are not mature enough to comprehend how deeply disturbing the plot is, but are hooked on the characters, the excitement of the ‘games’ and the suspense it all brings.”

Overall, adults are all over the place with their opinions.  Some have been super excited to take their own kids to the movies and are anxiously awaiting the next installment.  Some are absolutely horrified by the fact that kids this young are reading the books and seeing the movie.  Most would say, “It depends on the kid.”

Which I will end with, because that’s very much how I feel about it!  It absolutely depends on the kid.

Time to find something else to obsess about!

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Filed under dystopia, fantasy, fiction, science fiction, suspense, Uncategorized

Guest review: Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder

I’d like to sometimes change things up a bit on this blog and include reviews written by actual middle schoolers.  Here is the first of what I hope will be many guest reviews!

Guest Review by Claire H., 5th grader.

I loved Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. It is one of my favorite books of all-time. The book is about a girl named Rebecca, whose mother decides to leave her father, taking Rebecca and her little brother, Lew, with her to stay at their Gran’s house. On her first day there, Rebecca goes into the attic to get away from her mother and while she is there, finds a collection of old breadboxes. There is one in particular that sticks out to her because it is clean, unlike the others. She soon realizes that the breadbox is magical, whatever she wishes for will appear inside the breadbox, as long as it can fit inside. Rebecca struggles to figure out the true meaning of life and the breadbox in this novel.

I liked this book because it is something that, because I am a kid, is nice to see from a kid’s perspective. I really like books about girls like Rebecca, who have a hard time, and this book really fit into that category. It is also really suspenseful, which I like in a book. I finished the book in only two days, I couldn’t stop reading. It is a real page-turner.

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Filed under fantasy, fiction, realistic fiction, suspense, Uncategorized

Buzz Books (aka, My To-Read List)

Part of my job is reading reviews of books and following the blog buzz about which books are favorites to win awards (like the Newbery Medal, the Sibert Medal for kids’ nonfiction, or the National Book Award).  I don’t have the time to read everything I want to read, but with two weeks of holiday break approaching, I am putting together my To-Read List, based in large part on the buzz surrounding these titles.  Anything here is pretty much guaranteed to be well-written.  It might not appeal to a particular kid’s taste, but you needn’t worry about any of these books being awful!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This one has been on my list for months, and I hope to read it soon and book talk it with kids.  It’s the story of a young Vietnamese girl’s journey to America, specifically Alabama, after the fall of Saigon, and her struggle to adjust to a very different world from the one she has known.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.   This is a novel about loss.  I am, I confess, a complete sucker for sad books.  Even the story behind the writing of this book is sad.  Siobhan Dowd (who wrote the wonderful and quirky London Eye Mystery) came up with the idea for this book, but died of cancer before she could write it.  Patrick Ness (author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I wrote about in my post about Hunger Games read-alikes) picked up the idea and wrote the story.  Many of the reviewers seem to be flummoxed in trying to describe this novel, because of its inventiveness and power, and that tells me I must read it.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally Hemmings, from the perspectives of two of the children and another child close to the family.  I’m hearing that’s it’s uncomfortable, thought-provoking, engaging, and poignant.  A must-read, I suspect.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy mixes fantasy and historical fiction, set in the early 1950s.  Janie’s family has been forced to move to London due to the “Red Scare” in America, and there she meets a boy named Benjamin, the son of a mysterious apothecary.  Everyone I’ve talked to who has read this has loved it (kids and adults!).

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.  If you haven’t already seen Hugo (based on Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret), stop reading this and go immediately to a theater.  If you have, then you are probably already as excited to read another creation of Brian Selznick as I am.  ‘Nuff said.

Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder.  My own 5th grader read this last week.  She loved it, and I’m hoping she’ll write up a guest review of it for this blog, so I won’t say more.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  This one is being described as “beautiful,” “unforgettable,” “magical.”  Reviewer Elizabeth Bird on Goodreads writes that it “walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps ’em right smack dab in the face.”  For kids and adults tired of derivative fantasy, this sounds like a viable option.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.  I have actually already read a good bit of this one, but a kid came looking for it, so I let it go before I was finished, and I am anxious to get it back and finish!  Very engaging and interesting, and it gives some interesting facts, particularly about Earhart’s self-promotion tactics.

Some other titles on my list:

Chime by Franny Billingsley.  Mary Kendall (co-worker) has read this and gives it a big thumbs up for 7th and 8th graders.

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  A companion book to the wonderful Wednesday Wars.  Kids are giving me a lot of good feedback on this one.  Another good choice for 7th and 8th graders.

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Filed under fantasy, fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, realistic fiction, sad, Uncategorized

If You Liked The Hunger Games, You Might Like. . .

I would like to do a series of posts based on what kids might like, based on what they already know they love.  The extremely popular titles fly off our shelves so easily and build up long lists of holds, but there are always so many other great books that don’t get as much attention.

First up, since it has been so steadily in demand for two years now: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Fans of The Hunger Games series might also enjoy. . .

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men)   

Todd is the youngest person in a society of only men, in which everyone’s thoughts (including those of Todd’s dog Manchee) can be heard in a chaotic mass of Noise.  One day, Todd finds a space of silence in the woods, and begins a journey of discovering the history of his world and exploring its uncertain future.  The writing here is incredible—suspenseful, imaginative, and intense from the very beginning.

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

I mentioned this one in my last post.  My book club kids have been reading it, and seem to all agree that it’s “really good, but really dark, but not so dark in the end, but really dark.  But really good.”

The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner (The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure)

Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no memory of where he came from, and becomes part of a society of boys trapped in an enclosed space, surrounded by a maze they attempt to escape from each day.  When a girl arrives with a mysterious note, things begin to change.  This series has been raved about by pretty much every kid I’ve known who has read it.

The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold)

This is a gentler version of a dystopic future that lends itself well to younger middle school readers.  A city has been created underground to preserve the human race in the event of war, but the inhabitants have no awareness of the world beyond them.  Supplies in Ember have begun to wane and the future is uncertain, when two kids discover an ancient clue that might lead to a way to survive.  Fast-paced and full of drama.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

From the Amazon.com review by Anne Bartholomew:  “The shifting landscapes, unexpected plot punches, and bold, brave characters found in Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron are nothing short of thrilling: fans of Garth Nix and Suzanne Collins will take to this epic, twisty fantasy instantly, but it’s also the kind of book that will draw in the most hesitant fantasy reader.”   Only a few kids have grabbed this one so far, but they have come back wanting the sequel, Sapphique.

Matched by Ally Condie

From the description on Amazon.com: “Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.”  A bit of romance mixed in with a bit of dystopia.  Kids have really been enjoying this one, and the sequel Crossed is in high demand.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

From the description on Amazon.com: “In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three ‘dumpsite boys’ make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city. One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.”

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fast-paced and dark, this dystopic novel set in the Gulf Coast follows the struggle of a teenage boy and his friends as they try to balance basic survival, protection of an important treasure that might change his life dramatically, and the boy’s precarious relationship with his drug-addicted, abusive father.  This was a Printz Award winner and National Book Award finalist, for good reason.  The writing is tight and the suspense relentless.

And a few more . . .

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Gone Series by Michael Grant

If you can think of others, please comment and add your suggestions!

Note:  My recommendations in this post are probably most appropriate for 7th and 8th graders (and older teens), because this genre of book tends to be dark and violent.  I have not read all of these titles.  Many of them get on my radar from reviews, but most of these have been recommended and enjoyed by some of our older middle school students.  For parents who are concerned about appropriateness for their child, I highly recommend the website commonsensemedia.org for detailed information about specific titles, including language, violence, drinking/drugs, educational value, presence of positive role models and points/questions for family discussion.

(Apologies for the wacky formatting of this post.  I can’t get the thumbnails and text to line up the way I want!)

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Filed under dystopia, fantasy, If You Liked, post-apocalyptic, science fiction

The Wormworld Saga by Daniel Lieske

Okay, here’s something different and beautiful:  Daniel Lieske’s Wormworld Saga, a free online graphic novel.  Only one chapter exists thus far (with Chapter 2 due in December), so I might be premature in recommending it, but I feel pretty comfortable giving a strong thumbs up to Chapter 1.  The story centers on a young boy named Jonas’ fantastical adventure into another world via his grandmother’s attic, and it looks like he’s going to be fighting both inner and outer demons along the way.

I’m no art critic, and I’m not our resident graphic novel fanatic, but I just got pulled into this story and artwork so quickly and so deeply.  I could try to describe what makes it great (the drawings! the color! the dialogue! the emotion!), but I’m not sure I have the language, so it’s easier to just tell you to click on the link above, read Chapter One, and decide for yourself.   Apparently, there is also an iPad app that contains both the story and cool stuff like production notes, sketches, and other stuff about how the comic is being made.  I suspect that is worth checking out, and hey, also free!  (I think some of the production bits might cost something, but you can definitely get Chapter 1 for free.)

(Thanks to Chris L. for the heads up about this one.  Keep those recommendations coming!)

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Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Last year, I was completely taken by Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm.  Seeing a writer incorporate all those awesome old Grimm tales into a story that spoke to contemporary readers made me so happy, and all the gore and humor made my middle school students even happier.  You know a book is good when a class of 5th grade boys is begging to miss recess so they can hear more of it!

Today, I am just as taken by Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, but in a very different way.  While Gidwitz is laugh-out-loud funny, Ursu captures the loneliness of the quirky kid’s childhood in metaphor and rich description.  Hazel is the odd girl out–always daydreaming, always disappointing people, always teased by the other kids because she Just. Doesn’t. Fit.  Except with Jack.  Jack is not only Hazel’s friend, but he is her Best Friend, the one person who totally understands her and joins her in her daydreamy world.

But then Jack suddenly turns mean, rejecting Hazel as if they had never been friends at all.  And here is where the old fairy tales come in.  Jack’s heart has been pierced by a wicked piece of glass, and soon the white witch has taken him off into the woods, and Hazel must go on a quest to find him and bring him home.  Most of the story deals with Hazel’s quest, but there are also some chilling scenes that center on Jack and the white witch.

Ursu is an incredibly gifted writer.  I loved her Shadow Thieves, which would appeal to many of those Percy Jackson fans with its connection to mythology (the scenes that take place in the Underworld are thrilling), and Breadcrumbs is even better.  It’s a bit quieter, with more focus on Hazel’s inner world, and that does slow it down in places.  But it’s a great story, and I suspect we might see it on some award lists soon.

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Filed under fairy tale, fantasy, fiction, friendship, misfit