Simple Kids’ Books

These are nice children’s books, but I wouldn’t say they’re interesting or complex enough to cross over and satisfy an adult reader. They feature female protagonists and good use of language. But their problems are either melodramatic or mundane, easily solved and not compelling. I’m not their intended reader, but a 10 year old girl might like them.

Esperanza Rising by Katie Munoz Ryan

This book is about a rich girl in Mexico in 1930, who has to move to California and work on a company farm after she loses her father. There is a  subplot about strikes and deportations. As a Spanish teacher, I liked the way that Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.

This is a happy story about a girl whose migratory family comes back to its hometown, which she discovers is a magical place. Felicity Pickle makes a friend and they do good deeds and eat magic ice cream. Her talent is for words, and she’s always collecting odd ones, including cute made-up ones like “spindiddly.”

The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon

These two children’s books take a lot of fairy tale tropes and give them a feminist spin. I’d recommend them to any parent of a princess-obsessed girl.

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

This story begins with a typical princess setup: the king and queen lock a princess in a tower and call for princes to compete for her hand in marriage. But this princess isn’t having it: she escapes and works to complete the tasks set by the king so that she can win her own hand. She befriends the witch and the bandits that the princes were told to defeat, and reveals the cheating committed by the princes. She finds a baby dragon, that becomes her pet. It’s a bright and happy story with a satisfying ending.

The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs

This sequel begins with the almost grown, somewhat neglected dragon running away, and Meg going off on a quest to find it. Her parents make her take a bunch of royal guards, and the party gets lost in an enchanted forest, where a dwarf who is knowledgeable of fairy tale tropes gives them lots of advice. Meg’s friends end up in a giant’s castle, while she and her magician outwit an evil sorceress. I like how a romantic subplot is a bit of an afterthought, rather than the main point. The focus is on Meg’s desire for adventure, her worry for her pet dragon, and solving the problems that she and her friends get themselves into.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

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This children’s fantasy book continues the adventures of September in Fairyland. This time she goes to the moon. Soft and gentle tone, sweetly empathetic narrator, The action is both nonsensical and logical in its own strange way. Valente makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and get swept up in the story and the big existential questions it raises, often explicitly. The musings of Valente’s characters feel wise with the wisdom of both children and adults. This book is concerned with time, fate, and memory. September learns about the yeti’s paw that fairies used to manipulate time into meaninglessness. September is wondering about growing up and what that means, about what her future can hold, (which, to a girl born in the 1930’s, is a question that’s both closed and newly open). In her most bad-ass move yet, September meets her fate and smashes it. Many of the images seem strangely and wonderfully 2D, like the paper circus, and the photographs into which September and her friends enter. I wonder what Pixar or another brilliant animation studio would do with those moments. There’s a cliffhanger ending, which makes it seem as if this adventure in fairyland will carry into the next book, rather than returning September to our world, and for the first time, her earthly absence will have consequences. There are two more books in the series, one focusing on September’s friend Saturday, and the other on her last adventure in Fairyland.

The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood

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In this second book of the series, Miss Penelope Lumley and her charges, the three  children who had been raised by wolves, visit London and have another series of improbable adventures. The plot thickens with regard to the ongoing mystery of the origins of the children and Miss Lumley herself. That mystery is what’s keeping me reading. I like the style and humor and the way the story introduces vocabulary and historical information and cultural concepts in an interesting, seamless way that makes the stuff stick in a young head. The book makes all these obscure facts seem cool and fascinating, like secret knowledge that makes them part of a club, and that’s a great way to motivate kids to learn without making it seem like work. I’ll keep reading, but for my sake I hope the series gets to the bottom of the Incorrigibles’ identities pretty quickly.

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer

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In this last book of the Artemis Fowl series, Artemis Fowl’s nemesis, Opal Koboi, escapes from fairy prison with the help of her clone, and begins orchestrating the destruction of humanity. She hopes to resurrect fairy Berserkers buried on the Fowl property. Of course, Artemis and his fairy, dwarf, centaur, and bodyguard friends have to stop her. As always in this series, the book is jam-packed with improbable action scenes and witty banter. Artemis’s twin brothers are major characters this time, adding both to the humor and the stakes for their brother. Artemis himself completes the growth process that began in the first novel, becoming a hero capable of real sacrifice and impressive planning. It’s a good ending to a good series.

The Mysterious Howling

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book One: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

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This children’s book series is inspired by gothic novels and literature about governesses, books like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. It gently mocks that tradition while paying homage to it. The protagonist is Penelope Lumley, graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, in her first governess job at Ashton Place, in charge of three feral children. They’ve truly been raised by wolves. Of course, under her tutelage, they make remarkable progress, but not quite enough to avoid a crisis when the lady of the house wants to throw a big holiday party. The children’s antics and mischief are silly in a way that young readers will appreciate. The children’s origin is a mystery that will drive the entire series.

The best thing about this series might be that it teaches kids new words and concepts in a fun way. Ideas like hyperbole and irony are introduced in a way that’s funny, and words that will stretch the vocabulary of young readers are used in contexts that make their meanings crystal clear. The sense of humor driving the narration is somewhat dark, perhaps only a step to the sunny side of Lemony Snicket. Hopefully, familiarity with the gothic tropes found here will make readers eventually seek out the books that inspired this series.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince by Antione de Saint-Exupery

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This children’s book is about a boy who lived on a small planet all alone. He leaves his home planet, travels to a few others, then visits Earth, where he meets a pilot on a desert island. There are fantastical illustrations. It’s a sweet rendering of a child’s wide-eyed curiosity. At times it was almost too sweet for me, veering into the saccharine and sentimental, especially at the end. It romanticized the point of view of a child, a perspective that views all adult pursuits as strange and nonsensical. Adult characters are criticized for being materialistic, greedy, authoritarian, or not giving the child enough attention. Sometimes these critiques seemed very apt to me, and other times the book seemed naïve to side with the child protagonist’s view of reality.

I think I know many people who love this book and list it as an all-time favorite. I can see how it would appeal to a young reader who feels misunderstood by adults in her life, but understood by the little prince. Such a feeling generates huge affection for a book, and that can stick with a person. If that’s you, and you still read this book the way you did as a child, I don’t blame you one bit.

Searching for Dragons

Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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In this sequel to Dealing with Dragons, Cimorene has to find and save Kazul, the king of the dragons, who has been kidnapped. (It’s the wizards again, of course.) Along the way, she meets Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, who assists in her quest. He has a magic sword. Predictably, they fall in love, but I found the relationship charming and modern and not overly mushy.

One of my favorite subplots concerned a couple people who were sort of filling the roles of villains, but weren’t really villainous at all. A descendent of Rumplestiltskin has accumulated several children through the family spinning business–and he genuinely cares for them until they return to their parents as triumphant young adults on quests. An uncle feels pressured to do something wicked to his nephew to remain in good standing for his club, but he really likes the boy. Cimorene and Mendanbar tell Rumplestiltskin’s great-grandson to open a school for all those children, and advise the uncle to send his nephew there. This just seemed like such a sweet, optimistic view of the world, that people might be able to twist and bend the rules creatively to play the outward role of a villain when they have to, while still remaining true to their hearts and even doing good work for others.

Dealing With Dragons

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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This is the kind of book I’m looking forward to reading with my kid someday. Princess Cimorene is stifled by life as a royal, by all the things she’s not allowed to do as a proper princess. So she runs away and lives with a dragon, thwarting an evil wizard’s plot. Along the way she meets and helps a witch, a stone prince, and another princess. Characters seem aware of fairy tale tropes and either get trapped by them or use them to their advantage. The tone is lightly humorous and wry, poking fun at the ‘rules’ of stories. Cimorene is a wonderful heroine, full of common sense that leads her to question the gender role she’s been handed, and propose smart solutions to others’ problems. This is the first of a series, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books. It’s an easy, quick read, and would be fun to read aloud.

Neil Gaiman Speaks Truth

In an amazing lecture published in The Guardian, Neil Gaiman defends literature, libraries, and everything that’s good in the world:

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. …

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. …

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.