Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Wizard in the Tree by Lloyd Alexander

If you're a kid (or adult) who hasn't read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (Newbery Honor for the second book, The Black Cauldron and Newbery Winning for the High King , a series starting with The Book of Three) do it. Sure, it's kind of a Lord of the Rings knockoff for kids, but Alexander's ear for poetry in prose is undeniable, and perfectly suited for children's literature. I loved those books as a kids, and as an adult, reread (sort of... I never really read it in the first place, but knew the plot of all three books since my sister told me the stories so many times I might as well have read them) the Westmark Trilogy, a fabulous trilogy about a revolution from the books up.
So when I found this odd title, The Wizard in the Tree, at my favorite used bookstore in the bay area (Dark Carnival, go guys go) I had to read it. And while it was not quite as good as some of Alexander's other, more famous work, it was still an incredibly enjoyable read, perfect for middle grade readers in the middle of the pack, ages 8 to 12. At times funny, others violent (there are some murders), this book creates a wonderful anti-Potter definition of the true nature of magic, with some clever environmentalist themes that make it timely, even if it is the silly story of a little girl who finds a wizard in a tree.
Complete with plucky heroine, curmudgeonly wizard, and eeeevil (yes, so evil he's eeeevil) squire, The Wizard in the Tree is a clever story from a very clever author, whose breadth of work I am just beginning to appreciate.

And seriously, read the Prydain Chronicles, and its awesome companion book of short stories, The Foundling. Awesome.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

When I finished the 1968 Newbery Honor book, The Egypt Game, I could for no stretch of the imagination see why it hadn't simply won straight out. Until I realized it was an honor book the year that my very very favorite, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, was the winner. Fair enough, Newbery, fair enough. Apparently 1968 was a good year for kids books, because The Egypt Game was a wonderful story about imagination, learning and the joy of play. I'm so sad I didn't read this book as a child. I know my older sister did, because I found her copy at our mom's house (and didn't steal it, it's still there Mikka, I promise). But I know I would have loved it then, for the very same reasons I love it now.
The Egypt Game starts from the perspective of April Hall, a little girl who's just moved to a new neighborhood so that she can live with her grandmother while her mother runs around Hollywood. Despite the fact that April finds the new town far too provincial for her tastes, she soon makes friends with the decidedly less precocious Melanie Ross, and by proxy, Melanie's very serious little brother, Marshall (who never goes anywhere without his safety octopus, aptly named Safety). The three begin playfully reenacting ancient Egyptian rituals, and are soon joined by two boys, Ken and Toby. With five players in the Egypt game, all bringing their own ideas and research to the table, the game becomes more serious, and when strange things start happening, the kids can't help but wonder if they are making it happen. Meanwhile, a child murderer is in the neighborhood, and everyone suspects the Professor, the strange old man whose backyard is the secret location for the Egypt game.
It's a silly thing to focus on, since there are so many wonderful things about this book, but I loved the characterization of Ken Kamata. Ken plays very reluctantly, and is always a little embarrassed and incredibly self-conscious. There's a fabulously funny illustration in the chapter entitled: Ceremony for the Dead, in which all the children are shown in the wild throws of a dramatic funeral. All except Ken, who (despite being in character by beating his chest) is looking straight out of the page at the reader, a slightly embarrassed look on his face, as though even doing this in front of the reader is just more humiliation than he can bear. Maybe I just like Ken, because when I was a kid, I was a bit like him. I wish I had been a kid like Marshall, but so it goes.
I don't think you can even throw a rock without finding a third or fourth grader who's curious about ancient Egypt. So throw a rock, hit a kid and then buy them a copy of this book. The parents will totally drop charges when they see how awesome the book is. Or you'll go to jail with a funny story about bad advice and good kids books.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

The Newbery Winner of 1987 (and illustrated by the great Peter Sis) The Whipping Boy was a surprisingly funny read, complete with dancing bear, blundering con men and a bratty prince with an untapped heart. Even kids who are not necessarily interested in historical fiction will find points of interest in this book. The story is told from the perspective of the prince's whipping boy, an orphan named Jemmy. If you, like me, before I read this book, have no idea what a whipping boy is, it's a designated person to suffer punishments on the prince's behalf. Since the prince in this tale is rotten, Jemmy takes many whippings, a fact the prince cares about very little. When they run away together, Prince Brat (as he is also called) begins to learn the errors of his ways, and he and Jemmy strike up an unlikely friendship. At 89 pages long, even more reluctant readers will be unafraid to pick up this absurd little tale of empathy, trust and friendship. Perfect for early readers making the transition to chapter books, with a pleasantly snarky narrative voice.