Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

“RON: So you’re telling me that the whole of history rests on … Neville Longbottom? This is pretty wild.” (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorn)

HP 8 coverMy top three Harry Potter related dreams are as follows: 1) that Hogwarts exists 2) that there be a new Harry Potter book, and 3) that BBC make a HP TV series that supersedes the movies in every way. Though I’ve known about Harry Potter and the cursed Child for months, I couldn’t bear to let myself get more excited than pre-ordering the book on amazon for fear of being let down. To me, everything Rowling since 2007 has been fiercely disappointing – I cried after staying up all night to read A Casual Vacancy, not because of the dramatic finale, but because Rowling felt the need to prove herself by writing something so starkly realistic and anti-Hogwarts. And don’t even talk to me about Cuckoo’s Calling – I couldn’t get through more than the first few chapters.

About 1/2 way through this eighth installment, it hit me: this is actually book 8 of Harry Potter. This isn’t a Rowling Failure, this isn’t a Phony FanFic, this is it. Perfectly formed: a hint of nostalgia plus a whole new Voldemort-related adventure. A storyline big enough to warrant waiting 10 years, but compact enough to fit into a play format. All of a sudden, my casual reading – sick on the couch with a sub-standard tea – didn’t seem sufficient. This was a reading landmark! Something to be celebrated and something to be savored to the max! It required the perfect tea, the most comfortable chair, and the best my brain could offer in terms of attention. Unfortunately, the book was just too good to fuss with all of those external circumstances, so I finished it just as I was, attempting to summon the required feelings of momentousness between acts and scenes.

So, if you are a Harry Potter lover on the fence about whether to read or not to read – read! And make sure that you are comfortable, full of attention, and have a huge pot of tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 308 pages (this is a play, not a novel)
Ending: Ultra satisfying
Further Reading: Reading HP again!

Watership Down

“The May sunset was red in the clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits-some nibbling at the thin grass near their holes, others pushing further down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed.” (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

watership down coverOn the surface, Watership Down is not particularly interesting: some people seek a new place to live because their old home was overcrowded; they struggle against nature and their own species to succeed. In fact, its positively hum-drum. Sure, the fact that the main characters are Rabbits adds some spice, and the supernatural prophet element helps too, but in essence, it’s a simple adventure story with broad, sweeping, none too meaningful themes.

I think where Adams digs a little deeper is when he creates a shared mythology for his world. Rabbits share the stories of their ancestors, and those stories affect who they are and how they act in the present. Our particular rabbits come into contact with many different rabbit societies; each society knows the stories and how they tell the myths discloses who they are. Our main characters tell the stories simply, honestly, and well – so we know that we can trust them, that they are good rabbits. But if a society has a tenuous connection with traditions and the past, they are suspect, and perhaps devoid of morals. This interaction between the rabbits and their mythology is just fascinating – how they are inspired by the stories, how they judge others by their interpretations of them, how the stories inform their ideas about what a rabbit should be. Its the most true and honest part of Watership Down, and I’m sure someone already has written a fine paper about how Adams reveals our own relationship with our traditional, human, myths and legends.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 476
Ending: Satisfying
Incidental Learning: Rabbit eating and mating habits
Further Reading: I’m having a hard time thinking of more books where characters interact so strongly with stories. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell certainly has myths and legends that affect the future. The Wheel of Time series, maybe.

Children’s Literature

Should adults read children’s literature? I used to think so. I was whole-heartedly behind the idea. I used to bemoan the fact that my library separated the adult and children’s sections by a hallway and atrium because it limited my ability to show Origami Yoda Coverchildren’s lit to adults. I was convinced that children’s lit fixed what was wrong in adult lit: it couldn’t rely on sex and drugs as plot fillers, so children’s books had to rely on excellent, clean plot lines. Now, in my second (and somewhat work-imposed) foray into children’s lit, I’ve been less impressed. It may be that I’ve already read the big, impressive classics, but I see now that children’s literature relies every bit as heavily on fart jokes as adult lit does on sex and violence.

Perhaps, as with everything, children’s literature must be read at the right time and place, and in the right mood. Read it when you’re in need of uplifting. When you find your outlook has grown pessimistic and dull. Read it when you are stuck in the doldrums, or when you don’t want to be bogged down by responsibility. But, for heaven’s sake, do not make children’s literature the only thing you read as an adult. As with every genre: if you stay too long, you’ll get bored.

the one and only ivan coverSo, before I move on to my normal reading patterns, here’s a not-so-recommended list of the children’s books I’ve been working through:

The One and Only Ivan: Sparse, poetic prose. Interesting attempt to get into the mind of an animal without overly anthropomorphizing it.

Artemis Foul: Hilarious, up to a point. But, this is definitely a fart-joke heavy book.

H.I.V.E.HIVE cover: Ridiculously, over-the-top evil, which makes it quite funny. Sort of a sci-fi antithesis of Mysterious Benedict Society.

Hoot: Why is this book so beloved and talked about? Somehow, all of the wrong things were overly realistic – the setting and characters were boring suburbia – while all the character’s motivations were unfathomably unrealistic.

Origami Yoda: Excellent, engaging narrative structure (case files) with interesting, true-to-life problems a middle schooler might deal with. Easy to see why this series does so well with kids.

The Rangers Apprentice

“Will couldn’t help grinning. That was high praise indeed from Halt. Halt saw the expression and immediately added, ‘With more practice – a lot more practice- you might even achieve mediocrity.’ Will wasn’t absolutely sure what mediocrity was, but he sensed it wasn’t good. His grin faded…” (Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan)

The Rangers Apprentice CoverOne of the best parts of reading children’s literature, especially fantasy, is apprenticeships.  A kid gets specially selected for a job, usually a mysterious one, and proceeds to spend the next few years of his/her life being trained. Like they were meant for just one thing in life. Usually, the kid discovers that they are particularly talented in a specific area and they quickly outstrip their peers. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the appeal of children’s literature, but I just love the whole subgenre: the long hours of training, the curmudgeonly teachers, the minor failings along with the comebacks , and, of course, the outstripping. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone saw one special quality in you as a child? If your life had had a specific purpose and goal (so unlike real life today)?

The Ranger’s Apprentice, as promised by the cover, is a prime example of the apprenticeship subgenre. It’s consistent, evenly paced, properly prosed, and subtly suspenseful. It doesn’t suffer from epic-ness, nor does it succumb to over-attention to details. It is a lovely, well-crafted work that you should read, or put in a child’s hands, at your earliest convenience.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 272
Ending: Satisfying, but also cliff-hanger-y
Incidental Learning: how to use a bow, how to train a ranger’s pony
Further Reading: Obviously, the apprenticeship sub-genre (which I possibly made up) includes most children’s fantasy – Harry Potter, The Sword in the Stone, The Abhorsen Chronicles, and the Sea of Trolls.


The Goose Girl

“The resonance of Faladas voice came softly, an echo of what was once spoken, like the voice of the sea from a shell. They faced each other thus in silent conversation, the shivering once princess and the mounted head of her steed, dead speaking with dead.” (The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale)

The Goose Girl CoverA fantastic, consistent book with lyrical, smooth prose. I read it in snatches of time during lunch breaks, but it was more than difficult to wait 24 hours for the next time I could pick it up. I’m afraid my reading schedule for the past year has been so luxurious that it quite spoiled my ability to wait more than a day or two for the end of a book.

Whenever you experience a drastic schedule change in your life, like when changing jobs or moving, it is always difficult to find where your time to read has gone. Has it migrated to commuting time? Has it changed from large stretches of uninterrupted time to bits and pieces throughout the day? Trust me, it is there. Somewhere. But you must discover it – you must experiment with your reading. I’m not talking about the age old adage about making time in your schedule for the important things, I’m talking about finding the time that is already there. Perhaps, once you try it, you’ll find that you love read/walking, or read/eating. Maybe you’ll find poetry, short stories, or children’s books suit the small chunks of time you have better than long novels do. Or perhaps you’ll find that cleaning your house on a Sunday afternoon is not half as important as finishing a book or two…

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 400 pgs
Ending: Fairy-tale appropriate
Further Reading: Shannon Hale has a host of beloved books, including a further three novels in the Bayrne world. Goose Girl reminds me of Ella Enchanted for their whimsical, quirky twists but classic fairy tale feeling.

On Meeting a Childhood Idol

“In a firm, commanding voice she announced, ‘Jonas has been selected to be our next Receiver of Memory.’” (The Giver by Lois Lowry)

Picture of Lois LowryI called my mom on the phone the other day to tell her the news – I was going to be meeting the author of my favorite book as a kid. She went down a list of several authors: J.K Rowling, Brian Jacques, or Piers Anthony, and I had to admit that it was a rather difficult subject to have anyone guess about, seeing as how I’d had a new favorite author every other week. Finally we got to The Giver, and she had to acknowledge that Lois Lowry had been a definite favorite, at least in the third grade when I had attempted to write a sequel to the classic novel’s enigmatic ending. So, you can understand that I was rather excited when I found out that Lowry would be coming to visit the library where I work to promote her new book (the last book in The Giver Quartet), Son.

To honor the occasion, I re-read my childhood favorite and found it to be every bit as good as it was in elementary school. The story is simple and concise, the ending open to interpretation, and the world building comprehensive and engaging. It still is a masterpiece. Lowry’s speech only clarified that for me – she talked about her process as a writer and about how much trouble the ending of The Giver has given her as generations of children have written or e-mailed asking for more details. She also confirmed, as any good writer should, that she was just telling a story: all of the meaning, religious or otherwise, that people have put into the work arises from the eternal and necessary conversation between reader and book. She was a humorous and adaptable speaker, although (rightfully so) a slightly tired book signer, and I was lucky to have met her for even a brief instant. Meeting idolized authors is definitely one of the perks that I had never before considered about being a librarian.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid

Length: 179 pages

Ending: Takes imagination

Further Reading: If you read The Giver as a child, you should definitely go back and finish the quartet. It took almost two decades for it all to come out, but it now comprises The Giver, The Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. 

Anne of Green Gables

“‘Yes; but cakes have such a terrible habit of turning out bad just when you especially want them to be good,’ sighed Anne, setting out a particularly well-balsamed twig afloat. ‘However, I suppose I shall just have to trust to Providence and be careful to put in the flour. Oh, look, Diana, what a lovely rainbow! Do you suppose the dryad will come out after we go away and take it for a scarf?'” (Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery)

Anne of Green Gables CoverHow could I have spent 20 some years of a reading life and missed Anne of Green Gables? Whenever I read something that really blows me away, I always have two reactions simultaneously: first, a reaffirmation that spending so much time looking for the perfect book is a life well-spent and secondly, a nagging concern about not having found that book earlier. If I had read Anne as an overly imaginative child, would I have been happier, more serene about the future? It is possible.

I had been saving the last few chapters of Anne for a time when I needed her, but my reading economy turned out to be futile when I learned that Anne of Green Gables is not only a series, but that the rest of the books show Anne as she grows up and gets married. Why did literature stop popularizing such a wonderful practice? I can name three girl’s series written between 1900 and 1950 that follow the majority of the lives of their characters off the top of my head (Anne, Betsy Tacy, and Patty Fairfield) but none more recently. The idea of following a young character for such a long time seems equally lovely whether the audience is a child or adult. The children would satiate their curiosity about adult life, while the grown-ups could be reminded of their childhood selves. I suppose that the stumbling block must be the modern publishing industry, because how would one classify and advertise a series spanning decades nowadays? We have enough trouble with Harry Potter.

If you, like me, have somehow missed Anne over the course of your life, you must take it upon yourself to remedy this error immediately. If you have nothing to do with the rest of your day, or even if you have plenty to do, your course is clear: you must spend it dreaming of Green Gables.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 351

Ending: utterly satisfying

Further Reading: As I said before, Patty Fairfield by Carolyn Wells and Betsy Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace share certain characteristics, but each have their own distinct voice.