So you’re a girl who is on a quest with an invisible cat-like creature to gather chosen champions from across the multiverse to stop a growing evil. The trick to defeating this evil in then end won’t rely on strength or guile or wisdom but on something very powerful indeed . . .
Do you remember?
Miranda has just turned twelve years old, and has been sent an odd woven basket for her birthday . . . not the sort of gift she was exactly expecting. But that basket wind up to be a portal that will lead her on an incredible adventure. It’s a journey that spans many different worlds as they work to assemble the “Correct Combination”–the five beings that can stand against the evil Charmer. For the Charmer threatens all the worlds with his production of highly addictive and numbing drugs as well as mind-control gadgets, and he is nearly invincible. Apart, none of them have much hope of succeeding, but together, they may just save all the worlds. And Amanda’s special talents hold the critical key.
Interestingly enough, I think Miranda is front and center on the cover, and she’s looking determined and slightly dour. This is no pretty fantasy adventure or wonderland style world. The worlds that Amanda visits have been poisoned by evil, making them dangerous places for a young team of questers. They escape danger several times before their final confrontation.
For a girl who loved Labyrinth and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, here was another girl I could enjoy in the main role of the story. I remember seeing this book come into the library and snatching it off the new book shelves and devouring it in a night. Rather than a sidekick in the quest of a Chosen One, Miranda is that character. And despite containing many of the traditional fantasy tropes of this story type, the fact that it’s a twelve year-old girl in the role made a huge impact on me. (For a while in my “I want to change my name” phase, I decided Miranda would be a good name) There is something to the stories that start in a world like your own with a character a lot like you that just touches something hopeful inside all of us, I think. But unlike other portal fantasies I had read, Miranda could have come from my own time and from a similar family, a similar lifestyle. There’s a real excitement in reading something like that.
I’ve always enjoyed a good multiverse story. This wasn’t my first introduction to the multiverse since Diana Wynne Jones took me there earlier on, but it was one of the few. While multiverse stories seemed to be in abundance for adults, there were not so many books for kids that dove into multiple worlds with different creatures and histories. All five members of the team bring something different into play and all have their own personalities to charm readers with. (Bastable the cat is particularly fun)
Marilyn Singer may have written this obscure fantasy for middle grade readers back in 1990, but the author herself is far from obscure! With over seventy books to her name for children and young adults, she seems to have a new title or two out every year. And she doesn’t write just fantasy, she’s done realistic fiction, non fiction, picture books, mysteries and quite a bit of poetry. You’ll find quite a lot of her work in any public library, but you probably won’t find this book quite as easily. This book and one other fantasy by Marilyn Singer, The Horsemaster (1985) are the two I really remember. Both with central female protagonists in a time when this wasn’t as common a thing in fantasy novels. They’re worth a look if you can find them, though I suspect Charmed may feel quite dated by the passage of decades. Still a younger me still wishes we would have seen more of that multiverse . . .
Cracks knuckles. Puts on glasses. Okay let’s do this. I’m back! It’s been a bit of a haul these last few months with everything but I’m back on with the blog! Sorry to all my readers it took so long to get back in gear!
So this week’s Tuesday Ten is foxes in the fantastic. From the first time I saw Disney’s Robin Hood and read Redwall, foxes have been part of my fantasy experience. Here are some fantastical books that feature them.
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl (Puffin, c1970)
Seriously who wouldn’t put this book at the top? Roald Dahl’s tricky tale of a rather civilized fox who figures out how to get the best of a couple of fox-hating nasty farmers is a favorite among young readers. Slightly subversive and hilarious as all of his books tend to be. It’s a slightly different experience than the movie that was made based on the book a few years ago.
Foxcraft: The Taken by Inbali Iserles (Scholastic, 2015)
Isla, a young fox comes home to find her den burning, her family nowhere in sight and strange and vicious foxes hunting her. Now she’s on the run in the city, running from those who pursue her–desperate to stay alive. The answer to her survival, and destiny may lie in the ancient fox magic she’s only just beginning to learn–can she master her skills in time? The second book in this new animal urban fantasy, The Elders is due out in September 2016.
The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin, 2015)
A lonely fox befriends a star. The star makes life bearable in the dark, dark forest, giving fox light to hunt by, run by and dance by. But when the star’s light suddenly goes out, the fox must go on a search for his friend. Now fox must journey from the world he knows to an unknown, wondrous world discovering much about himself and the world in the process. A sweet fairy-tale like story with gorgeous illustrations.
Pax by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Balzer & Bray, February 2016)
One of the talked about books this year is this newest from Sarah Pennypacker. This makes the list on the fact that the story is told from Pax’s POV at times, so technically can be fantasy, though it really is in a grey area. This is the story of Pax, a fox rescued and raised by a boy named Peter. But when war comes and their family must flee, his father convinces Peter to abandon Pax. Both boy and fox set out on a journey to reunite, and grow into their own in the process.
Mattimeo by Brian Jacques (Ace Books, c1990)
Foxes of course can also be the villains of a story. The Redwall chronicles routinely feature foxes, along with other predators, in the role of antagonists and villains. I picked this one since it’s the first where the fox, Slagar the Cruel is the main villain. This crafty fox captures Mattimeo the son of the Redwall Abbey hero. Now he’s being held as hostage so that his parents and the abbey will agree to Slagar’s demands. But in Mattimeo beats the heart of a hero, and he’s about to prove it.
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery (Harcourt, c1943)
If you want to talk about foxes and friendship, this might be the place to start. I’ll just put this quote in from the fox speaking to the Little Prince : “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….”
The Gathering Storm by H. K. Varian (Simon Spotlight, June 2016)
A new mystical fantasy series featuring four middle schoolers who discover they have the power to transform into mystical animals. Mack, the cover character here can transform into a spirit fox I believe. Since shape shifting so often involves wolves it’s nice to have some variety in the animal types and cultural backgrounds from which they spring. Part of an ongoing series for younger chapter book readers.
Love and Roast Chicken by Barbara Knutson (Carolrhoda Books , 2004)
If I get a chance at reading aloud to an older group, this picture book folktale that recounts some trickster stories from the Andes is one of my most usual picks. Cuy the guinea pig is our resident trickster, always out for food. His adversary is Tio Antonio, the fox who would like nothing better than to have Cuy for a meal. Unfortunately, Tio Antonio only winds up falling for all guinea pig’s lies and tricks with hilarious results.
Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles DeLint, illustrated by Charles Vess (Little, Brown Books, 2013)
In this story, Lillian is a girl bitten by a snake. In order to save her, the cats transform her into a kitten. Unable to be content with her new kittenish existence, Lillian searches for a way back to being human. Along the way she encounters many different animals including a friendly fox , T. H. Fox, who may, or may not be entirely trustworthy.
Fox’s Dream by Keizaburo Teijima (Philomel, c1987)
I added this obscure picture book to the list, because I just feel it’s one of the more lovely books I’ve encountered. Stunning woodcut art tells the story of a fox hunting a rabbit through a snow covered landscape. When the rabbit escapes, the fox dreams of fantastical creatures romping, formed out of the snow covered trees. He sees his own days of playing with his brothers. Finally he wakes to find a vixen watching them, and the two head off together with the promise of Spring not far off.
So there you go! My first Tuesday list back in form. I know I must be missing quite a few fox fantasy stories so please feel free to fill in more titles in the comments!
Rise of the Ragged Clover by Paul Durham (HarperCollins, March 2016)
What’s it like to see yourself as the protagonist of the story? I remember when I first cracked the cover on Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the First Adventure and plunged into a sword and sorcery tale where a girl disguised herself as a boy to become the hero of the story. The instant joy at finding characters that could be more than sidekicks and healers. More than damsels for rescuing. Paul Durham’s The Luck Uglies evokes that fierce joy in me, well over three decades later.
It’s still fairly difficult to find a lot of fantasy stories with female protagonists playing the action adventure hero. Three years ago, when Durham’s first book, The Luck Uglies, hit the shelves, it immediately caught my attention. (You can see my review here.) That first book is still one of my favorite new fantasy titles in middle-grade fiction. Rye O’Chanter was the kind of risk-taking, thoughtful but brave protagonist that I loved.The second book in the series, Fork-Tongued Charmers came out last year. In it we learn more about Rye’s world, her father’s back story and enemies, and see her progress along the path from child to young adult. Now we come to the third book, in the trilogy and it’s . . . well, I can’t call it better than the first book, because it is so significantly the anchor book of a series, but yes, maybe it is just a hair better. For those of you new to the series, go back and read the first two books if you can before diving into this one. There’s so much that’s been set up in the first two novels that allows readers to dive into this last one with such satisfaction.
In the first story you meet Rye and her friends and family as they match wits against the Earl Longchance and the Bog Noblins. In the second, Rye must confront the Fork-Tongued Charmers and their rift from the other Luck Uglies. In this final book, the ongoing power struggle between the Luck Uglies who ally themselves with Rye’s father and those called the Fork-Tongued Charmers who wish for a new leader has come to a head. As usual, Rye’s family is at the center of it all, as is the village Drowning. But as old friends and old enemies gather to witness a final, winner-take-all contest, still more enemies gather . . . Rye will need all her wits and determination, plus the wisdom she’s gained and the friends she’s made, to save the village. But can she possibly do that and save her father in the bargain?
This is fantasy action adventure with some beautiful world-building built into it. Paul Durham creates a world threaded with magic and adventure, but one that comes across as well grounded with its own histories, legends and family legacies. While character takes center stage, they move through a landscape that is markedly different from our own yet accessible for a reader to dive into and immerse themselves in. Paul Durham doesn’t just create the story you read, but hints at far more stories we never quite get to hear about but know are out there. The world Rye O’Chanter moves through is populated with fascinating characters and terrifying monsters–and very fierce little sisters. It’s not the epic fantasy of grand-scale good vs. evil, but a smaller stakes adventure set in a significant location that readers have become familiar with over the course of three stories.
The story is firmly middle grade, in all the best ways, but I do offer that designation with a note of caution. In terms of content, if you’ve read the first two books, you know something about how dark the narrative can get, but this third book does have a few scenes that are pretty grim. I’m giving a heads-up on it without saying what those scenes are, but there’s a definite seriousness and some stark violence in this book, and that tone is set early on. Not everyone makes it out of this story alive. While I personally would consider this book a great deal of fun to read, it’s a far cry from the innocence of the opening of the first book. We’re no longer dealing with a night time book robbery by a trio of curious kids. All three friends know the stakes are much higher now, and that means they are much more serious in what they are doing. They’re not little kids anymore. Watching that growth of our young protagonists–particularly Rye herself lead to some of the most stirring scenes in the entire story. I found myself quite teary-eyed more than once at the steps they were taking to becoming wise and heroic people in their own right. And I can’t tell you my favorite moment, but I will tell you that while reading my favorite bit I just felt like cheering.
There’s one thing that drives me a little crazy about reading a really good last book in a trilogy. And that is I can’t hand it to a new reader and say “read this!” (which is what I want to do). And grabbing a pile of three books and dropping it into someone’s stunned hands with a demand that they read them is usually met with stunned stares in my experience. (I’ve done it, and now have a few friends run in mortal terror if they see me with a stack of books in my hands) I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my time. It makes me a little bit . . . critical of works that tackle subjects and tropes I’ve seen and read a hundred to a thousand times before. I try to be fair when reviewing them, since a reader coming new to these themes and tropes will read it very differently from a veteran. But it is an absolute joy when I pick up a book and find myself tearing through the pages, not knowing where the story is going, not knowing how it will end and desperately hoping it doesn’t end the way I think it will . . . and having the author not only surprise me at the end, but delight me with how satisfied I was with the closure of this trilogy. It’s a magnificent job, in my opinion. Thank you, Paul Durham for giving me such a reading adventure, and for giving this generation of readers a great protagonist in the character of Rye.
I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future!
Publication Date: March 2016
Recommended for grades 4 and up.