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.
Here’s a tough one. Protagonists in fantasy or SF with glasses. They have to be wearing the glasses for real, not as a disguise that gets taken off at some point. And they can’t be given a “Cinderella” transformation into somebody cooler without glasses later on in the story. Why am I doing this list? Mostly because I’m one of those kids who grew up wearing glasses. And when the conversations go to talking about representation and how it matters, this is one of the ways it matters to me personally.
It’s hard to find glasses wearing characters taking center stage. Too often they’re relegated to the side-kick or brainy helper mode. The behind-the-scenes guy or gal. In rare circumstances they do get to play the protagonist, but too often those roles are stereo-typed. The protagonists are nerdy and clumsy or inept in some way. Or simply brainy and bookish and not considered traditionally attractive. It’s a tough message to break down. I’ve at least tried to find some representations amid the halls of speculative children’s books, but my options for this ten list were fairly slim.
The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts (Scholastic, c1980)
My first book on this list is a science fictional title about a girl with telekinetic abilities and unusual silver eyes. Katie also is clearly described as wearing horn-rimmed glasses in the book. I’d always loved this book on so many levels, but I’m realizing now that in addition to everything else, there’s a significant excitement to the main character being a girl who wears glasses.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Puffin, c1982)
The book that prompted this list. See, I noticed the movie out and I realized I was trying very hard to determine if Sophie keeps her glasses through the whole movie. It seemed important to me. I know I loved the Quentin Blake illustration shown on the cover here, because there’s a blond girl in big glasses sitting fearlessly on the giant’s hand. Seriously, the kid in glasses gets to have the fantastical adventure and be brave and fearless!
A Wrinkle in the Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Yearling, c1962)
I had to go back and check for this one, but yup, Meg Murry wears glasses. It’s not evident on most of the covers (one of the reasons I chose this one) nor in the TV movie version, but it is the part of her description. Meg is the rather geeky girl that becomes the unlikely savior of her father and brother in an amazing trip across the universe via tesseract. Obviously one of my favorite books if you consider the name of this blog!
The Princess and the Frogs by Veronica Bartles, illustrated by Sara Palacios (Balzer & Bray, Expected Publication November 2016)
I love fractured fairy tales. And this picture book coming out in the fall provides a hilarious take on an old favorite. Our princess in this story wants a pet, not a prince. But every frog she finds inevitably turns into a prince when she kisses them, much to her frustration! On top of all that our princess wears glasses! I grinned when I saw the cover of this book because I have a young patron at my library (she’s 4) who got glasses in the last year and is so unsure about them. I can’t wait to tell her about this book!
Now You See It . .. by Vivian Vande Velde (HMH, c2004)
Wendy’s old glasses get broken, leaving her more blind than a bat. When she finds a pair of strange glasses that seem to help, she’s happy to have something that she can use. But these glasses see too well. They see things . . . that normally aren’t seen in the real world. These glasses have magic in them, and many creatures will do just about anything to gain possession of them! I can’t remember what happens with Wendy’s glasses at the end of the book, but this story not only has a glasses wearing protagonist, but makes the glasses the actual subject of the story!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, c1997)
You might have noticed something about the previous five books on this list. They’re all female characters. It seems that while a protagonist with glasses is rare, a male protagonist with glasses is rarer still. Perhaps that’s one of the things that has so many kids responding to Harry. He’s an imperfect kid, with a scar and glasses–and yet he’s the hero of the whole story, the chosen one!
Shatterglass by Tamora Pierce (Scholastic, c2003)
I nearly forgot Tris! From the Circle of Magic Series, Tris is a main character in the first four books, and then in this title. But I chose this particular book and cover because it really shows an image of Tris, glasses, braided hair and all. Tris holds one of the more dangerous magics of her four friends, magic that works with the weather itself–wind, water, lightning. In this title she is far from home, helping to investigate a string of mysterious murders that have taken place in the city.
Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat (Disney-Hyperion, c2010)
This first person POV SF picture book shows us what happens when an ambitious science fair project goes amok! Our narrator has built a giant robot for the school science fair, but she fails to take into account that the giant robot might go on a rampage. Our inventor runs home and creates a giant robotic toad to take out her robot. But will that be the end of the trouble? Our trouble-magnet inventor here is very clearly a girl with glasses! Gotta love it!
Alistair and the Alien Invasion by Marilyn Sadler, illustrated by Roger Bollen (Simon & Schuster, c1994)
Alistair, boy genius, is the protagonist of several speculative picture books. In this one, Alistair has to save the Earth from invading aliens, but can he do that and get his science project done in time? Our glasses wearing protagonist is pretty unflappable even in the most outlandish of situations. He’ll figure a way through!
Melvin Beederman Superhero: The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich by Greg Trin, art by Rhode Montijo (Square Fish, c2006)
Melvin Beederman is a rather inept fellow, but he still saves the day–as long as bologna isn’t involved that is! This silly send up to traditional comic book heroes is a great transitional reader for youngsters looking for that superhero flair but not ready for most of the comic book stories just yet. For my purposes, he’s wearing glasses! Unlike superman who takes his glasses off when he’s in his superhero persona, Melvin keeps his frames on!
You’ll notice something else about this list. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity apparent in these characters. I couldn’t come up with a single book featuring a non-white protagonist with glasses that fit my parameters. (With the possible exception of Oh No! Since she might be–I haven’t found info saying one way or the other.). So here’s where I need my readers to help. Comment below with any additional titles! (Remember, they’ve got to be the protagonists of the story!) But I’d love to add to this list!
Update 6/6/16–I found one to add!
The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass (Scholastic, 2014)
Bakari Katari Johnson is a shy kid who just found a ring with magical powers that everybody wants! Check it out–I found an African American protagonist in an MG fantasy story wearing glasses!
So. You’re an only child. You’re desperate for a friend, someone who you can have fun with, get into trouble with, share your troubles with. Congrats! You live a future where you don’t have to struggle to make a friend–a factory can build one for you!
Do you remember?
My Robot Buddy by Alfred Slote (Avon Camelot, c1975)
Jack’s desire for a friend and a brother leads his parents to getting him a robot buddy, Danny. It’s not an inexpensive investment, but given that Jack is growing up far from lots of other kids, his parents finally relent and decide to get him one for his birthday. Danny can do everything Jack can do, except–strangely enough–bend his knees. Jack and Danny are best of friends, but with nefarious robot snatchers in town, no robot buddy is safe!
Now I want you think for a moment about science fiction for young readers. Stuff for second and third grade readers that’s simple enough for them to work through, but entertaining enough and still true science fiction. Can you come up with many titles? Chances are not. Most of them are probably humorous stories with aliens or extremely wacky inventions rather than future-set stories. I read this book when I was a kid. I re-read this book a dozen times. I looked for it as an adult. I was hooked in by the premise–it got me looking for more stories about artificial intelligence. It was one of the early stories that made me so excited about science fiction in the first place. I mean look at this amazing idea of creating something that looks like a person but is still a robot. We’ve come a long way since this book was written, and we’re closer than ever to the reality this book envisions as far as robots mimicking humans.
I’m not about to tell you it’s the most brilliant thing ever written. But to find something written for that age that isn’t complete mush or silliness and has managed to last for decades on the shelves of the children’s floor means it’s something special. I read it to my son when he was five years old and plan to read it to my daughter this year (she’s obsessed with robots.
If you remember this title, did you know that Jack and Danny had a series of adventures? It seems there were four in all.
In which the whole Jameson family lands on a planet after running out of fuel to find a band of rebel robots (if I’m remembering it properly). It’s up to Danny to rescue them! This one actually addresses the rights of robots, and whether robots should be working in the service of humans. A group of AI robots has decided it is done with life with humans. But since this is a young reader book, issues are not heavily discussed.
I’m not entirely sure whether this was meant as the third or fourth book (I’ve read conflicting reviews and haven’t the books to refer to to confirm). In this story, Jack and Danny wind up on a space station confronting an evil mad scientist.
The Trouble on Janus(1985)
I remember this one being a lot of fun. The boys are off to a planet where the young ruler (who looks remarkably like Danny) is being threatened by those who wish to take the throne. A game of mistaken identity and conspiracy leads to an exciting conclusion for all involved.
There’s another title that I’ve seen included in the series. And it does have a main character named Jack–but I see no mention of Danny, nor does the story seem to follow their narrative. I can’t be sure of course without rereading.
My Trip To Alpha I (1978)
This involves a boy named Jack who goes to visit his aunt, only to find that things are not quite right with his aunt and scheming villains may be involved. Inventive and fun–but I don’t know that it’s part of the same series. The premise in this one is that when humans “travel ” to another planet. They often do so via data upload–having their entire mind uploaded into a robotic copy on the other end for the duration of their stay.
Just a shout out for the author, Alfred Slote who did an awfully huge service of helping get this gal into science fiction. I loved all these books, as well as his book Clone Catcher (1982)Which gave me quite a bit to think about in my early years of reading about the implications of cloning.
People may knock these books as not being “literary” or complex enough for their tastes, but in my opinion, they are exactly right for the audience they’re intended to reach. That said, time marches on, and these books are becoming “past SF” the way so many older titles are. As technology catches up and/or surpasses that of the books we’ll need new books that reach the same audiences and spark the same sort of excitement these stories first did in me.