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Flashback Fridays: Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit . . .

You’re just a kid who sometimes has strange things happen to them.  But this latest bit is sort of wild–there are dead people in  the cemetery talking to you.  They aren’t creepy or dangerous, they’re just ordinary people, except, well, dead of course . . .

Do you remember:

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Childrens, c1993)

Johnny Maxwell is an odd kid whose family is going through troubling times.  They live in a small town in the U.K. called Blackbury.  There’s a cemetery in town, an old, mostly forgotten one that Johnny likes to wander by. But suddenly he sees dead people.  And talks to them to.  The dead in this cemetery aren’t frightening or anything–they’re just ordinary people who once lived in Blackbury.   And they’re alarmed when they find out their cemetery is about to be destroyed in the name of progress and “Bright Futures.”  They want Johnny and his friends to help.

And so begins a most unusual ghost story.  Where ghosts teach the living about the power of history, memory and legacy and learn in turn that there’s more to life than death and cemeteries.  And that sometimes it’s essential to break the rules.  Sometimes habits are all that keep us pinned down.

Back in 1997 wandering around Oxford this was one of the very first Terry Pratchett books I encountered, and I still have a great deal of love and fondness for it.  Johnny is pretty much every boy.  He’s well-meaning, has some odd quirks and strange stuff happen to him, but he’s still pretty ordinary.  He’s got his friends, and a family going through troubles that he’s trying to avoid.  He’s not a chosen one or a secret heir.  He’s just Johnny.  But Johnny sees ghosts.  His friends are disappointed they aren’t spooky zombies like you’d find in the Thriller video.  But they get on board with helping him through yet another adventure. (Last time it was a video game that featured real aliens).

A lot of the residents of the cemetery are eager to talk to him and find out what’s gone on in the world since they died.  All except for Mr. Grimm who constantly warns them about breaking the rules and doing things that are improper.  Johnny slowly uncovers the history of the people buried in the cemetery–becoming more and more invested in their stories and what it means to Blackbury–the real Blackbury and not the gray town it’s becoming.  He sees the real evil in this story:

Real dark forces… aren’t dark. They’re sort of gray, like Mr. Grimm. They take all the color out of life; they take a town like Blackbury and turn it into frightened streets and plastic signs and Bright New Futures and towers where no one wants to live and no one really does live. The dead seem more alive than us. And everyone becomes gray and turns into numbers and then, somewhere, someone starts to do arithmetic…”

It’s evil in the classic Sir Terry mode.  The evil of negating humanity.   The evil of treating people as things–that’s what Johnny is fighting.  But while the kids are fighting to save the cemetery, the ghosts are realizing that the cemetery has grown too small for them.  They are curious, they are wondering and interested and excited again.  And so they finally break the rules and leave the boundaries of the cemetery.  And they discover they were never meant to stay at all–that there is a beyond to explore and travel and continue in–and only fear and habit was holding them back.  It’s something that reminds that every life has meaning, and that the past still matters,  so long as it informs us in the present.

It’s a great book, and it inspired a TV miniseries in 1995.  Sir Terry wrote two other books in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.  The first was  Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and the third is J0hnny and the Bomb (1996) .

If you’ve never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett, I can only say I hope you will discover him.  He is by far and away one of my favorite writers and has many titles for readers to discover.  Some for children, and many more for adults.  His quirky humor and dry observations are ultimately balanced by a sense of heart, profundity and poignancy that can turn a funny book into one that makes you tear up and cry–or realize why you’re alive.

Comments welcome!

A Tuesday Ten: A Science Fiction Pathway V (9-12 years old)

For those reading along, this is the 5th part of this pathway, the introductory paragraph is pretty much the same  for each of these entries.

So, there are always lists out there detailing these or those must-read Science fiction books. Often SF and Fantasy are thrown in together without differentiation.  It’s inspired me to try a different kind of series of Tuesday Ten lists, one that takes readers on a trip from childhood to adult with Science Fiction stories recommended in each age bracket.  A potential pathway so to speak.  I’m going to limit each bracket to ten titles (which is a REAL challenge in some cases), and I’m going to try and put in a range of works, recent and past, that are still available for readers to find.  After all, the point of this list is to give you ideas of titles share with your kids or read yourselves!  There will be many more options in each age range, this is only the jumping off point after all!  Let’s blast off!

This week’s Ten is focusing on the next group in my age bracket, the 9-12 year-olds.  (You can check out the 0-3 years list here , the 3-5 year-olds here, the 5-7 year-olds here, and the 7-9 year-olds here.)  By now kids are pretty much independent readers.  If they don’t already have some interest in science fiction, it can be a challenge to get them to try the genre, though not impossible by any stretch.  They are having regular school assignments in book reading, both fiction and nonfiction.  Some will be slower readers, still intimidated by page size or story complexity.  Some will be reading their way through YA and adult literature with no signs of slowing.  This is a great time though to discuss both classics and newer stories that have issues and adventures that can be chewed over and explored at length.  It’s still a great idea to be reading aloud to your child at this point, though the books you choose may be from the YA and teen realm, or older classics the kids won’t pick up on their own.

Aliens, dystopias, future worlds, space adventure, invention, time travel . . . there’s a whole world of possibilities here.


The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Walker Childrens, 2013)

We’ll kick off with this book–a notable read from 2013 that combines mystery, history, and science fiction in a subtle and delightful way.  Ephraim’s ancestor was once fascinated by the idea of the fountain of youth, but he thought he might be able to create such a thing rather than simply discover it.  Ephraim is on a hunt to find out what his ancestor did discover, along with new friends from the town.  The science fiction in this one slips in and out, important to the plot but not overpowering, and not the traditional “sci fi” sort of setting.  It’s a perfect blend to bring in any reader who likes a good story and enjoys speculating on the truth of the matter.  Readers who enjoy this will probably like exploring stories of invention and near-future discoveries that still take place in a mostly recognizable setting and society.  This kind of story often leads to further discussion of science ethics and the responsibilities one has for their discoveries.


The Giver by Lois Lowry (Dell Laurel-Leaf, c1993)

If there ever was a book that defined dystopia, it is this masterpiece by Lowry.  Complicated, controversial and creepy because it’s actually believable.  Jonas is growing up in a society that is a seeming utopia, without hunger, war or conflict.  But the longer readers are in this society, the more the utopia begins to look like a nightmarish dystopia.  As Jonas discovers the truth about his world and the reader does too, he’ll have profound choices to make.  Not an easy book, and it may not suit every child in this age range.  It raises many questions–as a good science fiction story should.   While the Hunger Games is the dramatic and chilling dystopian vision in everyone’s mind, this one is more subtle, but no less frightening in the end.


The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (Signet Classics, c1895)

It’s certainly a time to try kids on the classics of the SF world.  H.G. Wells is among the early writers of science fiction, and his unforgettable Time Machine remains in print to this day.  This may be a book to read aloud to your child unless they’re particularly precocious or enthusiastic about exploring the traditions of science fiction.  Time travel to the past is a pretty common thread in stories, both fantasy and SF.  But time-travel to the future tends to be less common.  Here our intrepid inventor and explorer does both.


Mars Evacuees by Sophia MacDougall (HarperCollins, 2015)

If you like space adventure, humor,  and aliens I’ve got to encourage you to read this delightfully fun Martian story!  Alice Dare and other kids from Earth are being sent to the Mars colony to keep them safe while the adults back home continue to battle invading aliens.    Only, once they arrive at their new home, the adults go missing, and our intrepid young people soon find themselves travelling across the hostile Martian terrain in search of help.  With the help of an enemy alien and a giant floating robotic goldfish they just might save their worlds from destruction!  Fun, funny, adventurous and fast moving. If you enjoy this, be sure to check out the second book: Space Hostages.


Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry (HarperCollins, 2013)

Want to go a little further in the future?  Jason Fry’s Jupiter Pirates series takes us out further into the solar system where Tycho and his family are privateers.  With their ship the Shadow Comet they track down trespassing ships, and of course, potential treasure.  With a marvelous sense of science fictional fun and a high adventure plot worthy of the old-time pirates, Jason Fry blends swashbuckling with sci-fi!  This series is rich in detail and plotting, so best for the reader who is looking for longer, more sophisticated reads.  There are currently three books out in this series.


Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson (GRAPHIX, 2015)

Space Opera is great stuff, though there isn’t ever a great deal of it for the middle grade crowd.  This new graphic novel adventure takes us to an outer space future populated by sentient chickens, giant space whales and all sorts of aliens.  Our young heroine’s dad has gone missing after his day at work and rather  than simply wait to find out what’s become of him, she heads out with a group of misfits, steals a ship and goes in search of him.  Great fun in a full color illustrations!


Ambassador by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry, 2014)

Ambassador is only half the story, and I do suggest anyone reading this first book have Nomad (2015) near to hand to complete this science fiction adventure.  Why do I have it on the list?  Several reasons.  One is that it is one of the rare science fiction stories to actually feature a Latino protagonist.  Two is that it’s a book that takes a different interpretation of the how intergalactic species communicate and cooperate with each other, rather than the traditional rocket ships central planet alliances.  The amazing details really come together in the second book–and I think this will appeal most to thinkers who enjoy being challenged by new concepts and new perceptions of things.


The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer (Puffin, 1995)

Futuristic earth-bound science fiction set in Africa?  When it comes to middle grade books, this is the singular one that comes to mind, a story that ties science fictional and folkloric aspects together in a story about children who’ve disappeared and the legendary individuals out to find them.  This was a Newbery Honor for 1995, so it can usually be found in library collections despite being printed in the 1990s.


The White Mountains by John Christopher (Simon Pulse, c1967)

Next to books like the Time Machine, this series by John Christopher may be the most reprinted science fiction series for kids.  The Tripods trilogy (plus a prequel) is a story of alien invasion and oppression, human escape and resistance, and ultimate victory against the vicious Tripods.  Still as vivid today as it was so many years ago.  It’s a critical work in the history of children’s science fiction and deserves to remain  in the canon of suggested reading for years to come.


Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar (Delacorte Books, 2015)

It was hard limiting this to ten, there are so many divergent paths of SF at this point, and so many good books I want to recommend.  But I decided on Fuzzy Mud because it shows off the thriller/horror side of science fiction.  What happens when an experiment gets out of control, leading to dire and deadly circumstances?  What if a mysterious “fuzzy mud” in the woods by a chemical plant turned out to be a mutated experiment that begins to infect everyone who comes in contact with it?  The scary consequences of science gone wrong or out of control can be seen in everything from Shelley’s Frankenstein to stories like this one from 2015.  Great for conversation starters, or just for entertainment!

My earlier pathways can be found here:

A Science Fiction Pathway Part I ( 0-3 years)

A Science Fiction Pathway Part II (3-5 years)

A Science Fiction Pathway Part III (5-7 years)

A Science Fiction Pathway Part IV (7-9 years)

A Tuesday Ten: 2015 Creepy Fantastic

An exhausting week of being sick–yes, it is cold and flu season again!–and I’m back with more lists!  This time I decided to dip into the creepier titles being published this year.


The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Simon & Schuster, Expected Publication October 2015)

We kick off the list with this reeeeeally creepy story by Kenneth Oppel that will have us never looking at wasps the same way again!  Steve just wants to help his baby brother–and the “angels” in his dreams are offering help, all he has to do is say yes.  But the price of that help and what it will mean may be more than Steve is willing to pay!  Jon Klassen’s art perfectly complements this dark tale that reminds us to be careful what we wish for . . .


Button Hill by Michael Bradford (Orca Books, April 2015)

Button Hill is a bizarre sort of story with a rebellious boy named Dekker who does what he’s told not to do, and in doing so puts his sister at risk of being permanently lost to the Nightside–the land of the dead.  Now he’ll have to venture into the Nightside, and try to rescue his sister. But the risks for the living in the land of the dead are high indeed–and there are those who will do their best to stop Dekker from ever getting home to the Dayside again.


Charlie and the Grandmothers by Katy Towell (Knopf Books for Young Readers, August 2015)

Charlie’s been afraid of things his entire life.  But this time he’s right to be afraid.  The adults of his village are acting bizarrely as one by one all the children vanish–sent to visit their grandmothers.  When Charlie’s mother starts insisting he and his sister go visit their grandmother as well, Charlie knows something is terribly wrong–their grandmothers are dead after all, they certainly can’t go visit them.  And yet off they are sent, to the home of two strange women who are something far more terrifying.  And although he may be afraid, Charlie is the only one with the power to stop the dark and dangerous evil that has stolen away all the children.


A Curious Tale of The In-Between by Lauren DeStefano (Bloomsbury, September 2015)

Pram Bellamy has always had one foot in the ghostly world.  Her ability to talk to ghosts and see what others cannot sets her apart, and might be one of the reasons she has few real-world friends.  But there are those who want the gifts that Pram has for themselves . . . and it might take the help of both her supernatural and real world friends to help her escape their clutches!


The Great Ball of Light by Evan Kuhlman (Atheneum, March 2015)

I debated including this, but in the end I think it’s the only place this book fits.  Imagine you found a glowing ball of light in your back yard that you could keep in a jar.  Imagine that ball of light had an amazing power–it could bring dead things back to life . . . sort of.  Or at least bring them back as undead things.  That’s what happens to twins Fenton and Fiona.  And after they bring back their dead dog Scruffy they decide their going to do something even crazier–they’re going to dig up their grandpa and bring him back!  Undead mayhem and hilarity ensues in this macabre fantasy.


The Mothman’s Curse by Christine Hayes, illustrated by James K. Hindle (Roaring Brook Press, June 2015)

Josie has never seen anything all that unusual even though she lives in the most haunted town in America.  That is until she and her brothers discover a haunted camera and find the legend of the Mothman beginning to intrude into reality.  To save her town, Josie must solve the puzzle of the haunted spirit, an old curse and the Mothman legend in order to break the curse once and for all.


Took: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, September 2015)

If the book has the name Mary Downing Hahn on the cover, you know it’s going to be a spooky read.  Rumors say that every 50 years the ghost-witch steals another little girl–but Daniel doesn’t believe in such nonsense.  Until his own seven-year-old sister begins acting strangely, and ultimately goes missing in the forest.  Has Erica been “Took”?  Now it’s up to Daniel to maybe believe in things beyond reality and find a way to get his sister back.


Guy’s Read: Terrifying Tales edited by Jon Scieszka (Walden Pond Press, September 2015)

This is the sixth anthology of short stories in the Guys Read collection.  The theme is naturally perfect for this list, and my library shelves can always use more collections of creepy stories for horror-hungry readers. Includes stories by authors such as Claire Legrand, Nikki Loftin, Dav Pilkey, and Michael Buckley.  A perfect way to set the mood on a chill October evening.


Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods: 20 chilling Tales from the Wilderness by Hal Johnson, illustrated by Tom Mead (Workman Publishing Company, September 2015)

My second short story collection for the list.  This one is a collection of stories written about actual folkloric legends of America’s lesser known but no less terrifying critters and cryptids.  An unusual and fascinating collection that will give readers a whole new list of mysterious things that go bump, hiss and snarl in the night.  Of note, this book has an amazing glow in the dark cover that has to be checked out.  A good gift for the Halloween season.


The Kat Sinclair Files: Dead Air by Michelle Schusterman, illustrated by Stephanie Olesh (Grosset and Dunlap, September 2015)

We’ll wrap up this list with young Kat Sinclair.  Our thirteen-year-old is currently off to Europe with her father while he is working on a show about ghost hunters.  Kat herself doesn’t have any real belief in ghosts, or in the curse that is rumored to be connected with the show.  But when mysterious things start happening that she can’t explain, Kat is forced to accept the supernatural is real.  And that those involved in the show may be in danger!  This paranormal adventure looks to be the first in an ongoing series about Kat.

So there’s my ten!  What other creepy reads have you found for 2015?  Comments welcome!