Tag: fantasy (page 1 of 4)

Harry Potter | JK Rowling

I read the first five books when we were newly married. We lived in a studio apartment where the shag carpet smelt of hashbrowns, and our mattress doubled as both sofa and bed. While drunk college kids tossed bottles into the street outside and the glass shattered with a sound like waves on pavement, I opened Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the first page and read, “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We read that line to our two oldest daughters a few months ago and ushered them into the world of Hogwarts with us, where we trod shifting staircases, spoke with portraits, and savored chocolate frogs. Adding things like “rogue bludger” and “Alas, earwax” to our family lexicon brought all four of us a great deal of joy.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

But I understand that many Christians have raised objections to Harry Potter. My point here is not to persuade you that you must read these books to your kids (though I will link later to someone who will try): I understand that our consciences prick us, sometimes, at different points, and it is not my desire to deaden your sensitivity to that. And I know, too, that a number of you love fairy tales or share with me a fondness for The Wingfeather Saga. You folks are probably familiar with the armchairs of the Gryffindor common room and don’t need me to recommend books that you have read several times already.

Why, then, am I reviewing Harry Potter?

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

Because what I really want to talk about is magic. Magic is a one of many threads in the Harry Potter books, but because it is viewed askance by many Christians, it tends to be the one skeptical reviewers highlight. Yes, the characters cast spells; they attend a school called a “the school of witchcraft and wizardry.” And yes, seizing some form of power to achieve one’s own ends is evil, both in our world and in the worlds of fairy tale and fantasy. JK Rowling does not celebrate that sort of magic—sorcery, really—but draws a clear line between the Dark Arts and the kind of magic most of the characters in Harry Potter employ.

That magic is a gift they have been given, one that they are sent to Hogwarts to cultivate.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

One of the central themes of the series, one that is much more potent than the mere fact of casting spells, is the contrast between Harry, who rejects the Dark Arts despite moments of temptation, and Voldemort, who manipulates the Dark Arts to achieve his own horrible ends. Both are considered great wizards, but Harry uses his power to protect those he loves and those who come after him. Voldemort uses his to do “terrible things.”

JK Rowling’s story does not glorify the practice of sorcery. She does not send us away from the books with a desire to be brutal like Voldemort, or treacherous or cowardly, as many of Voldemort’s Death Eaters are. Instead, we close the pages wanting to be brave like Harry and his friends, or to be the sort of person, Muggle or magical, who is willing to lay our lives down for one another in love.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

We read only the first two books to our girls this year—the rest will wait a few years more until they’re ready for deeper discussions. But when I found Lydia and Sarah on the neighbor’s trampoline, giggling and shouting “Wingardium leviosa!” at one another just before a really big jump, I did not fear for their souls: the sort of magic they practice is the magic of childhood, the sort that allows them to leap and for a moment, believe that they are flying. That is a magic rooted firmly in this world, and it’s one our children are born with, Muggle though they may be.


Want to read more about HArry?

Haley Stewart, at Carrots for Michaelmas, makes a compelling argument for “Why Your Kids Need to Read Harry Potter.”

Andrew Peterson (author of The Wingfeather Saga) wrote a piece about Potter that is just beautiful.

ND Wilson’s thoughts on magic largely informed my view of it. You can read an article he wrote on about this for Desiring God, or you can listen to his episode, “Magic and Fear in Children’s Books,” of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast (that episode is, for the record, my all-time favorite so far).

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

A note on illustrations

We love the new, large-format versions of these books, illustrated by Jim Kay, but I should warn you: the illustrations are much darker than the originals by Mary GrandPré. I personally preferred reading the original editions of the books, but Jim Kay’s illustrations are eerie and striking, and we just kept returning to them (you can get a glimpse of Kay’s work in this charming video). Mitch and the girls loved both editions, so we ended up toggling back and forth between the two as we read. I have linked to both below.


The Complete Harry Potter Series
JK Rowling (1997-2007)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (pre-order)
JK Rowling, Jim Kay (2015-2017)

The Door Before | ND Wilson

Is there a better moment for a bookworm than the one when a favorite author announces that his newest book will be a reentry into the world of one of his most beloved series? I doubt it. But is there a more depressing moment than the one that comes when a reader realizes, halfway through the new book, that the original series was better without the late entry? No. After a few experiences of that sort, I’ve come to regard announcements like this one with an immediate rush of joy (a return ticket to a beloved world!) followed by apprehension (But what if it’s like Clariel?).

But when ND Wilson announced The Door Before, a prequel to his 100 Cupboards trilogy, the apprehension didn’t flood over me, but only lapped quietly at my toes. If anyone could do it, I thought, ND Wilson could.

And he did. He did it right.

The Door Before, by ND Wilson | Little Book, Big Story

The Door Before introduces us to new aspects of Wilson’s ever-expanding world, and masterfully links  (so I hear) this series to his Ashtown Burials series. Because I haven’t yet read that other series (I have been saving it, so I’ll never not have an ND Wilson series to look forward to), I can’t comment much on how delightful that is, except in theory. But I can tell you that the story of The Door Before is a powerful force, and I was swept into it immediately.

The Door Before answers old questions and raises new ones, and makes the world(s) of 100 Cupboards seem both bigger and more well-ordered than before. Old characters appear throughout this book, and I wanted to cheer when I met them, the way we do when an old friend saunters onscreen during a new Star Wars movie. But I couldn’t, because Mitch hasn’t read the book yet. I cheered inwardly, ate some chocolate, and kept reading.

The 100 Cupboards series, by ND Wilson | Little Book, Big Story

Every book I read by ND Wilson cements his place at the top of my list of favorite authors—the way he views our world and his created world, the way he gives his characters room to move and make gut-wrenching decisions, enables him to craft stories that are intense and sometimes gruesome but always strangely beautiful, too.

 The Door Before is a welcome addition to the 100 Cupboards collection—one I can’t wait to reread alongside the original trilogy and the Ashtown Burials series in a giant ND Wilson binge.


The Door Before
ND Wilson (2017)


also

My dear friend Jennifer Harris interviewed me on her blog Every Morning, New Mercies! You can read the interview here  and learn more about why I started this blog, how I know I’ve found a book worth reviewing, and when I fell in love with classics. But you should stick around and read her posts, too! “The Hospitality of Frog and Toad” is one of my favorites, as is her piece (featured in “The Warren & the World”) about Charlotte’s WebAnd her post on the myth of balance is just lovely.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy) | Grace Lin

Lydia marched downstairs, her copy of Cricket open to the page titled “Cricket Readers Recommend.”

“I want to do this,” she said, holding it out for me to read. And lo! “Cricket Readers Recommend” is a page dedicated to kid-written book reviews. My daughter was telling me she wanted to write and submit a book review for general consumption.

My cheeks pinked; my eyes watered. I sniffled (just a little). “Of course,” I said, assuming she’d write about one of her well-worn Redwall novels.

But: “I want to write about my new favorite book,” she said, and the smile she gave me was full not of courageous mousemaids, but of undersea avenues lit by pearls, of magistrates turned to tigers, of sorrow sealed into a stone. “When the Sea Turned to Silver. You’d like it, Mom—it’s beautiful.”

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story

She was right. I started it later that day, and it was beautiful.

When the Sea Turns to Silver is the third in a trilogy of books by Grace Lin—the only one I hadn’t yet read. The other two (Starry River of the Sky and Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) had been sitting on my list of books to review for over a year, suffering the same fate as The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic: I loved them. I wanted to share them with you. But how could I possibly describe those books?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story

Grace Lin creates, in this trilogy, a mixed media collage: fantasy, fairy tale, and historical fiction all overlap to create a new sort of story set in a world infused with the colors, flavors, and textures of Lin’s Chinese and Taiiwanese heritage. Even the illustrations (also done by Lin) and the book design have an ever-changing aspect that suits each story.

But Lydia’s review sums the book up nicely (and I think her last few sentences apply perfectly to the whole trilogy):

Pinmei, a shy little girl, has always lived on the Endless Mountain with her grandmother, Amah. But when the emperor takes Amah, Pinmei and her best friend Yishan go on a quest to save her. The story is a mixture of fantasy and reality with stories that come true and characters that were thought not to be real. The twists and turns are mysterious and secretive. You should really read it!

We have read many (perhaps most?) of Grace Lin’s books, and we’ve yet to meet one we didn’t love. But this trilogy is our favorite. I can’t wait to share it with my younger daughters and, with Lydia’s nudging, I couldn’t wait any longer to share it with you.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story


Starry River of the Sky (2014)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2011)
When the Sea Turns to Silver (2016)
Grace Lin

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard | Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes won me over quietly—I almost didn’t see it happening. Jonathan Auxier’s story of an orphaned thief who eyes were (eep!) pecked out by ravens has a wit and charm and enough unexpected quirks to make it unlike any other books I’ve read. I liked it. I passed it on to Lydia, who loved it. But for some reason (maybe it was the thieving? Or the crows?), I didn’t immediately review it for this blog.

But then I read Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

There was nothing subtle about the way this book won me over: affection for it roared over me like a semi truck, overtaking me so abruptly that, at one point, I thumped the cover at Mitch while I read and announced, “Oh my word, I love this book!” before diving back into the story. It was the sort of book I adored so much, so immediately, that I kept my fingers metaphorically crossed for the rest of the book in the hope that the ending wouldn’t fizzle.

It didn’t.

This book is glorious from start to finish.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

Sophie Quire is a sequel to Peter Nimble, in that it happens after Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, Peter Nimble is in it, and it was written by the same author. But it might be more accurate to call it a companion book, I don’t know, because the main character here is Sophie Quire, a young bookmender in the city of Bustleburgh, which is currently banishing nonsense in all its forms. When she meets a certain blind thief and takes on an unlikely commission, everything in Sophie’s life changes.

Jonathan Auxier’s writing is as exhilarating in this book as it is in The Night Gardener and Peter Nimble. His characters are bizarre and loveable, and through their adventures, Auxier explores (among other things) the importance of stories and nonsense. Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is a beautiful book, one that has a deeper layer of truth underneath the story, waiting for those willing to look for it.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story


Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
Jonathan Auxier (2012)

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard
Jonathan Auxier (2017)

Breadcrumbs | Anne Ursu

Some authors play with language in a showy way, a way that draws the reader’s eye away from the story and onto their clever wordplay, but not Anne Ursu. She shapes each scene with obvious enjoyment, but it’s the scene we see, not her masterful shaping of it. She plays with words in the quietest way, panning out suddenly from a scene until pieces we hadn’t noticed yet become vivid and living, or giving a word some unexpected tilt that brings a new facet of meaning to light.

The delight behind her writing drew me into Breadcrumbs—a thrift store findimmediately. But the story itself held me there.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu | Little Book, Big Story

Breadcrumbs travels over familiar ground: it is a coming-of-age tale, and a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” It could feel tired, too familiar. But it doesn’t.

The world Ursu constructs to house both the recognizable lives of her main characters and the cold enchantments of The Snow Queen is bewitching. The way she moves us from one to the other seems just right. When the main character, Hazel, sets out to rescue her best friend Jack from an enchantment she doesn’t fully understand, she finds that the world around her becomes less and less clearit grows harder to tell who is trustworthy and who is not. Through Hazel’s adventure, Ursu depicts the realistic confusion of coming-of-age without blurring the lines between good and evil.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu | Little Book, Big Story

One other thing I loved about Breadcrumbs, though, was Hazel. She’s inventive, brave, and the right kind of quirky. She’s loyal, kind, and bold. She is Indian, adopted at birth by American parents. Her struggle to place herself in her surroundings, to understand where she fitsas an adopted child, a child of recently divorced parents, a child who doesn’t look like those around heris a part of the story, but it isn’t what the story is about. The story is about a rescue, and the rescuer, in this case, is Hazel.

I loved Breadcrumbs. It is a beautiful book. But one of the things I loved best about it was that it introduced me not just to a new favorite story, but to a new favorite author. I can’t wait to see what else Anne Ursu has written.


Breadcrumbs
Anne Ursu (2013)

Wingfeather Tales | Andrew Peterson (Editor)

There’s a spot on our porch I check every time I come home—to the left of the door, on the girls’ stripey chair. If I’m going to get a package, that’s where it will be, and if there is a package there, then it is probably full of books. There have been a lot of packages there lately, because, as I write, it’s nearly Christmas and I loathe going to stores (I drank the online shopping Kool-Aid early and never looked back).

But a few weeks ago, I found a package on the stripey chair that said not “Amazon Fulfillment Center” on the return address but “The Rabbit Room,” and I knew that something very, very good was about to happen to me.

I was right. Stickers and posters and patches happened, as well as a signed paperback copy of The Warden and the Wolf King. Happy little girls with their hands full of stickers and posters and patches happened. But I dug into the package looking for one thing and one thing only: Wingfeather Tales.

Wingfeather Tales, ed. Andrew Peterson | Little Book, Big Story

When Andrew Peterson ran his most recent Kickstarter campaign, one of the stretch goals was this collection of short stories set in Anniera, but written by a handful of my favorite authors and illustrators (if you’ve read anything by them, then they’re probably your favorites, too): ND Wilson, Jennifer Trafton, John Hendrix, Justin Gerard, Jonathan Rogers, to name a few.

That, I thought, looking at the line-up, is going to be awesome. But even with “awesome” as my starting point, I still completely underestimated Wingfeather Tales.

The Wingfeather Saga & Wingfeather Tales | Little Book, Big Story

The stories the authors turned out differ wildly in tone and style: some are comic, some epic, one is a narrative poem, one is a novella so devastating that I still can’t think about it without feeling an uncomfortable tightness in my throat. At least two of the stories cleverly link Anniera up with the worlds of other beloved books; one tells a story we’ve all been wanting to hear. The authors clearly enjoyed being set loose in the world of the Wingfeather Saga.

The Wingfeather Saga & Wingfeather Tales | Little Book, Big Story

I think I expected this book to be a fun sort of honorary member of the series, maybe a collection of extra material that would be pleasant to read, if not as good as the saga itself—sort of what Chronicles of Avonlea is to the Anne of Green Gables series. But Wingfeather Tales is its own beautiful contribution to the Wingfeather canon, so vivid and enjoyable that I can’t imagine rereading the full saga without re-reading the Tales, too. And that is beyond awesome.


Wingfeather Tales
Ed. Andrew Peterson (2016)

Redwall | Brian Jacques

Redwall. Now she knew why creatures talked of it with such reverence; it appeared to blend with the surrounding Mossflower country as a haven of rest and tranquility, in harmony with all nature, like some gentle giant of a mother, sheltering and protecting her children.

– Mariel of Redwall 

I encountered Redwall Abbey in my early twenties. I was wandering then, in need of a refuge, and I found one within the grounds of Redwall. Evil was clear-cut there, easy to see and to fight—unlike the sin that seeps and simmers in our adult lives. Reading about the peaceful creatures of Redwall battling the rat Cluny, and feasting on good things like woodland salad and maple cordial fortified me for my own battle.

A good story can do that.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

But when I handed my battered copy over to Lydia a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect her to love it. I even cautioned her that she may not love it yet, and that if she didn’t fall for it immediately she should withhold judgement and try again in a few years. Cluny is really scary, and I wasn’t sure she was ready to meet him.

She was ready to meet him. She came downstairs a few hours later, shining-eyed and wondering if there were more books in the series.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Lydia was in luck: Redwall is one of twenty-two books (meaty, full-length, well-written books) about the Abbey and its inhabitants. The inhabitants change from book to book, as the stories generally take place at different points along a timeline.

Think Chronicles of Narnia or Star Wars: you grow to love one batch of characters in a book, and then pick up the next book to find a batch of brand new characters to love, with, perhaps, a few cameos from old favorites in the new story. The mischievous Dibbun of one book may be the elderly Abbot of the next book. It’s great fun.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Lydia was so taken with these books that she’s begun working industriously around the house, doing chores and setting up lemonade stands in order to fund her growing collection of Redwall books. She has out-paced me in the series, so I’ve been taking recommendations from her on what to read next. She is the true Redwall authority in our home now, so I asked her to share her thoughts on the series with you. Here is why Lydia thinks your family will love these books:

I love these books! I can’t believe that the first time I read Redwall, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Girls will like it because there are beautiful girls who are very brave, too, and boys will like it because there are lots of battles. There are hilarious hungry hares, beautiful young maidens, old abbots and abbesses, brave young warriors (who are sometimes girls!), cute little Dibbuns, strong badger lords (and a badger lady), very bad vermin, big brave Skippers, odd-speaking moles, argumentative Guosim shrews and much more! Dive into the world between the covers of a Redwall book!

I think she summed up the series quite nicely! I can really only add a few grown-up thoughts to that.

On Villains

The evil in these books is shocking, and I think it’s meant to be.

The villains in these stories war amongst themselves, kill innocent creatures, and go to terrible ends to achieve their goals. They are brutal, but they are rarely funny and never glorified. When the story transitions from the villain’s stronghold, where he slays his friends out of vengeance, pride, or boredom, to the Abbey orchard, where strangers and friends feast together, the reader can’t help but love the lovelier scene.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

As my daughter and I have discussed these books, I’ve been struck by how well they help shape her affections. She has been quick to notice the way that the creatures of Redwall serve one another, while the villains serve only themselves, or to notice how the Redwall soldiers honor their fallen while their enemies simply leave their dead behind. And that contrast is, I think, the point: there is no moral ambiguity to this story, no anti-hero. The bad guys are very bad; the heroes aren’t perfect, but they are still very good.

Jacques was a child in England during WWII, and I wonder how his experiences shaped the portrayal of evil in these stories. If your child is a sensitive reader, I will give you two warnings: Be ready for graphic battle scenes and very bad bad guys, but don’t let those turn you away from the story. Jacques does a great job of making the stories feel safe, even when they’re at their scariest.

On Dialect

Jacques was fond of writing in dialect. In the case of the hares, who sound like characters from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, this is delightful. But in the case of the moles, who are meant to sound (I think) like operating drills, the dialogue can be a bit trickier to decipher. If you’re reading aloud, you might familiarize yourself with the dialogue before reading to your kids so you don’t get sucked into a whirlpool of zzzs and rrrs.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

On Feasts

The food. Oh, the food.

Jacques has said that his lavish descriptions of Redwall feasts sprung from his memory of rationing during the war, when he fantasized about the dishes in his mother’s cookbook. His descriptions of food are so mouth-watering that they have inspired a whole cookbook and have inspired us to throw our own Redwall feast. There are so many dishes in there that sound wonderful, even if I have no idea what they are: meadowcream trifle, buttercup cordial, mushroom and leek pasty with gravy. I want comfort food—and a lot of it—when I’m reading these books.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Sarah, my photography assistant

In fact, that was the second caution I offered Lydia when I gave her the book: you might not like it yet, and it will probably make you hungry. I am so glad I was wrong about the first one, and so glad I was right about the second.


Redwall
Brian Jacques (1986-2011)