Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I've been reading so many good young adult books lately, most of them recommendation from Jackamo. Here's a rundown of my recent reading activity. (There are warnings about spoilers below.)

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins: I mentioned these in an earlier post, but I enjoyed them increasingly more as I read through the series. I was deeply touched by several of the characters. This is a youth series with excitement and depth, but also a lot of death and sadness.


I really loved the ending. Whereas the events of the series come to a rewarding conclusion, it isn't all tied up perfectly and as a result feels like an honest coming-of-age story for Gregor, who is a preteen on the cusp of adulthood with more experience, courage, and wisdom than most grownups. It's melancholy, but how could it not be after all he's been through? The final detail of his toddler sister Boots finally saying his name properly closes on a hopeful note. The more I mull over the ending, the more I appreciate it.


The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare: This is rather pulpy but well-written fantasy series for teens. SWS tells me Clare has been accused of plagiarizing everyone from JK Rowling to Joss Whedon to Twilight, but I don't see any more shared ideas in this than I do in most of the other recent fantasy fiction I've read. Even if she borrows many ideas from other authors, she creates her own super fun story. Clare has another series coming out soon--prequels to TMI, and I'll certainly be checking them out.


The conclusion of this series wasn't as strong. Jackamo pointed out to me that it was written for teens (and Clare seems especially to have teen girls in mind), as the characters had some silly doubts about love, paired up tidily, and attended something akin to a ball at the end. My biggest criticism: I felt there were a lot of ideas here that could be mined for religious significance, as there is a Jewish boy turns vampire and an agnostic girl who not only discovers she has angel blood but sees an angel. These characters never seem to experience the spiritual questioning common to many adolescents, and they have greater impetus to do so! So that is a lost opportunity. The ideas needn't be "churchy" in nature, but it would have added depth to the characters to make them a bit more philosophical.


Princess Academy by Shannon Hale: With a cheesy name like this, I had expectations for something girlie and saccharine, but Princess Academy is a lovely surprise. It's a Newbury Honor Book focusing more on the value of hard work, ingenuity, and devotion than dressing up in gowns or living in a castle. If I had a young daughter, I'd strongly recommend it to her. It had a satisfying and not totally predictable ending, but I won't post a spoiler about it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wild Things

I've got several wild things to address. The first are a series of books by Canadian author Melanie Watt about a paranoid, obsessive squirrel. I chose at random from the library Scaredy Squirrel and Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend. Ben was about as interested as he is in any picture book at this age (i.e., it looks good enough to gnaw on), but Ickie and I found hilarious Scaredy Squirrel's strict daily schedules, emergency plans, potential friend quiz, and fear of germs, walruses, and the unknown. The drawings are adorable (godzilla is town-crushingly cute) and Watt's kooky sense of humor extends even to her author's bio.

Second, I'm in the middle of reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Susan Collins. It's touted as a version of Alice in Wonderland for city kids. The opening sequence where Gregor and his baby sister are sucked down a vent from their laundry room and land in a land of giant rats, bats, and cockroaches is a tribute to Lewis Carroll's work, but the series has its own quest-driven plots. The Gregor series has many of the same elements that make Harry Potter an above-average series: Gregor is a brave kid under pressure who makes decisions with integrity. Most of the characters have complex personalities (especially my favorite sarcastic rat, Ripred), and it's interesting to watch the different species struggle to find common ground.

Third, Ickie just put me on to the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are, the classic by Maurice Sendak. You can watch the trailer here. Several things excite me when I see this trailer. First of all, it looks COOL. Ickie said, "It looks like an indie kids' movie," which is a pretty accurate description. The creatures and marvelous sets appear to have escaped from a Michael Gondry film, and the wild things have a shine and movement in their eyes that makes them look real, not just like giant muppets. They LOOK JUST LIKE the book, and I want to pat their heads to feel their wiry hair and join in the wild rumpus. Another good thing: Spike Jonze is directing it. He directed the super weird Being John Malkovich (which I enjoy for general concept as well as the company video explaining why a building has a 7 1/2 floor). Also good: Catherine Keener plays Max's mom, so even though it appears they made up backstory for Max's home life, I imagine Catherine Keener playing it well without excessive sappiness. And Paul Dano does a voice--he's awesome.

Even if WTWTA turns out to be a dud (which is hard to imagine), it's encouraging to see a children's movie creatively embrace the possibilities of fantastic children's fiction, instead of just a crowd-pleaser filmed in New Zealand or a freakish CGI hellscape. I don't know if Sendak is still alive, but I'll bet he's thrilled no one tried to turn his artistic book into something akin to The Polar Express movie, which manages to make me cringe from the oozing sentiment as well as cower in fear of the uncanny, glass-eyed, zombie children. Ook.