Juvenile fantasy has been a hot genre since the success of Harry Potter, and I couldn't be more delighted. I used to think I'd read a pretty good sampling of the genre, but now there are way too many new books coming out every month and I can't possibly be an expert even in the stuff with lots of buzz. (Besides, there's no way I'll ever read all the new stuff when I don't do vampires!) But of course the down side of all this new stuff is that a lot of really excellent juvenile fantasy falls between the cracks, gets forgotten, or doesn't get the notice it deserves. So today I'll list a handful of books that I think are not very well known. I'll be surprised if there aren't at least one or two that you've never heard of. And if you have a favorite gem that you think needs more attention, please let us all know!
The Facttracker, Jason C. Eaton, 2008 - We all (P, T, and I) got a big kick out of this one. The just small enough boy (who has no name because all his facts about himself have gone missing) and the Facttracker (whose job it is to supply the world with facts) must save their town (and the world) from being overrun with lies (most of which are very silly). The philosophy of the importance of lies struck me as a little suspect, although I guess if you substitute the word "fiction" for the word "lies" then I'd be happy with it… But the real joy of the book is its exuberantly oddball goofiness. The goofiness begins even before the story begins, if you bother to read the dedication, which starts out with the usual family members and editors, blah blah blah, but about halfway through goes on to "I'd like to thank… Todd for inventing a new computer that auto-writes novels for you whilst gently massaging your feet and whispering 'life is water' over and over,… Cindy for informing me that a giant hula-hooping ninja space robot was trying to steal my new computer, Parnell and Marinoff for helping me defeat the space-robot with the power of love and an even bigger robot, Grant for defending me before the intergalactic tribunal…" and so on. It gets zanier. There are no hula-hooping ninja space robots in the actual book, but there are snails, a good explosion, a mountain of sweet potatoes, an octocycle, tuna fish sandwiches that never go bad, and a lot of lies.
Jane's Adventures In and Out of the Book, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 1966 - This is not one of the all-time greats, I admit, but it's a good fun read that hits lots of favorite fantasy themes. Jane (who conveniently lives in a castle with parents who are never around to cramp her style) discovers a book whose pictures transport her into their scenes. With this fun device Jane gets to have serial adventures involving, among other things, a heroic resistance group, a giant jungle, being bug-sized, a sinister sultan, and (outside the book) a great flood. It would be a good introduction to inviting kids to imagine where they might want the book to take them.
Ronia the Robber's Daughter, Astrid Lindgren, 1981 (1985 in English) - This book is apparently pretty well known in Europe and was adapted into a movie there, but I don't think it's so well known here in the US. Lindgren is more famous here for Pippi Longstocking, and this book definitely involves some of the same themes of letting children run wild and fend for themselves. The plot is a standard Romeo and Juliet set-up, with Ronia and the son of the feuding tribe's chieftain becoming friends despite the enmity of their parents. The writing makes the characters strong-willed, infuriating, charming, likeable, and altogether believable. The descriptions of the setting and the children's self-education in the woods are lovely.
Once on a Time, A.A. Milne, 1917 - This really isn't juvenile fantasy, although there's nothing in it that a child shouldn't be reading. But its irony and wry commentary will probably be over the heads of most children. Nevertheless, it deserves a mention as a great example of the fractured fairy tale. There's a plot to take over the throne by an addict of largesse-throwing, there's a war involving kings disguised as pig farmers and an iconic ginger mustache, there's a prince enduring a very embarrassing transformation, and a maid who wants nothing more than to be able to dance like a fairy. It's funny and satirical and sweet, and it ends happily ever after.
The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, Jennifer Trafton, 2010 - In this book our hero, a messy girl with a missing father and a missing blue hat, finds herself in the position of having to preserve her island home from the certain destruction that will result if the giant sleeping beneath the mountain should wake up and rise. Along the way are some great characters, including the selfish king, the perpetually worried Worvil, a big-footed Rumblebump, and our hero's mother, who has very strong moral objections to everything from turnips to giants. P did not like the beginning at all - it had too much scariness and grouchiness, and we hadn't had a chance to become sufficiently fond of the characters to make it seem worthwhile - but I convinced him to let me keep reading aloud for a couple more chapters, by which time all three of us enjoyed it very much.
I hope you find something new and enjoyable here!
[Picture: Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]