The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

narniaThe Magician’s Nephew is the story of best friends Diggory and Alice, and Diggory’s uncle. His Uncle Andrew dabbles in magic and has devised a way to travel between worlds. He tricks Polly into going into another world and taunts Diggory until Diggory follows Polly into a world he’s never seen.

This is technically a prequel to The Narnia books, but on the spine of the version I checked out, this was listed as the first book though it certainly doesn’t have to be read first to understand the world. For those interested in the back story of The White Witch, this book is a must. I know very little about the world of Narnia; this was the first book I’ve read in the series, but I do remember her character. This book also has very strong religious themes and tones.

In the book, we see the world of Narnia spoken into being by Aslan after we’ve visited Charn, accidentally awoken the White Witch, and accidentally brought her bought to our word. The our world is London in an undetermined time though that time is probably in the 1800’s, possible early 1900’s, as it never mentioned cars being driven and the clothes in the illustrations are not at all modern.

The language and style of Lewis’s writing is not modern either. The story is told by a narrator who is writing down all the stories of the world of Narnia. Some phrases that the children use repeatedly became a little tiring, but overall Diggory and Polly are charming and children should love them. However, I’m not sure this is the best book to introduce the series to children. I’ve had several people tell me to start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Though this is a fantasy book, it is likely to appeal to science-fiction fans as well as the children explore multiple parallel worlds, a theme science-fiction fans will be familiar with.

The world building is outstanding. The Woods is a place I immediately wanted to visit. Charn was alarming, but children will likely want to visit it also. Lewis’s descriptions make the reader feel as if they are there with Diggory and Polly, walking the otherworldly streets along with them.

The book is suited for a wide range of ages from second-graders (with some adult help probably) to high school students and adults. Harry Potter fans have devoured Narnia and vice versa and this is a great fantasy book to keep in mind for patrons who may have dismissed it in the past. It can also be a great series to recommend to patrons looking for religious fiction. While not overtly religious, the Narnia series has long been considered allegorical for the story of Creation and Christ and the parallels that can be drawn are obvious in this book. Young children may or may not see this, but it could alleviate concerns a parent might have about what their child is reading. All that, of course, is assuming your patron is Christian, as many of mine are. Even if they are not Christian, it is an important aspect to note whatever the patron’s religious affiliation may be, but regardless of the religious overtones, this is an excellent fantasy book.

Bibliographic Information:
Lewis, C. S. The Magician’s Nephew: The Chronicles of Narnia (Book One). Thorndike, ME: Thorndike, 1983. Print.

Readalikes:
The rest of the Narnia series
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Some of the first stories many children grow up with are fairy tales or fables. Though many may be introduced to fairy tales first by their film versions instead of print, fairy tales doesn’t appear to going anywhere. Disney has capitalized on taking classic fairy tales and spinning them into animated feature films. Their newest creation, Frozen, seems to be on everyone lips (for good or worse), and we can’t seem to let go of “Let It Go.” Adults are probably aware that Disney’s “inspiration” for the film was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. For children and adults who watched the film, recommending The Snow Queen is a great way to introduce Andersen’s fairy tales.

snowqueenThe Snow Queen is the story of two best friends, Kai and Gerda, who are as fond of each other as if they were brother and sister. But after Kai gets a piece of broken glass stuck in his eye and his heart (he doesn’t know they’re there), he turns means and sullen. When a beautiful Snow Queen appears and offers him a chance to leave town, he ties his sleigh to her carriage and rides away with her into the sky. Now, the bit about the broken glass? That was the work of villainous trolls who wanted to take a magnificent mirror they made to the heavens. The mirror made things who looked hideous look lovely and things that look lovely look hideous as it reveals a person’s true nature. But on their way to the heavens, the mirror breaks into a million billion pieces and the pieces fall to earth. The pieces of the mirror, some no bigger than a grain of sand, make the person see only the bad in the world. If a sliver of the mirror pierces a person’s heart, their heart would turn to a lump of ice. Kai’s heart is rapidly turning to ice with no help in sight, but even worse? His family believes him to be dead.

Months go by, but Gerda doesn’t believe him dead. Gerda sets out on a perilous journey to save her best friend. She talks to the river, to trees, to flowers, to an old woman who works magic to keep Gerda at her house, to a Lapland woman, to a Finn woman, and to a reindeer before reaching the palace of the Snow Queen. Kai is bone cold, almost dead, and it is only Gerda’s love for her him, her warm tears and tender kisses that thaw the ice inside him.

This fairy tale is much more accessible for children than some of the classic Grimm or Perrault tales. For adults concerned about violence and sex, there is none in The Snow Queen. This isn’t to say that there aren’t complicated themes and motifs here because there certainly are, but there aren’t witches who have to dance to death in red-hot shoes or stepsisters who have their eyes pecked out by crows. It’s a bit of an atypical fairy tale because there isn’t one true villain to hate. The trolls are the most likely candidates as they created the mirror. The Snow Queen doesn’t even die; she wasn’t even keeping Kai hostage, not really. He simply had to figure out a riddle to leave. She wasn’t fattening him up for supper, cursing him to prick his finger on a spindle at age sixteen, or handing him a poison apple. Ultimately, the story is about friendship and the power of love—all kinds of love, not just romantic love.

In a world where more and more conversations are being had about gender roles and stereotypes in literature (especially children’s literature), The Snow Queen abounds with female characters. Kai is only male character. Not only are there multiple female characters, they are vastly different. There is no one form of femininity expressed or favored above the others. The typical gender roles that children would recognize from growing up on princess movies are reversed here. Kai is the damsel in distress, locked away in a palace, waiting to be rescue. Gerda is the knight in the shining armor, but unlike many of princes in stories and movies, she needs nothing extra special about herself to save Kai. She already possesses the power she needs to save her friend.

The only weakness in the story is the part where Gerda is asking all the different flowers if they have seen Kai. They all tell her their stories, but none of them relate to Kai. While there is undoubtedly much meaning to be read into those flowers’ stories, it slows the story down. Some readers may become impatient and just want her to get on with it and go rescue her best friend.

Frozen-movie-posterI won’t discuss the similarities and differences between The Snow Queen and Frozen because that would be a series of blog posts, and I need to only do one. But this could serve as a great conversation at a children’s book club in a library or a lesson plan in a classroom or school library. Most of the children will be very familiar with Frozen, if not able to quote most of it and sing the songs at the appropriate times. It presents something they are already enthusiastic about in a new form and challenges them to compare and contrast the two. It could also serve as an introduction to classic fairy tales or even a series where the children compare Disney (or other) movies to fairy tales or myths. If they’re not into Frozen, almost any Disney movie could do. The boys may like Hercules more (or it may have more appeal across both genders), which would still work for a compare and contrast unit on the myth of Hercules and what the Disney movie depicts.

Bibliographic Information:
Andersen, H. C. Fairy Tales. Trans. Tiina Nunnally. Ed. Jackie Wullschläger. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Readalikes (all non-Disney or movie franchise versions):
The legend of Mulan
Beauty and the Beast
The Little Mermaid
(older elementary/early middle school (depending on the kid)—it’s not as pleasant as the movie)
Anything else by Hans Christian Andersen
Aesop’s Fables
Sleeping Beauty
The Princess Bride

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

outofmymindI started reading this book simply because I was looking for a realistic (i.e. not fantasy/sci-fi/horror like I typically read), and it won the Volunteer State Book Award in the Intermediate division. I didn’t know what to expect as I’ve never read anything by this author before, and I didn’t even read what it was about. I liked the cover and the title, so I checked it out, and read the first few pages at work. Just to see what it was about. And I fell in love.

Out of My Mind tells the story of Melody, an eleven-year-old with a photographic memory, but she cannot speak, walk, or feed herself. Melody has cerebral palsy and is in special education classes at her local public school. Melody is a bright girl with big dream, ambitions, and problems like any other eleven-year-old. Melody’s school begins an inclusion program for the special education students and this is where the book gets really interesting. I won’t give away the ending, but it equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. Melody encounters the struggles one would expect of a girl in a wheelchair who can’t speak when put into a group of fifth graders.

This book is phenomenal. This needs to be required reading for parents, students, administrators, teachers, everyone. There has always been a special section in my heart for those that get labeled as “special needs” or “intellectually disabled” or whatever term one wishes to put on it. I was a peer tutor in a special education classroom my last semester of my senior year of high school where several of the students, one of whom I was closet too, were non-verbal like Melody. I did wonder what when on in their heads, if sometimes they threw fits because they had so much to say and couldn’t say it like I could, like Melody can’t.

There are so many important aspects and parts of this book that I don’t know where to start. One of the greatest aspects is that variety of students Melody shows in her special education classroom. Just like a traditional classroom, the students are all at different learning levels (granted, there may be a bit more of a gap than a traditional classroom), but this digs at the idea and theme that differently abled individuals are just as varied as everyone else. There aren’t generalizations that can or should be applied to people with “special needs” just as they shouldn’t be applied to any sort of group. Melody’s character shows that she wants what everyone wants–to be accepted, to find her place in the world, and to make it through the school year. She is constantly underestimated by everyone–her classmates, teachers, doctors–but she never quits.

During my time as a peer tutor, and before I was a peer tutor in the special education classroom, their teacher said something that stuck with me. Well, she actually said several things that have stuck with me, but one of them is also said in the book. I can remember hearing her speak about the peer tutor program as sophomore in high school (I’m 23 to help put this context) and talking about her students and saying how if we passed them in the hallways, there was something incredibly simple we could do to make their day. You know what that was? Smile and say “hi.” That was all it would take to make any of them have a better day. It’s so simple we probably don’t give it much thought, and it may not seem huge, but to smile and say hi, or even just smile, at a student who, at best gets overlooked, and at worst gets sneered at by the general population of the school, can mean the world. A smile and a greeting means that you see that individual. You see them as you might see anyone else and you treat them as you would as anyone else. You treat them like the person they are.

In the book, Melody is discussing seeing the regular kids, as she calls them, playing recess and how no one invites any of her classmates to play foursquare. Melody knows she and the others can’t play foursquare, “but it would be nice if somebody would say “Hi.” I guess the four-square players think we’re all so backward that we don’t care that we get treated like we’re invisible” (28-29). That is one powerful sentence and one important thought we should all be more aware of. People like Melody do get overlooked, do get treated like they’re invisible, but they’re not. They are people, just like you me, with many of the same desires, and the only true “special need” they have is what everyone has: the need to be loved.

As Melody says, “We all have disabilities. What’s yours?”

Readalikes:
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (Aspergers)
Wonder by R.J. Palacio (no disability, but a craniofacial abnormality that prevented him from attending mainstream school until middle school)
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (for the YA group. Some type of unspecified autism spectrum disorder)
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman (older middle school/YA. It’s harder to find, and it’s been years since I’ve read it, but it’s fantastic).
Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos (ADHD)

Awards:
Beehive Book Award, 2012 Winner Children’s Fiction Utah
Black-Eyed Susan Book Award, 2011-2012 Winner Grades 6-9 Maryland
Bluestem Award, 2013 Winner United States
Buckeye Children’s Book Award, 2011 Winner 6-8 Ohio
California Young Reader Medal, 2012-2013 Winner Middle School California
Great Lakes Great Books Award, 2011-2012 Honor Book Grades 4-5 Michigan
Indies Choice Book Award, 2011 Honor Book Young Adult United States
Josette Frank Award, 2011 Winner
Lamplighter Award, 2012-2013 Winner Grades 6-8 United States
Land of Enchantment Book Award, 2012-2013 Winner Young Adult New Mexico
Maine Student Book Award, 2012 Second Place Maine
Mark Twain Award, 2012-2013 Winner Missouri
Mitten Award, 2011 Honor Book Michigan, United States
Parents’ Choice Award, 2010 Silver Fiction United States
Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award, 2012-2013 Winner Grades 6-8 Pennsylvania
Prairie Pasque Award, 2012-2013 Winner Grades 4-6 South Dakota
Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award, 2013 2nd Place Illinois
Sasquatch Reading Award, 2013 Winner Washington
Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award, 2011-2012 Winner Grades 3-5 Florida
Virginia Readers’ Choice Award, 2011-2012 Winner Middle Virginia
Volunteer State Book Award, 2012-2013 Winner Grades 3-5 Tennessee
Young Hoosier Book Award, 2012-2013 Winner Middle Grades Indiana

Bibliographic Information:
Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Mind. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2010. Print.