The course has ended but the reading continues

So keep posting to this site. I want to hear about the new books you discover, and I bet others do as well. Tell us what your students are reading. Post Top-10 lists.

Top ten red word

Top ten red word

I’ll start with one of my own: In no particular order (these all rate #1 for me) here’s my Top-10 fantasy series list. Most of these were written for the YA audience, but adult fantasy fans will love them as well.

1. LOTR. I’ll only add that this of course includes The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Tree and Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and just about anything else Tolkien wrote, including his translations of Old and Middle English poetry.

2. Michael Scott, The Alchemyst. Remember the first Indiana Jones movie, which barely left you a moment to breathe before sending Indy into another frenzy of breakneck action? Scott’s series does the same for twins Josh and Sophie, who team up with Nicholas Flamel to save the world. Fun, with mythological characters from the world’s cultures, along with a few heroes who ought to be dead but aren’t. Read the series BEFORE the movies come out (currently in production).

3. Cornelia Funke’s, Inkheart. Meggie and her father, a bookbinder, are hiding. When her father disappears, Meggie must rescue him. It sounds tame, but the bookbinder is able to make fictional characters real by reading aloud, and it’s this unique skill that has caused all the trouble in Meggie’s world, including the loss of her mother. The complex plot challenges the best of readers, but is well worth the effort.

4. Mary Norton, The Borrowers. There are no magicians or dragons in this series, just tiny beings who live alongside humans, putting scavenged items (needles, bread crumbs, wine corks) to use. When they’re discovered, they must run. The books take them afield, afloat, and aloft before finally settling them in a safe home. The fun part here is seeing our familiar world from a height of only 3 inches.

5. Edward Eager, Half Magic. A coin grants only half a wish. A box turtle and a lake make magical things happen. A toy castle leads to another world. This series, inspired by E Nesbit’s stories, features 3 different families of children, whose paths occasionally cross. These are old-fashioned books, with less action than readers have come to expect from YA fantasy. But the characters face challenges that require intelligence as well as strength, and Eager’s writing is excellent.

6. Pseudonymous Bosch, The Secret Series. The author’s comical “Don’t read this, you’ve been warned” trope never wears thin. Cass and Max-Ernest need the entire series to solve the murder of a local magician (not the fantasy type of mage, but rather the type who pulls rabbits from hats). Bosch puts himself repeatedly in danger by revealing secrets too dangerous to know, with only chocolate to keep him going. Funny, scary, adventurous, with truly evil villains. And, just as an interesting aside, the five volumes use the traditional five senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, sound) as framing devices.

7. Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea. Classic world-building, with themes that encompass coming of age, loss of religious belief, facing death, and feminism. By the end, LeGuin has posed the question: what is a woman’s place in a world where men have defined “true magic” as a male-only realm of power?

8. Garth Nix, Sabriel. A series in which a Necromancer is on the side of good! And the Necromancer is a young woman! Kudos to Nix, for creating such a complex and harrowing world, where the dead rebel and the living must control them.

9. Diana Wynne Jones, Chrestomanci. Jones’ magicians are memorable: Howl, from the Howl’s Moving Castle series, and Christopher Chant, from this one. A Chrestomanci is a wizard with nine lives (yes, just like a cat), who must come when called and solve the problem presented to him. As with the best of fantasy, the simple premise opens up to a complex plot.

10. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. This is heady reading, not for the faint of heart. Working from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pullman builds a world in which our souls are visible external beings (dæmons), and the villains have created a procedure to excise these dæmons. The series can be enjoyed without reference to Milton, but Pullman’s purpose is strengthened when seen within the context of “man’s first disobedience.”
Honorable mention: E Nesbit, Susan Cooper, J K Rowling

Another top 100 list

Image courtesy IBM, 2011

Image courtesy IBM, 2011

This one from NPR, in 2012. Over 75K responders helped create this list — many of them older than teens. More evidence that adults are reading these books along with younger readers. For our course, we’re reading #s 30, 36, and 37, and several others are on our list of recommended readings. How many of these do you still need to read?

Posted by BR

Ella, Sophie, and the active fantasy heroine

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Ella_enchanted_(book_cover)These two books work well as source materials for that old English class stand-by, the comparison essay¹. Ella Enchanted can be set against the story of Cinderella, and both can be set against their movie versions. But what I hope teachers will do with this assignment is push their students to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences between or among whatever works are being compared, to asking their students to explore the reasons for the differences.

UnknownFor instance: the fairy tale Cinderella² gives us a rags-to-riches story, spiced up with some sibling rivalry and a handsome prince. Levine takes the basic premise and inserts a backstory that gives the heroine not just depth and reality, but also agency. When we discussed these differences in class, we noted how flat and passive Cinderella is. The most active she becomes is when she wishes to go to the ball. Ella, however, when given the “gift” of obedience, no longer has the option of choosing to obey, so she shows agency in how she obeys. Levine also puts Ella on a quest (one of the strengths of this book is how Levine so deftly mixes genres). It’s possible to argue that Perrault, writing in the late 17th century, can’t be expected to be a feminist. Fair enough. So when Levine in the late 20th century re-envisions this story from a feminist viewpoint, she creates a tale that surprises with its depth. Even the evil step-sisters have more to them than jealousy and the desire to be rich.

We didn’t have much time to speak of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, except as part of a larger discussion of Keeling and Sprague’s article, “Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer: Reimagining the Female Fantasy Heroine” (2009). To clarify this dichotomy for ourselves, we started listing characters from novels, and then from movies and TV series, whom we thought were one or the other. Lara Croft and Buffy are definitely dragon-slayers (and I’ll now add Mrs. Emma Peel, from the 1960s series The Avengers). Ella and Sophie are somewhere in between the two (as with any dichotomy, these categories are useful only as opposite ends of a spectrum; few characters are purely one or the other). Lizzie Bennet’s name came up as a candidate for the dragon-sayer side (although her face-off with Darcy’s aunt is more slayer than sayer).

Next up: two novels from non-Anglo cultural perspectives: … And now Miguel, about a family of Mexican immigrant sheep farmers in New Mexico, and I, Juan de Pareja, about Diego Velazquez’s slave. Both are Newbery Medal winners.

¹Will someone please explain to me why English teachers, so quick to stamp out redundancy in students’ writing, can’t see it in the tiresome name of this rhetorical mode, the “compare and contrast” essay.

²Andrew Lang’s excellent analysis of Perrault’s version of this European folktale can be found here, and Bruno Bettelheim provides a fascinating Freudian interpretation in The Uses of Enchantment.

Posted by BR