Top 10 settings in children’s books.

When it comes to children’s books there are so many wonderful settings to choose from, but after careful deliberation, these are my Top 10.

1. Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. What’s not to love about this amazing setting? Hogwarts has it all in terms of mystery and magic. There is a Great Hall providing sumptuous feasts; a room of requirement which changes its properties just like its designation; common rooms requiring magical entry; secret passages; moving staircases; endless grounds and a Forbidden Forest.

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2. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. The Enchanted Wood itself is a magical place but it is the majestic Faraway Tree with its different land at the topmost branches which has entertained generations of children for nearly seventy years . Enriched by such wonderful characters as Moonface, Silky, the Saucepan Man and Dame Washalot, I spent much of my childhood in the Faraway Tree, as did my own children and countless other generations.

3. Wonderland from Alice’s Adventures by Lewis Carroll. A true fantasy world with a talking rabbit, a smoking caterpillar, a grinning Cheshire cat, a Mad Hatter, a Mock Turtle and a Queen of Hearts whose tarts are stolen by the Knave of Hearts. Sheer nonsense in a perfectly mystical and fantastic setting.

4. Peter’s Rabbit Hole from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, because it is the biggest and best animal home ever. It has its own kitchen, furniture and even a shop. Mr McGregor’s Garden is a pretty fun setting too, because it is the scene of great battles between the cheeky Peter Rabbit and the curmudgeonly Mr McGregor.

5. Camp Half-Blood from the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, because a training camp for the sons and daughters of ancient gods is pretty cool.

6. Treasure Island or Smuggler’s Cove or wherever else Enid Blyton’s Famous Five found themselves: exciting settings complete with a mystery to solve, devoid of pesky interfering parents, and all washed down by lashings of ginger ale.

7. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl created a luscious fantasy factory which satiated the appetite not only of Charlie but children everywhere. With rivers of chocolate and edible gardens tended by the curious Oompa Loompas, the factory provided a stark contrast to the poverty of Charlie’s home.

8. The Emerald City, capital of the Land of Oz. In the  Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City is built of green glass, emeralds and jewels,  and its residents wear green-tinted glasses to protect their eyes from the brightness. A magical place at the end of the yellow brick road, it offers hope to Dorothy and friends.

9. Neverland from J. M Barrie’s Peter Pan, the small island upon which the eternal boy spends his endless childhood. I like the fact that each child’s Neverland is unique, according to the whims of the individual imagination. Home to Tinkerbell, other fairies and the Lost Boys, Neverland really is a magical, mystical place.

10. The Underground Fairy City from Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, because it is full of high-tech gadgetry and is the antithesis of any fairyland in other books.

Special mentions must go to: Narnia from the Chronicles by C.S. Lewis; Misselthwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; the Paris of Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline and the London of P.L.Travers’ Mary Poppins.

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The brilliance of Artemis Fowl.

Artemis Fowl series

by Eoin Colfer,

Penguin Books, Australia.

 

Now it’s common knowledge among fans that the boy himself, the genius anti-hero Artemis, is brilliant. However the brilliance to which I am referring is that of Eoin Colfer’s series itself.

I was forced to read the first book in the Artemis Fowl series in 2002 when I was a teacher librarian at a boys’ school in Sydney. A group of Year 8 boys persistently nagged me to read me to read a book they had loved, which they described as ‘a fantasy book about fairies’. I politely declined, explaining that I hadn’t much enjoyed reading fairy books since my childhood Enid Blyton days. After deciphering the Blyton reference, the boys persevered (as they do), so I succumbed (as I do) and took Artemis Fowl home on a Friday. I spent that evening and weekend enjoying the most gratifying young adult reading experience I’d had since Harry Potter.

Artemis Fowl, the title character, turned out to be a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind who has cunningly secured the fairies’ book of secrets, and the fairies led by Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit are out for revenge. These are not your common bottom-of- the-garden Blytonesque fairies. No, these fairies are of the weapon-toting ass-kicking variety and I loved them as much as I loved Artemis Fowl. Full of clever writing with a great plot, packed with suspense and plenty of dry humour, I knew this book would be a success.

And what a success it has been. In the ten years since my first reading, the brilliant Irish author Eoin Colfer has written another seven equally brilliant books in the series. I now work in a different school to the one where I was first introduced to my friend Artemis, but these books have been just as beloved in my current library as they were in the other. The graphic novels which are being gradually published are also hugely popular, and Colfer’s website for the series is a favourite among the boys.

And now we are at the end of the series which Colfer has referred to as “Die Hard with fairies”. The eighth and last book, Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, was released this week. This will be met with great sadness from my little Fowlites, but I have no doubt that like other beloved series, Artemis Fowl will be re-visited many times by its vast legion of fans.

Recommended for ages 11+

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“Reading is a majority skill but a minority art” – Julian Barnes.

In this National Year of Reading I just had to share this beautiful reflection by prize-winning author Julian Barnes. In it he discusses the important role that books have played in every stage of his development, and his thoughts about the future of the book. My favourite part in this section is where he says: There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art.

He goes on to discuss the differences between reading from the printed page versus an e-reader (you can read my extensive post about that here). Being the supreme wordsmith that he is, Mr Barnes is able to beautifully articulate the simple yet subtle difference between the two: books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information. Bravo, Mr Barnes.

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The reality of a tragic world

The Shiny Guys

by Doug MacLeod

Penguin, Australia, 2012

This is the first Doug MacLeod novel I have read and Mr MacLeod is my new hero. I received a copy of The Shiny Guys last Friday at a professional development day hosted by Penguin and started reading it on the train on the way home. When I arrived home all chores were ignored and I devoured the rest.

Set in a mental health institution, The Shiny Guys is an intelligent and sophisticated young adult novel. It explores the complicated issues of teenage angst, depression and mental illness via beautifully crafted characters and a compelling narrative.

Colin Lapsley is fifteen years old. His family has suffered an appalling tragedy and Colin is now a patient in Ward 44, largely due to the so-called ‘shiny guys’: huge cockroach-like red men which terrorise Colin. Whilst undergoing treatment, Colin discovers a portal to a parallel world where the shiny guys actually exist. Colin shares this exciting discovery with fellow patients Mango, his trusted friend, and the newly arrived Anthea, who promisingly sees shadows which Colin senses may be his shiny guys.

The Shiny Guys will make you laugh and cry, but most of all it will break your heart. Colin is the most wonderful protagonist and reading his narrative from the comfort of one’s lounge chair, it is impossible not to feel sadness at the reality of his tragic world. Yet this novel is not a tragedy – far from it. It is a celebration of the spirit of a unique individual and an intelligent examination of the way in which the human psyche deals with grief and suffering.

The Shiny Guys would be an excellent set text for years 9 and 10. It is rich in character and plot, and the references to Kafka will generate excellent discussion and further reading.

Recommended for ages 14+

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The pleasure of reading

How sad I feel for those who have never experienced the joy of reading, the pleasure of escape, the feeling of being transported into another world by carefully constructed typewritten words upon a page.

I am currently in the throes of a blissful reading experience thanks to a recommendation I spotted online. First Tuesday Book Club is celebrating the 2012 National Year of Reading with a “10 Aussie Books to Read before You Die” promotion.

Journalist Annabel Crabb (herself a sublime wordsmith – make sure you read her weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald) made a recommendation  in her usual charming and erudite fashion, voting for the Grand Days trilogy by Frank Moorhouse:

Thanks to Ms Crabb, I am now rapturously residing in 1920’s Geneva, following the exploits of the vibrant, witty and beguiling Edith Campbell Berry as she undertakes employment in the fledgling League of Nations.

Moorhouse is not to every reader’s taste; however I am blissfully in the midst of a reading affair with his novel, stealing away into a hidden corner with him whenever opportunity arises. I only wish it were possible to convey the sheer pleasure and simple delight of this experience with professed non-readers.

(If your child or teen proclaims to be a non-reader, don’t forget my Reading Rules, which will encourage all reluctant readers to enjoy the wonderful world of books).

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The thrilling world of Erebos

Erebos

by Ursula Paznanski

Allen & Unwin, 2012

 

There have been many YA books written about computer games, and the merging of the real world with the cyber world. Despite this, Ursula Poznanski manages to bring something unique to Erebos by merging the cyber world of the game (and the lives of the teens who play it) with a real life thriller.

Sixteen year old Nick Dunmore is handed a DVD by a student at his school and told that the game on it is ‘amazing’. He soon discovers this is the modus operandi of the game distributors: to surreptitiously pass the game from student to student, under very strict guidelines.

Nick installs and launches the game, agreeing to stringent conditions before gaining full admittance to the world of ‘Erebos’. The game draws him into its very realistic world, communicates with him and eerily seems to know him.

Nick, like the other players, is soon addicted but in order to stay in the game he is required to carry out tasks in the real world. This is the curious and sinister aspect of the game: the way in which it compels its adolescent participants to carry out instructions in the real world, some of which are manipulative, others of which are cruel and some of which have dire consequences.

Erebos had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Originally written in German, the English translation by Judith Pattinson is clearly excellent as the text is both compelling and riveting. It is not hard to see why Erebos is an award winner and international bestseller.

Recommended for ages 13+

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Sad to say goodbye.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

by Anne Tyler

Chatto & Windus, 2012

Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Tyler has returned to her characteristic writing best in The Beginner’s Goodbye. Admittedly I was a little underwhelmed with her last offering Noah’s Compass, but she has returned with trademark stylish simplicity in The Beginner’s Goodbye. Having just turned the last page, I am already mourning the end of a marvellous read.

Tyler’s talent is to take the everyday and write about it in the most beautiful and unordinary fashion. In The Beginner’s Goodbye she introduces us to thirty-something Aaron Woolcott whose wife Dorothy dies in unexpected circumstances. As we live through Aaron’s initial shock and mind-numbing grief, Tyler gifts the reader with descriptions of simple beauty and clarity which perfectly depict his situation. For instance, upon returning to his empty house which only that morning he had shared with his wife, Aaron goes into the kitchen and see a cup left it in the sink, reacting with a simple yet painfully poignant thought: “Sometimes the most recent moments can seem so long, long ago”. Later, as he deals with the cocoon of goodwill which threatens to suffocate him, he thinks: “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with”.

As Aaron wanders somewhat aimlessly through his grief, he begins to experience occasions where Dorothy returns to him; he sees her, can feel her presence and he can converse with her. This is the crux of the The Beginner’s Goodbye: whether a dead spouse can return to a grieving spouse’s consciousness. We are left to make up our own minds about whether Aaron imagines Dorothy’s return, or if it tangibly occurs, but Tyler leaves us in no doubt as to the purpose of her return.

This novel is beautifully written in Tyler’s inimitable style. Aaron is a somewhat prickly protagonist, however it is difficult not to sympathise with him. The cast of supporting characters are intelligently drawn and all have their part to play in Aaron’s grief and recovery.  The ending will no doubt be passionately debated by book clubs far and wide, but I adored it.

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