Friday, December 4, 2009

Harry Potter's BFFs

Oh, Harry Potter, the famous orphan who’s also a wizard, a regular kid who becomes part of a fantastic world of magic and mayhem. Through seven suspenseful books and seven wonder-filled years at Hogwarts School, Harry transforms from an overwhelmed, awestruck little boy into a powerful and thoughtful young man. He has to make some extraordinary choices concerning his life, his friends’ lives, and the fate of the world, but he’s guided by an unforgettable cast of characters: schoolmates Ron and Hermione; wise and occasionally wacky Professor Dumbledore; magical friends Hagrid, Hedwig, and Sirius; magical foes Snape, Malfoy, and even Lord Voldemort, who’s a truly worthwhile villain if there ever was one. And then there’s all the pure magical fun of playing Quidditch, shopping in Diagon Alley, or taking a Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson. We could go on and on with unfulfilled prophecies, invisibility cloaks, clueless Muggles, scars that sense evil, and every little interwoven, imaginative detail that makes the world of Harry Potter so unique and so loved. Author J.K. Rowling is a world-renowned celebrity and the Harry Potter series has changed the history of children’s literature and the publishing industry. That’s a tough act to follow. But there are authors out there who’ve been able to build on the momentum of Harry Potter without merely copying the poor-kid-in-a-fantasy-world plot. These books owe a debt to Harry, but they’ve all struck out in new and original directions. The world doesn’t just need more Harry Potters, after all—just more wildly creative books about young heroes on fantastic and challenging adventures. And now more than ever, children’s authors are ready to deliver.

The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One by Rick Riordan, 2005, Miramax Books/ Hyperion Books for Children (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

If anyone is a contender for Harry Potter’s new BFF, it’s Perseus “Percy” Jackson. Like Harry, Percy is a black-haired, green-eyed boy (but no specs, though he is dyslexic and has ADHD) who just doesn’t fit into the world of run-of-the-mill human beings. Strange things keep happening to him. The adults in his life are not telling him the whole truth. And then Percy vaporizes his pre-algebra teacher, discovers his best friend is a satyr, and gets chased by a Minotaur. Percy, you see, is part of a magical, mythical world that might just top Harry Potter’s witchy ancestors. Percy was born into the Greek Pantheon of ancient gods and goddesses, who despite rumors to the contrary, are very real and camped out on Mount Olympus, currently located six-hundred floors above the Empire State Building. Percy’s father is none other than Poseidon, god of the sea, but Percy’s in for much more than a family reunion when he arrives at Camp Half-Blood, a safe haven for the education of young demigods. Poseidon and his brothers Hades and Zeus are at each other’s throats over the theft of Zeus’ mighty lightning bolt, Percy’s mother has disappeared, and Percy (like Harry) just might be the subject of a prophecy that predicts the end of civilization as we know it. Percy is sent on a quest to the Underworld with only his wits, a pen that magically turns into a sword, and his new friends Grover the satyr and Annabeth, daughter of the goddess of wisdom Athena. Percy is thrust into his new magical life pretty quickly and with a lot of danger lurking around the corners, but he’s a hard-nosed, wise-ass New York kid who is thrilled to finally belong—if he can get past the likes of snake-headed Medusa, three-headed Cerberus the hellhound, the riddling Oracle of Delphi, and Kronos the ancient evil Titan lord who, overthrown eons ago by the Olympian gods, is ready to make a mean comeback. Award-winning mystery writer Rick Riordan is not above having fun with his premise, which means the reader (familiar with Greek gods and monsters or not) is in for action-packed laughs that creatively blends the urban American landscape with classical Greek mythology. And Percy, despite the debt he owns to Harry Potter, is a likeable, original young hero with his own set of friends, fears, skills, stories, twists and turns that continue through five fast-paced, action-packed, adventure-filled books (with, hopefully, the promise of another Olympian series to come).

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
1. The Lightning Thief
2. The Sea of Monsters
3. The Titan’s Curse
4. The Battle of the Labyrinth
5. The Last Olympian

Artemis Fowl, Book One by Eoin Colfer, 2001, Miramax Books (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Artemis Fowl may have more in common with Harry Potter’s cunning nemesis Draco Malfoy than with the heroic boy wizard himself, but there’s still nothing more fun than a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind out to steal gold from leprechauns. And that’s exactly what young Artemis is up to. He’s under a lot of pressure—he’s a boy-genius descended from the family of an Irish mob that’s fallen on hard times, and it’s Artemis’ duty to restore the Fowls (especially his missing father and his ill mother) to their former glory. That, of course, is where the leprechaun gold comes in. With the remnants of his family’s wealth and his own highly superior brain power, Artemis has resources galore to kidnap a fairy and demand a costly ransom. Having recently poured his considerable means and talents into obtaining the Book, a magical tome that holds all the secrets of the fairy world, Artemis (assisted by his manly bodyguard Butler) is convinced that his plan is foolproof. But he didn’t count on his mark, elf Holly Short, to be an equally clever captain in the Lower Element Police Reconnaissance (LEPrecon) Unit, and to inspire a legion of smart-talking fairies, trolls, dwarves, and other otherworldly creatures to come rallying to her rescue. Now Artemis’ family mansion is under siege by the fairy armed forces and the crafty kid will need to employ all his wily ways to get his evil plot back on track. The story switches back and forth from Artemis’ camp to the highly inventive gritty underground of the fairies’ urban world, and throws in a wholloping dose of humor, high-tech thrills, snide comments from wise-cracking characters, and action-packed magic to seal the deal. Along the way, readers will realize that neither Artemis nor the fairies are as good or as bad as their first impressions would lead you to believe, and that there’s a great deal more mystery, suspense, and surprise boiling just under the surface. Author Eoin Colfer has described his series as “Die Hard with fairies,” and he more than delivers on that highly appealing premise that continues in five more books to date.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
1. Artemis Fowl
2. The Arctic Incident
3. The Eternity Code
4. The Opal Deception
5. The Lost Colony
6. The Time Paradox

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book One by Michael Scott, 2007, Delacorte Books (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

In Harry Potter’s world, fifteen-year-old twins Josh and Sophie Newman would be Muggles, a couple of normal kids spending the summer with their aunt in San Francisco and working odd jobs to save money for a car of their own, completely oblivious to any magical occurrences. Until, that is, a creepy little man leading an army of tough guys made out of mud bursts into the bookstore where Josh works, kidnaps the owner’s wife, and makes off with one very particular rare book. Then Josh and Sophie are swept into a world of ancient history, myth, and legend because, to their surprise and awe, the bookstore owner is none other than Nicholas Flamel, amateur magician, expert alchemyst (meaning he can turns coal into silver, metal into gold, and brew a potion that results in eternal youth), and six-hundred-plus-years-old. The creepy little guy is evil Dr. John Dee and the wife is the good and lovely Perenelle Flamel, and both are just as long-lived and uniquely skilled as Nick Flamel. The stolen book, however, is more powerful than the three of them combined. It’s the ancient Codex and it contains all the magical and scientific secrets of the ages. In the wrong hands (like those of Dr. Dee) it’s a dangerous tool in the extreme. Josh and Sophie are more than mere witnesses to this sudden magical display in the middle of the city; the twins just might be the key to a legend that predicts the outcome of a coming battle between eons-old forces of good and evil. Time is running out and Sophie and Josh need some magical training ASAP. If more immortal potion isn’t brewed soon, Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel will die and the good guys (who include gods, goddesses, vampires, were-people, and ghosts) will lose a couple of very valuable, very important allies. Throwing everyday kids into magical happenings is a common plot device by now, but by bringing old legends to life (including many much older than the fact-based fourteenth century story of Nicholas Flamel) and letting the reader view them through the eyes of a couple of kids who are very attached to their cell phones, iPods, and Internet access, author Michael Scott succeeds in breathing new life into a familiar tale. The pace is fast, the story is action-packed, the fantasy is inventive, and it all ends on a cliffhanger. This is a series that’s still very much in the works; the third book was just released this year and the fourth installment is due in May of 2010.

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
1. The Alchemyst
2. The Magician
3. The Sorceress
4. The Necromancer

Inkheart: The Inkheart Trilogy, Book One by Cornelia Funke, 2003, The Chicken House Books (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Twelve-year-old Meggie lives a near-perfect life with her bookbinder father, Mo. Meggie’s mother disappeared years ago, but Meggie and Mo have coped by indulging in a mutual love of books. This calm and comfortable lifestyle is suddenly threatened one dark and stormy night. A stranger, calling himself Dustfinger, shows up to consult with Mo and, to put it frankly, scares the beejeezus out of Meggie. There’s more disturbing news when she realizes her father has been keeping a pretty big secret: Mo has the power to read books to life. When Meggie’s mild-mannered father reads out loud, the characters come leaping off the pages and into real life. An ill-fated reading nine years ago from a book called Inkheart created a villain named Capricorn, who wants his copy back from Mo and will stop at nothing to keep from being read back into fiction. It’s an imaginative, complex blend of fantasy that’s worthy of the dramatic clash between Muggles and magic in Harry Potter, especially with multilayered characters like tragic Dustfinger, creepy-cruel Capricorn, and intrepid Meggie, our young heroine who has a few tricks of her own tricks up her sleeves. This is a book about books in the best sense, with a mysteriously cozy atmosphere, lots of literary references, and fantasy galore. Getting lost (literally!) in a book has never been so magical.

The Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke
1. Inkheart
2. Inkspell
3. Inkdeath

The Field Guide: The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book One by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 2003, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

The Spiderwick Chronicles might have a bit more in common with The Chronicles of Narnia or Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, but there’s more than enough fantasy to satisfy Harry Potter’s fans. The adventure begins when the Grace children—thirteen-year-old Mallory and nine-year-old twins Simon and Jared—move into a dilapidated Victorian mansion with their recently divorced mother. It’s a tough time for the Grace family, and they’re not exactly thrilled with their new home. Mallory practices her fencing and Simon takes care of his pets, leaving Jared to mope around the crumbling house and uncover its secrets. With the help of his siblings one dark evening while their mother is at the store, Jared uncovers the source of some mysterious rustlings behind the walls, finds a dumbwaiter that lifts him up to a door-less library full of books about faeries, and follows clues to find one special book in particular, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastic World Around You. Jared’s investigations get him in quite a bit of trouble as well—the noises in the wall were caused by a little sprite called a brownie, and the Grace kids have disturbed him. The brownie becomes a vengeful boggart who wreaks havoc on the family and their home, and Jared is blamed for it. But with the help of the Field Guide, Jared hopes he can appease the mysterious little creature and put matters to rest. Well, that’s what he thinks, anyway, but we know that with four more books in this delightful series, it’s certainly not going to be that easy. Authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black spin their fable as if it were a true story, with warnings to the reader and “real” documentary evidence. The illustrations (by DiTerlizzi) are half the fun of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Delicately inked in black and white with the occasional glossy full-page color painting, these Gothic-style drawings add atmosphere and character to the fast-paced, snappy story. The five slim hardcover volumes are designed to look like antique books as well, adding to the series’ mysterious flavor. With packaging this original and a story with more a pinch of menace to flavor its charm, The Spiderwick Chronicles (and the three books in the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles trilogy) proves to be old-fashioned fantasy of the very best kind.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
1. The Field Guide
2. The Seeing Stone
3. Lucinda’s Secret
4. The Ironwood Tree
5. The Wrath of the Mulgarath

Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
1. The Nixie’s Song
2. A Giant Problem
3. The Wyrm King

The Akhenaten Adventure: Children of the Lamp, Book One by P.B. Kerr, 2004, Orchard Books (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Twelve-year-old twins John and Philippa having loving, caring, well-to-do parents—rather the opposite of our old friend Harry Potter, right? Quite right. Until, that is, the twins get their wisdom teeth pulled. That seemingly simple rite of passage results in extreme growth spurts, a sudden attraction to heat and smoke, and the eventual discovery that John and Philippa are more than mere humans. Witch and wizard? No, sir, not this time. John and Philippa are descended from a long line of wish-granting magical guardians of all the luck in the world. Don’t call them genies in a bottle—call them the djinn. John and Philippa are quite pleased with their new magical powers, but they need a bit more training before they’re ready to start dwelling in lamps and making wishes come true. The twins head to Egypt for a summer with their Uncle Nimrod, who has extensive experience being a djinn—and, it turns out, a few enemies as well. An evil tribe led by distinctly nasty djinn named Iblis is after Nimrod for the location of the tomb of Akhenaton, a pharaoh who had seventy lost djinn under his control way back when in ancient Egypt. Whoever finds them now has the power to tip the world’s balance between good luck and bad. John and Philippa are more than up for the challenge, and so begins their adventuresome career as djinn which continues in four other books to date. Author P.B. Kerr puts an inventive new spin on the familiar children-with-magical-powers plot, but he could be a bit more sensitive and less colonial in his treatment of Egyptians (one of Nimrod’s servants, Karim, is nicknamed “Creemy,” and another character is named Baksheesh, which is not really a name at all but the Egyptian word for giving money as a tip or as charity). Still, The Children of the Lamp series is the kind of charming, clever, Indian Jones-style archeological adventure that appeals to the kid in all of us.

The Children of the Lamp by P.B. Kerr
1. The Akhenaten Adventure
2. The Blue Djinn of Babylon
3. The Cobra King of Kathmandu
4. The Day of the Djinn Warriors
5. The Eye of the Forest

Gregor the Overlander: The Underland Chronicles, Book One by Suzanne Collins, 2003, Scholastic Press (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Besides the fact that they both grow up lacking many of the creature comforts the rest of us take for granted—birthday presents, Christmas presents, new clothes, family vacations—Harry Potter and Gregor, the hero The Underland Chronicles, couldn’t be more different. Of course, they both go on some pretty incredible adventures, but while Harry longs for family and friends and a world where he belongs, eleven-year-old Gregor already has those things. True, his father has been missing for three years and his mother struggles to make ends meet, but Gregor has a caring family. When baby sister Boots disappears down a vent in the laundry room one summer afternoon, Gregor wants only to dive in after her and haul her back to reality, even if it is somewhat lacking in family stability. Instead, Gregor and little Boots fall into the Underland, a fantastical world deep underground that’s populated by pale-skinned, violet-eyed humans and giant talking animals—bats, rats, cockroaches, and spiders. Gregor’s sudden arrival throws the Underland into uproar. The underground dwellers suspect that Gregor is the subject of a prophecy (ok, so he’s got one more thing in common with Harry) that promises an “Overlander” warrior will lead the subterranean kingdom to victory in battle against an enemy army of rat invaders. Gregor has absolutely no desire to embrace his supposed destiny—until he learns of a human from the world above who has been held captive by the rats for years. Gregor immediately thinks of his lost father and accepts the adventure that lies ahead. He’s accompanied by quite the motley crew—a couple of kids who are Underland royalty, their flying bat companions, a terrifying rat who may or may not be an ally, a big old spider, and a couple of giant cockroaches who take quite a fancy to precocious little Boots. Gregor is still wary of his destiny as warrior, but he’s got a determined sense of right and wrong that rivals that of any other boy hero out there. His journey is fraught with danger and excitement which is, of course, the best kind of journey to read about. Gregor’s reluctance to stay in the Underland does not extend to readers, who will be thrilled with the amount of detail that author Suzanne Collins lavishes on the world she imagines below ours—a wealth of magical creatures living a mythology of their own in a delightful series of adventures.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
1. Gregor the Overlander
2. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
3. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
4. Gregor and the Marks of Secret
5. Gregor and the Code of Claw

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, 2007, Little, Brown & Co. (Children’s Fiction/ Mystery/ Adventure)

“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” This unusual newspaper ad catches the eye of an especially observant and inventive orphan named Reynie Muldoon. It also catches the eyes of ready-for-adventure Kate Wetherall, brainy and sensitive George “Sticky” Washington, and very contrary little Constance Contraire. The children pass a series of tests for the mind and spirit and are recruited by the philanthropic Mr. Benedict. Their mission: Infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school run by the brilliant but dastardly Ledroptha Curtain. Mysterious messages are issuing forth from the school to brainwash the unsuspecting population, and Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance need to combine their unique talents and skills to save the day. The reader gets to follow clues and solve puzzles right along with the kids for a reading experience that is interactive, exciting, and thoughtful. Reynie and his pals are Muggles sure enough, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione are definitely given a run for their money by the creative problem-solving that The Mysterious Benedict Society gang whips up, not to mention working towards the same goal of saving the world by defeating a really dastardly bad guy. Reminiscent of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket’s stories of clever kids as well, The Mysterious Benedict Society is as rich in real-life issues as it is in character details, suspense, and surprises. The adventures and personalities of the kids are so delightful that we can only hope members of The Mysterious Benedict Society will meet again and again—and sure enough, a third book was released just a few short weeks ago.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
1. The Mysterious Benedict Society
2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey
3. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, 2004, HarperCollins (Young Adult Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Matt Cruse was born in the air. His mother gave birth to him aboard a flying airship and now, fourteen years later and three years after the death of his father, Matt’s a cabin boy on the luxurious passenger ship Aurora. He lives to fly; he’s devoted to his ship and his captain and is eager to make his way up the chain of command and pilot the Aurora himself someday. But first, Matt’s in for a very big adventure. One night while he’s on watch in the crow’s nest, Matt spots a hot air balloonist in trouble over the Pacificus Ocean. The Aurora takes the injured man on board where he dies, but not before Matt hears him whispering about mysterious winged creatures of the air. A year later, the balloonist’s granddaughter, a willful and high-spirited girl named Kate de Vries, is flying on Matt’s ship, eager to follow the trail of her grandfather’s research. Matt and Kate strike up a friendship, but before they can theorize about what Kate’s grandfather saw, the Aurora is set upon by pirates, pushed off course into a storm, and wrecked on a tropical isle. Matt’s desperately uneasy on the ground and worried sick about the fate of the ship, but Kate brings him an interesting distraction: This is the same island where her grandfather spotted his strange but beautiful bird-like animals, and Kate is confident she can find them too. But the pirates are still hot on the Aurora’s trail, ready and ruthless to put the lives of passengers, crew, and winged beasts in danger. Author Kenneth Oppel reinvents the past here, setting his story in a wonderful alternate early twentieth century where airships (like that infamous real zeppelin, the ill-fated Hindenburg) proved to be gloriously successful and came to rule the skies. Oppel draws on the stories of the Titanic and the Hindenburg and on classic adventure stories, but he’s created a truly unique fantasy world that’s chock-full of original details and characters and told in prose that’s precise and clear and filled to the brim with swashbuckling acts of derring-do. Harry Potter fans will find Matt Cruse infinitely likeable and will be captivated by the adventures of an extraordinary boy trying to find his element in a fantastic world.

Matt Cruse by Kenneth Oppel
1. Airborn
2. Skybreaker
3. Starclimber

Note: It’s due in part, no doubt, to Harry Potter’s phenomenal multimedia success, but children’s book authors really know what they’re doing these days. They know their audience of kids (and adults—don’t forget that so many grown-ups were immersed in the world of Harry Potter that publishers printed editions with adult covers!) is a technologically savvy group with their fingers in every kind of media imaginable. That means that authors, publishers, and fans work hard to create a strong online presence for their books. Check out the linked websites and you’ll see what I mean.

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