For a book-loving child, nothing is more exciting than a row of unread volumes in a newly discovered fiction series. It may sound strange, but it's true: characters in books can become the most reliable friends in a young person's life. A century ago kids were reading the Boxcar Children. Then Tom Swift flew onto the scene with a new invention under each arm. Four generations have cut their teeth on the reckless escapades of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, whose fresh adventures are now packaged to resemble more contemporary favorites, like the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High.
These days, as everybody knows, the series most young readers are anxiously following is the one featuring the boy with the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Every Muggle child on Earth, it seems, is walking around with a J.K. Rowling book in his or her hand, talking about Harry and Ron and Hermione as if they sit beside them at school.
Thanks largely to Rowling, who single-handedly inspired the children's bestseller list, fantasy series in general are flourishing. In fact, we've discovered several worthy alternatives to the Potter chronicles. In between updates from Hogwarts, kids can turn to the exciting new series spotlighted below.
Battling the Queen of Elves
Terry Pratchett is the author of, among many other things, the Discworld books, a series set in a crazy world where magic works (sometimes), and children and frogs converse like Monty Python characters. Pratchett's books have sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. An utterly unpredictable author, he seems to have cobbled together Discworld from medieval superstitions, Victorian novels and a host of fairy tales, all of which are filtered through his modern and intelligent sensibility. His books are often both suspenseful and funny. Best of all, he doesn't cushion his satirical punches. In the recent Carnegie Award-winning The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a cat rants about government, and rats debate what happens after death.
In the latest Discworld volume, The Wee Free Men, smart young Tiffany Aching finds herself uneasily allied with a wild clan of six-inch-high blue men who help her battle the Queen of the Elves. Along the way, she bests villains, monsters and patronizing adults.
Pratchett's dialogue, as always, is outrageously funny. It's typical of him to put a new spin on classical creatures like fairies and leprechauns. The flying fairies in The Wee Free Men are as scary as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and Pratchett's grimhounds are fully worthy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the chief delight here is the character of Tiffany, a tough, bright heroine.
A one-of-a-kind hero
Any child who has wearied of the virtuous and heroic Harry Potter will delight in the subversive series about Artemis Fowl, written by Irish novelist Eoin Colfer. Artemis, it appears, is giving Harry a run for his money. The third installment in his adventures, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code (Hyperion, $16.95, 336 pages, ISBN 0786819146), has a first printing of 250,000 copies.
Colfer's young hero is a genius, a criminal mastermind who concocts world-class schemes usually involving stolen Fairy technology. It's easy to imagine the pleasure a young reader will have following his newest escapades. The Eternity Code is a wild tale replete with spies, high-tech inventions, unreliable magic and military centaurs. Artemis' adventures occur all over Earth and, not surprisingly, elsewhere. This time around, the young whiz has constructed a supercomputer from Fairy secrets that, of course, he stole. Does he pay for his crimes? In misadventures, yes.
A cross between Han Solo, Harry Potter and Encyclopedia Brown, Artemis is a one-of-a-kind. With such a wild inheritance Colfer's novels seldom veer toward cliché. His books are long and solid and, like Pratchett's, they lack illustrations. These are stories for older readers who are ready to sink their teeth into a meaty novel.
The amazing Graces
Tony DiTerlizzi is the artist responsible for last year's acclaimed picture book The Spider and the Fly. Before tackling children's books, he illustrated games such as Dungeons & Dragons and the trading card series Magic the Gathering. Lately, he has focused his talents on a five-book series co-created with fantasy novelist Holly Black. "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a new series from Simon and Schuster, tell the story of the three Grace siblings—twins Jared and Simon and their older sister Mallory. When their parents divorce, they move with their mother into a relative's decrepit old house. Jared, the trouble-prone underachiever, is the viewpoint character. In the attic he finds a field guide to faeries and soon sees evidence of them all around—the premise upon which the books are based.
The first two Spiderwick entries are The Field Guide ($9.95, 128 pages, ISBN 0689859368) and The Seeing Stone ($9.95, 128 pages, ISBN 0689859376). The first suspenseful volume lays the necessary groundwork and permits the reader to eavesdrop on Jared's initial puzzling discoveries. Packed with misadventures that will inspire sympathy in readers, both books are fast-paced, with line drawings and full-color paintings that are richly detailed. This fall, the Grace kids' adventures will continue with the publication of Lucinda's Secret.
A dreadful scene
The first book in a trilogy by popular children's author Philip Ardagh, A House Called Awful End stars 11-year-old Eddie Dickens. The first sentence will pull in readers who enjoy Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket: "When Eddie Dickens was eleven years old, both his parents caught some awful disease that made them turn yellow, go a bit crinkly around the edges, and smell of old hot-water bottles." The hero is named Dickens for a reason. The story takes place in a kind of cartoon-Dickensian London, and Eddie runs into enough misfortunes and eccentrics for an Oliver Twist or a David Copperfield.
Dreadful Acts (Henry Holt, $14.95, 144 pages, ISBN 0805071555), the sequel to Awful End, has just been published, and the third installment in the series will arrive in the fall. Although it lacks the wit and sophistication of the Discworld and Artemis Fowl tales, the series is endlessly jokey and playful. Many a child will laugh aloud at parenthetical snide remarks, and the illustrations by David Roberts have a very contemporary spookiness. Like the other series, the Eddie Dickens books make the human race look alarmingly freakish, which, as these authors understand, is pretty much how kids view the adult world.
Viking will publish Michael Sims' new book, Adam's Navel, in August. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2003 Fall
When the fairy world begins exporting monsters and its queen kidnaps her little brother, Tiffany Aching sets out to bring him back. She is joined by a troupe of tiny, red-beared, blue-tattooed men called the Nac Mac Feegle. Pratchett steers the tale easily between magical adventure and just-as-interesting ordinary life, with comedic interludes, hair-raising danger, and shepherding wisdom mingling in perfect proportions. Copyright 2003 Horn Book Guide Reviews
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2003 #3
Tiffany Aching is a very practical-minded girl, and when nightmarish monsters from the fairy world begin showing up at her home on the Chalk, Tiffany doesn't wait for help to arrive, but instead sets out to stop them herself. The Chalk had formerly been under the protection of Granny Aching, who knew more about sheep than anyone living; now that Granny is gone, Tiffany has inherited both the Chalk and, it seems, Granny's witchcraft. In addition to exporting monsters, the fairy world's Queen is also kidnapping people into her realm--the Baron's son Roland, for one, and Tiffany's little brother Wentworth. Being the sort of person she is, Tiffany takes this quite personally and determines to bring Wentworth back. She is joined in her endeavor by a troupe of tiny, red-bearded, blue-tattooed men called the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men, whose thick Scottish speech, berserker attitudes, and lack of social graces lend the book much of its comic charm. (One of the book's funniest set-pieces is the awkward scene in which nine-year-old Tiffany, as the new kelda, or leader, of the Nac Mac Feegle, is expected to select a husband from among the six-inch-high men.) Pratchett's touch is light but assured as he steers the tale easily between magical adventure and the just-as-interesting ordinary life on the Chalk, with comedic interludes, hair-raising danger, and flashbacks to Granny Aching's shepherding wisdom mingling in perfect proportions. The Wee Free Men, nearly indestructible and a bit daft, make a delightful foil to Tiffany's unsurprised steadiness. The slow but tantalizing pacing is superb, the matter-of-fact tone spot on--just the package to appeal to those who admire not just a brave heart but a quick comeback as well. Copyright 2003 Horn Book Magazine Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2003 April #2
There will be upheavals in the human and fantasy worlds of elves and witches, with drastic consequences, and Tiffany, with only a frying pan for a weapon, is caught in the middle. In an effort to rescue her spoiled, candy-loving baby brother whom the Elf Queen has stolen with the temptation of endless sweets, Tiffany enlists the aid of the Wee Free Men. The baby's rescue is accomplished with unrelenting drama, large servings of Pratchett's ironic humor, and a unique cast of characters. This includes an imperfect heroine who has inherited "First Sight and Second Thoughts" and who feels guilty because she did not truly love her whiney brother. The Wee Free Men are six-inch-tall blue men with a robust enthusiasm for stealing, fighting, and drinking. Set in a chillingly unrecognizable "fairyland," this ingenious mélange of fantasy, action, humor, and sly bits of social commentary contains complex underlying themes of the nature of love, reality, and dreams. The Carnegie Medal-winner's fans will not be disappointed. (Fantasy. 12+) Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 May #2
The latest adventure set in Pratchett's sprawling, free-form Discworld boasts a winning heroine, the plucky young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Funny, sassy and spirited ("She preferred the witches to the smug handsome princes and especially to the stupid smirking princesses, who didn't have the sense of a beetle"), the heroine turns what might have been a simple adventure yarn (although nothing Pratchett does is ever simple, really) into an enthralling and rewarding read. What's not to love about a teenage girl who takes on vicious monsters, armed with only a frying pan? Her bravery will win over not only readers but the Wee Free Men of the title, the Nac Mac Feegle-puckish, (somewhat) lovable imps who exude a certain charm despite their innate and unrepentant kleptomania. The Nac Mac Feegle come to Tiffany's aid when her younger brother Wentworth is kidnapped; the ultimate showdown between Tiffany and the cold-hearted Queen of the Elves transpires as a joyous triumph of innocence over cruel ambition. As always, Pratchett weaves eminently quotable morsels (a person-turned-toad warns of the perils of fairy godmothers: "Never cross a woman with a star on a stick... they've got a mean streak"), into his artfully constructed prose. Some of the characteristically punny humor may pass over the heads of younger readers, but plenty of other delights will keep them hooked. Ages 12-up. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2003 May
Gr 5-7-Tiffany, an extremely competent nine-year-old, takes care of her irritating brother, makes good cheese on her father's farm, and knows how to keep secrets. When monsters from Fairyland invade her world and her brother disappears, Tiffany, armed only with her courage, clear-sightedness, a manual of sheep diseases, and an iron frying pan, goes off to find him. Her search leads her to a showdown with the Fairy Queen. It is clear from the beginning that Tiffany is a witch, and a mighty powerful one. The book is full of witty dialogue and a wacky cast of characters, including a toad (formerly a lawyer). Much of the humor is supplied by the alcohol-swilling, sheep-stealing pictsies, the Wee Free Men of the title, who are six-inches high and speak in a broad Scottish brogue. (The fact that readers will not understand some of the dialect won't matter, as Tiffany doesn't understand either, and it is all part of the joke.) These terrors of the fairy world are Tiffany's allies, and she becomes their temporary leader as they help her search for the Fairy Queen. Once the story moves into Fairyland it becomes more complex, with different levels of dream states (or, rather, nightmares) and reality interweaving. Tiffany's witchcraft eschews the flamboyant tricks of wizards; it is quiet, inconspicuous magic, grounded in the earth and tempered with compassion, wisdom, and justice for common folk. Not as outrageous and perhaps not as inventive as The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (HarperCollins, 2001), The Wee Free Men has a deeper, more human interest and is likely to have wider appeal. All in all, this is a funny and thought-provoking fantasy, with powerfully visual scenes and characters that remain with readers. A glorious read.-Sue Giffard, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, New York City Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 October
Gr 5-7-When Tiffany enters Fairyland to rescue her kidnapped brother, readers are in for a rousing romp, for this girl has grit, determination, and more than a touch of witchcraft on her side. With clever dialogue and outlandish characters, this suspenseful fantasy is as funny as it is wise. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2003 August
Young Tiffany Aching knows lots about minding sheep, children, and the dairy, but until she finds herself forced to do battle with the malicious Queen of the Elves, she does not know anything at all about magic and witchcraft. Without warning one afternoon, various denizens of Fairyland invade the chalk country, home to generations of shepherds and Tiffany's only home. Keeping in mind the sturdy independence and shrewd insights of her beloved and recently deceased Granny Aching, Tiffany sets out to protect what is hers. She is aided in her progress through the nightmarish convolutions of Fairyland by her new acquaintances, the Wee Free Men. These six-inch-high, blue pictsies excel at fighting, thieving, and drinking. Believing themselves already to have died and gone to heaven, they are absolutely fearless and indomitable, if a bit likely to get sidetracked anytime an opportunity to indulge in one of their three favorite pastimes arises. Eventually, Tiffany fulfills her quest, but as with all good heroines, she learns more about herself than anything else and will not be able to return to a quiet life just making cheeses anymore. Fans of Pratchett's series will enjoy cameo appearances in the novel by several well-known Discworld witches, but for the most part the book stands on its own. Uncharacteristically for Pratchett, the novel is hobbled, however, by a predictable plot and redeemed only through its characters. Tiffany's staunch practicality is nicely balanced by the impulsive vigor of the Wee Free Men, and the dialogue is always lively.-Megan Isaac. PLB $17.89. ISBN 0-06-001237-4. 4Q 3P S Copyright 2003 Voya Reviews