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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | J.R.R. Tolkien

Fantasy Gems

Lord of the RingsThe Christmas present that stands out most in my memory was given to me when I was 16. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. At that age, I expected clothes and practical gifts. Somehow, my mother knew to give me the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read any fantasy before this. So I was curious. I slipped into my bedroom around nine o’clock and began reading. I read until the Nazgul’s pursuit of the Hobbits became too intense. I put the book down, dreamed about the book all night, picked up The Fellowship of the Ring the next morning, and never came up for air for the rest of the holiday. I had to finish those books.

The Lord of the Rings started me on a lifelong love of fantasy. My master’s thesis was on fantasy literature. I enjoyed reading Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Peake, Le Guin, Moorcock, McKillip, McKinley, Susan Cooper, Walton, Kurtz, Nesbit … I devoured them.

But at a certain point, fantasy literature felt repetitive to me, with stock characters, and predictable plots. I seldom read it anymore, which is a sad thing.

But last September I met the author of a series about Jinx. She talked about the book as though I should know it … and I was curious. So I began Jinx, then had to find Jinxs Magic the next day, and Jinxs Fire a couple of days later. These are good books with characters I hadn’t encountered before in a world of wizards and magicians and a deep connection to the forests. It’s funny and magical and features a lot of warm and captivating relationships. The main character, Jinx, is complex and likeable. There’s a good balance between dialogue, description, action, a fast pace, and time to breathe. The main character starts out at age 12 and grows to age 14 so this is the right book to place in the hands of readers ages 10 and up (through adult).

Jinx series

I was so enthralled by Jinx’s tale that I had to ask the author, Sage Blackwood, a few questions:

Did you construct the Urwald, Samara, and the surrounding countries before you began writing the first book, Jinx? Or did you invent the geography as you went along?

The Urwald came first— years before the story, in fact. Samara I think also came before the story; I remember drawing pictures of it. The surrounding countries weren’t really developed till I needed them.

Did you know the ending of Jinx’s Fire (Book 3) when you began Jinx (Book 1)?

As regards the Bonemaster, yes, but the autonomy of the trees was something that developed as I wrote. I gradually realized that if the Urwald was a living entity, then like any other character, it had to have agency and flaws… and a Last Straw.

This series is founded on the balance between good and evil. Did you start writing with this premise or did you discover it during your writing process?

I think I started out not really believing in evil. At least not of the hand-rubbing “Mwuhaha! Cringe before me, mortals!” variety. So I guess it developed as I wrote: Each of the major characters has at some point touched evil. Not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator or potential perpetrator.  And each character is changed by the experience. That’s what evil is— something we all either face down, or embrace. Fortunately relatively few of us do the latter.

And, of course, we can’t always tell it’s evil at the time. Evil can come disguised as an unfortunate necessity, or a great job offer.

What aspect of your story underwent the most change during the writing of the three books?

Jinx himself, I think. At first he was a polite, diffident boy. Then it became clear that he was never going to survive being raised by Simon. Not with his protagonisthood intact, anyway. So he had to toughen up and develop a sardonic edge, and I really became much fonder of him when he did.

I love the ambiguity of your main characters. They seem fully human for this reason. Does this part of crafting a character come naturally to you or is it an effort?

Thank you. It is an effort, but not one I would forego. It’s important that each major character could conceivably be the protagonist, if the story were slewed around a bit. And this is how they see themselves, of course. None of us are sidekicks in real life.

Jinx can’t exactly read minds but he can see auras that show how a person is really feeling. This is one of the most exciting aspects of your books. How did this character quality come to you?

It happened while I was writing the early scenes. Emotions kept coming up in a very visual way, and I realized that that was because I was writing from Jinx’s point of view and that’s what he was actually seeing.

Do you have an affection for trees?

Oh yes! I am a tree-hugger. I spent a lot of time walking in the forest while I was writing Jinx, and this was where I realized that the trees talk to each other—something science was apparently also discovering at more or less the same moment. (People keep sending me articles about this.)

Your over-arching villain, The Bonemaster, is so reprehensible that it’s hard for me to have his presence in the story. How do you figure out the parameters of an evil character?

Well, I had to remember that as far as he was concerned, he was the hero of the story.  A good villain should always think he’s the hero. It’s what villains think in real life.

Therefore, a villain needs values. They can be horrible ones, but he’s got to have them. He has to have a self-constructed ideal he’s living up to. (This is where some Dark Lords fall short.)

How long does it take you to finish writing a book from first draft to the editor receiving your manuscript?

About a year, if I’ve got my act together. Before that there’s a period of drawing pictures, taking notes, and hanging index cards on the wall.

Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? If so, which are your favorite books or series?

Drowned AmmetLike you, I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. Later I grew disillusioned with the genre. Then I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. She was such a fresh, new voice, seeing the humor in the genre and the magic at the same time. And the way she establishes a world on page one without ever lapsing into mere description… I couldn’t believe everyone wasn’t talking about her!

It was 20 years before I finally met a Diana Wynne Jones fan I hadn’t created, as it were. Now it turns out she was a major influence on many (most?) of us who are writing middle grade fantasy today. We just all found her one way or another.

Some of my favorites of hers are Drowned Ammet, Cart and Cwidder, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and The Homeward Bounders (which is probably structurally her best novel).

Beyond Jones, the Harry Potter series is also wonderful. And I absolutely love Terry Pratchett— perhaps as much for the language as anything else.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sage. Your series of Jinx books ranks right up there with my favorite fantasies of all time.

Thanks so much, Vicki; that’s wonderful to hear. And thank you for coming up with all these great questions that were fun to answer!

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Books about Trees

With hats off to our friends at the tree-festooned Iowa ArboretumMinnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens, this list is dedicated to arborists everywhere, professional and amateur … you take care of an essential part of our ecosystem. Thank you. Here’s a list of books for younger and older children, fiction and nonfiction. We hope you’ll savor each one.

Celebritrees  

Celebritrees: Historic  & Famous Trees of the World
written by Margi Preus, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon
Henry Holt, 2011

Preus tells the true stories of fourteen outstanding trees from around the world, including a bristlecone pine in California that is 4,000 years old and the Tree of One Hundred Horses in England that sheltered the Queen of Aragon and her soldiers during a rainstorm. Back matter includes additional information about tree varieties in the book, a bibliography, and website links. Illustrated throughout this is a charming book for ages 8 and up.

The Cherry Tree

 

Cherry Tree
written by Ruskin Bond, illustrated by Manoj A. Menon
Penguin Books, 2012

In northern India, young Rakhi plants a cherry tree in the Himalayan foothills where fruit trees are sparse. She nurtures it and cares for it and grows older along with the tree.  A gentle, reflective story. Ages 3 to 7.

Crinkleroot's Guide to Knowing the Trees  

Crinkleroot’s Guide to Knowing the Trees
written and illustrated by Jim Arnosky
Simon & Schuster, 1992

Crinkleroot is a wise woodsman who takes readers on a journey through the forest, sharing wisdom about hardwood and softwood forests and the importance of a mixed forest for a healthy ecosystem for plants, animals, and insects. Crinkleroot shares how trees get their shapes, that dead trees play an important role, and the factors that play a role in a tree’s development. It’s fascinating information and the watercolor illustrations are engaging. Ages 4 to 8.

Grandpa Green  

Grandpa Green
written and illustrated by Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press, 2011

As a farm boy grows older, he shapes topiary in a garden that reflects his memories. Noah Galvin, a child, learns more about his great-grandfather as he wanders through the narrative of this garden, growing to understand that Grandpa Green did not lead an ordinary life. There are details on each page that provide a layered reading experience and there is ample impetus for discussion. This book would be helpful after the loss of a loved one. Caldecott Honor book. Ages 4 to 11.

Lord of the Rings  

Lord of the Rings
written by J.R.R. Tolkien
George Allen and Unwin, as well as Houghton Mifflin, 1965

The epic story of good battling evil in Middle Earth, focusing on the story of the hobbit Frodo Baggins and his companion Sam Gamgee traveling to Mordor to throw the Ring into the fires there, thus ending the cycles of greed and wars for power, cannot be overlooked in a booklist of trees. More than trees, but appearing as trees, the Ents are an old and wise race, slow to action but a turning point in the quest and the final war that frees Middle Earth from Sauron’s tyranny. Ages 10 and up.

Redwoods  

Redwoods
written and illustrated by Jason Chin
Flash Point, 2009

When a boy discovers a book about redwoods while waiting for his subway train, reading it takes him to explore the trees in his imagination, showing the reader facts about these trees, some of which are as old as the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers appear next to him on the train, helping him understand the historical context. As he emerges from the subway, he is in the midst of the redwoods in California, offering him an opportunity to explore their habitat and their surroundings. The watercolor illustrations are stunning and filled with ways to observe these trees that are among the oldest and most magnificent on Earth. An intentional blend of fact and fantasy, readers from age 3 to 9 will find this absorbing.

Swiss Family Robinson  

The Swiss Family Robinson
written by Johann D. Wyss,
William Godwin, 1816 (originally published in German in 1812).
Penguin Books, 2012 (closely adheres to Godwin edition)

A pastor’s family is cast up on an island in the South Pacific after their ship founders and sinks. Fortunately, their ship was full of supplies that wash up on shore. It’s an action-packed adventure in which the island’s trees provide sustenance and shelter. This book may be solely responsible for people’s dreams of living in treehouses. This will be a challenging but worthwhile classic for ages 10 and up

The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown-ups  

Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown-ups
written and illustrated by Gila Ingoglia, ASLA
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2008, updated in 2013

A clear-spirited book about the importance of trees, with guides for identifying their flowers, leaves, and shapes. You’ll learn about feeding systems, ancestry, and the roles they play in our lives. The illustrations are essential to this book and our understanding. It’s an essential guide for children and parents to enjoy together, learning while enjoying the information presented about 33 tree species, most of which are native to North America. Ages 4 and up.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
written by Betty Smith
Harper & Brothers, 1943

In this classic story of immigrants trying to improve their circumstances in Brooklyn from 1902 to 1919, Francie Nolan, her brother Neely, and their parents go through tough times as immigrants who are shunned, struggling through near-starvation but persevering as a family whose love pulls them through. Francie is an engaging character who grows, much like the tree outside the window of their tenement, because she is resourceful and finds joy in simple pleasures, books, and her family. Ages 12 and up.

A Tree is Nice  

A Tree is Nice
written and illustrated by Janice May Udry
HarperCollins, 1987

For the very young, this book explores all of the many benefits that trees bring to our lives. From planting trees, to enjoying their shade, to using their branches for drawing in the sand, this charming book will foster a respect for the trees around us. Caldecott medal. Ages 3 to 8.

The Tree Lady  

Tree Lady:
the True Story of How One Woman Changed a City Forever
written by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Beach Lane Books, 2013

In 1881, Katherine Olivia Sessions was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science. Although she moved to San Diego to teach, she quickly became involved in her dream to bring greenery to the city’s desert climate. She wrote to people around the world to request seeds that would thrive in this area, planting and nurturing trees that would create San Diego’s City Park and grow throughout the city. In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition was held in the park, providing a lush setting for the world to experience. With a foundation of science, a sense of biography, and evocative illustrations, this is a beauty to inspire new tree lovers. For ages 5 to 11.

Tree of Life  

Tree of Life: the World of the African Baobab, written and illustrated by Barbara Bash, Sierra Club Books, 2002

In this dramatically illustrated book, we learn of the life cycle of this long-lived and hearty tree that survives in the desert, providing shelter and sustenance for insects, birds, animals, and humans. It’s a wonderful book for teaching interdependence and learning more about the African savannah. Ages 4 to 10.

Tree of Wonder  

Tree of Wonder: the Many Marvelous Lives of a Rainforest Tree
written by Kate Messner, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani
Chronicle Books, 2015

In Latin America, the rain forest is home to the Almendro tree, which hosts more than 10,000 organisms, including a great green macaw and a blue morpho butterfly. The number of creatures double with each turn of the page so that the sense of the enormity of life inside this tree can be understood. It is a math book, an ecology book, and a poetry book that will be enjoyed in your classroom or home. Ages 6 to 11.

Tree, Leaves and Bark  

Trees, Leaves and Bark
written by Diane Burns and Linda Garrow
Cooper Square Publishing, 1995

From crown to roots, a great deal of information is presented in a friendly, understandable way about tree seeds and grown trees. It’s a good take-along guide for identifying leaves in the forest and urban settings. Ages 8 and up.

Wangari Trees of Peace  

Wangari’s Trees of Peace
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

In this true story of Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, we follow her life from a young girl growing up in Kenya to her founding of the Green Belt Movement. Alarmed to see large swaths of trees being cut down, she enlists the help of other women to plant trees in their surroundings. Today, more than 30,000,000 trees have been planted through her efforts. One person can make a difference. Winter’s illustrations are warm and enlightening. Ages 4 to 12.

Winter Trees  

Winter Trees
written by Carole Gerber, illustrated by Leslie Evans
Charlesbridge Books, 2009

Illustrated with woodcuts, this book helps children and their parents identify trees in the wintertime when their leaves have fallen and the skeletal structure of the trees helps us see more clearly how the tree grows. The narrative takes a closer look at seven trees, including the sugar maple, burr oak, and paper birch. Ages 3 to 8.

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Laughter and Grief

by Vicki Palmquist

Dragons in the WatersThere are books we remember all of our lives, even if we can’t remember the details. Sometimes we can’t even remember the story, but we remember the characters and how they made us feel. We recall being transported into the pages of the book, seeing what the characters see, hearing what they hear, and understanding the time and spaces and breathing in and out of the characters. Do we become those characters, at least for a little while, at least until we move on to the next book? Is this why we can remember them long after we’ve finished the book?

This column is called Reading Ahead because I’m one of those people others revile: I read the end of the book before I’ve progressed to that point in the story. I read straight through for as long as I can stand it and then I have to know how the story ends. I tell myself that I do this because then I can observe the writing and how the author weaves the ending into the book long before the last pages. That’s partially true. But I also admit that the tension becomes unbearable for me.

When I find a book that is so delicious that I don’t want to know the end until its proper time, then I know that I am reading a book whose characters will live on in me. Their cells move from the pages of the book into my arms and shoulders, heading straight to my mind and my heart.

The Wednesday WarsFor me, those books are The Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (but not The Hobbit), The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Dragons in the Waters and Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle, and every one of the Deep Valley books written by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

There are some newer books that haven’t yet been tested by time. I could feel that I was absorbing The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi and Absolutely, Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick.  There are many, many other books that I admire and enjoy reading but I don’t feel them becoming a part of me in quite the same way.

I suspect that you have a short list of books that make you feel like this. They are an unforgettable part of you.

Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken HeartI’ve just finished reading Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart by Jane St. Anthony (University of Minnesota Press). It is a funny and absorbing book about learning to deal with grief. That’s a place I’ve lived for the last four years in a way I hadn’t experienced before. When my mother died, my all-my-life friend, an essential part of me was transformed into something else. I don’t yet know what that is.

Isabelle Day is learning about this, too. Her father, her pal, her funny man, her let-me-show-you-the-delights-of-life-kid parent has died shortly before the book begins. Her mother is in the throes of grief, pulled inward, not communicating well. Isabelle and her mother have moved from Milwaukee, where close friends and a familiar house stand strong, to Minneapolis, where Isabelle’s mom grew up. They are living upstairs in a duplex owned by two elderly sisters who immediately share friendship and food and wisdom with Isabelle, something she’s feeling too prickly to accept. There are new friends whom Isabelle doesn’t trust to be true.

But for anyone who has experienced grief, this book will reach out and touch you gently, softly, letting you know that others understand what you are feeling. Isabelle comes to understand that she doesn’t have to feel alone … the world is waiting to be experienced in other, new ways.

It’s a beautifully written book in that the words fit together in lovely, sometimes surprising, sometimes startling ways. There is great care taken with the story and the characters. And yet the unexpected is always around the corner. Isabelle is a complex person. She does not act predictably. There is no sense of “woe is me” in this book. There’s a whole class of what I call “whiny books” (mostly adult) and this isn’t one of them. This book is filled with life, wonder, humor, and mostly understanding.

Isabelle and Grace and Margaret, Miss Flora and Miss Dora, they are all a part of me now. When I am feeling sad and missing the people I have lost, I will re-read this book because I know it will provide healing. And I can laugh … it’s been hard to do that. Thank you, Jane.

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Written in code

Having just finished a terrific new book called J.R.R. Tolkien, by Alexandra and John Wallner (Holiday House), I was reminded about codes. I spent a good number of hours during my junior high days fashioning notes in Elvish and leaving them in my friends’ lockers. The runic writing fascinated me and, of course, the idea […]

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