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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Fantasy

True Story

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.


Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack and the Goblin KingWe are thrust into the midst of the action, which never stops until the epilogue. This is how Ben Hatke tells a story.

We don’t know what’s going on. There’s no setup. Instead, we quickly learn that Jack is climbing some vegetative matter to find the ogre who kidnapped his sister Maddy and take her home. His friend, Lilly, no sidekick, is climbing alongside him.

The villains of the piece are rats, giants, and that ogre. They have control of a nexus point that exists outside of time and space, a connecting link between worlds. It looks like the tower of a castle built on an asteroid. The place has lost its luster because of the giants’ nefarious choices, among them the need to feed a human child to the machine that blocks the bridges between worlds. It’s satisfying to discover these plot points throughout the story.

Jack and Lilly are split up when Lilly falls from the vine (a rat is responsible). Jack vows to come back for her but he is compelled to find Maddy.

“This is not earth,” illustration from Jack and the Mighty Goblin King by Ben Hatke

The adventure takes off in two directions. Lilly is seriously hurt by the rats … and saved by the goblins who inhabit the lower reaches of the nexus point. The Goblin King demands that Lilly will be his bride. She has other ideas. In the “trash from all worlds,” she finds a Shelby Mustang. She will find a way to take it with her. Lilly is a hero in the truest sense of the word.

The goblins are the most endearing characters in the book. They are funny, resourceful, knowledgeable, and they care for Lilly. Their language is not exactly English and it suits them. Now we know how goblins communicate.

There are unanswered questions. Why can’t Maddy talk? Where did the magic seeds come from that give Jack and Lilly short bursts of needed power? Why is Jack’s mother’s house being foreclosed? These are the intriguing bits that encourage the reader to fill in the story, becoming one with the storyteller.

Hatke’s artwork is so much a part of the story that the book couldn’t be read out loud without showing the frames of the graphic novel. His brain creates exotic settings that invite lingering to absorb their oddness. His villains are dastardly, fearsome, inviting us to defeat them. The goblins are other-worldly but a little cuddly. (Just a little.) The color palette is spacey where appropriate,  convincingly subterranean when we’re in the goblin’s habitat, and quite richly appealing when the vegetation transforms. And that Shelby Mustang!

The book is filled with surprises. A turn of the page often brings an unexpected turn of events. Even the epilogue, often used to wrap up a story and tell us about the future, leaves us with a  sense of urgency: what will happen next?

There is a first book, Mighty Jack, which I have not read. It most likely creates the world in which Lilly, Jack, Maddy, and Phelix the dragon (!) live, but I’m very glad that a reader doesn’t have to first read that book to enjoy this one. I always hated going to my cousin Sig’s house, reading his comic books, never knowing where the stories were coming from or how they would end because they were published episodically. 

This is storytelling at its very best. Appealing, fun, hold-your-breath storytelling. I could have revealed that this is a re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story but it is so much more than that. Ben Hatke’s powers enchant his readers once again.

(Please be advised that this might have a PG13 rating because of some violence and one swear word. You’ll know best if this fits for your family.)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
a graphic novel by Ben Hatke
color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published by First Second, 2017
ISBN 978-1-6267-226-68


Me, All Alone, Reading This Book

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

Sometimes, the illustrations are wonderful but the language is captivating. You know how you read a picture book and you can’t decide which part to focus on? Should you look at the picture first? Should you read the story because it’s the thread that’s pulling you through?

Well, when you read “He was a long-leggedy man with a wide, wide hat and a beard in a circle around his head. His glasses reflected the clouds,” the impetus is strong to read the story first and come back to look at the illustrations later.

But then you peek at the illustrations and you realize there is always something extra-ordinary going on in them. A branch is really a worm-like creature about to devour a pot of gold.

There is being alone, and there is lonely, and there is being busy, and there is a world of dazzle and FUN. This is a book that explores each of those parts of life. The noise and the quiet. The raucous gaiety and the art of listening. The fun you sign up for and the joy you find and the never-before-noticed amazements you explore.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

This is a story book. It has a longer text which I believe is just right for reading out loud. The language is a revelation. It’s a parable of our modern world. And then you realize, the story and the illustrations are vital to each other. You can read this book again and again to notice a new phrase in Mr. Anderson’s writing, a small element of wonder in Mr. Hawke’s art. This is a book that tells a story that means something. It’s a treasure.

I missed this book when it was first published in 2005. Candlewick has reissued it. Don’t you miss it now.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World
written by M.T. Anderson
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press, 2005; reissued, 2017


Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break


The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I confess, I’m a bit of a tough sell when it comes to fantasy books (unless they are for really young kids). I don’t do vampires, I’m not thrilled with dystopic settings, and although I love dragons and fairies, other fantastic beasts tend to make my eyes roll, and I…well, I lose interest. I believe in magic, but it has to be really well written to keep my interest, and frankly, I’ve not finished a lot of really well done fantasy novels.

I do try. Regularly, in fact. Darling Daughter is always trying to get me to make it through one of the huge fantasy tomes she’s carrying around. (Side Note: Why are they all so large? I feel like I would finish more if they were under three hundred pages.) And I always give it a go—particularly when Kelly Barnhill has a book come out, because her writing is so lovely.

I held on to Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon for quite some time. I didn’t let Darling Daughter read it first, as is often our pattern—I hid it for myself, saving it for a time when I could enjoy it all on my own. It was worth the wait.

From the first Shirley Jackson-esque (The Lottery) chapter I was hooked. It’s a terrible premise—every year the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. But very quickly, thanks to Antain (who is at the beginning and the end of the story, but is only deftly sprinkled through the middle so you don’t forget how dear and important he is), the reader realizes that something is wonky and tenuous with regard to this carefully preserved “tradition.”

In any event, the baby in question—the one this book is about—is rescued by a kind witch named Xan, who, as it turns out, has no idea why babies are left in the forest. She has simply rescued the children and delivered them to families on the other side of the forest for ages. She’s been doing it for who-knows-how-long when she finds Luna, the baby who changes everything.

You see, Xan feeds the babies with starlight as she takes them to their new families. Starlight! This is exactly the sort of fantasy detail that makes my heart go pitter-pat. Such whimsy, such metaphor! Love it! Luna gets moonlight, not starlight, however—quite accidentally, you understand—and the moonlight fills her with extraordinary magic. Which is why Xan decides to raise her instead of giving her to a family as she usually does. Therefore, Luna grows up with a wise Swamp Monster, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, and a kind witch as her family. These endearing characters provide a large share of the delight of the book. They did not once make me roll my eyes.

When Luna’s thirteenth birthday is on the horizon, her magic—carefully restrained by Xan for most of her childhood—begins to leak about…and the plot thickens! As she grows and changes and learns, she becomes all the more magnificent. So does the story. There are creeptastic birds, a woman with a Tiger’s heart prowling around, and heroic efforts made on the very world’s behalf.

But Luna! Oh, Luna is so incredible! She is strong and determined, loving and wild, smart and magical. The kind of magic that is real. The kind of magic all girls have—and we must help them tap it, because it’s precisely the kind of magic that the world tries to beat out of them, and now more than ever they need to tap their magic, people!

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to Darling Daughter. “It’s terrific,” I said. I did not say “It’s important!” but it is. So important. This is, as the bookjacket says, “a coming-of-age fairy tale.” It’s a gorgeous book. And I’m giving it today to one of my nieces on the occasion of her twelfth birthday. I can’t wait for her magic to be fully-realized—she’s amazing already.


Lynne Jonell: Justice in Another World

by Lynne Jonell

Jonell_Lock200I just met a woman who lived through horrifying emotional abuse as a child.

I had been told about her history some years before; but when I met the woman, we didn’t mention it. We talked instead about books, a subject of common interest, and teaching, her passion.

I made an effort to forget what I knew about her past; it was awful enough for her to have lived through it without my thinking about it while we talked, like a bystander at a crime scene who keeps casting surreptitious glances at the pooling blood beneath a blanket-covered mound.

But I couldn’t keep my thoughts entirely disciplined. Mostly, I was in awe—that she had survived, that she had become a kind person, a contributing member of society with a generous heart. And now, days later, I am still thinking about—let’s call her “Jean.”

I know there are evil things done in this world, but for the most part they are things that one reads about in papers, or hears on the news. To sit across from someone who lived through what Jean had was something more real, and in the days following our lunch date I went back to it over and over again, trying each time to make sense of her story somehow.

Jonell_CatAfloat200I suppose it will end up being worked out in a book. It’s happened before. There are people in my life I have tried to comprehend, and events and themes that have concerned me deeply. I have worried them all like a dog might a bone until they took shape as characters and plot points, and then I wrote them down.

In my book Emmy & the Incredible Shrinking Rat, where did Miss Barmy, the world’s most evil nanny, come from? I know, but I’m not telling. Why does the man in her life keep going back to her in spite of everything? That is something that mystifies me as well and I try to make sense of it on the page.Jonell_Villain200

In my newest book, The Sign of the Cat, the Earl of Merrick is the hero of the nation, universally admired and honored—but this front hides a dangerous criminal (and he’s mean to kittens, too.) Where did this villain come from? I didn’t know while I was writing the story, but I am beginning to understand now.

Why is it so important to write about villains? Why not just write about good people, and good choices?

Jonell_Shadow-at-Door200Because evil does exist in this world, and children know it. They may not know it in all its horror, but they get the concept; and they’re afraid of the dark. And they passionately want justice.

I want justice, too. And I want to tell the truth. So I write fantasy.

Fantasy is a time-honored method of speaking truth when truth is too difficult to face straight on. I can write about child abandonment, abduction, and murder, and if I include talking cats, it’s considered perfectly suitable for children. Fantasy softens the sharp edges, Jonell_Cat200distances the reality, so that it becomes possible to look at deep truths and deep fears without being overwhelmed.

Fantasy has another purpose, too. It can carry readers far, far away from the circumstances of their lives. It can take a lonely and abused child, like Jean, to another world entirely; a world where such a child has a chance, and a voice; a world where evil is unequivocal and called by its name.

Jonell_Hand200Being told from birth that you are less than everyone else takes its toll. Being told you are worthless can make you feel as if you are drowning in a sea of rejection and pain.  But for a few hours in time, as long as it takes to read a book, such a child can forget; such a child can identify with a character, can put on courage, can hope for a happy ending.

Jean loved books as a child. I like to think that the books she read helped her make it through. And there are many children like Jean, right now, today, caught in situations they feel powerless to change. I want to give them what I can: a world where justice comes at last, be the battle ever so unequal.


Illustrations by Lynne Jonell, from The Sign of the Cat


The Fourteenth Goldfish

The versatile Jennifer L. Holm pens a fantasy this time around, but it’s a story suffused with humor and science, deftly asking a mind-blowing question: is it a good thing to grow old? So what happens when a 13-year-old boy shows up on your doorstep, arguing with your mom, who invites him in, and it […]