I’m a reader by inclination and a writer by trade, so it’s only natural that my daughters would rebel and proclaim how little they enjoy reading. C’est la enfants, I suppose.
I have not let the situation lie unattended; quite the opposite, I have tried unsuccessful strategy after ineffective tactic to inspire, cajole, bribe and beg my girls to read daily. It’s an ongoing battle, my little version of the 100 Years War. I have had some success, but some disappointing failures. I have gone so far as to write stories and novellas with my children as the protagonist (potential publishers and agents, take note), but my best gains have been made by scouring bookstores and asking other readers in an attempt to find the best, perhaps most influential books my kids might enjoy.
So here’s what I’m buying my teenager for Hanukkah this year (shhh … don’t tell her). She’s shown some interest in science fiction and fantasy, but nothing too heavy handed (so no Lord of the Rings, to my shame).
The great thing about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that, with more than 40 titles across six intertwining story arcs (plus one-off novels), once you get hooked there’s a ton to read. I’ve selected Equal Rites because it’s hilarious (they all are) satire about witches with characters you can really get to know and care about. Pratchett is one of the best-selling authors in the United Kingdom but he’s not a household name on this side of “the pond” (a phrase which in this case refers to a body of water 4,000 miles wide and 27,000 feet deep, Pratchett might say). My daughter will like this book (I hope) because of the humor, the wordplay and the satirical way Pratchett gently elbows myths, legends and popular culture.
Neil Gaiman is very in now, and for good reason. The former graphic novelist, now full-fledged regular novelist, has a witty and engaging style which, paired with an apparently vivid imagination, results in some of the best books for young people on the shelves. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of his latest releases and perhaps one of his best. His work has been well adapted to the screen (Coraline, for example, and Stardust) because it’s so cinematic—the characters have depth. I think my daughter will enjoy this because, while it’s traditional fantasy, it’s also very now.
This is one of the books that got me to read, and I’m willing to wager that, if you’ve read this far, it’s on your list, too. Author Norton Juster plays with words so effortlessly, so engagingly that it is hard not to love this book. Generations of children have been reared on The Phantom Tollbooth and I honestly would drown in a puddle of tears if my kids don’t feel as strongly about this book as I did at their age.
My kids have been very into Twilight (to my shame) so I’m hoping my teenager will get into this funny take on the traditional vampire myth. These vampires are certainly the eat-blood-to-survive kind of vampires (not the shine-like-diamonds-in-the-sunlight kind), though it is a love story, much like that of Edward and, whatsername, Bella. Christopher Moore made it onto The New York Times bestseller list with his religion sendup, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (William Morrow, 2004), but love, sex, vampires and humor seems more my teenager’s speed. Oh, right, note for parents: There is sex in this book.
Shinichi Hoshi is considered a master in Japan of “essu effu” (science fiction, if you didn’t figure that one out) though he is largely unknown on this side of the pond (a phrase which in this case refers to a body of water 12,300 miles wide and 36,000 feet deep). His stories are the progenitors of “flash fiction,” short stories sometimes no longer than a page or two. You could read one at a stop light. This makes his work eminently accessible. His stories are like sci-fi Pringles — once you start you can’t stop, and you go through a whole bag in no time at all. English translations can be hard to come by, though, even on Amazon.com.
Poul Anderson’s novella Call Me Joe is a bit out of date — conditions on Saturn were unknown in 1957 — but it still holds up as a great story and an influence on so many modern works, including James Cameron’s Avatar. My kids will like this (I hope) because of how influential it was (kids care about that sort of thing, right?). That idea Anderson explained, the connected nature of all beings, on which Cameron leaned so heavily, is so profound, so powerful.
What kid wouldn’t want a deep emotional connection to a dragon? That’s the basis for Anne McCaffrey’s take on the dragon myth and it’s so effective McCaffrey engendered her own mythology. The Pern books create not only a whole alien world, with unique challenges and celestial storms, but a history and culture in which people and dragons are inexorably intertwined. They’re not the murderous, trickster beasts Bilbo outwits in The Hobbit, they’re a part of you, and the two of you aren’t separate beings at all but one and the same.
Irish, Greek and Roman myths get all the good press, but if you want weird, the ancient Russians have them all beat hand down. Where else can you tell a story about a mobile house with chicken legs, with a straight face? Author Gregory Maguire takes traditional Russian folk tales and turns them into a fantasy novel for the modern age, complete with real characters to which a teen could relate. Myths and kids go well together, though most people are not too familiar with anything beyond Thor or Zeus. I promise, the House Un-American Activities Committee won’t get involved if you buy your kids a Russian folk tale-inspired novel.