Modern Children’s Classics to (Re)Visit Soon

Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading.  Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective.  The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult.  (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long).  It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak.  Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner.  The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast.  You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz.  All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help.  The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World.  I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better.  It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.

 

 

 

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Book – Greta is one of the Children of Peace, hostages of the world’s leaders who live in the Precepture in Saskatchewan. If their country goes to war, they die. It’s one of the rules of Talis, the AI who rules the world – war should be personal, and the people declaring war should have to suffer for it. Talis’s scheme works to keep wars rare, but in a world where water grows scarcer by the day, Greta knows that, sooner or later, her mother’s kingdom will go to war to defend Lake Huron, and she is going to die. The arrival of Elián, the hostage from the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance, shakes both the calm society of the Precepture and Greta’s perception of the world – and her willingness to go peacefully to her doom.

There are a lot of ideas in this book: AI threat, water wars, population devastation, extreme solutions to the age-old problem of war. And they’re all secondary to Greta, who is an amazing character, someone who’s walked blindly for most of her life through a horrible, unfair, heartless system that she grows to believe is not the inevitable way the world has to work. It’s gorgeously written (the last couple of chapters in particular) and the characterization is impeccable. This was an incredible book – heartbreaking and brutal, not gratuitously, but as much as it needed to be. Although technically YA, anyone who loves science fiction or dystopian fiction should love this.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book – With the new Hulu show buzzing all over the internet (yes, it’s exactly as good, exactly as well-acted, exactly as gorgeous and exactly as wrenching as you’ve heard) and the book back on top of the bestseller lists, I thought it was high time for a re-read of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, the onetime United States, in a not-so-distant future.  In response to a precipitous drop in the birth rate and following a major terrorist attack, America’s freedoms have been subtly stripped away–first the suspension of the Constitution, then the freezing of women’s bank accounts and the passing of a law against women taking work outside the home, then the declaration that second marriages and homosexuality are illegal and an oppressive and extreme form of Protestantism is the only legal religion.  By the time our heroine attempts to flee for Canada with her husband and daughter, it’s too late to get away.  The family is seized and split up.

Because the character we know as Offred (her real name is taken from her) has proven her fertility by producing a healthy child, she is a valuable natural resource.  Instead of being labeled an ‘Unwoman’ and facing certain death on a crew cleaning toxic waste, she is trained as a ‘Handmaid’–part concubine, part surrogate mother, the property of one of Gilead’s powerful Commanders and designated to bear children which will then belong to him and his wife.  Powerless to prevent her own monthly ritualized rape and subject to hatred, jealousy and violence –mostly from other women whose domination over her is the one small power they themselves have left in a world where women cannot lead, read or work outside the house–Offred finds tiny methods of rebellion, tiny ways to keep her sanity and sense of self.  Over time, she builds the tools and connections to foster a more definite resistance.

As that description suggests, The Handmaid’s Tale is anything but a simple read.  It’s dark, painful and, above all, terrifying.  But it’s also starkly beautiful, a masterpiece of linguistic efficiency with not a syllable wasted, and unforgettably powerful.  Everyone should read it at least once in their lives.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

indexBook – Hwa lives on an oil rig the size of a small town off the coast of Canada, where she works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers union. She’d hoped to get out – maybe back to Korea – by joining the army, but when her brother died in an explosion on the rig, her dreams got smaller. But the town’s just been bought by the unbelievably rich and innovative Lynch Ltd., and Hwa managed to catch the eye of their head of security. Now she’s the bodyguard for the youngest Lynch, a fourteen-year-old genius who’s heir to the entire company, and someone is after him. Oh, and just when she quit her old job, someone started killing her friends.

With corporate espionage, technological spirituality, and a serial killer (not to mention a pretty solid romance plotline) there’s a lot going on in this relatively small book, but it juggles everything pretty well. Hwa’s future is undeniably cyberpunk dystopia in the tradition of Blade Runner and Neuromancer, updated for today’s technology and the futures we can extrapolate from it: socially mandatory implants that require a subscription (which might break down and kill you if you stop paying). Visual glosses that allow you to simply not see anything that might distress you. A centralized security-monitoring system that tracks everything everyone does all day long — one that lets Hwa solve the murders of her friends at the same time that she resents the intrusion on her own privacy. I liked that best about this book. Ashby isn’t writing a cautionary tale about technology, she’s simply saying that this is what we might end up with, and we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.

2873d4688a8572a593231496241444341587343Book – Alice Sheldon was one of the most remarkable science fiction writers of the sixties and seventies. Uninterested in once again being The Woman in a man’s world, she wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. entirely anonymously until 1977, at which point several people who had praised the masculinity of her writing were very embarrassed.

Personally, I don’t see how people couldn’t see she was a woman. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a story that could be comfortably classified as women’s fiction, even with the aliens, and “The Screwfly Solution” is a science-fictional horror story of women’s fears. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is a response to the feminist utopia novels popular at the time.

Every story in this collection (admittedly a best-of collection, but it represents a huge proportion of her short fiction overall) is outstanding. Many of them will linger on in your memory, cropping up in conversation when you’re talking to people who’ve never heard of Tiptree before. That’s all right – you’ll get to introduce them.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

ciinderBook – Cinder is a cyborg mechanic earning wages in New Beijing to support a very unkind stepmother and two stepsisters. All around her, people are dying of a strange plague while under constant threat of invasion or annihilation from moon-dwelling people called the Lunars. And while Cinder can fix nearly anything, she cannot find a way to make her life her own.

When Prince Kai asks her to repair his broken android, she agrees and manages to keep her mechanical aspects hidden. As they begin to spend more time together, Cinder finds that she has been volunteered by her truly wicked stepmother to serve as a test subject. Under the care of a strange doctor, Cinder begins to uncover secrets about herself and her origins. But time is running out if she is to save her world and her prince from the Lunars and their diabolical queen.

It has been ages since I read such an interesting mash-up of classic fairy tales. It was really fun trying to spot the similarities between details in Cinder’s world and those found in other fairy tales, but I really enjoyed all of the differences along the way. I can’t wait to read Scarlet, Cress and Fairest.

If that is not incentive enough, Cinder is a 2016 Rebecca Caudill Award nominee. The entire Lunar Chronicles series is available in both print and on our Caudill Award Kindle.

Wasteland by Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten

wasteland coverGraphic NovelWasteland is the kind of story that drops you into a new world and expects you to just get to swimming in it. Or walking, as the case may be – and there’s a lot of walking in Wasteland. Michael and Abi are on a quest, after all, to find the mythical land of A-Ree-Yass-I, which legend says was the origin of the poisoned world they now live in. Michael is a scavenger who’s been wandering this desert world for longer than he can remember. When he saves her town from raiding sand eaters, healer Abi decides to trust him, and to join him on his journey.

A lot of the enjoyment of this series is piecing together the history of the Big Wet and the world it destroyed. The comic is advertised as “Post-Apocalyptic America,” but the characters have forgotten so much of their history that as a reader, you know just a little bit more about their world than they do. Fans of dystopias and political science fiction will find a lot to enjoy in Wasteland. (For a really immersive experience, read each volume while listening to the accompanying soundtrack!)