Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
October 2006

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
Shadow Mountain, Copyright © 2006
Hardcover, 356 pages
Age Group: 12 up

What has happened to all the mythological creatures? Are they forgotten or have they been mything all along (pun intended). What if witches, werewolves, fairies, trolls and such have been protected on special, secret reserves around the world? No different than a wildlife refuge, just for beings with magical powers. You see, as the population of man grew there was no more room for magical beings. Perhaps what signaled the death knoll for mystical creatures was the growth in man's intellect. Soon man not only rejected belief in magical creatures but also all gods, old and new. This is the basis of this book and an intriguing idea.

Thirteen-year-old Kendra and eleven-year-old Seth are about to be abandoned with grandparents they've never really known while their parents go on a 17-day cruise. A second honeymoon, if you will. Grandpa and Grandma Sorenson, Kendra's father's side of the family, have always been reclusive. Thus the children have never come to know them but were closer to their mother's parents who recently died. Kendra and Seth look upon this situation as unspeakable. Seth said it the best when he noted that even the car ride was like a trip to India. Maybe the most telling signs were that he became bored with his portable video game and Kendra stared blindly out the window instead of reading.

Upon arrival they are greeted by Grandpa Sorenson and shown to their attic bedroom to which they feel exiled. At first there are rules upon rules not to be broken. Where you can't go, what you can't do. After all the rules, there's little left to do. Thank heaven for Seth; with the natural spirit of an adventurer he immediately begins his visit by breaking the rules -- the first of which is not to ever go into the forest. While there he meets a witch and barely survives her whiles, but with his quick wit gets away. Slowly the two of them extend further and further into unknown territory.

One would expect that Grandpa would be particularly upset with them. However, Kendra and Seth are not witless and soon he begins to take the two children into his confidence. Grandpa confides much to the children starting with the true purpose of the estate, his role, and the dangers of the up coming mid-summer's eve. This, Kendra and Seth are told, is a very dangerous night. For this reason they have been given the children's bedroom in the attic because it is the most protected section of the house.

During their stay on the estate, Kendra and Seth find, converse with, and fight magical creatures of every description. The most charming, to this reader, are the fairies that fill the gardens around the house. They look like butterflies unless you've had a glass of milk from the giant cow in the barn. Everyone drinks this milk in the morning and a farm hand feeds the fairies with it. Amazing stuff. From mid-summer's eve the story picks up dramatically. The next morning Grandpa and the housemaid, Lena, have gone missing. The house has been destroyed. In short, the secrecy and protection of the reserve are in danger. It's left to Kendra and Seth to find Grandpa, return Grandma to herself from a chicken and keep the Witch from releasing the worst monster you can imagine loose to do her bidding. This might sound corny, but it's really good reading and very imaginative.

This is the first or introductory book for a new series but can also be read as a stand-alone. The writing feels like the story is being told straight to you, there is no lack of imagination, plenty of mystical creatures for everyone and a great ending that ties up all the loose ends for now. I recommend this book as excellent reading. Wait a few months and you can get in paperback. Get is one way or the other.

Heaven Eyes by David Almond
Laurel-Leaf Books, Copyright © 2000
Paperback, 233 pages
Age Group: 10 up

Heaven Eyes is a warm and cozy book. This comes from two things: the story itself and that the author writes with fluidity. One eases into this good read and then eases out. Heaven Eyes is the story of three damaged (orphaned) children who escape the stereotypical orphanage (Whitegates) to find freedom. Mostly they want freedom from Maureen who operates the orphanage and is constantly telling the children that because they are damaged they will have no place in society. They find freedom in the form of a young girl named Heaven Eyes with webbed fingers and toes.

The novel appears to be set during the recovery of some huge disaster caused by pollution. Economics may also have been a part of that problem. On their flight from Whitegates Erin, January and Mouse travel down the river towards the sea on a homemade raft. Both sides of the river are full to bursting with massive, crumbling warehouses just waiting for some fell breeze to knock them over. The river is polluted and both shores are gagged with black, oily smelling sludge. Yet, now and then they pass patches of the shoreline that have been restored and they see shops, businesses, ice rinks and rollerblade paths. All surrounded by green grass and willowy trees. For some mysterious reason, the answer to which I was never able to discover, Heaven Eyes calls these people ghosts.

River currents pull the teenagers to the shore where their raft is bogged down in the sludge. They crawl through the muck, find a place to safely tie up their raft and fall instantly asleep on the mushy shore. They awake to find themselves caked with dried sludge and hardly able to move. While exploring they are discovered by Heaven Eyes, a young teen who has been waiting for her true sister and brothers to find her someday. She loves them instantly and shows them where to clean up, where to find food, and introduced them to Grandpa. Grandpa is the one that pulled Heaven Eyes from the sludge when she was just an infant and has raised her. He used to be the caretaker of the ruined printing establishment where they live. In his old age he still makes his rounds and records in the black notebooks.

Heaven Eyes is a unique character beyond just the webs between her fingers and toes. She's a humble, little thing who upon first meeting strikes one as very fragile. Yet the hardships she has endured are numerous. She can see the good in every situation. She loves instantly and is fiercely loyal. To her, the coming of Erin, January and Mouse is fulfillment of prophecy. Events proceed to place the safety of Heaven Eyes in the hands of Erin.

This is a nice book to curl up with under the covers on a cold January night. It was meant to be read by flashlight. It will bring tears to your eyes, so be sure you read it alone.

Singularity by William Sleator
Puffin Books, Copyright © 1985
Paperback, 170 pages
Age Group: 14 up

Barry and Harry are identical twins, but that's where the resemblance stops. Barry is the athletic one and Harry the smart one. Barry is the forward one and Harry tends to hang back. They used to have a close twin bond but recently Barry has began to separate himself from his brother as though he didn't like being a twin. He uses subtle ways to demean Harry when others are around, making Harry look inept, stupid, or immature. We go into the story with this tension between brothers.

Uncle Ambrose is dead. The twin's family has been gifted his house in Sushan, Illinois. The family has only known, and never visited, this uncle from a childhood memory of their mother when she was ten-years-old.

Both intrigued by the house they have inherited from Uncle Ambrose and fearful of staying with cousins they hardly know, the twin's begin to work on their parents. Barry is the leader is this crusade to convince his parents to let them stay in Illinois while they attend a convention and tour the west coast for two weeks. Using several arguments while leaning heavily on the threat of theft and vandalism, the parents agree that the twins can stay in the house and the parents will pick them up there. What could be a grander design? Two-weeks with a large house and neighborhood to explore. Even Harry had to agree that Barry had run a good campaign.

Upon arrival at the house three things instantly strike them. The house isn't as big as they imaged, it sits on a small plot surrounded by a cornfield and there is a strange metal building outside in the yard. The metal building is locked. Upon entering they discover that the house is indeed full of many antiques and paintings that could be worth a lot of money. To Barry's joy there are enough bedrooms for he and Harry to have one to themselves. More tension.

It takes a long time to find the keys to the metal building. Well, they actually have the keys and it takes Barry a long time to put them together. One key is labeled house and the other play. Together they make the word playhouse and at that point Barry rushes outside with Harry at his heals. Using the two keys simultaneously, they pull the door open. They are greeted with a waterfall of cobwebs inches thick, a carpet of dead insects also inches thick and a dusting of fine metal powder. After cleaning all this away they find that the room contains a bed, sink, toilet and some bookshelves. Not to mention a small hatch in the ceiling that leads to a store of military rations. What was the room used for and how could spider webs and insects nearly choke the room? The Barry intends to find out. Barry thinks this is maximum fun with no adults to take it from them. Harry thinks this is maximum danger as they are playing with the powers of the universe without a handbook.

Beginning with the discovery that time runs faster inside the playhouse than outside, each page reveals something new about the playhouse. Is it a time machine or a black hole and what is the significance of the huge stone in the center inside the playhouse? Is there another universe on the other side of the stone? If not why do weird animals continue to "beam" onto the stone. Each page also reveals how different the twins truly are.

The tension between brothers is what drives the story. Barry always demanding and Harry always giving in. How long can this old routine last with a discovery that Barry thinks is a great game and Harry thinks is possibly the most dangerous thing ever. Eventually Harry begins to assert himself more and begins to study the phenomenon more closely. Uncle Ambrose left hundreds of books on physics behind. Harry begins to read and the more he learns the more he comes to realize they are playing with dynamite. Eventually his resolve hardens and he takes action to rectify things.

From this point on I was unable to put the book down. William Sleator has a gift for taking real science and using it in young adult fiction. This book is a page-turner. The complexity of the science does not impede the story. I understand quantum physics (The Last Universe) and black holes better than ever. Sleator's application of those sciences here on earth allows you to view the science in a familiar setting as opposed to a vacuum or other such thing. Sleator brings the science out of the lab and into our laps. I recommend you read this book and become a William Sleator fan. Too many people know too little about this author and his unique works. Help to spread the word.

Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements
Puffin Books, Copyright © 2002
Softcover, 251 pages
Age Group: 15 up

This book was such a grand read that I don't know where to begin and I'm leery of giving too much away. Therefore, the following review is somewhat on the short side. However, I give this book my highest recommendation. Not only is it value packed it's a great read as well. Smooth!

Bobby Phillips wakes up one morning only to discover he is gone. Totally gone as in not there. When he clears the fog from the bathroom mirror, it's missing the usual reflection. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing except Bobby has become invisible. Later he learns that in certain lighting situations he casts a faint shadow. But for all intents and purposes, Bobby is gone.

Bobby takes the whole horrible thing much better than his parents do. He must also be wary because doors opening by themselves or empty elevators that go up to a floor and stop could draw attention to him. And if the lighting were right, someone might catch a glimpse of his frail, thin shadow.

Bobby resents his parents. He calls his father Mr. Science who emphasizes each conclusion he draws with the word, "Bingo!" His mother is a literature professor and treats Bobby as she might a subservient graduate student. A scientist father and professor mother. Both struck this reader as quite cold and logical. However, later in the book his parents are involved in a serious auto accident and Bobby risks discovery to go and see how they are. After the accident, Bobby's parents seem to change in subtle ways. Bobby sees the maternal side of his mother for the first time. His father says "Bingo!" less which is a good sign that he is being less logical and more feeling. These changes have a profound effect upon Bobby and his parent's efforts to help him become visible to him for the first time although they've been there all along.

By far the most important character is the blind, beautiful, young woman Alicia. Bobby first sees her on a visit to the library. He's hanging around the sound rooms because he used to play his trumpet there. He spots Alicia and realizes she is blind from her accouterments. He is suddenly fixated with the notion that he can talk to her because she can't see him. He bursts into the sound room where she has been listening to an audio book and introduces himself. They have a brief conversation and he escorts her out of the building. This relationship continues to grow and it is not long before Bobby shares his not-so-different problem with Alicia. She, being blind, can relate immediately as one who feels invisible because of the way people treat her.

Through his experiences and mostly from talking about everything with Alicia, Bobby learns that that which matters most cannot be seen. The real person, their ability to love, their true character, and dreams to name a few. He realizes he has judged his parents too harshly in the past. Under the surface they are real parents who love him and would do anything to protect and help him as they do during this crisis. He also comes to realize that there is more to Alicia than he would have ever taken the time to know before he became invisible. All of the traits that make her the wonderful, young woman she is would have been missed because of the haze in her eyes. A wall Bobby would not have attempted to scale before he because invisible. Bobby learns that we stereotype people too often and never get to know the real person. The person that is unseen and resides in our hearts.

Being invisible helped Bobby to learn the true value of those things that are not seen. Alicia was instrumental in this as well. By becoming invisible Bobby learns to "see" the characteristics of people that really matter. They are internal, not external as in looks or clothes. He reasons that if Alicia can be as wonderful as she is that even the popular kids at school might be real under the surface of there hip clothes and language. Being invisible changes Bobby Phillips forever. As for the rest of the story, it is one good, romping invisible man story.


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