book series

12 Great Book Series to Read Together

12 Great Book Series to Read Together

Need a new series for winter readaloud season? We have a few ideas.

Summer Reading: Lian Tanner’s The Keepers Trilogy

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! This year we’re taking advantage of the long summer days to read our way through some of our favorite series for children and young people.

One of the wildly inaccurate misconceptions about homeschoolers that I’ve encountered out in the world is that we are, as a group, overprotective of our overly sheltered children. After all, why else would we refuse to send our kids to school if not to spare them the tough-but-necessary life lessons that can only be learned on the playground? Part of this comes, I think, from the tendency to send children off to preschool at earlier and earlier ages, as a good friend discovered when, after choosing to keep her 3-year-old home with her for another year, a family member told her, “You’ve got to untie those apron strings at some point.”

It’s also confusing to me as a modern parent how protective I’m supposed to be. As a kindergartener I walked a half mile or so on my own to school every morning, and as a tween (a word that was not yet invented when I was one), I rode my bicycle (not wearing a helmet, of course) along a busy four-lane highway to visit friends, and I don’t think I would have been comfortable with either of those scenarios with my children. On the other hand, when I was a teenager, whenever I went out I was expected to let my (responsible and engaged) parents know who I was with, where we were going, and when I’d be back. Now that my kids are all cellphone-enabled, I’m lucky if they tell me they’re leaving before they run out the door, knowing that I can text them if I’m wondering where they are, and they can call me if they need to be rescued. And while I’m pretty much okay with that, given that it’s never been a problem and my kids are good about responding, I still wonder if that makes me irresponsible and disengaged. My high school freshman daughter’s friends were shocked that I was fine with her heading to the coffee shop or public library (both within easy walking distance) after school let out without asking my explicit permission beforehand, just texting me at some point to let me know where she was. Apparently, despite all those years of homeschooling, I’m actually more on the loose and easy-going side of the spectrum.

Which leads us (albeit in a roundabout sort of way) to one of my favorite fantasy series for upper elementary readers and above. No matter whether you’re protective or permissive, the world created by Lian Tanner in his Keepers trilogy will give you a new perspective on how we choose to look after our children. In the city of Jewel, children are literally chained to the Blessed Guardians for their own protection until Separation Day, learning such lessons as “An Impatient Child is an Unsafe Child, and an Unsafe Child puts All Others At Risk!”  

 

Museum of Thieves

When Separation Day is canceled, Goldie escapes from the Guardians and takes shelter in the mysterious Museum of Dunt, where she must quickly learn to navigate its shifting rooms and discover its secrets in order to save herself and the people she cares about.

City of Lies

Goldie joins her best friend, Toadspit, on the trail of his little sister, kidnapped by child-stealers and taken to the city of Spoke during its Festival of Lies, when everything is turned back to front and upside down.

 

Path of Beasts

Back in Jewel, Goldie and Toadspit (with the help of a magical dog, a talking cat, and the bloodthirsty spirit of a warrior princess) join the battle to free their city from the tyranny of the Blessed Guardians.


Not-So-New Books: Redwall

It’s been a challenge to find books that my 10-year-old son likes to read or listen to, but we have hit gold with the first book of a very long series: Redwall by Brian Jacques. It has everything that my son likes: nature (the characters are all animals), adventure, and rebellion (he is a Star Wars fan, after all). 

Redwall is an ancient stone abbey, inhabited by peaceful mice that take care of and offer comfort to all the woodland creatures living in Mossflower—the forested area around the abbey. Unfortunately, an evil, one-eyed rat named Cluny and his followers are on their way to Redwall, aiming to conquer it and seize control of all of Mossflower. The mice of Redwall and their friends have to band together to save their home. Among them, a very special mouse named Mathias is on an epic journey to find the sword that belonged to Martin the Warrior, an ancient hero in Redwall history. He knows that if he can find this sword, he might be able to save Redwall. 

This book is on one hand a classic story of good versus evil, but it’s also a very intelligent book. I love how unlikely characters are brought together and become friends in order to fight against injustice. Female characters take on key roles in the fight too. The author shows how pride, arrogance, and greed will eventually send a character to his or her doom. This is a book that as an adult, I enjoyed just as much as my son. We are now reading the second book in this series, Mossflower, and oh my, there are twenty more books after that! I’m pretty sure my son will want to read them all.


Summer Reading: John Connolly’s Samuel Johnson Series

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! This year we’re taking advantage of the long summer days to read our way through some of our favorite series for children and young people. 

Books written by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett rank high in various lists of mine, including Comfort Reads, Series to Recommend to Just About Everyone, and Books That In General Make Me Feel Better About Being a Human. Humor is subjective, however, and I’ve found that when I run across a book blurbed as “the next Douglas Adams!” or “in the spirit of Terry Pratchett!” it usually ends up in the “meh” category, provoking maybe the occasional smirk but that’s about it. John Connolly’s Samuel Johnson series is the exception.

I knew things were looking good on the very first page where we have both (1) footnotes (I ADORE FOOTNOTES IN FICTION IT’S A SICKNESS HELP ME) and (2) entertaining chapter titles (e.g., In Which We Delve Deeper into the Bowels of Hell, Which Is One of Those Chapter Headings That Make Parents Worry About the Kind of Books Their Children Are Reading). We soon meet 11-year-old Samuel and his very important dachshund, Boswell, and Samuel soon learns that his neighbors (with an accidental assist from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider) have opened The Gates of Hell. After that it’s up to Samuel, Boswell, Samuel’s friends Tom and Maria, and unlikely ally Nurd the Demonic Scourge of Five Deities (including Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation) to save the world.

For me, Connolly’s Samuel Johnson series hits the sweet spot, reminding me (in the best ways) of Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld without feeling derivative, while at the same time telling a story about friendships, unexpected and otherwise. I know humor is subjective, but this one is definitely worth trying—and if you aren’t immediately sucked in by the footnotes and chapter headings, you can at least use it as an excuse to revisit the masters and spend some time with Arthur Dent and Rincewind. (Bonus recommendation: John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, a “fairy tale for adults” about a boy who finds himself in a fantasy world and must search for the way home, is also excellent and I highly recommend it for YA readers and up. Please be aware, however, that it contains some very dark elements, and I would not hand it to a middle-grade reader, even though the publisher is trying to market it to that age group by putting a preview chapter in with The Gates.)

 

In Which We Learn That Even If You’re Super-Bored You’re Better Off Not Messing Around With Old Books Written In Languages You Don’t Recognize But Still Understand Somehow, Especially If You Happen To Live At 666 Crowley Road. 

 

In Which We Learn That Even After You’ve Defeated A Demon Wearing The Appearance Of Your Ex-Neighbor Mrs. Abernathy It May Still Return to Seek Revenge By Plunging You Down Into The Dark Realm Of Hades

 

In Which We Learn That Even After It Seems Like The Bad Guys Have Been Defeated And Everything Is Going Well You Should Still Avoid Demonic Toy-Shops That Open Just In Time For Christmas


Summer Reading: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017!  This year we’re taking advantage of the long summer days to read our way through some of our favorite series for children and young people.

 

From the beginning, our homeschool has revolved around books. In preschool and kindergarten, that meant an after-breakfast readaloud (maybe My Father’s Dragon) followed by a little bit of phonics, handwriting, and math, topped off with a myths-and-legends readaloud, and then the day would end with a readaloud selection of favorite picture books. That schedule evolved with us through elementary school, as we moved up to Oz and The Odyssey, Harry Potter and Robin Hood. In middle school, we still kept the readalouds (in part because I was unwilling to give up my favorite part of the day), but we added another element: Each month or so, Mom would choose a book for the middle schooler to read and then write a mini-book report on. In general, the choosing part was fairly casual—I’d wander by the bookshelf and ask, “Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth yet, or was that your brother? Wait, you HAVEN’T read Tollbooth? Here, drop everything and read it IMMEDIATELY.” But in our family, one of the first middle-school books assigned has traditionally been James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

My love affair with these books—All Creatures and its sequels—goes back over 30 years. In them, Herriot tells stories of his days as a Yorkshire veterinarian working on both farm animals and pets, beginning when he is just out of school in the 1930s and has joined the practice run by eccentric Siegfried Farnon, assisted (more or less) by Siegfried’s hapless brother, Tristan. The tales are sometimes tragic, as when a farmer loses both his livestock and his livelihood, and sometimes hilarious (“Mrs. Pumphrey’s Tricki Woo has gone flop-bott again”), while always being warmly affectionate and self-deprecating. Supposedly these are Herriot’s real-life experiences—”James Herriot” is the pen name of Alf Wight—but over the years there have been different opinions on how much is real and how much is fiction, so that I’ve moved my own copies from the “memoir” shelf to “fiction” and back again, but when the writing is this enjoyable it doesn’t really matter where they end up.

I was 11 or 12 when my dad first handed me All Creatures Great and Small—though we weren’t homeschoolers he was not averse to giving me the occasional “assigned reading”—and I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve reread it since. The books are long (my edition of All Creatures comes in at over 400 pages) and aren’t typically marketed to younger readers (though specific stories have been pulled out and republished for the children’s section) but the chapters come in convenient bite-sized chunks and the original series is well within the range of confident middle school readers. They’re also a great option for YA readers who may be getting a bit tired of your everyday average apocalyptic dystopian future. (If any adults in the house haven’t read them you could consider doing them as readalouds to share the fun, though I confess I never gave that a try. I wasn’t sure I could handle the Yorkshire dialect, and I didn’t really want to read aloud all those sections where James has his arm up the back-end of a cow.) These are comfort books for me and one of the few series that has been given the universal thumbs-up by everyone who I’ve forced to read them. As a bonus, once the household has had a read-through you can enjoy the 70s-80s BBC series, which stars Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge as Siegfried Farnon and Doctor Who (number five) as Tristan.

 

All Creatures Great and Small

In the first book we are introduced to newly-certified veterinarian James, learning on the job as stern Yorkshire farmers glare at him and express their preference for his more experienced boss, Siegfried Farnon. Siegfried, meanwhile, is generally unflappable except in matters involving his always-in-a-scrape younger brother, Tristan. SPOILER: James manages to survive his not always auspicious beginnings in Yorkshire and even falls in love with a local girl, Helen.

 

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Book two has more stories with familiar characters as James enjoys married life with his very patient wife and becomes experienced enough to take charge of the occasional vet student.

 

All Things Wise and Wonderful

At the end of the 1930s James joins the R.A.F. and survives the daily life of a new recruit by reminiscing about the vet life.

 

 

 

The Lord God Made Them All

World War Two is over and James is back home in the Yorkshire dales with Helen and their two children.

 

 

 

Every Living Thing

This last book was published several years after the first four and I’ll confess that I never loved it quite as much as the originals, perhaps because I haven’t reread it enough to know all the stories. Of course I would never pass up the chance to see everyone again—including Tricki Woo and Mrs. Pumphrey!

 


Summer Reading: John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain

 
 

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! This summer we’re taking advantage of the long summer days to read our way through some of our favorite series for children and young people.

If you happen to visit my hometown library this summer, you could go in the front door, pass the desk, take the first right into the children’s section and go all the way down past the right-hand shelves to the back wall. Third shelf up, about halfway in—that’s where you’ll find The Great Brain books. I checked them out so often that I’m fairly sure I could still find them blind-folded. These books, based loosely on Fitzgerald’s own childhood, chronicle life in the Mormon town of Adenville, Utah in the 1890s and—I’m not sure if I should admit this or not—I always loved them much more than those other more famous books involving little houses and prairies.

The books are narrated by J.D., the youngest boy in one of the few non-Mormon families in Adenville. J.D. tells us the adventures of his older brother, Tom (a.k.a. The Great Brain), an entrepreneur extraordinaire. In the opening chapter, we meet Tom charging the other kids in town a penny a head to view his family’s new water closet, the first indoor toilet in Adenville. That’s actually a fairly straight-forward money-making scheme for Tom—he’s always playing the angles and is not terribly concerned about ethics if there’s cash involved. Poor J.D. usually comes out of the deal with the short end of the stick.

In fact, it was an eye-opening experience to revisit these books as an adult when I started passing them along to my own kids. I had collected the first seven books for our home library and I was excited to read them again, but from my new perspective as a mom, I kept getting upset with Tom for swindling his little brother over and over again and with the parents for not handling it better. As an adult reader, though, I could appreciate even more how Fitzgerald draws a picture of his hometown, dealing with difficult issues of loss, prejudice, tragedy, and even suicide via the matter-of-fact narrative voice of young J.D. Despite the occasionally dark themes, the books are incredibly funny (with the added bonus of Mercer Mayer’s illustrations), and Tom’s adventures make for addictive reading.  

(Also, I would really really like for someone to write a Ocean’s Eleven-type heist fanfic starring a crew including 20-something versions of Tom and J.D. along with their partners-in-crime Anne Shirley and Encyclopedia Brown. They should probably go up against a rival crew headed by Tom Sawyer. Make it happen, people.)

The Great Brain

In which we meet Tom and J.D. and the rest of the family and are introduced to Tom’s materialism and flexible moral compass—balanced (at least at times) with the good things he can accomplish for his friends and his town when he puts his Great Brain to work.

 

More Adventures of the Great Brain

Tom “discovers” a prehistoric cave beast, goes up against the Silverlode ghost, and teaches the new girl in town to read in his second collection of adventures.

 

 

Me and My Little Brain

With Tom away at school, J.D. tries his hand at wheeling and dealing but nothing seems to work out the way he plans, at least not until the Fitzgeralds take in a little boy traumatized by the loss of his family.  J.D. must now look after and protect his new adopted little brother, Frankie, even as the town is menaced by outlaws.

 

The Great Brain at the Academy

Meanwhile, the students and faculty of the Catholic Academy for Boys in Salt Lake City don’t know what’s hit them when Tom joins his older brother at boarding school.

 

 

The Great Brain Reforms

Tom is back for summer vacation and ready to raid Adenville’s piggy-banks, but when his river raft excursion almost gets J.D.’s best friends killed, J.D. decides it’s time for the kids in town to put Tom on trial as a confidence man, swindler, blackmailer, and all-around crook.

 

The Return of the Great Brain

Tom is living at home now that Adenville is building its own nondenominational academy, but after his “trial,” he claims to be a reformed character, only using his Great Brain for the public good (and perhaps some private reward) by solving a train robbery and murder.

 

The Great Brain Does it Again

Of course, J.D. knows that the Great Brain’s reformation will never stick—“Some day for sure our family will either be visiting Tom in the White House or in prison,” he tells us sagely—and so we get one last collection of Tom’s adventures before he turns 13 and (according to J.D.) is “hypnotized” by Polly Reagan. At least, I thought it was the final collection until...

 

The Great Brain is Back

WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THAT THERE WAS A NEW GREAT BRAIN BOOK?!? I SHOULD HAVE BEEN INFORMED!!! As I discovered when getting ready to write about the series, an 8th and final book was published in 1995 from notes left by the author (who died in 1988). It’s true that books published posthumously from “loose notes” often have little resemblance to the previous works that were finished and polished by the author, but it’s also true that I can’t possibly turn down the opportunity to read more about the Great Brain.  Fortunately, my local library has a copy, so look for a mention in an upcoming Library Chicken!


Summer Reading: Catherynne M. Valente’s ​Fairyland Series

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! I’ve written before about the glorious summers of my childhood, when I could devote long uninterrupted hours to burning through enormous Lord of the Ring-type sagas. I’ve also shared the cautionary tale of a dear friend whose parents made her put down her book and play outside, but I’m sure none of our readers could behave in so dastardly a fashion. (NOTE: I am not entirely against the outdoors and exercise and whatnot, but they made her put down her book. Things like that take years of therapy to get over.) With all that in mind, when Amy asked me to do some Summer Reading posts, I decided I wanted to focus on some of my favorite series for children and young people—but only series that have already come to a satisfactory end, as there’s nothing worse than being stuck with a cliffhanger while you wait for an author to hurry up and write, all the while worrying that before they finish they might die in some sort of freak word-processing accident.

I thought I’d start with my very favorite fantasy series. For decades, if you’d asked me what my favorite series was—the books I’d read over and over, the books I’d have to make sure my own kids read, my desert island books—I would have said the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I was (and still am) a hardcore Narnia-head. As a child, I reread the series every summer. I wrote Narnia fanfiction (before ‘fanfiction’ was even a word). I love these books. (NOTE: I know that not everyone loves Narnia because of the Christian allegorical aspects. I completely understand that, but it’s not hampered my own love of the series because I was raised ‘unchurched’ and didn’t even notice that it was a Christian allegory until I was in my late teens or 20’s. I was <ahem> perhaps not the most observant of readers.) But now, if I had to pick one series to keep me company on a desert island, one series to pass along to my kids, I think I’d pick Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books.

The Fairyland books, with one exception, are about September, a 12-year-old girl living in WWII-era Nebraska, with a mechanic mother who works in the aircraft factory and a father missing overseas, until—in the tradition of children who get lost in wardrobes and swept up by passing tornadoes—she catches a ride with the Green Wind and his Leopard. They drop her off in Fairyland, ruled by the evil Marquess, where September soon finds herself on a quest to defeat the Marquess and free her friends. These books are for all ages, beautifully written, with a heroine who relies on her bravery, her intelligence, and her friends to save the day. There is little that is black and white in Fairyland: even the villains have complicated histories of good intentions gone bad, and even the heroes can make poor choices under difficult circumstances. I’ve read these books both for my own enjoyment and as readalouds (which is particularly wonderful, as Valente has a gift with language and original phrasing) and I think they belong on every family’s bookshelf.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea which borders Fairyland?”

In book one, September visits Fairyland for the first time and meets her soon-to-be-best friends: A-Through-L, a Wyverary, and Saturday, a Marid. (A marid is a type of ifrit or djinn, and a “Wyverary” is the offspring of a wyvern and a library. And honestly, if that isn’t enough to send you out to find this book immediately, I don’t even know what you’re doing hanging around these parts.) Both of her friends are held captive (one way or another) by the evil Marquess, ruler of Fairyland, and September must defeat her to save them.

 

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

In book two, September returns to Fairyland to find that its magic is being sucked away by Fairyland Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. September soon discovers that Halloween is her own shadow, left in Fairyland after her previous adventure, and when she reunites with her friends, A-Through-L and Saturday, she finds that they have shadows also.

 

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

In book three, September returns to Fairyland with her new sidekick, a 1925 Model A Ford, and discovers that she’s been named a criminal, specifically a “royal scofflaw, professional revolutionary, and criminal of the realm.” On a mission to the Fairyland’s Moon, she must defeat a mysterious moon-Yeti and figure out what actually happened to all of Fairyland’s missing fairies. Unlike the first two books, this one ends with something of a cliffhanger, but that’s okay because you can go straight to book four...

 

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

...which begins not with September, but with Hawthorn, a changeling who was born a troll in Fairyland before being spirited away to the human world. I was all set to be annoyed with Valente for swapping out September for another protagonist, but I immediately fell for Hawthorn, who, in an effort to act like a Normal child starts writing a rulebook of Normal behavior (e.g., “Knives and scissors are sharp, but different than swords, and you can only use them to fight cucumbers and onions and packages from the postman, not Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time,” followed by “There are no such things as Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time”). Plus he hangs out with the best wombat ever in the history of wombats. We catch up with September eventually and another cliffhanger leads us straight into the fifth and final book...

 

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

...where different teams, including September and her best friends (and Hawthorn with his friends) must compete in a Royal Race for the throne of Fairyland. And really, I don’t want to tell you anything more because you should go out and read these fabulous books for yourself. Happy Reading!

 

 


Bespoke Book Lists: What to Read After Harry Potter

Can you recommend a good book series for reading aloud? We have read Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and Percy Jackson, all of which we really enjoyed.

I feel like everyone should read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (start with The Book of Three), about the adventures of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his friends — the princess/enchantress-in-training Eilonwy, king-turned-not-so-great-bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the curious and perpetually hungry Gurgi — as they fight to save Prydain from evil influences of Annuvin in an imaginary world drawn heavily from Welsh mythology. As in the Harry Potter books, Taran grows up over the course of his adventures so by the time the events in The High King take place, Taran is an adult facing adult decisions. This was one of my favorite series as a kid.

Everybody talks about The Hunger Games, but fewer people seem to know Suzanne Collins’ earlier series the Underland Chronicles, which may actually be a more interesting read. In the series’ first book, Gregor the Overlander, 11-year-old Gregor discovers a world beneath the surface of New York City, populated by giant cockroaches, tame bats, evil rats, and humans who have never seen the sun. Gregor, whose coming may have been foretold in an Underland prophecy, embarks on a series of quests, starting with a journey that might lead him to his long-missing father.

But what’s up with all the heroes? Add a couple of awesome heroines to your series readalouds with the Sisters Grimm, starting with The Fairy Tale Detectives. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm find out that Grimm’s fairy tales is not so much a collection of stories as it is a record of magical mischief cases solved by their famous ancestor. It’s fun to recognize characters from fairy tales living in the real world of Ferryport, and the sisters — especially Sabrina — are complicated, developing people, not just heroine stereotypes.

Another feminist series is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Many people stop after A Wrinkle in Time, but continue on with A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time, and you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. L’Engle is great reading for bright, thoughtful kids, who will appreciate the science, philosophy, and mathematics concepts that run through her books.

Another destination worth visiting is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where you can follow the adventures of young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Start with the hilarious The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany discovers her powers and attracts the loyalty of the Nac Mac Feegle, an army of rowdy blue pixies.

If you’re missing the thrill of a magical world, pick up Charmed Life. It’s not the first book chronologically in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, but it makes an ideal introduction to a parallel world in which magic is supervised by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. In this book, Cat and his sister Gwendolen find themselves studying magic at the Chrestomanci’s own castle.

Fablehaven
By Brandon Mull

One of my favorite recent new book series, Lockwood & Co. takes place in an alternate London haunted by ghosts and spectres that can only be seen — and defeated — by children with special abilities. Mysterious Anthony Lockwood hires plucky Lucy and cynical George to join his independent ghost detection agency, where the trio are pitted not only against vengeful spirits but also against the big supernatural agencies run by adults. The Screaming Staircase is the first in the series.

In Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth discover that their grandparents’ isolated country house is actually a preserve for mythical and legendary creatures — one of several secret preserves located around the world. The preserve is governed by strict rules for humans and magical beings, and breaking one of those rules can have serious consequences. Not surprisingly, there are dark forces at work hoping the harness the magical potential in places like Fablehaven.

It’s a little different from a traditional readaloud, but the graphic novel series Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi is a great adventure, following Emily and her brother Navin as they venture into an alternate version of earth to rescue their mom. The series kicks off with The Stonekeeper.

 

Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.