Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker

December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, the Milk"Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk.

This story, along with the others discussed below, would be gift-worthy in their own right; but all three books benefit from the bonus of illustration. Like the energetic pen-and-ink sketches that Skottie Young did for Fortunately, the Milk, art makes these chapter books accessible to a younger audience (like my JP), while still introducing the child to mature subjects and a rich vocabulary. These books are a gateway, not only to the imagination but—as Gaiman so eloquently reminds us—to opening up our children’s eyes to different perspectives. They take us back in time. They take us around the world. They let us see the world through the eyes of others, be it ambitious mice or misunderstood yetis.

Richard Peck's "The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail"In Richard Peck’s The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Ages 9-12, younger if reading aloud), we travel back in history to Queen Victoria’s London, where we are privy not only to the happenings in Buckingham Palace, but also (and most importantly) to Britain’s underground world: a parallel society of mice, engaged in their own hierarchy of power and bound to the same traditions as the British humans surrounding them. Peck is no stranger to fantasy (nor to writing about mice—check out last year’s Secrets at Sea), and his brilliance lies in the sheer detail with which he constructs his imaginative worlds. Consider a world whose very existence is so secretive that you have to hide your intelligence, your ability to speak—heck, you even have to shed your clothes—each time you’re in the presence of a human.

At the heart of the story is a young mouse, adopted as a baby, who runs away to find out the truth about himself and his heritage. Amidst harrowing adventures with cats, bats, punch bowls, and the Yeomice of the Guard, our protagonist discovers, not only his courage and intelligence, but also that he’s next in line to the throne! Like any great fantasy, no matter how strange or comical the situations (and some of these had JP and I in stitches), the feelings of the characters are deeply familiar to the reader. “Squeak up,” our young hero is constantly told—only it’s hard to be brave when you’re just a tiny creature living in an adult-centric world!

A few months ago, when I was nearly finished reading the book to JP, my husband took a business trip to London. One night he called and asked to be put on speakerphone. “I ran by the Mews this morning! They’re right where the book says they are!” (The Mews are the stables for Buckingham Palace and the place where much of the mice action takes place.) I watched JP’s eyes grow wide like saucers. Later, as I was tucking him into bed, he said: “It really could have happened, you know. I mean, Mommy, if we can’t see the mice, we don’t really know for sure that they aren’t doing those things.” Who can argue with that?

Eva Ibbotson's "The Abominables"One definitely can’t argue with the convincing premise of Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which reveals yetis as some of the kindest, most compassionate, most smiley creatures on earth—and not, in fact, the terrifying, child-eating monsters that most humans assume they are. So when the tourist industry threatens to encroach upon a family of yetis living peacefully in a secret valley of the Himalayas, two human children take it into their hands to smuggle the yetis across Asia and Europe (readers can track their progress on the map inside the cover) to a safer life in Jolly Old England. (For those who don’t know, the late Ibbotson was a hugely successful British children’s author—but one whom I’d not read until now. After reading this extraordinary book, which was published posthumously this year, I must read everything she wrote!)

While the children, along with the help of an accomplice “lorry” driver, are the ones transporting the abominable snowmen across continents in a giant crate, it is the big-hearted yetis that emerge the real heroes of the book, offering valuable life lessons at every turn. We are gently schooled on animal rights, on caring for the environment, and on never turning your back on someone who needs help. At times, the outcry against animal cruelty reminded me of the incredibly moving but deeply sad 2013 Newberry-Award winner, The One and Only Ivan (I think I cried for a week). Better suited for a younger audience, The Abominables managed to keep JP and I smiling amidst its powerful message. After all, there is something infinitely charming about enormous, fur-covered creatures, whose faces sport horns and whose toes point backwards, trying to navigate the human world: apologizing to the plants they eat, powdering their faces in hotel suites, or asking to hear another story about “that bear called Winnie” (a.k.a. Winnie the Pooh).

Still, I think what impressed me most about this story is its profound insistence that, quite often, life’s Most Important Work is done by children. It’s children, after all, who possess the innate ability to see past differences, to find hope in the most unlikely places, and to keep on trying against all odds to get their way. Sometimes, it drives us batty. But sometimes, it actually makes the world a better place.

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