Tuesday, March 19, 2019
March 19, 2019: YA Series: Wildwood and Ratbridge
[In a development that I’m sure will shock precisely no one, my 13 (!!!) and about-to-be 12 year-old sons are both huge readers. They are fans of many authors and books, but for this week’s series I wanted to focus on, well, series—Young Adult series in particular—that they love. Please share your YA recommendations, series or otherwise, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the limits and appeals of quirky fantasy series.
Ever since I read my childhood favorite Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix (1957) to my sons as our first chapter book together, fantasy fiction has been a staple of their library. And not just the mainstream, immensely popular fantasy series like Rick Riordan’s books (the subject of yesterday’s post) or Lisa McMann’s best-selling Unwanteds series (although a resounding yes to both). No, perhaps inspired by their starting point with Ormondroyd’s less well known and more alternative vision of YA fantasy, the boys have also been drawn to more unique and quirky fantasy epics. I think the two longest books I ever read to them fall into that category: Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis’s Wildwood (2011), definitely our longest read together; and Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! (2005), another mammoth shared bedtime read (and the inspiration for the popular 2014 stop-motion animated film The Boxtrolls). Each launched a multi-part series (the Wildwood and Ratbridge chronicles, respectively), and in each case, a couple years after we read the first volume together, the boys returned to the series and read the later installments themselves.
I’ll admit to some surprise that they did so, because both of the first books (I haven’t read the later volumes so can’t say much about them or the series overall) were to my mind a bit extra: not just in size, but also and especially in quirkiness. Meloy and Ellis’s book is set in a fantastic world just adjacent to their hometown of Portland, Oregon (and their young protagonists born and raised there), and so that city’s notorious quirkiness becomes a thread in its own right; moreover, their imagined world of Wildwood is itself deeply quirky, as exemplified by the entirely, purposefully random detail of a badger pulling a rickshaw who shows up out of nowhere at one point to give the heroine a ride. Snow’s book is more quirky still, as its deeply peculiar imagined city of Ratbridge (with no neighboring real world city like Portland as a contrast) features sentient cheeses who are hunted for sport by the villains, an array of highly strange creatures exemplified by the now-famous boxtrolls, and steampunk-inspired technology like an effigy of the protagonist’s grandfather which also serves as a walkie-talkie between the two characters. I’m not averse to quirk per se, but at times the characters and stories of these books are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of strangeness they feature.
At the same time, I think the quirkiness of these two YA fantasy epics does allow them to offer pleasures that complement those of more mainstream fare like Riordan’s and McMann’s. Meloy and Ellis’ series parallels Riordan’s and its ilk, as seemingly ordinary children find themselves thrown into and connected to a previously unknown magical world; but because Wildwood’s protagonists have that Portland quirkiness from the outset (its heroine Prue, known to Wildwood’s inhabitants as Port-land Prue, rides a bike literally everywhere, including to the book’s climactic battle), the book avoids clichéd contrasts between the real and the fantastic in favor of representatives of two unique worlds learning more about each other. Snow’s series is closer in type to McMann’s, the creation of an entirely fantastic world against which its somewhat familiar save-the-world-from-dastardly-villains plot plays out; but because that fantastic world is so entirely unfamiliar (unless you’ve encountered sentient cheeses that can run around on two legs before), readers can’t predict where the book will take them and are able to be genuinely surprised as a result (not an easy thing in genre fiction once you’ve read a good bit of it). So I’m very glad the boys have had these highly quirky and unique series in their reading lives!
Next series tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post? Other YA lit series, books, or authors you’d highlight?