Return of the Masters: New Books From 3 Big Names in Children's Literature
Once an author has a hit of a certain size or accolades of a certain degree, it's expected that every subsequent book they turn out will be just as genius or just as huge as now-classic story he or she is most famous for. Of course, it's not really fair for us to expect ceaseless perfection from an author just because he or she once achieved glowing success. But such is life in the world of books. So how do new novels from Louis Sachar, Lois Lowry and Rick Riordan measure up to our unfair expectations?
Cover page of "The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)" by Rick Riordan, Amazon
"The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)" by Rick Riordan -- a.k.a. the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" guy (Disney/Hyperion, $18)
Okay. So you've scored legions of fans with a mega-selling action saga about teens who discover they are the descendants of ancient Greek gods -- how do you follow that up? With an action saga about teens who discover they are the descendants of pharaohs and hosts to ancient Egyptian gods.
The jump is a logical one, and one that should easily carry over Riordan's many, many Olympians fans. But the "Kane Chronicles" -- the new series that "The Red Pyramid" launches -- is far more than just a Percy Jackson retread. Its dual protagonists, who take turns telling the story, are a biracial brother-and-sister team whose love-and-bicker relationship is half the story's attraction.
You'll get the typical Riordan mix of intrigue, action, and humor -- but in a darker and more foreboding atmosphere than that of the Percy Jackson books (at least the early ones). The globe-hopping adventure is a fast-paced one, which is quite a feat as Riordan has his hands full with the particulars of Egyptian mythology. Not only is it less well known than Greek mythology, but it's more complicated and more likely to have its legends contradict one another (Isis and Horus are brother and sister in one legend, for example, but mother and son in another -- Riordan's got it all covered, though). But even if the conspiracy-laden plot is a bit complicated, this is a very promising start to an exciting new series.
Cover page of "The Birthday Ball" by Lois Lowry, Amazon
"The Birthday Ball" by Lois Lowry -- a.k.a. the Newbury-hogging author of "The Giver" and "Number the Stars" (Houghton Mifflin, $16)
The brilliant Lois Lowry has never allowed herself to be pigeonholed. "The Giver" is a deeply philosophical sci-fi poser about a dystopian world that had eliminated strife by adopting a universal "sameness." "Number the Stars" is a drama-heavy historical novel about the Holocaust. And her Gooney Bird Greene series is a whimsical comedy about a wacky second-grader.
Still, it is somehow surprising that her latest book would be a relatively standard fairy tale. Not that Lowry is doing the Brothers Grimm here -- she's giving us a comfortably familiar post-modern fairy tale. It's interesting that the book is illustrated by Jules Feiffer, as it feels very similar in tone to Feiffer's 1995 post-modern fairy tale (and book you should absolutely read), "A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears." In "The Birthday Ball," Lowry visits territory common to that subgenre: a princess who disguises as a commoner to see the real world outside her palace, unlikable aristocratic suitors who are vying for the hand of the princess who we all know will choose the likable non-royal school teacher in the end (the last chapter is titled, "The Happy Ending"). It is a beautifully told story (Lowry's way with language is beautiful, as usual), but doesn't hold many surprises. "The Birthday Ball" is a quick, fun read -- and a master like Lowry is allowed to delve into that kind of territory once in a while.
Cover page of "The Cardturner" by Louis Sachar, Amazon
"The Cardturner" by Louis Sachar -- a.ka. the guy who wrote "Holes" (Delacorte Press, $18)
In many ways, "Holes" can be considered the quintessential classic of modern kid-lit. "The Cardturner" is unlikely to steal that title from "Holes," but it's still a pretty fabulous book for any kids daring enough to take it on.
I think you've got to be a writer on the level of Louis Sachar to go to a publisher and say, "I want to write a kid's book about bridge -- the card game," and get that approved. In "The Cardturner," Sachar even jokes about how daunting it is to try to explain bridge and keep it interesting. An avid bridge player himself, Sachar obviously wanted to write a story that would make bridge exciting the way a movie like "Searching for Bobby Fisher" made chess exciting. But he pulls it off.
Bridge is complicated stuff, and it's possible to get lost in some of the detailed games that get depicted in the book, but it's impossible to finish the book and not know a whole lot more about bridge than you probably ever thought you would. And I mean that in a good way. I can imagine teens wanting to try a few hands of bridge after reading the book. But now that I've dealt with the obvious, I also need to mention that "The Cardturner" is not really about bridge -- it's about cross-generational friendships, historical family secrets (a trope that worked so well in Holes), and a boy trying to find his way through his teen years. Not to spoil too much, the book takes on a surprising magical realism tone in its final third, suddenly feeling a lot more like "Holes" than it did earlier on. So fans of Sachar's seminal work should still get the tone they're looking for here.
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