The Princess Diaries

On the hunt for a light-hearted young adult novel (I wondered… do they even exist???), I came across The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. I enjoyed the movie starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. I vaguely recalled that it had been based on a book, but I did not realize it was a YA book. On my next library trek, I picked up a copy, hoping for a breezy read. I wasn’t disappointed.

Main character Mia Thermopolis is an awkward high school freshman who learns that she is Princess of Genovia, a fictional European principality. She already has difficulty navigating school (algebra!), but now she has to take princess lessons from her grandmother, learn to live with the paparazzi, and deal with the fact that her mother is dating her algebra teacher. And that’s not to mention she is now trailed by a bodyguard all day long.

The Princess Diaries is the young adult counterpart to the adult Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Meg Cabot is delightfully funny. She mixes everyday occurrences with just enough of the ridiculous and over-the-top characters to create laugh-out-loud scenes. The diary format enables punchy one-liners and speeds the pacing. Cabot’s capture of a sarcastic but charming teenager is spot on.

A word of caution for those who are familiar with the movie: the book is SO very different. (Part of the entertainment for me was in identifying ways in which the movie deviated from the book.) The most glaring difference is in Mia’s grandmother Clarisse. The book character is completely opposite from Julie Andrews’s character in the movie. I suppose this may bother some, but to be honest, I often found book Clarisse’s blunt and rude comments hilarious.

I truly enjoyed both the movie and book, but I give the edge to the book. Even so, I do not believe the book is appropriate for young readers. The publishers suggest ages 12 and older but I would suggest 14 and older due to mature themes. The first book was innocent enough, but if a reader enjoyed the first book, then of course she would want to read the sequels. There are 10 young adult novels in the series, a handful of novellas covering short events that happen between some of the novels, and even a recently released adult book in which Mia gets married. There is more discussion of sex as the novels progress, because Mia is getting older. Nothing is overly explicit, but friends do talk about it. I find this to be true to the issues today’s teenager faces, so my personal stance is to not disregard it, but I would prefer my own daughter not read these books until she is in high school for this reason. Of course, each family will have to make its own decision regarding what is appropriate. Watch the movie with a younger audience if you would like, and then introduce the book to a high school girl looking for a quick and fun read.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Wolf Hollow

Let me first say that I don’t believe Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for children. Many of the schools have kids read it in middle school, which baffles me. I suppose it is because the book’s reading level is fifth-sixth grade, and it is an American classic, but there are so many social and emotional nuances, that I think older readers benefit more from its content.

Similarly, I was shocked Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was given a Newbery Honor this year. I was not at all shocked that the book had received critical acclaim – it is masterfully crafted and praise is well due. Rather, I was shocked that it had been recognized for the Newbery as opposed to the young adult Printz Award, because the content seemed more appropriate for teenagers than elementary-aged children.

Personal opinions aside, both To Kill a Mockingbird and Wolf Hollow will be read by kids, and as such, I thought I would include them on this site. I am not the first person to make connections between these novels. The accolades on the back cover of Wolf Hollow even acknowledge its close similarities to Mockingbird. At their cores, these books are very much alike, each starring a young female protagonist who is forced to reckon with injustice and prejudice in an imperfect world.

Many will already be familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, so I will focus on Wolf Hollow. Annabelle lives in a rural American community during World War II. The arrival of fourteen-year-old Betty upends Annabelle’s simple world. Betty is a bully in the fullest meaning of the world, with her actions leading to life-and-death consequences. Betty’s brutality and callous nature make for downright uncomfortable reading, though Lauren Wolk deserves credit for not shirking away from difficult material. Annabelle must learn how to stand up for herself and her special friend Toby, a misunderstood World War I veteran who Betty blames for various tragedies in the community.

The heavy themes in both books could lead to some wonderful discussions in older readers. To Kill a Mockingbird includes accusations of rape, racial prejudice, and social injustice. Wolf Hollow deals with prejudice and bullying (be warned this is full-blown, physical-threat harassment, not merely name calling). In addition, there are some difficult passages of physical injury to children and Toby’s horrific war memories.

I believe both books are incredible works of literature and should be read by young people at some point in their education. Having said that, due to the mature content in both, I think fourteen and up is an appropriate age to introduce these books, though very mature readers may be able to handle them at age twelve.

Exclamation Mark

With the recent death of beloved children’s writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, I’ve been going back and re-reading some of my favorites of hers. I particularly enjoy the collaborations she did with illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. Their work is full of heart, amazing wordplay, and of course, fun!

I love, love, love Exclamation Mark! Playing off the rules of punctuation, the main characters are an exclamation mark (of course), a handful of periods, and a question mark. The sparse text is incredibly clever, and somehow the fabulous Lichtenheld brings to life punctuation marks as living characters. It is a fast and fun read, and could even be used as a way of teaching punctuation to young students. This one will get a laugh out of readers of all ages.

James and the Giant Peach – Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

An orphan. A bleak life controlled by ghastly grown ups. A fantastical adventure with a rich supporting cast. These are a few of the commonalities between Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach and Jonathan Auxier’s newer Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. 

Readers know Dahl for his dark humor and bizarre scenarios. In James, we meet a boy who was orphaned after his parents were trampled by rhinoceroses. His Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge became his guardians and have made his life wretched ever since. After magical beans grow a gigantic peach in his backyard, James begins a magical journey with a handful of human-sized bugs who were also magically transformed.

Auxier’s style draws much from Dahl’s, and in Peter, we also find similarities to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Peter is captive in a life of thievery, enslaved by a cruel master. To add to his woes, Peter is blind, though ironically it is his blindness that makes him a master thief. After he steals a box of magic eyes, Peter is transported to faraway lands and introduced to characters and creatures of all types in an action-filled adventure.

Fans of James and the Giant Peach might give Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes a try. A word of caution: both books could frighten sensitive children. Due to its length, content, and intensity, Peter is for the older reader. I would recommend James for children ages 6-12 (note the reading level is fourth grade, but younger readers may still enjoy the story if read aloud). I would recommend Peter for children ages 10-14 (reading level is sixth grade).

 

The Incredible Journey – Pax

I am generally not a fan of survival and wilderness stories, so the fact that I tore through The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a testament to the authors and the gripping stories they have written.

Published in 1960, The Incredible Journey tells the tale of three household pets who make their way through the wilderness in an effort to return home. The book is jam-packed with action, full of encounters with wild animals, hostile weather conditions, and challenges against the forces of nature. It may not be an appropriate choice for the faint of heart or sensitive child, as there are descriptions of the pets hunting and eating birds and rodents, but this is all just a reminder of how nature works. I know I kept turning the pages, hoping Luath, Tao, and Bodger would defy the odds and reunite with their loving family.

Similarly, Pax is a beautifully written story about the special bond between a boy, Peter, and his pet fox, Pax. Pennypacker throws us immediately into the action with one of the most gut-wrenching opening chapters I’ve ever read. Peter’s father forces him to free his pet fox into the wild before the boy goes to live with his grandfather. For the remainder of the book, Peter and Pax desperately search for one another. Although human characters are scarce, the ones in the story are unconventional and richly brought to life. Likewise, the animals (we meet a few more foxes along the way) are well characterized. Through alternating points of view, we join Peter’s quest to reunite with his fox, while also following Pax as he learns how to live in the wild for the first time.

These stories of adventure will especially resonate with animal and nature lovers, and I believe they will appeal to both girls and boys. I would suggest The Incredible Journey be read by children ages ten and older. I find Pax to be more appropriate for a slightly older audience – perhaps twelve and older, unless the child is an advanced reader and more mature.