Posts Tagged ‘foundational books’

Foundational Books: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

So, if you remember, oh, last summer, I went through some of the books that have made me who I am today, as a writer, but also in general.

(Apologies for being late AGAIN, I can’t even blame the quarantine this time. I did a push to finally get my new SkillShare class live–I always forget how long it takes to edit the videos, and my new microphone is so sensitive I had to get up at 5 am to avoid noise from the small, mobile ones and the neighbors.)

(It’s here, if you’re interested. It’s about setting goals in your writing and sticking with them.)

But I realized I forgot perhaps the most important book at all. The one that I’ve read the most times over the years. The one that I turn to when I need comfort, or I need to sleep after I read/watch something too scary. The one I used for my senior quote in high school. The one I used scenes from to try out for plays. The one I can still quote bits of from memory.

Phantom Tollbooth cover
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I don’t remember who recommended the book to me, but I first read it back in middle school (my copy is the 35th anniversary edition, and we’re coming up on the 60th anniversary, so that tells you how long it’s been in my life). And who knows how many times I read it over in middle and high school. As an adult, I’ve read it less often, but I still do re-read it periodically (I’m currently reading it to the small, mobile ones).

The entire book is a masterful play on words and concepts. Even as an adult I really appreciate the pure mastery of the idea. (I perhaps understand the Humbug better now than I did as a kid.) We have Milo, our bored main character who doesn’t see why anything is worth the bother. When he receives a toy tollbooth from who knows where, he decides to play with it, because he doesn’t have anything better to do. But it allows him access to a world where knowledge is more literal than in real life.

It’s hard to put the book into words, really. This is a book that I have loved so much and so long that I find my tendency is to wax poetic about its many fine features and scenes, and sometimes I get a bit spoiler-y and we can’t have that.

I highly recommend it to anyone, anyone who’s loved learning at any point in their lives, anyone who likes puns, anyone who likes a rewarding story about friendship and what’s possible if you decide to try.

But I will leave you with my favorite quote from the book, from the Whether Man in Chapter 2:

Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Read The Phantom Tollbooth, squiders? Favorite character? (I am partial to Tock.) Other related thoughts?

Foundational Books: Everything by Bruce Coville

I initially got into Bruce Coville’s books the way a lot of my generation did–through the My Teacher is an Alien series. I think they may have been the first books I read that took real life and combined it with fantastic or supernatural elements. Before this, science fiction was something that took place far in the future with spaceships and whatnot.

From the My Teacher is an Alien series I moved on to his other series and books. There were the collections of short stories–ghosts, and aliens, and general horror–and more fantasy-oriented books, like Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.

(I see that he did eventually write more of the Unicorn Chronicles. Only the first book was out while I was still a child, and I always though it was weird that a series with “chronicles” in the name only had one book.)

And, of course, there were more aliens–the Space Brat series, for example, and Aliens Ate My Homework.

He’s written a ton of books other than those, everything from picture books to YA novels. Over 100, according to both Wikipedia and his personal website. Good for him!

Now, I will fully own up to not touching a single one of these books since about the age of 12. I don’t know how they’ve held up. (I think I have the My Teacher is an Alien books floating around somewhere, but I think I’ll give it a few more years before I give them/read them to the small, mobile ones.) But as a kid, they were great. Most of them combined humor and horror and were just really fun reads.

Read any Bruce Coville books, squiders? I feel like he and Louis Sachar were the reading backdrop of my childhood, since both were so proficient and seemingly omnipresent. I certainly read other things and other people (as we’ve discussed) but these guys were everywhere.

What was a book that really impacted you when you were younger?

Foundational Books: The Ancient One by T.A. Barron

Good afternoon, squiders! Today we’ll discuss The Ancient One by T.A. Barron.

(To be fair, we’ve discussed before. It was part of our Adventures of Kate readalong in 2016.)

My middle school had a program where they’d pick a local children’s author, and we’d all have to read a book by said author, and then said author would come to our school and talk about the book/writing/whatever else they felt was appropriate. In seventh grade, that book was The Ancient One by T.A. Barron.

(In eighth grade, the author was Will Hobbs, and we didn’t have to read a specific book, but by that point I’d read enough Will Hobbs to know that I didn’t want to read any more books about boys–always boys–surviving alone in the wild, so I was pretty over the whole experience.)

(My middle school was only seventh and eighth grades, thankfully.)

As I noted in the readalong discussion post, The Ancient One is part time travel fantasy, part pro-environment manifesto. And for some reason, it resonated extremely strongly with me, and may be the reason forests feature so heavily in my own writing.

This was my first exposure to T.A. Barron, and I went on to read the other two Kate books, as well as several of his young Merlin adventures.

It’s not my first foray into fantasy (that was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, which I read in sixth grade the year before) but it was pretty early. And it kind of cemented the genre in my mind as something I liked and should read copious amounts of.

(I was reading a lot more science fiction prior to this, since that’s what my parents were into, as well as the standard reading lists we read in school, which mostly consisted of historical fiction and other depressing stories, offset by your occasional more upbeat thing like Maniac McGee.)

The book held up pretty well when we re-read it for the readalong, and I can definitely still see the things that drew me in the first time through.

(Plus I remember T.A. Barron being pretty awesome when he came for the talk, so that’s a bonus.)

Thoughts on The Ancient One or T.A. Barron, squiders? Favorite or first fantasy book you read that drew you into the genre?

Foundational Books: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn

(What, they made a movie of this too? I missed that completely. Wonder if it was any good.)

You know I love ghost stories, squiders. And Mary Downing Hahn is perhaps the best children’s ghost story/horror author out there. (She was, at least, when I was a kid. I mean, I read the Goosebumps books, but they always felt a little silly, unless I was reading them in the dark, and then maybe it was completely plausible that the Christmas Tree was going to eat my family. Was that a Goosebumps book or a different, unrelated book? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter.)

And she’s still putting out new books, so maybe something has eclipsed Wait Till Helen Comes, but when I read this book as a kid, it was the pinnacle of paranormal horror.

(I re-read it a few years ago. It’s pretty dang terrifying even as an adult. Holds up well.)

The book is about Molly, whose mother has recently married Dave. Dave has a daughter from his previous marriage, Heather, and her mother was killed in a fire when she was little. Molly (and her brother) do not get along with Heather, who seems hellbent on getting her father back to being hers only, and the discord between the children eventually begins to strew discord between the entire family.

(Oh, it was a made-for-TV movie. That’s why I missed it.)

This is compounded when the family moves to a remote house that was once a church, complete with attached graveyard. Heather is befriended by the ghost of a young girl, Helen, who is more than willing to help Heather in her goals.

And if she has goals of her own, well, Helen makes that clear that it’s none of Molly’s business.

Aside from being creepy as all get-out, the book also hits on family secrets, which is a sweet spot of mine, as well as sibling relationships and making your own family.

I read other books by Mary Downing Hahn when I was a kid, though none have stuck with me quite like Wait Till Helen Comes. I’m considering picking up some of her newer stuff as well. There’s always a few books of hers in the Scholastic Book Fair when it comes through, and they’re always very tempting.

(Behind Wait Till Helen Comes, I think The Doll in the Garden was my next favorite of hers. We’re talking books from the 80s/early 90s, though. She’s been publishing consistently since then, including books coming out this and last year.)

Read Wait Till Helen Comes, squiders? Read Mary Downing Hahn (and if you have, what’s your favorite book of hers)? Who’s your favorite children’s horror author?

Foundational Books: Two-Minute Mysteries (and The Society of Misfit Stories)

(As an aside, does anyone have ideas for testing out the temporary tattoo pen I bought? My stupid brain is stuck on the dark mark from Harry Potter, and since it is hot and I am around other parents a lot, it’s not necessarily a good idea, especially if it doesn’t wash off in a reasonable amount of time.)

Today we’re going to talk about another foundational book series from my childhood, the Two-Minute Mysteries series by Donald J. Sobol (who I just learned, by researching this post, also wrote the Encyclopedia Brown series). There’s three books in the series, each of which is a collection of several short mysteries that can, in theory, be solved through logic.

Now, as an adult, I love mysteries, and I especially love ones where, if you’re paying enough attention, you can figure out whodunnit. (I am eternally proud of myself for figuring out And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.)

(As another aside, did anyone watch the Whodunnit? murder mystery show on ABC, like, five years ago? That was good times.)

At least the first book is still available through Scholastic.

These were some of the first mysteries I read, though it does probably warrant noting that these were meant to be solved by the reader, rather than what you typically see in the mystery genre. Kind of more logic puzzles, really. In theory, you’d be able to solve the mystery pretty easily (each story was about two pages long), and the solution for each was printed upside down at the end, so it was easy to check.

That being said, I remember some of the mysteries not making any sense, or not being easy to solve, and from looking at Goodreads, it sounds like I wasn’t the only one.

Still, the books were lots of fun, and I had a good time working through them. (And I did go through all three, over the years.) I don’t know that they would hold up at all for an adult audience, but if you know an elementary-aged kid who likes mysteries and/or logical puzzles, they might be worth it.

In other news, look what I got in the mail yesterday!

I’ve got a story in the Society of Misfit Stories this month! I tried to take a picture of the spine to show how substantial this issue is (it’s almost half an inch thick) but alas, I am not a good photographer.

The story in this one is called “The Good of the Community” and was actually written for the Seasons Eternal anthology Turtleduck Press put out some years back. However, when the stories were turned in, it ended up that KD and I had been pretty similar in themes and tropes, so I got the short end of the stick and had to pull my original story and write a new one for the anthology. It’s nice to see the story find another home, because I had a good time writing it and have always been fond of the worldbuilding.

(Also, I got the nicest, most complimentary acceptance email ever from them, so I’m feeling pretty good about this all around.)

Did you read the Two-Minute Mysteries, squiders? How easy did you find them to solve?

Foundational Books: Harry Potter Series

Happy Friday, squiders! This week we’re going to talk about the Harry Potter series. Like LOTR, this is perhaps a bit obvious, but hey, it’s still true.

(We’ve discussed Harry Potter here before–I think the first readalong we ever did was HP. Waaaaaay back in 2011. First post for that is here. We had discussion questions back then.)

I am not one of those people who grew up with Harry. I came into the series a few months before Goblet of Fire came out (so 2000) when I was 17. My mom (an middle school English teacher) passed the first three books along and the rest, as they say, is history.

But HP is perhaps more foundational not because of the books themselves (though I am a great fan of the books) but because of the fandom that sprung up around them.

I was not new to fandom–I grew up a Trekkie, went to my first Star Trek convention at the age of 12 (where, in the middle of a panel on the Dominion War, the panel was invaded by a bunch of Klingons wielding a Cardassian skull) and had fully integrated my friend group into the madness by 16 (when my high school boyfriend and I were finalists in the dance contest at the Federation Ball while dressed like Vulcans), and did a ton of online roleplaying online between the ages of 14 and 19.

But the HP fandom was different and new. For once I was surrounded by people my own age (Trekkies skewed older at the time, though I think that is no longer true with the advent of the newer movies), and it was huge. It was the first fandom I ever read fanfiction for, looked at fanart for, joined fan communities for.

(I even made a Gryffindor uniform in…2003? I don’t remember which book release it went along with. I still have my tie just in case I ever need it again. And my Slytherin tie. Both of which are somewhat amusing, because if I am honest with myself, I am neither a Gryffindor or a Slytherin.)

(I am Ravenclaw.)

Between books six and seven I even ran a LiveJournal community dedicated to exploring a new theory every week until Book 7 came out. I couldn’t tell you what it was called anymore, but even though I was some random person on the fringe of the community, people were more than willing to engage with me.

But the weird thing about being so involved in the community and so involved in the fandom is that, when Deathly Hallows came out–it read like fanfiction.

There were theories that I had brought up in my community that turned out to be true, and I’d read fics that had correctly predicted portions of the book. It was surreal.

And after Deathly Hallows came out–the whole thing kind of died. Oh, not that there isn’t a Harry Potter fandom, or that there still isn’t great fanfiction or fanart being put out for it, but there was a fever pitch in there for a while that I’ve never seen matched since.

Fandom is a bit cyclical anyway–they rise and fall, based on if/when new material comes out, and while I still do occasionally read new HP fanfic or favorite a fanart piece on tumblr, I’ve never really gone back to it. But man, for those seven years (2000-2007, when Deathly Hallows came out), it was really something.

And to actually talk about the books, I do admire the pure amount of characters JK Rowling manages to juggle and make feel alive, and the way she introduces plot points books before they’re actually relevant. It’s pretty damn amazing, from a plotting and worldbuilding standpoint. And while we can argue all day about the weak and strong points of the series (and, believe me, I have), you can’t deny that they, perhaps more than any pop culture phenomenon since, made an impact.

Thoughts on Harry Potter, squiders? Favorite character? What’s your house?

Foundational Books: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I am a secret horror lover, squiders. But only a very particular type of horror. You won’t catch me watching horror movies (I had to sleep with my TV on for three nights after seeing The Ring–because if the TV was already on it conceivably couldn’t turn itself on) and I don’t like a gore, but I love horror with a tinge of the supernatural–ghost stories, or tales of ancient, forgotten evil, doppelgangers, things of those ilk.

And among the first versions of this type of story I came across was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written in the 80s and early 90s. There’s three books with a different selection of short stories in each.

(Alvin Schwartz also wrote other horror short story collections for children, including In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which features one of most haunting stories I’ve ever read, “The Green Ribbon.” And, you know, non-horror short story collections for children, but who cares about those.)

I guess they made a movie of the book series this year? Because when I googled the title that’s what came up first. How do you do that, make a movie based off a collection of short stories? Anyway, the movie comes out TODAY which is a weird coincidence.

(I will probably not see the movie, because as noted above I don’t have a very high threshold for terror, and the nice thing about reading horror vs. watching horror is that you can control the amount of imagination you put into picturing things.)

These books were a great intro to the horror genre. All the stories are pretty short, so you could read one or two in a few minutes and then go find something else to think about to get said stories out of your head.

I would go on to read more horror as I got older, especially the Goosebumps series and another author I’ll discuss a little later on in this series, Mary Downing Hahn (specifically Wait til Helen Comes, which I re-read recently as an adult and is still terrifying), and this flavor of horror has certainly informed my own horror stories when I write them.

(I’m working on a haunted space station novella right now which is super fun, not going to lie.)

I haven’t re-read these as an adult–I don’t think I ever owned them, honestly, instead checking them out incessantly from the school library–but I would bet they hold up pretty decently.

Read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, squiders? Any stories stand out in your head? Recommendations for supernatural horror to read?

Foundational Books: The Lord of the Rings

I know this one sounds a little stereotypical, but bear with me, squiders.

Somewhere in my early teens I received a box set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and The Hobbit). I still have the books, though not the box. Okay, to be fair, I loaned The Two Towers to a friend in high school, who never gave it back (TODD), but I found an identical copy at a thrift store so it’s fine.

My dad read The Hobbit to me as a child, but I didn’t pick the rest of the books up until I was in late high school, when I was going through some emotional turmoil (my sister and my best friend were dating, and had hidden the relationship from me for some months before I found out, so I was feeling betrayed that they hadn’t told me and lonely because it felt like I’d lost my relationship with both in one fell swoop).

And there was something very comforting in that story at the moment in my life. Maybe it was the way that Sam stuck by Frodo through thick and thin, or Aragorn, or how Legolas and Gimli overcame centuries of racial hate to become the best of friends. Whatever it was, reading through those books, appendices and all, really helped me, and I will be forever grateful, even though re-reading them has never had anywhere near the same impact.

These were not my first foray into epic fantasy (I’d found the Shannara books by Terry Brooks when I was 12), so I didn’t personally run into the whole fact that a lot of epic fantasy is just LOTR rip-offs thing (and by the early 2000s epic fantasy was changing enough that it wasn’t necessarily true).

A few years ago I took an excellent course through Coursera, called Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, offered through Vanderbilt University. It’s honestly one of the best courses I’ve ever taken. In it, we used the Lord of the Rings to explore differences in narrative between different forms of media. Each week we’d watch part of the movies, read part of the books, and play a section of Lord of the Rings Online (excellent game, little bit addictive, plus you can turn into a chicken and try out a chicken run, which is where you try to get from the Shire to somewhere else without getting eaten by anything). We also read a lot of romantic (the time period, not like, modern romance) poems and stories, which were the start of modern fantasy.

(I almost made it to Rivendell as a chicken once. It was in sight when I was killed by a giant bug.)

So, I appreciate the books for being there when I needed them. I appreciate the characters, who, for the most part, are good people and willing to help their friends and family, no matter what. I appreciate the movies, even though they are very long, and I appreciate the source material for being there to teach me really cool things years later.

Thoughts on the Lord of the Rings, squiders?

Foundational Books: Winnie the Pooh

This one works somewhat backwards from normal because I, like many people in my generation, came into Winnie the Pooh through the Disney movies/TV shows. We had a VHS of the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh that I watched to destruction, and I was a great fan of the New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh television series.

(Seriously, it was a fantastic show and I wish they would re-release it in some form so I could show it to the small, mobile ones.)

I loved the characters, the way they’re all willing to help and go on adventures in their own ways. I liked that they’re so rarely going against each other as a source of conflict, and I liked how each character is given the opportunity to push beyond whatever their core element is, to grow as the situation demanded.

(Tigger has been and shall always be my favorite, but I am also fond of everyone else. Rabbit’s probably my second favorite.)

When I was 15, my grandmother, who knew of my great love for Tigger (I have never been subtle in my preferences, and at the time had several t-shirts and stuffed toys of the character, and we’d been to Disney World the year before and I’d managed to find Tigger for a picture), gave me a lovely hardback edition that’s a combination of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. It’s fabric-bound and has golden bees engraved on the cover.

I still have it. And the small, mobile ones and I are into The House at Pooh Corner now.

The original stories are refreshing, each chapter a standalone adventure that never gets too scary or sad, peppered with little bits of silliness and a sense of love and friendship, especially between Christopher Robin and Pooh, or Pooh and Piglet.

It’s a nice thing to share with my family.

I know A.A. Milne came to resent the Pooh books, and Christopher Milne was never comfortable with the fame that came along with them, which gets into the argument about creation vs. creator that we see a lot, but the stories themselves are sweet, and I appreciate that they show that it’s okay to love your friends and to help them when you can.

(Also, if you’ve not read A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, I highly recommend it. Apparently the only mystery he ever wrote, which is too bad.)

Read the Winnie the Pooh books, squiders? Thoughts on the books versus the animated versions? Favorite A.A. Milne book/play?

Foundational Books: Everything by Louis Sachar

I was originally just going to talk about the Wayside School series, but here we are.

Did you guys read those? They’re each a collection of short stories that take place at Wayside school, a school that, instead of being 30 classrooms next to each other on the ground, is 30 stories tall, one classroom on each floor.

(There is no 19th floor.)

(Except when there is.)

The stories themselves are vaguely horror, with evil teachers doing crazy things and weird kids with weirder traits. They mostly take place on the 30th floor, with the same class, so you get to know the kids and their quirks and there’s continuity throughout the series.

And there were a couple of books in the series about weird math, which I may or may not have enjoyed a dangerous amount.

The Wayside School books are an interesting mix of clever and weird, so when Holes came out, I remember being surprised that it was by the same author. I think I read some of Louis Sachar’s non-Wayside books previously, but they didn’t make much of an impact.

Holes, however, is brilliant and I love it a lot. And apparently so did everybody else since it won the Newberry and the National Book Award.

I remember being deeply invested in Stanley as a character, and being impressed with how interconnected each character was to each other, either in the present, or in the past. I think it’s probably the first book I read that had so many levels of story present.

It’s also not a terribly depressing book, despite some of its subject matter. I almost feel like that’s more effective, that if you make everything dark and gritty and horrible it just puts people off and makes it harder to see the lessons the story is trying to teach.

What do you think, squiders? Did you read the Wayside School series or Holes? Or was there another Louis Sachar book that fit your interests better?