The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald. First in a seven-book series about young boys growing up in late 19th-century Utah (Catholics rather than Mormons, if you’re wondering), and specifically the adventures of an intelligent, indeed devious young boy and his little brother (who narrates). What is particularly great about these books is that the Great Brain, as he is called, is first and foremost a con artist; he isn’t especially malicious, but like most people he’s self-interested and uses his intelligence to get himself ahead in life, and often in unethical ways. This makes him more realistic than your average Encyclopedia Brown. However, because he’s not a bad person at heart (his cons, like the cons of most con-artist protagonists, are designed to play off the greed of his marks and therefore he can always justify the con to himself), when his adventures inevitably lead to something more threatening than rooking schoolkids out of their stuff, he makes an excellent hero – again, moreso than your average Encyclopedia Brown. The Great Brain books are smartly written and bring the 19th-century Utah setting to life remarkably well, and because of the period setting haven’t aged even slightly.
The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald by Clifford D. Hicks. The Alvin Fernald books have aged slightly (written in the 60s and set contemporaneously), but pair off as a nice comparison with the Great Brain books because both series are about smarter-than-average kids (Alvin frequently refers to his “Magnificent Brain”) who have adventures as a result of their smarts. Alvin is a more conventionally likeable hero than the Great Brain; most of his books feature Alvin getting into a situation by dint of his smarts – becoming mayor for a day, starting up his own TV newscast, and so forth – and then getting into an adventure as a result of that. The Wacky World veers away from that model by being a collection of shorter stories, mostly inspired pranks dreamed up by Alvin, some of which are quite sophisticated (an early instance of identity creation, for example, which seems eerily prescient and relevant now) and serves as a decent entry point for the series as a whole.
The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan. A brilliant little pageturner wherein a young girl finds herself transported from her schoolbus to a magical kingdom where she is informed she is now the princess of the kingdom. Except she’s the seventh princess – and nobody seems to want to tell her what happened to the first six. A self-driven female protagonist, some really great writing and a clever plot make this a must-read for any kid so far as I’m concerned. I’ve been told once or twice that this was the first book in a trilogy, but can find no trace of the other two even existing.
Below the Root, And All Between, and Until the Celebration by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Snyder (still writing in her eighties) is nowadays best known for The Egypt Game and The Witches of Worm, both of which won her Newbery Awards, but these were always my favorites of her books: her biggest venture into science fiction, a trilogy about a future where humans escaping a war-torn Earth settled a new, low-gravity world with gigantic, enormous trees – and then couldn’t agree on how to proceed. The fallout from that decision seeds the entire story, which is uniquely nonviolent in its handling of conflict. At some point, some enterprising producer (probably Pixar) is going to realize that these three books are a megablockbuster children’s movie waiting to happen, so I advise everyone to get in on the ground floor and read them before that happens so you can get the literary experience first.
The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin. Speaking of film, The Westing Game has been adapted into a film – and disappointed, which is a shame because a good adaptation of it would be simply cracking. Both of these books are mysteries as well, but epic mysteries. Westing features a large cast, most of whom are the heirs of a murdered tycoon, trying to solve the mystery of who murdered him in order to claim his estate. Leon (Noel) is a quest-mystery as the heroine searches for her missing husband – whom she has never met – over the course of many years. Both novels play expertly with language and words, both to stimulate a young mind and to teach it about language. and both are entertaining; Leon (Noel) is a comedic farce and Westing a more serious thriller, but neither one anything less than engaging at every moment.1
The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids by Stanley Kiesel. The original cover of the book does it a terrible injustice, making it look like some dreadfully boring bog-standard kidslit. This is not that book; this is a deeply weird and highly dystopic novel about a literal war between teachers and kids, with actual battles and everything. An Orwellian vibe permeates the whole novel, and Kiesel ramps the absurdity up to twelve (eleven is for pussies) with each new chapter, as a gorilla-like sixth-grade girl jousts against the ultimate evil gym teacher in the climax of the book. And then Kiesel gets truly brave and has the kids lose. A sequel, Skinny Malinky and the War for Kidness, eventually got written in order to provide the requisite happy ending, and it’s good too, but I almost prefer the tiger-ending of the first book, as the hero learns what’s happened to his closest friends. Dark, dark, dark. And wonderful.
I Want To Go Home! and No Coins, Please by Gordon Korman. Both of these were written before Korman was out of high school, which should make you deeply jealous of Korman’s abilities. Korman’s early kidslit tends to be wildly farcical, but these two of his books are his most engaging because the farce emerges in each case from a wildly competent non-POV character, which for me makes the point that if Batman were to really exist he would bring us high comedy all the time. In I Want To Go Home!, the Batman kid is so good at absolutely everything camp-related that the only thing at camp that gives him any pleasure is escaping it repeatedly; in No Coins, Please the Batman kid is a wildly brilliant entrepreneur with a talent for bending laws, so that he ends a junior-kids auto-tour about a million dollars ahead of where he started. Korman has a gift for writing slapstick and making it resonate on the page, and for making ludicrous situations seem plausible; these are valuable talents given his plots.
Bone by Jeff Smith. Christ, how many times do I have to tell you people to read Bone before you do it already?
- Raskin also had a fondness for footnotes that was positively Pratchettian, and my love of footnotes in fiction stems from her rather than Sir Terry. [↩]