Saturday, April 27, 2013

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Image from
Harper Trophy, 1986.

Obedient and quiet, Sophie Hatter knows it’s pointless to go out to seek her fortune. She’s the eldest of three sisters and eldest sisters are responsible, not lucky. So when her father passes away and her stepmother sends middle child Lettie to be an apprentice with a pastry shop and beautiful youngest daughter Martha to learn magic from a witch, Sophie isn’t surprised that she’s not sent anywhere. She’s to learn the family business, millinery, and keep the shop running. But Sophie’s tedious life changes when the Witch of the Waste comes into the shop and throws a curse on Sophie. Suddenly, her hands are leathery with wrinkles and she has to hobble to the shop mirror. She’s an old woman! Sophie knows she must leave the shop in order to break the curse and so even though she knows she has the horrible fortune of the oldest child, she sets off down the road. Down the road and right up to the floating castle of the terrible Wizard Howl. Her change in appearance has made Sophie bold and soon she has convinced the wizard, his apprentice, and the magical talking fire Calcifer that she should live in the castle as the housekeeper. In Howl’s moving castle Sophie finds herself in the middle of a complex web of parallel worlds, missing princes, fire demons, falling stars, mistaken identities, strange curses, and of course, lots and lots of magic. Maybe Sophie’s destiny isn’t as humdrum as she thought it would be!

In this ALA Notable Children’s Book Jones creates a world that runs parallel to ours and that plays with many conventions from folktales, such as the oldest child’s tedious fortune. Because it is written in third person, the reader, like Sophie, isn’t always sure who is good or bad until the last chapter of the book. The characters are multi-layered and riddled with faults, fuel for many a plot twist. Sophie, although timid and obedient at the start, becomes stronger and more empowered as she takes charge of her life and her destiny. The dialogue is clever and often humorous. Jones deftly weaves even the most seemingly random bits into the tapestry, creating an engaging and surprising plot. This book was originally published in the UK, so there are some regional references throughout the text. However, it is easy to figure out definitions based on context. This book will appeal to kids and teens and is great for kids who read at a higher level, but aren’t ready for the content of many YA books. A wonderful recommendation for Harry Potter lovers. 

Read an excerpt of the book or listen to a bit of the audiobook and fall in love with Jones' unique storytelling voice.

*Studio Ghibli made a fairly good animated film based on this book. The English language version is voiced by Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, and Emily Mortimor. Try watching the movie after reading the book and then discuss the differences in the plots (mostly minor). Here’s the CommonSense Media review of the movie.

*Read more about the world of Sophie and Howl in the sequels:

*Other middle grade books by Diana Wynne Jones:

The Chrestomanci series (also known as the World of Chrestomanci books)
The Sea of Trolls trilogy by Nancy Farmer
Wee Free Men by Terry Prachett
The Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen
Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Magyk: Septimus Heap – Book 1 by Angie Sage, Illustrated by Mark Zug

Image from
Katherine Tegen Books, 2006

Septimus Heap, the seventh son of a seventh son, was born to poor, but loving wizard parents. But they are immediately devastated when the midwife pronounces the baby dead and takes him with her as she rushes out the door. On same night, another baby is born to the Queen. The Queen is assassinated, but the baby lives and is saved by the Extraordinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, and the Heaps. The girl, Jenna, grows up unaware of her royal heritage until her eleventh birthday. A spy has discovered the princess and now Jenna, along with her father, brother, the enigmatic Boy 412, and Marcia must escape before the horrible Supreme Custodian and the Hunters can find them. And so begins a thrilling story set in a magical land of witches and wizards, talking message rats and helpful ghosts. There are narrow escapes, epic water battles, dueling wizards, and magic spells galore as the children and their allies fight the powerful necromancer DomDaniel as he oppresses the people and tries to take over the kingdom with dark magic.

This story of good versus evil reads like an ensemble piece, mostly due to the fact that the identity of the real Septimus Heap, the title character, is unknown for much of the book. Sage uses a third person perspective to follow various characters to weave together a complex and satisfying story. The dialogue is humorous and the descriptive observations paint a picture of this magical world without bogging the reader down with endless details. Black and white sketches throughout the book and an illustrated map provides further context for readers. Jenna, Nico, and Boy 412 are likeable, yet wonderfully childlike and flawed characters. Animals and magical creatures are featured in many supporting roles, including the smelly, yet loveable dog, Stanley the message rat, and the brown and muddy boggart. The first in a series of seven books (the final book was released earlier this month), this is a great recommendation for voracious readers who have already sped through the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books.
Read the first few pages of the book and find yourself immersed in a world where witches, wizards, and magic spells are part of everyday life.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version and enjoyed it immensely. Allan Corduner is an extremely versatile and lively narrator. Grab this audiobook for your next road trip.

*Use this title for a book club discussion. Check out these discussion questions from HarperTrophy.

*This is just the first book in the Septimus Heap series. The series continues with the following books:

Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

*More chapter books by Angie Sage:
Age 8+ / Grade 3+