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"The Book of Three," 50 Years Later

Book_of_threeFifty years after its release, Noa Wheeler, Henry Holt and Co (BYR) editor, reflects on the lasting power of The Book of Three, the first installment of Lloyd Alexander's epic Chronicles of Prydain. A new 50th anniversary edition is now available.

As a kid in the 1990s, I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain over and over again, beginning with The Book of Three. That book is fifty years old this year, and it’s worth stopping to wonder: What has made this series last so long? What keeps them holding up so well? I’m certainly not the only kid who was so fond of Prydain—though I suppose I’m the only kid who grew up to edit the 50th anniversary edition.

One of the many things Lloyd Alexander does so wonderfully in his books for kids is his incredible worldbuilding. He does this in several ways, easing us into this unfamiliar world in a way that makes it seem perfectly natural.

In The Book of Three, Alexander uses Taran’s impulsiveness and naïveté to great effect, to help paint the world around him. We know right away that this is a world unlike ours. The book begins with Taran wanting desperately to make a sword: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” It’s clear that this is a world in which it’s perfectly normal to make swords (as well as horseshoes), but that Taran isn’t quite there yet—here, as throughout the book, he wants to leap ahead of his abilities and do the difficult, complicated things before mastering the simple ones.

Shortly after we learn that this world is one with swords and battles, we also learn that it’s one with magic, when Taran goes in to talk to Dallben. Dallben discusses the Land of the Dead, and Taran burns himself by touching the magical Book of Three. When he goes to get lotion for his blistered hands, he and Coll discuss Hen Wen, the oracular pig who is Taran’s charge (and the impetus for the adventure to follow, when Taran goes looking for her after her escape). These magical things are presented when they fit into the story, and it is clear to the reader that these are the facts of this world.

The characters in The Book of Three do their bit to make this world fully realized, too. Many of them have their own bits of magic: Eilonwy with her magic bauble, Fflewdur Flam with his harp which snaps a string when he embellishes the truth, Gurgi—somewhere between animal and human—with his unquenchable desire for “crunchings and munchings.”

During the course of the book, Lloyd Alexander also deftly gives us information about the physical form of Prydain. Three different people (Gwydion, Fflewdur, and Medwyn) draw three different maps at various stages of the journey, helping us keep track of our heroes and the path they follow.

All these things seem a natural part of the story—Alexander builds this world slowly, so that we hardly know he’s creating it around us. And the result is a world unlike any other, built loosely on Welsh myth but very clearly its own entity, which has spoken to many generations of children and continues to do so today.

As a kid I was fascinated by Prydain; as an adult I am no less so. In celebration of its fifty years in print, the new anniversary edition of The Book of Three comes with a gorgeous cover (an homage to the original), and also has extra material in it, including a new introduction by Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale and a short story from Prydain.

If you’re a fan of Prydain, join us in celebrating this year by rereading these wonderful books—and if you’ve never been to Prydain, this is a perfect time to open The Book of Three and visit.

Annie Barrows on the Magic of the Character Miri

Magic in the mixAnnie Barrows, author of new book Magic in the Mix, the sequel to The Magic Half, explains why writing the character of Miri proved particularly enchanting.

Miri leaned against the doorframe, thinking, again, about the mysterious purposes of magic. Had she and Molly, perhaps, performed some service in 1918 without knowing it? Was it possible, for instance, that their presence had kept some tragic event from happening? Each tiny thing that touched them was changed a little, she supposed. She allowed her imagination to run free: there was her foot treading on a loose tree root, pressing it a fraction of an inch farther into the ground, inclining the tree by some microscopic amount in a new direction. So later—years later—when a great storm ripped the tree from the ground, that same microscopic slant would insure that it fell away from, not onto, the innocent bystander sheltering under its branches, thus saving a life destined for—what?—something noble. Hmm. Maybe. Vague, but better than nothing. “Molly?” She leaned out of her brothers’ doorway and yodeled up toward her own, “I have an idea!” —from Magic in the Mix

One of the reasons I wrote Magic in the Mix, the sequel to The Magic Half, was that I love writing Miri. Of course, I love writing all my characters, but Miri is extra-special because her brain is like mine, by which I mean it’s prone to wandering off on strange tangents, like, for instance, magic. I think about magic a lot. I always have. When I was a kid, I thought about it because I hoped it would happen to me, but now I think about it because I write books about it.

The question Miri ponders in this passage—how her time-traveling presence might change the past—is a big magical issue I’ve been contemplating all my life. The problem is that none of us knows how our actions—even the most trivial flick of the finger—will affect another person, and the result is that one hour of time traveling could produce a nearly infinite number of changes to the world, some of which would then affect the time traveling.

Let’s say, for instance, that I happen to be wearing a particularly ugly flowered shirt on the day that I get transported through time to New York City in 1925. Now, maybe I run to a department store so I can buy myself a nice 1925 outfit. But maybe I’m not quite fast enough, and a guy named Ned, walking along the sidewalk, sees my ugly flowered shirt and quickly crosses the street so he doesn’t have to look at it for another second. Well, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it? But what if Ned was about to run into his cousin Thomas, who was about to say, “Ned! Long time, no see! Why don’t you come over to dinner tonight? Flossie’s sister will be there!” And what if Flossie’s sister is the woman Ned is going to marry? Now, because of my ugly shirt, Ned crosses the street, doesn’t run into Thomas, doesn’t go over to their house for dinner, doesn’t meet Flossie’s sister, and doesn’t marry her. That’s terrible! I’ve ruined everything! But wait, it could be even worse! What if Flossie’s sister and Ned are my grandparents? Now I don’t get born! And if I don’t get born, I’m not there to stop the meeting between Flossie’s sister and Ned, which means it happens, which means—I get born!

Honestly, a person could go crazy thinking about magic. But I can’t stop thinking about it, and I never will. And neither will Miri, because her brain is like mine. Which makes sense, because I thought of her. Or, possibly, she thought of me.

Holly Black and Cassandra Clare on "The Iron Trial"

The iron trialAuthors Holly Black and Cassandra Clare discuss what it was like to collaborate on their new book, The Iron Trial, the start of the Magisterium series. 

Holly: So, Cassie, how has it been working on Magisterium with me? Am I delightful? Am I exasperating?

Cassie: Delightful, of course. The thing is that Holly and I have been writing together for years. We’ve been in the same critique group for about ten years now, which means we’re intimately involved in each other’s books… We also wrote several short stories together, so we knew the actual technical process of writing together would work. Holly is a great person to co-write with because she’s got a real intuitive sense of the inner life of children—of characters in general, really—and that makes for incredibly lively characters that are great to work with. What about me?

Holly: You’re super easy to write with. You have such great insight into friendships. Actually, the thing that’s hardest about writing with you is that my first drafts are a little rough and spare and yours are so polished that it’s intimidating... We’ve evolved a process by which we sit in the same room, passing a computer back and forth. We write from about 300 to 800 words and then hand the computer over. The person receiving the computer writes over those new words—expanding, editing, clarifying—and then writes more words for the other person to write over.

At the end, we hope that achieves prose that feels as though it was written by the same person, an entity that is not quite Holly and not quite Cassie, but hopefully better than both of us individually. Which is not to say we didn’t have some disagreements, right? Which do you think got the most heated?

Cassie: I actually think our most heated arguments were about what the Magisterium wristbands look like. What they were made out of, what their design was. Also, the colors of the uniforms. Basically anything that had to do with clothes or interior decorating because Holly feels strongly about those things. Holly, who would you say is your favorite Magisterium character?

Holly: Callum, because he’s snarky and insecure and angry and braver and better than he knows. And because he’s got a lot of secrets, both ones he knows he’s keeping from the people around him and ones that are still being kept from him. However, I am going to disagree about our most heated argument. I think it was about the magic system. We both come from an adult fantasy reading background and are interested in worldbuilding, so we cared a lot about getting the magic right.

In terms of how we got started—do you want to tell the Magisterium origin story?

Cassie: We were in an airport flying somewhere for a tour. We ended up discussing the hero’s journey arc in contemporary fiction and you said there was something you’d always wanted to see, in fact you’d even predicted it happening in one series, but it hadn’t happened. And I said I’d really like to write a series where that did happen, but I wasn’t sure I had the right middle-grade voice for that.

You pointed out that you had a middle-grade voice, and we realized it would be a great project for co-writing because it would combine a lot of things we both separately like.

Do you have a favorite part in The Iron Trial?

Holly: I think my favorite bit is actually the trials themselves. Callum has been raised by his father, Alastair, to believe that the worst possible fate is to be chosen to be trained as a mage and brought into their tunnels. He’s been instructed on how to fail the trials, however, it turns out that failing is harder than Call originally thought it would be--and that failing as spectacularly as he aims to do gets him a lot of unwanted attention. Plus, I love the trials, which are partially a funny take on standardized testing and partially a weird, impossible, physical gauntlet. What’s your favorite part?

Cassie: I like the part where one of the students has escaped from the school and they all have to go searching for him. And then Call and his friends are attacked by monsters—wolves with the power of Chaos—and the unlikeliest person has to stand up and defend them and turns out to be a hero. I always like a twist.

Exclusive Q&A with Cece Bell

Cece Bell, author/illustrator of the graphic novel memoir "El Deafo," talks about her husband's early enthusiasm for her artwork, and how it led her to a career in children's books. ElDeafo

I wouldn't be an author if I hadn't been an illustrator first, and I wouldn't be an illustrator if I hadn't met Tom Angleberger first.

Tom and I were both students at the College of William and Mary in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I was a driven SuperStudent who majored in English and took copious notes and believed that an “A” was absolutely without a doubt the only acceptable grade one should ever receive. Tom was a laid-back PrettyGoodStudent who majored in Fine Arts and took no notes and believed “B”s were perfectly acceptable. I did allow myself one or two “non-academic” art classes, for fun. Tom saw my artwork and liked it. (He also liked me.) As I became increasingly frustrated with my major (reading books from The Canon and analyzing books from The Canon and writing papers about books in The Canon), Tom encouraged me to switch majors and join him in the Fine Arts department. When I finally did, I threw myself into it so completely that I became a SuperStudent of Art. I had so much fun making all that stuff, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with my life as an artist. Could I really make a living having that much fun?

Most of my artwork in college was bright, funny, and weird. I decided that illustration was the right direction for me. Tom and I got married (turned out I liked him, too!), and we headed off to Ohio immediately after our wedding so that I could study illustration at Kent State University. Tom worked in a factory and as a newspaper reporter to put me through school and pay all our bills. Seriously, if that ain't true love, I don't know what is.

I eventually became a freelance illustrator who really, really wanted to illustrate children's books. But no one would hire me. The only way to illustrate children's books, I realized, would be to write the books myself. So that's what I did. Luckily, it turned out that I like writing every bit as much as I like drawing. Using both words and pictures to tell funny stories is just about my favorite thing on Earth (other than Tom).

My first book was "Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood," published by Candlewick Press in 2003. I've done a lot of books since then, but my graphic novel memoir "El Deafo" is definitely the Big Boy of them all. It's about my childhood hearing loss and my subsequent feelings of isolation and loneliness. It's also about how I used my super-powerful hearing aid to impress my classmates. And of course there's a crush on a boy, a quest for a true friend, and plenty of hilarious misunderstandings. This book is the first book in which I acknowledge my deafness outright, and it was every bit of it cathartic.

Tom, as most of us know, went on to write and illustrate the Origami Yoda series, and lots of other great books, too. I will always remember, gratefully, that when I first met Tom, he didn't seem to mind one bit that I wore hearing aids. On the contrary, he thought I was cute! I will forever be indebted to him for encouraging me early on, and for helping me find my life's work.

Sneak Peek: "Amulet Book 6"

Get a special sneak peek at a gorgeous double page spread from New York Times Best-Selling author Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet #6: Escape from Lucien."

Amulet Spread Pages 104-105

Author Q&A: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants Creator

Captain_underpantsDav Pilkey takes us behind the creation of Captain Underpants. The latest book in the series, Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000, is out on August 26. 

Which characters from your books are the most similar to you? George and Harold are both based on me when I was in elementary school. Like George and Harold, I was always getting in trouble with one authority figure or another when I was a kid. My troubles usually came from trying to entertain the classroom (with either my comics or my silly behavior). But unlike George and Harold, I don’t think I actually saved the world very often (maybe just once or twice).

Did you like to read as a kid? Actually, no. I had a lot of reading problems when I was a kid. I still remember feeling dumb because I couldn’t read very well, and I’ll never forget the torture of having to look through hundreds of library books trying to find one that seemed interesting to me. I usually settled on a book that had lots of pictures (more pictures equaled less text), and short chapters (I was such a slow reader and would often feel discouraged when I’d spend an hour suffering through a book without even finishing a whole chapter). When I began writing the Captain Underpants series, I tailor-made these books to suit all of my childhood “requirements”:

1) They had to be funny.

2) They had to have either robots or monsters in them (preferably both).

3) They had to have tons of illustrations (I made sure there was at least one on every page).

4) They had to have short chapters (many of them are only one or two pages long).

5) They had to be at least 100 pages long so they would qualify for book reports.

What inspires you the most? I think most of the stories are inspired by memories from my childhood—by the feelings of helplessness and frustration I felt (and I’m sure most kids feel) when I was constantly surrounded by adults who were either mean, dumb, or unfair (and sometimes all three). “Kid empowerment” is a very strong theme in my books.

What inspired you to write about Captain Underpants? He was a character I created in 1974 when I was in the second grade. I got in trouble constantly for making Captain Underpants comic books at school and disrupting the classroom with them. One teacher, after angrily ripping up one of my comic books, told me I’d better start taking my studies more seriously because I couldn’t spend the rest of my life making silly books!

What was your favorite book or author as a child? A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and P. D. Eastman, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and Georgie and the Robbers by Robert Bright. Those were the books I remember reading over and over, and I would often grab a stack of paper and try to draw the characters.

The book that influenced me the most as a child was The Children in the Jungle by Leif Krantz and Ulf Lofgren. It’s been out of print for a long time, but this book had a direct influence on many of my books, from When Cats Dream to The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. There’s even a three-word sentence from The Children in the Jungle that I have used in every Captain Underpants epic novel.

What children’ books writers have inspired you as an adult? As an adult, I fell in love with the books of James Marshall (George and Martha) and Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad). I owe so much to the influence of these two wonderful artists and their gentle humor.

Jack Gantos & Lane Smith on Middle Grade Must-Reads

JoeypigzaThe Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, the last book in Newbery Award-winner Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza series, is out September 2. The series has racked up some impressive accolades, including a National Book Award finalist and a Newbery Honor. Just in time for the series’ conclusion comes a fresh look for the first four titles, with new covers by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Lane Smith. Jack and Lane collaborate on a list of essential novels for young readers.

Jack Gantos’ List
Half Magic
by Edward Eager; illustrated by N. M. Bodecker: This book is everlasting magic in the hands of a reader. You can’t put it down until you finish it. And once the book is finished, the story is with you for the rest of your life.

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden; illustrated by Garth Williams: Chester the cricket, Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, Mario Bellini—these characters live forever in the train tunnels under Times Square. I dare you to read this book slowly—but I doubt if you can do it. You’ll be turning the pages faster than a speeding train.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: This book revealed to me the secret to being a better writer. Basically, Harriet taught me that it was okay to be sneaky and overhear other people’s conversations and write them down. This book is a must-read for every young writer who dreams of seeing their name in print on a published book.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois: This quiet book of hot air ballooning reveals an explosive story. How does one man float away on one giant hot air balloon only to to be found again with twenty one? This tall tale takes an imagination the size of the globe to answer that question.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: You must read this classic novel and join the club of people who are never the same once they finish it. The title of this book gives a clue as to what happens to the reader--you will be trapped in a web of words that will capture your heart.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: When you think you are not appreciated and you plan to run away from home, pause for a moment and read this book. No, it will not scare you (maybe a little) or deter you. It will, however, open a wondrous world of possibilities for you to imagine. Tip: On your way out the door stick this book in your back pocket.

Lane Smith’s List
True Grit
by Charles Portis: I love the stylized dialog. I love the gumption of the book’s protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Roald Dahl says on the back cover, “He [Portis] hasn’t put a wrong foot anywhere.” I agree.

The same could be said of Matilda by Roald Dahl. Wicked. Wicked fun and funny.

The Treehorn Trilogy by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey: I can’t say enough about these three books collected under one cover. The Shrinking of Treehorn is a classic but I believe the other two are as well. Deadpan dialogue. Deadpan illustrations.

Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway. Required reading.

The Complete Peanuts by Charles Schulz: I admire Schulz’s simple line work but also admire the lines he puts in his little characters' mouths. Sad. Angry. Poignant. Philosophical.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos: C’mon, you didn’t think you could have a list without Gantos? All of his books are great but this one is doubly great because it’s true. An adventure tale, a cautionary tale. Inspiring and inspired. The best writer working in the field today.

Video: Jules Feiffer on His Career and His New Book

Believe it or not, early in his career Jules Feiffer wanted nothing to do with animals. But anyone familiar with his roster of children's books--including illustrating The Phantom Tollbooth to Bark, George, Henry the Dog with No Tail, and most recently Rupert Can Dance--knows that resolve wouldn't last. Watch below as Feiffer discusses how he went from Village Voice cartoonist to beloved creator of animals and more.


Rick Riordan on His Favorite Myth

Percy jacksonRick Riordan, author of the forthcoming release Percy Jackson's Greek Gods, has written multiple books based on Greek mythology, but one myth in particular continues to captivate him: the story of Orpheus. Here he explains why he finds the myth so enduring.

You know what’s weird? After writing ten books of adventures based on Greek mythology, I still haven’t used my favorite myth: the story of Orpheus.

I’m not sure why the Orpheus myth hasn’t made it into Percy Jackson’s world yet. Maybe because it is my favorite, and I’m waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it.

I love Orpheus because he’s a hero who uses music rather than strength or magic weapons. He was so talented he could charm wild animals and even the gods themselves with his golden lyre, but like all heroes, he had his fatal flaw. When his wife Eurydice died, Orpheus charmed his way into the Underworld and made Hades agree to send Eurydice back to the world of the living. Hades had only one condition: Orpheus could not look back at his wife until they both reached the upper world.

Orpheus, riddled with doubt, looked back too soon, and his wife vanished before she could reach the sunlight. The myth is tragic and moving, much like Orpheus’s music. He is a symbol of trusting in one’s own talent, and the perils of overthinking and succumbing to self-doubt.

Maybe one day soon, I’ll incorporate the Orpheus myth into a story you can read on your Kindle. I’ll do my best not to look back or give in to doubt until the story is finished. There’s nothing worse than an idea that vanishes into an apparition before it reaches the daylight!

Sizing Things Up with Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant

You are not smallIn Anna Kang and New Yorker cartoonist Christopher Weyant’s new picture book, You Are (Not) Small, young children learn that size is relative—and that true friendship is always “one size fits all.”

Help kids to keep track of who is big and who is small with a growth chart featuring characters from the book. Click here to access the chart and follow the instructions listed on the PDF.