For the past several years, my best friend Mike Hutchinson has run a student club at our school called AFFL. Pronounced “AWFUL,” AFFL stands for “The Anti-Ferriter Fantasy League.” The goal of AFFL is a simple one: To convince ME that Fantasy is a genre that deserves my eternal commitment and intellectual love even though I despise it with all of my heart and soul.
Being the open-minded guy that I am (translated: wanting to prove Hutch and his awful little reading groupies wrong), I started to broaden my horizons this year, buying books that I wouldn’t normally have ever considered reading — and as ashamed as I am to admit it, I actually think that I might be starting to enjoy YA fantasy stories.
Knowing that most middle schoolers are hard-core fantasy fans, I figured I’d share three series that caught my eye. Maybe you can recommend them to your students too:
Let’s start with a simple truth: Alice in Wonderland is one of the WORST books ever written. Full of fantastical talking creatures in an imaginary world found at the bottom of a rabbit hole, it’s a title that I’ve NEVER been able to tolerate. But The Looking Glass Wars Trilogy — a spin on the popular story written by Frank Beddor — is downright awesome.
Wonderland in Beddor’s take on Alice’s adventures is caught in a violent struggle between a wicked Aunt Redd — deposed from her rightful place on the throne because of her dedication to black imagination and dressed in a gown covered with flesh-eating roses — and her beautifully pure and powerful niece named Alyss. Combining a ton of explosions and awesome battle scenes with talking caterpillars and walruses was enough to grab me from the start.
Besides — Beddor was John Cusak’s stunt skiing double in Better Off Dead. That makes this book even cooler.
If YOU were trying to rule the world and needed minions to carry out your plan, what would YOUR first step be? For the minds behind the GoodCo Cereal Company, the answer to that question is simple: Use magic drained from fantastical creatures like unicorns and gryffins to make a mind control elixir that can be added to breakfast cereal in order to manipulate children to your evil ends.
Brilliance, right? Until Scott, Erno and Emily — average middle schoolers with above average intelligence and determination — discover your plan and team up with Bigfoot, a leprechaun and a fire-breathing Sparrow to save the day.
Full of intriguing twists and more adventure than I really thought possible from a fantasy title, Cold Cereal was surprisingly good.
One of the things that I like to do is make bets with my students about sports games. The winner in every bet gets to pick the next book that the loser has to read during silent reading time in class. Unfortunately for me, I lose more bets than I win — and knowing my distaste for fantasy, my students LOVE to pick out new titles about unicorns or talking horses for me to read.
That’s exactly how I stumbled on the Wildwood Chronicles. After watching the New York Giants win the Super Bowl last year, I knew that Matt — an AFFL founding member and the biggest Giants fan in my class — was going to make me read fantasy. And sure enough, Wildwood — all 500+ pages of it — ended up on my reading list.
Despite being WAY too long for my personal tastes, it was a fantastic read that starts with Prue McKeel’s baby brother being kidnapped by a murder of crows and carried into a forest that NO ONE ever enters. Prue — realizing that it would be darn near impossible to explain what happened while she was babysitting — grabs her bike and follows the crows into Wildwood, hoping to rescue her brother before her mom and dad find out.
When she arrives, however, she enters a world in the midst of a civil war. An evil queen has gathered an army of foxes to rise up against everyone else in the forest. Responding in kind, the Avian Nation and their neighbors join together to rise up and fight back — and Prue ends up stuck in the middle of the action.
Full of more talking animals that I’ve ever seen in a book, I was SURE that I was going to hate Wildwood — but before long, I found myself sucked in by clever language, interesting characters and enough action to get beyond the fact that owls and eagles can’t speak and that a talking tree gives permission for the final battle to take place.
Now here’s a public challenge to the kids of AFFL Nation: I’ve shown a willingness to read fantasy, right? Why don’t YOU pick up a nonfiction book sometime in the next few months and come and talk to ME about it!
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