Updated: Jan 19, 2021
(This first part is for the grown-ups)
We all have that precocious kid in our extended family. Dancer, actor, cellist. Participates in civil demonstrations. Appreciates the appeal of Frozen AND pants suits. Reads HP 1-7 before the age of 11. Somehow, in my extended family, there are like, 24 of these kids. (Okay, probably half that, but man, that’s enough to make any adult feel inadequate). Point is, the issue central to this post is going to need to be solved. These kids can read well. With little-to-no reading history beyond Captain Underpants, trying to help them find their next epic read is not trivial.
Middle Reader books aren’t going to do it for them. Their tastes for complexity are too mature. Likewise, many Young Adult books skew toward Adult these days; mine certainly do. So, what DO you give a tween that has just finished Harry Potter?
Assume for a minute you haven’t figured this out. You’re probably looking around wildly like… uh, uh, uh, um… what about… Percy Jackson? Okay, I guess. Harry Potter’s Olympic cousin is a fine stop-gap while we start posting our query on Facebook and Goodreads, but it’s far from the cultural icon we started with, and these clever children are going to know it.
Likewise, an appreciation for Harry Potter is not an indication of genre preference. The themes presented in the HP series transcend fantasy, adventure, mystery… Most people I know that aren’t really into fantasy still dig Harry Potter.
My niece and Goddaughter, Juliet, has finished HP1-7 and is onto PJ. (What? Like I just made all this up?) My wife and I are charged with providing not only a Christmas present but a Christmas present worthy of two designations. (Everyone knows a niece-Goddaughter combo gets double the presents. It’s practically a law of nature). As you can see, I’ve been forced to solve this very problem, and I’ve chosen to do so as I would prefer to solve most problems: with a modicum of scientific precision.
(Ahem. I did say “prefer”. If a knowing party claimed I live most of my life by the seat of my pants, I wouldn’t put up much of an argument. Precision, for me, is a function of available time, of which this same knowing party would likely acknowledge I have very little.)
Out of the gate, we should probably invalidate HP copycats (Percy Jackson excluded, because that dude is saving our butts at this very moment). No one is going to out-Harry-Potter J.K. Rowling. Probably not even J.K. Rowling. From here, we’ve got options. For the sake of time, and to make sure our Marilyn vos Savants don’t finish Percy Jackson before we’ve finished this post, I’m just going to focus on the route I chose.
Our goal is to establish a vector that informs future choices to build a reliable book-gifting pipeline. To establish direction, we’ll need to test our future Goodreads reviewer on three new books by different authors. Magnitude will be established qualitatively by surveying the subject afterward. Based on the subject’s ‘favorite’ of the three books, we will beta test our vector by providing additional titles in series or by the same author.
And if you didn't follow that, don't sweat it. I hardly know what I'm talking about.
While I was quick to throw a disclaimer on fantasy, we do at least know HP fans have a tolerance for it. We can use this to branch out strategically. So, not fantasy directly, but fantasy-adjacent genres should do nicely for our book candidates. To reduce the number of variables and establish clearer correlations, all three books (or at least the authors) need to have a high level of critical acclaim. We can then reasonably assume book quality and readability is not a factor.
Another control factor - we probably don't want to include a first-in-series in our experiment. Stand-alones only. First, stand-alones break the binge cycle and make it easier to pivot toward a book that better suits our young reader. Second, we'll get a truer response. We don't want our tweens making their decision based upon how well an author can write a cliff-hanger.
Since only a fool gifts blind, I thought it was critical to have read the books I was gifting. This narrowed the scope tidily. (Parents, you may not necessarily want to use the books I have chosen if you haven't read them. Tolerance for teen content varies widely for parents of tweens, and YA is notoriously romantic... Make sure you are okay with the content in the book, or at least be prepared to answer some, uh... life questions.) I then had to look at my list of candidates and verify that there was a second book by each author with similar level acclaim. I decided upon the following and placed my Barnes and Noble order, post-haste:
THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangsze Choo
GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet
UPROOTED: A NOVEL by Naomi Novik
-- Transparency, I used affiliate links to send clicks on book titles to Amazon, but I did buy the books at Barnes and Noble. I support diversity. --
(This second part is for Juliet, but grown-ups can stick around to learn why THESE books…)
Hey, girl. What it is? (Cool opener, right? I’m so with it.) I wanted to tell you about these books you got for Christmas. I assume you read the intro, and you know that you’re my science partner on this project. I’m designing this patent-pending (not really) method of determining which books you should read for the rest of your life.
JK. But I am going to figure out what you may want to read in the near future. And if this works, and I can use this method to predict what books you’re going to love, I’ll sell the algorithm to Amazon for a mil-plus, and we can split the profit 50/50. Uh, if that’s okay with your parents. Deal? Sweet.
THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangsze Choo may not at first seem to have the level of acclaim we are looking for in an after-Harry-Potter-book. After all, it’s not actually won any awards, but this Harvard grad, NYT Best-seller has had her work nominated for a lot interesting awards, and both Oprah’s and Reese’s bookclubs support her titles. While many reviews of this first book come off lack-luster, these reviews were written by Western readers that (based on my interpretations of their grumblings) are looking for something more mainstream in a novel. I think they’re nuts; this book is great!
In THE GHOST BRIDE, we follow a young woman in 1893 Malaya, who has to choose between a peaceful, ordinary life or one of mystery and supernatural adventure, all while promised to be the bride of a ghost. Yeah, it is a little creepy. At this point in history and certainly within this culture, our heroine does not question (or cannot question) many of the decisions that impact her, but she is unconventional for a young woman in this place and time, and she has strength despite living where and when a woman’s strengths were expected to be slotted into traditional gender roles. Steeped in supernatural Chinese folklore and spirituality, this novel is heavily nuanced, modestly paced, and does not always conform to the Western norms of plot development. While it might be a challenging read, I’m betting on cultural immersion and aesthetic to carry your interest to the end.
If you pick this book as you favorite, this may point toward future interest in literary fiction, cultural or travel-abroad YA, and lovely, creepy ghost stories. I’ll then send you Choo’s next book, THE NIGHT TIGER, and we’ll see how you like that one.
GOOD OMENS (title truncated) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet was nominated for one award. It didn’t win. But Neil Gaiman has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Hugo and Nebula, as well as the top young reader award in the US, the Newbery medal. So… we’re talking about a master storyteller, here. And while Pratchet (better known for his Disc World series) wrote more physical words of GOOD OMENS, this laugh-out-loud parody on the End Times is very much a collaboration.
In GOOD OMENS, you might recognize some names from Sunday school, but of course, things don’t go exactly the way the Bible says they’re supposed to. The story follows an angel and a demon who are old pals from Eden, and they are responsible for helping the son of the Devil get the End Times started. But there’s a mix up at the hospital, and they lose the kid. Instead of growing up to be a really bad guy, the son of the Devil is kind of normal. It gets weirder from there.
Technically, this is not a young reader novel. It’s also not strictly a Neil Gaiman novel, but I picked this book because it introduces an angels/demons fantasy variant that can be super fun and acts as a gateway into Gaiman literature. If you choose this book as your favorite, that may point to future interest in stories set in ‘our world’, in stories that hide the fantastic in plain site, and in humorous books or parodies. Depending on ‘why’ you select this as your favorite, I would next send you another Gaiman novel such as CORALINE, NEVERWHERE, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, or STARDUST. And there’s an off-chance we might pivot toward Pratchet’s DISC WORLD or maybe Douglas Adams’ HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.
UPROOTED by Naomi Novik was awarded the Nebula Award, and it is one of my all-time favorite YA books. There are a lot of books out right now that are retellings of fairytales, but this one does it better than most. It’s based on a Polish folklore and fairytales that few Americans are familiar with (so it feels quite original), and our heroine faces a monster that is much more interesting than typical monsters. (Pst, the antagonist is a forest, but also, it’s not. Trust me, it’s really interesting.) But to simplify this book into a story about an awesome heroine fighting a monster is a huge injustice.
In UPROOTED, a young woman is taken into the tower of a wizard and expected to be a house-keeper of sorts... at first. But as she was selected for her magic, her powers grow in a very non-traditional manner. From there, she gets herself entangled in a danger that has been growing for a very long time. Things actually get a bit political, and there are a reasonable number of subplots to add just the right amount of dimension and depth. But through all of it, the relationships and heart of the characters carry the story.
If you choose this book as your favorite, it points toward interest in fairytale tropes and high fantasy, shows you have a taste for political machinations and intrigue, and will likely prefer books with a lot of emotional prevalence. I would next send you Novik’s SPINNING SILVER. But I could just as easily send you Marissa Meyer’s CINDER or Gregory Maguire’s WICKED.
That's pretty much all I can say without ruining these stories, so now it's up to you to read them. Make sure you let me know which one is your favorite and why, and I’ll send you the next book. (And if you love them all so much you just can’t decide - I GUESS I’ll have to send you ALL the next books).
Of course, this little experiment completely ignores all the awesome books and genres that are nothing like Harry Potter, but we have to start somewhere, right? Worst case, Aunt Lisa and I will have a good idea what to get you next Christmas. Best case, you and I are gonna’ be rich. I heard the Amazon reps are already excited for your feedback.
(You know I’m kidding right? No one is going to pay us money for this. Oh, you did know that. Just checking because, well, sometimes I can be very convincing… anyway, Merry Christmas, Juliet).
Christian Andreo is an author of Young Adult novels spanning contemporary fiction, science fiction, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance. You can find his books on Amazon.
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