Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Books, books, books!

I wanted to tell you about these excellent books, written for older children. Susan Cooper is one of the finest writers of juvenile and young adult fiction I have come across, and I love to recommend her books. I read her The Dark is Rising sequence as a kid, and all of my urchins have read and loved the series.

The five-book sequence begins with Over Sea, Under Stone, in which we meet the three young Drew children, who are on holiday with their parents in coastal Cornwall. It has all the elements of a classic mystery/adventure, as the children find a treasure map; the treasure may in fact be the legendary Grail! They also realize that their Great-Uncle Merry is more than he seems. The magical or fantasy elements of the series are only hinted at in this novel.

The second book, The Dark is Rising, moves away from the Drew children and introduces Will Stanton, who begins to experience strangeness just before Christmas, on his eleventh birthday. We are also introduced explicitly to the themes of Light and Dark which animate the rest of the series. Will comes to understand that he is one of the Old Ones, guardians of the Light. He must go on a quest for the Circle of Signs, which will help the Old Ones ward off the forces of the Dark. Cooper draws on Celtic mythology as well as the Arthurian legend as she weaves her story about a young boy who realizes he must do a seemingly impossible thing.

Greenwitch, the third book in the sequence, returns us to the Drew children and introduces them to Will Stanton, whom they do not trust at first. The four children's adventure leads them on another quest, this time for an underwater artifact that may or not untie the mysteries of the legendary Grail.

Book four of the series, The Grey King, finds Will Stanton in Wales, recovering from a serious illness. As he regains his strength, he meets Bran, whose connections to the Old Ones and to the Pendragon of the old stories are uncovered -- to Bran's confusion and dismay. Will must call upon magic he thought was gone to wake the Sleepers in the Hills: the battle against the Dark looms closer and closer.

Silver on the Tree concludes the series, as Will, Bran, the Drew children, and Uncle Merry all join forces to attempt to defeat the forces of the Dark.

Here's what I love about these books:

1. They discuss good and evil, and the evil is really evil -- there's no doubt. But at the same time the good is powerful and explicit as well; the reader is never ambivalent about which side to root for! I think this may be because Cooper began the series in 1965; I love older fiction that is not afraid to take a stand!

2. The children all have a powerful and loving adult presence in their lives.

3. I love any literature that keeps the Arthurian legend alive! These novels also reference Celtic mythology in a way that made my urchins want to learn more. Now that's a good book!

4. Oooh -- she's such a good writer! The adventures are suspenseful; the relationships are real; the humor is witty; the children are not annoyingly sweet to each other.

Now I will say that I know these books will not please everyone. They are definitely intended for older children -- maybe nine years old and up? It's hard to tell, because every kid is different. If you have a precocious reader at your house I would encourage you to read these first, before you hand them to your kid. He or she may be reading at a middle school level, but may not have a middle school soul -- you are the only competent judge of that.

And while the battle between the Light and the Dark is explicit, it is NOT explicitly Christian. If you have a problem with your kids reading about supernatural adventures, or are concerned about introducing magic or witchcraft into your kids' literary repertoire, these may not be the books for you.

tangent: I could make a strong Christian argument on behalf of these books (as I can for Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Macbeth -- all just chock full of witches and magic). But I will save it for another day!

I have illustrated this post with the covers of the books that my family know and love, but they have recently been re-issued. These editions are available at all the booksellers you love; I have included them (as well as some other fabulous, fabulous YA fiction by Susan Cooper) in the "Terrific Books for Your Kids" carousel over there on the left -- the link takes you to Amazon.com so you can take a closer look.

Happy reading!


  1. I might as well go out and buy these on Amazon now. As soon as Allison sees this she will buy them for Caroline and herself to read.

  2. I'll mention them to my 12 year old. She loves all kinds of books, and I know they wouldn't scare her. My 9 year old still thinks reading is lame...unless I'm reading to him. In which case I always end too soon. Thanks for the info. Holly

  3. Liz, I'm finally reading your post! Your review is great - thank you. These may be beyond GB's reading level, but I think I'll give them a try. I may read them along with him - he definitely enjoys mystery/adventure themes.

    Take care!

  4. Oh, Liz! Dearest Liz!
    I was just thinking, "I have been a woefully awful internet friend and have not been to Liz's blog in a while" and then I pop over here and see you talking up one of my favorite book series of all time. I LOVE LOVE LOVE these books, The Dark is Rising especially. (By the way, avoid the movie if you bump into it. Very Very Bad). And for all the same reasons.
    So as usual, I go to visit Liz and feel like I'm looking in the mirror. It's downright odd sometimes!
    How's the teaching going?