I grabbed a stack of new children's chapter books from the library a couple weeks ago to let my daughter and her Mama pick out our nex couple of read alouds. All realistic fiction was rejected and two fantasies rose to the top. So here are some brief remarks on these two newish books. Now before I start, let me just say that I am usually prejudiced against talking animal books, but I found these rather enjoyable.
The Familiars by Epstein and Jacobson. This one will be the more popular of the two, I think. It has all the elements of a completely cheesy and off-putting children's fantasy series, but these guys make it all work. I mean it's about a cat and a blue jay and a frog for crying out loud. But it really does work well. It's always on the move and covers quite a bit of ground in it's 300 or so pages. It begins with Aldwyn, an alley cat who has teed off one too many shopkeepers in a kingdom town and is on the run for his life from a bounty hunter hired to rid the village of his kind of vermin. He ends up in a place he's never been and hides in a pet store for "familiars," the magical companions for young wizards in training. A young wizard named Jack chooses Aldwyn and they form a strong bond. Aldwyn is a smart cookie, but wonders how he can hide his non-magical pedigree. It doesn't take long for the plot to kick into high gear when the evil Queen of Vastia kidnaps Jack and two other wizards-in-training, leaving Aldwyn the cat, a bossy blue jay named Skylar, and a companionable little tree frog named Gilbert on an adventure to find and free their "loyals."
It's a romp, full of great humor and plenty of action. It's perfect for pretty much any kid.
Secrets at Sea. This concerns a family of mice trying to keep up with their human family on the move. Mice families are tied to the fortunes of their unknowing human families. The human, or Upstairs, Cranstons have decided to go off to England during the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee to find a suitable husband for their eldest daughter. The mouse, or Downstairs, Cranstons decide to stow away on the ship despite their serious trepidation of water. Our main character is Helena, the oldest of four mouse siblings. There are some very fun moments of culture clash between the American and British humans and mice and some fun little adventures on board. There's even a nicely creepy cat of course. It has nothing of the stakes of The Familiars but Peck is such a sure-handed storyteller with such good prose and wordplay that this is just as much fun to read aloud.
Unfortunately it does lend itself more to girls than to boys. The main characters are female and the plot concerns the human and mice girls finding suitable husbands.
So, to sum up, here we have two great read-alouds with two great stories. The Familiars edges out Secrets at Sea simply because of it's wider appeal but I'll be recommending them both to students soon.