Dragons, chivalry, and a lovely old castle

This fall there's a winning crop of fantasy books by children's authors with serious credentials.

By

If you've got a child who's happiest with his or her head in the clouds, but is having a little trouble achieving lift-off without the aid of a Nimbus 2000, don't despair. This autumn features one of the most pedigreed fantasy lineups in years. Two of my absolute favorite authors from elementary-school days (don't tell your kids – they'll never read the books) have new offerings to help kick the fall off in fine style, and the season features so many Newbery Award-winners, they'll have to build a bigger podium to fit them all.

A boy finds a baby dragon and must protect it from the rest of the world. Sound a little like "Eragon?" Well, Christopher Paolini's bestseller has about as much in common with Newbery Award-winner Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven (Putnam Juvenile, 272 pp., $17.99) as a chameleon does with a Komodo dragon. Accomplished, original, and sophisticated enough even for teen readers, "Dragonhaven" is one of the few tales about fire breathers not to owe a debt to either J.R.R. Tolkien or Anne McCaffrey. (And baby Lois has little in common with Mawr, the fearsome monster from McKinley's award-winning "The Hero and the Crown.")

Jake Mendoza has grown up in Smokehill, a nature preserve near Wyoming that houses 200 of the world's remaining Draco australiensis. On a hike, he stumbles across a mother dragon and a poacher who have killed each other. One of the babies – a tiny, squodgy thing as big as his hand – is still alive, and without thinking, Jake stuffs it down his shirt. Unfortunately, the only thing more illegal than killing a dragon is saving one. Written as a memoir, Jake's love for Lois keeps the novel firing on all cylinders, even when the flashback device drains some of the suspense from climactic scenes.

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German writer Cornelia Funke also knows her way around both large lizards and fantasy. Her books run a spectrum from picture books all the way through darker entries such as "Inkheart." Her lively new tale, Igraine the Brave, (Joanna Cotler, 336 pp., $18.99) about a 12-year-old girl whose dreams of chivalry come true a little sooner than she expected is closer in spirit to her popular "Dragon Rider."

On Igraine's birthday, a nasty enchanter takes over the neighboring castle and demands that Igraine's family turn over the powerful Singing Books of Magic. Ordinarily, Igraine's magician parents could have easily dispatched Osmund and his army, but they inadvertently turned themselves into pigs. So, her older brother Albert defends the castle against the siege, while Igraine gallops on a quest to find hairs from a red-headed giant to turn them back into humans.

"Igraine the Brave" has echoes of Funke's picture book "The Princess Knight," and Funke supplies her own pictures here, as well. Older children may find the adventure a bit tame, and the characters aren't terribly nuanced.

But it's nice to see a loving family represented in fantasy, and my knight-besotted kindergartner fell utterly in love with the bold Igraine and her protector, the Sorrowful Knight of the Mount of Tears.

While most of the writers here are old hands at magic and mayhem, Newbery-winner Sharon Creech ("Walk Two Moons") is new to spell-casting. In her Italian-set fable, The Castle Corona (The Chicken House, 224 pp., $16.99), Pia and Enzio are two orphaned peasants who find a pouch dropped from a thief fleeing the titular castle.

Meanwhile, the royal family deals with the unwelcome intrusion into their cosseted existence. The king, fearful of being poisoned, acquires two children to be tasters (I'll give you one guess), the queen gets herself a hermit (the king already had one), and their three spoiled children try to figure out their place in the world.

It's all terribly well-meaning, and terribly slow-moving. (It takes 131 pages to get to Day 2.) While my son's interest didn't flag on a recent car trip, my mom, who's usually heartily in favor of tales with solid morals, begged me to stop reading.

It might take readers a while to notice the lack of action, though, because they're so dazzled by the illustrations. Caldecott Medal-winner David Diaz illuminated "The Castle Corona" in the style of a gorgeous medieval manuscript, complete with Gothic lettering and lots of gold foil. If only this book could have been judged by its cover, it would have been buried in accolades.

The Chronicles of Prydain, the Newbery Award-winning series by Lloyd Alexander, got me through a disastrous fourth grade. The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio (Henry Holt, 320 pp., $18.95) is the final book from Alexander, who died this spring, and his trademark wit and spry plotting are in abundance.

And the book's motto, "The journey is the treasure," echoes advice given to a certain assistant pigkeeper in The Chronicles of Prydain. Carlo Chuchio, an orphaned daydreamer, is given an ancient book of "Arabian Nights"-type tales from a wharfside bookseller whom no one else remembers seeing.

Inside the cracked binding is a treasure map. When his exasperated uncle throws him out, Carlo acquires a couple of camels, a thief named Baksheesh, and an escaped slave girl named Shira and heads off into the desert.

Scheherazade would have heartily approved.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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