Monday, January 2, 2012

Originally Published as Harry Potter and The Real Magic,

At the Libraries: Harry Potter and The Real Magic, Providence Journal June 28, 2007

By Lexi Henshel

Special to the Journal

July 21, 2007. Whether you are counting down the days in anticipation or in dread, you know it’s coming. The juggernaut that has been the Harry Potter publishing phenomenon continues to shock and awe.

Nearly a month before the book’s release, has already sold more than a million pre-ordered copies, and hundreds of requests are entered into the Ocean State library system. Plot speculation is flooding the Internet, and a generation of readers raised on Harry will have to accept that J.K. Rowling is finished with the series.

It seems unlikely that any magic spell will compel Rowling to return to the fantasy world that made her a billionaire. Teens (and the adults who also followed Harry’s adventures) may be feeling at a loss — after Harry Potter, what else is there to read?

Readers are lucky. There has been a renaissance of a kind in young-adult publishing, largely attributable to Harry Potter’s supernatural popularity. Readers who grew up looking forward to the next installment in Harry’s travails developed a taste for the printed word, and canny authors jumped into writing series fiction, correctly assuming that, as with the Potter books and a certain brand of potato chips, “you can’t try just one.” When you finish that 784th page of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, know that there are some other great series well worth reading — all as addictive as Rowling’s saga.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, with its gloomy steampunk Victoriana aesthetic, its fantastically ill-fated orphans and its delicate allusions to literary history (Snicket’s love for Beatrice cannot help but remind readers of another narrator with a passion that burned beyond the grave) certainly caught young readers’ attention; the 13 books in the series have sold more than 55 million copies, and this summer they will be released in paperback — “a much more flammable version,” as their sorrowful author put it in an interview recently. From A Bad Beginning to The End, the miserable stories about the wretched Baudelaire children are, paradoxically, a delight.

Another series that wrapped up this year is Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl — but don’t think for a second that you won’t be hearing that title anymore. The popular and occasionally controversial book series was often called Sex and the City for teens, and The CW is taking a chance on that; the television network is producing a series based on the novels, and slotting the program right after America’s Next Top Model, a ratings powerhouse. Starring Blake Lively (from the movie version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) as Serena, and Veronica Mars’s Kristin Bell as the eponymous Gossip Girl, the show seems set to be a success. Before watching the series, though, give the books a read. They are delicious — fast, breezy, catty and fun — and von Zeigesar’s writing in the early books captures that ineffable New York vibe.

While critics as prominent as Naomi Wolf were troubled by the Gossip Girl series, calling it “corruption with a cute overlay,” nothing in these books would shock a teen in modern America, and the characters, while wealthy and slightly dissolute, are very focused on their futures, with college applications, interviews, and acceptances driving a significant portion of the plots. The characters do face repercussions for their actions, and bad decisions are followed by consequences — they live in a moral universe. The original set of characters — Blair, Serena, Nate, et al — move on in the final book, Don’t You Forget About Me, which was published in May. But von Zeigesar intends to continue both the Gossip Girl series (with a new crop of students) and the successful spin-off series, The It Girl, which is already up to title four, Unforgettable, published this June.

By contrast, another huge breakout young-adult series, The Clique, by Lisi Harrison, is set in a world apparently without interested adults or a moral center. These books are immensely popular, and are written for a slightly younger set than the Gossip Girl series. The characters Massie, Alicia, Claire and others — are not experimenting with intoxicants or with sex as do some older teen characters in Gossip Girl, but they are no more innocent for that; rather, these characters are the embodiment of the “mean girl” culture. Rather than practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty, the Clique girls are more likely to randomly cyberbully another student and spend senselessly on designer wear that young readers may be tricked into thinking is stylish. The Clique series is on a roll, however, with Harrison’s eighth book in the series, Sealed with a Diss, due to be released on July 2.

More mature readers, including adults, might turn to Scott Westerfeld’s fantastic trilogy, Uglies, Pretties and Specials. A fourth book, Extras, to be published in October, is set in the same dystopian world as the previous three.

Westerfeld jokes, “It’s set in the same future world as the Uglies trilogy. It’s Uglies Book 4, so to speak. But trilogies only have three books, the pedants among you declare!” No matter the semantics, this is a series worth reading.

These books have it all — fantastic character development and smart, clippy writing, and they address just about every major issue facing teens today, in an entirely non-preachy way. It is a tour de force. The heroine, Tally Youngblood, hurls herself across that line between safety and freedom, defies societal pressures and expectations to be conventionally beautiful, and tries to address the legacy of the environmental destruction left behind by the “Rusties” — us.

This unflinching series is impossible to put down, and impossible to forget, if only for scenes such as the one where Tally, on the run, encounters fields of genetically modified white orchids which have crowded out every other plant. The questions of what is beautiful and of what is natural and of what is right are worth thinking about.

Fans of the supernatural and of fantasy can also find solace in reading the Artemis Fowl series, by Eoin Colfer. These books about fairies, demons, time travel and a teenage criminal mastermind fly off the shelves, as do books from the Cirque du Freak series, by Darren Shan, a dark set of books about vampires, freak shows, werewolves and more.

Readers looking for frothier fare can follow Meg Cabot’s clumsy, funny Princess Mia through 11 Princess Diaries, and laugh and cry with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants through four well-crafted books by Ann Brashares.

Do not despair, as you finish that last page of Rowling’s finale, Deathly Hallows. Dumbledore tells Harry in 2005’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “We must try not to sink beneath our anguish, Harry, but battle on.”

We librarians say: we must try not to sink beneath our anguish, but read on. Harry’s greatest wizardry may have been the creation of passionate readers, and no matter what happens to Harry, his legacy is as magical as his stories have been.

Lexi Henshel is young-adult librarian at the West Warwick Public Library.

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