When we talk about children’s and YA literature, we’re talking about a wide spectrum. And on the left side of the spectrum are many points. You’ve got board books, followed by picture books, beginning readers, chapter books, graphic novels and on to middle-grade novels. There’s a spot on this spectrum right between beginning readers and chapter books that is a sweet spot for me. I’ll call it Early Chapter Books, for lack of a better term, and they’re those very first chapter books for young readers.
I particularly enjoy sharing such books with children. Those books that are done really well—and it’s a hard thing to pull off—can be such a joy for beginning readers. You know those readers who are well past the thin I-Can-Read books but not yet ready for, say, chapter book series for the seriously devoted? They first want the taste of a much longer story, that Charlotte’s Web, that Pleasant Fieldmouse, that Sadie and Ratz, that Toys Go Out—whether they read it on their own or a teacher or librarian or parent reads it to them? Yep, I’m talking about those books. They usually include spot illustrations too.
Let’s start with the import, My Heart is Laughing. It comes to use by way of Sweden and was first published in 2012. It’s here on American shores, thanks to Gecko Press.
Last year, I wrote here at Kirkus about the book that precedes this one, My Happy Life, from the same author and illustrator duo. It’s in that book that we met Dani, who lives with her father and who is typically a half-glass-full girl. After all, when we first meet her in My Happy Life, she is counting on her fingers her happiest times. But her best friend, Ella, moves away in that book, and Dani struggles with her absence.
In this second book, My Heart is Laughing, Lagercrantz wants to be sure we remember Dani’s good cheer and resiliency and opens the book thusly:
“This is a story about Dani, who’s always happy. She’s unhappy too, now and then, but she doesn’t count those times.
She doesn’t like unhappy. It makes her go to pieces. That’s why she makes new endings for stories with unhappy endings.”
Despite her determined spirit, though, life can be tough and hearts can be broken. Dani still misses Ella. And two girls in her school choose her as a target and tease and even abuse her. When Dani lashes out, she’s unfairly blamed for the entire incident. She runs home from school and sinks to the floor to cry. She mourns a lot of things, but “most of all she cried because Ella hadn’t come back yet.”
All’s well that ends well—the truth about the mean girls is eventually revealed—and Ella even comes for a visit. The title tells you how Dani feels in the end. It’s a treat to see Dani and Ella return in this second book. It delivers in the same way the first one does: It’s a compelling story that captures the everyday dramas and emotional goings-on of children in a way that is never condescending or saccharine. And, though originally written for European audiences, the school situations translate well for us Americans.
Next up is a book I can’t possibly recommend enough, Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory. Dory is an imaginative young girl—and that’s to say that the division between reality and fantasy for her is, more often than not, incredibly blurred and quite malleable—who has two older siblings. They don’t want her around, so the irrepressible Dory entertains herself with a cast of imaginary friends who appreciate her energy and musings on life, thank you very much. There are also monsters who need vanquishing, including Mrs. Gobble Gracker, whom Dory’s older sister made up. She is a “robber, and she steals baby girls.”
This book has everything going for it: A throbbing heart at its center (after all, Dory just desperately wants to play with her siblings), humor in spades and charm to spare. It’s quite hard to pull off humor this well in an early chapter book: Writing and illustrating a story about an imaginative young girl and the characters that spring from her mind could easily tip into the land of Too Precious.
But Hanlon succeeds in a way that is genuinely funny. And I hate to say it’s quirky, because that word is overused and often misunderstood, but Dory and her make-believe friends are wonderfully, gloriously WEIRD. (This I like. Normal people worry me.) Best of all, never once does Hanlon mock her protagonist or her wit, as a lesser author might have done. Dory is screamingly real in all her pathos and cleverness and humor and heart. She’s one of a kind, and this is one of the best children’s books I’ve seen all year. If all is fair in this world, we’ll get treated to more Dory books.
If you stumble across any beginning readers any time soon, who are well past The Cat in the Hat but not quite ready for Harry Potter, you’d do well to hand them these remarkably well-crafted books.
DORY FANTASMAGORY. Copyright © 2014 by Abby Hanlon. Published by Dial Books, New York. Illustration used by permission of Abby Hanlon.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.