I know, of course I know, that there are more than three kinds of people. For the purposes of this post, though, let’s assume there’s a six- to eight-year-old boy in your life. In which case, you’ll likely find yourself in one of three camps:
1) Beast Quest? What’s Beast Quest?
To which you might add: what was all that Olympic Games stuff all over the news this summer? And wasn’t there something recently about the Queen? Please, put my rock back, the light is hurting me…
2) What’s wrong with Beast Quest, anyway?
To which its publisher and hundreds of bookshops up and down the country would say: nothing at all, as far as we’re concerned. These are phenomenally popular books, now running to over 50 titles with their own spin-off series, Chronicles of Avantia, and the ultimate back-handed publishing compliment – an annual destined to be sold as a get-one-free from September onwards, and brutally remaindered by January.
Actually, although I plan to tell you there’s more to reading life than Beast Quest, I do think the series has plenty going for it. Anything that gets boys of this age excited about reading is a bright shining star, at a time of low expectations and endless distractions. Its monsters are imaginative, its boy-hero is plucky and principled, and he even recognises the virtues of a feisty female sidekick. If all of that plays out in the playground, hurrah. But if it all begins to feel a bit, well, formulaic?
3) How on earth can I get him to read something more challenging?
Almost certainly not by direct methods. No child ever responded well to “surely you’re too old for that?” (In fairness, nor would most adults: imagine curling up with something nicely pacy and undemanding of a Friday evening, only for some forbidding figure to snatch it away and insist you read Derrida or Lacan instead.) At the same time, there are some brilliant books out there for developing readers, even if boys are still not quite so well served as girls.
I’ll start with a shameless plug. In my day job, for the lovely Usborne Publishing, I sit across the landing from the brilliant and eagle-eyed fiction department, one of whose recent ventures is Quest of the Gods. It may look a lot like Beast Quest, with trading cards even, but believe me, the Ancient Egyptian setting (and a distinctly springier writing style) raises it several ranks above. My son’s only complaint was that the series only runs to five books so far – but I’m happy to tell you that another five have been commissioned for next year.
Then again, you might like to go back to the source – the timeless appeal of the Greek myths that originally provided our gorgons and chimaeras and the heroes that faced them. Of the many contemporary retellings, I liked Geraldine McCaughrean’s very readable short versions for Orchard – but all too few buyers did, and they’re now out of print (although still to be tracked down in libraries). Amanda Craig, who knows a very great deal more about children’s books than I can ever hope to, recommends Lucy Coats, and for the more adventurous reader, Roger Lancelyn Green (a true master of myth, whether Greek, Egyptian, Norse or English).
The above-mentioned son found it easy to move on from Beast Quest to the inspired, beautifully-illustrated fantasy of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell in Fergus Crane or the Ottoline books. Stewart and Riddell deserve, and will get, a post of their own, but until then don’t miss these quirky gems for younger readers.
Marcus Sedgwick will also get his own post, but I do want to flag up the wonderful, sardonic Raven Mysteries about the hopelessly dysfunctional Goth family, the Otherhands, as told by their world-weary raven Edgar. (Who is, surely, a close cousin of Arabel’s Raven Mortimer in Joan Aiken’s much-loved series?)
And my thanks again to Amanda Craig for highlighting Philip Pullman’s brilliant books for younger readers, including I was a Rat! and The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. After which, you could go back to Beast Quest – just as you could try boeuf bourgignon and decide you still preferred prawn crackers… but chances are, you’d at least be inspired to look beyond B on the bookshop or library shelves.