SOUNDTRACK: DAN ZANES-“Wonderwheel” (2002).
Dan Zanes is a wonderful troubadour of kid’s folk rock. The funny thing about many of his songs, like this one, is that it’s not really a kid’s song–there’s nothing about the lyrics that says “only children will like this.” It’s just a generally happy song that is safe for all ages.
The song opens with a simple accordion melody and is about riding a wonderwheel (I’m not sure what that is actually–a ferris wheel?). The melody is great and there’s a nice female vocal harmony. The song reminds me of a poppier, happier version of a Richard and Linda Thompson song. It feels olde, like a classic song that people have been singing forever, and yet it’s brand new.
Dan Zanes is going to be playing a show around here in February and I’m pretty excited to go. He’s one’s of my favorite kid’s music makers. His songs are clever and catchy and never pander to the lowest common denominator.
[READ: November and December 2011 and January 2012] The Secrets of Droon, Books 1-12
Every night, my wife and I read picture books to my kids before bed. Once in a while I would read chapter books to my son (they’re usually a little too much for my daughter to focus on). Clark is 6, Tabitha is 4.
We had been reading The Magic Tree House (which both kids love) and then I hit upon The Secrets of Droon. I knew of the series from the library, but I didn’t know a thing about it. I thought that Clark might read it himself, but he asked me to read that first book to him (it may indeed be too much for him to be able to read and fully enjoy). I’m glad he did, because it has begun a special evening ritual for us.
We try to read three or four chapters of a Droon book a night. And he really follows along well. There are times when he guesses what will happen, and he certainly remembers more about what happened than I do. Sure there are a few things he doesn’t quite get–some of the books in the teens are, if not intense, then certainly mind-boggling: I don’t think a 6-year-old can really grasp time travel or the apparition of a character who has disappeared, but he certainly likes the good vs evil story and he thinks that Neal, the comic relief, is really funny.
We started with Book 2 (Book 1 wasn’t at the library), and continued through Book 6 before going back and reading #1. He thought #1 would be boring because we’d gotten so far beyond that already, but even that book was good–and filled in a few questions that I had.
There are 36 books in the series (as well as 6 Special Edition books (we haven’t read any of those yet so I don’t know what that means)).
The first twelve books form a kind of arc. I suppose it’s official as an arc (at least it seems to be in all of the official info about the series), because a problem runs through all the books and is then solved. However, there’s no real mention of it as an arc in the books, the kids “finish” that task, but simply continue to go back for a new adventure in Book 13.
So, just what is this series about?
There are three kids, Eric, Julie and Neal. They are three friends in, elementary school–4th grade seems about right. In the first book, they are asked to clean up Eric’s basement. In the process, they find a tiny door under the staircase. When they open the door and turn off the light, a rainbow staircase appears. The kids go down the stairs (to fetch their soccer ball) and they end up in Droon.
Droon is a world where magic exists. There are many strange creatures–with, I have to admit, really bad names. Although I enjoy this series very much, Tony Abbott has some of the worst-to-read-aloud creature names in children’s fiction. The kids soon meet a young Princess named Keeah. Keeah is accompanied by Galen, a powerful wizard who is over 500 years old. (I’m still not sure exactly how to pronounce Galen’s name. I say “Gay-len”). Galen has a friend, an eight-legged spider troll named Max who is able to spin amazing webs of silk. These three are the good guys in Droon. Keeah’s mother nad father are King Zello and Queen Relna, rulers of the area of the world (there are many different “lands” in Droon).
The Princess and Galen are trying to save Droon from the attacks of Lord Sparr. Sparr is a human (sort of) with fins on the back of his head. They change color as Sparr gets angrier. Sparr also has magic, but his magic is ancient and rather evil. He hopes to take over Droon and, eventually climb the staircase to the Upper World.
In each book, the kids help the Princess and Galen to fight Sparr. They come close to serious peril on a number of occasions (which gets me nervous, so I assume it gets my son nervous), but the kids are always excited to head back to Droon. And yes, when they return home, no time has passed (although the adult in me can’t help but wonder, aren’t they super tired after several days of adventure in Droon?) only to (in one case) return to a soccer game.
I mentioned an arc. The arc concerns Keeah’s mother, Queen Relna. Relna has been placed under a spell. She is plagued to forever shift shapes from one animal to another. But this curse is better than what Keeah thought happened to Relna (Keeah thought she was killed in a battle). So for the first few books we try to realize what happened to her and hope that she can find the kids. So the 12 book arc is more or less an attempt to help Keeah find her mother.
I say more or less because although that thread runs through all of the books (with the Queen making several appearances in each book), every book has its own primary plot–most of which have to do with Lord Sparr. So the kids fight Lord Sparr and if they can get more information about Relna in the process, that’s great too.
The first twelve books are:
- The Hidden Stairs and the Magic Carpet
- Journey to the Volcano Palace
- The Mysterious Island
- City in the Clouds
- The Great Ice Battle
- The Sleeping Giant of Goll
- Into the Land of the Lost
- The Golden Wasp
- The Tower of the Elf King
- Quest for the Queen
- The Hawk Bandits of Tarkoom
- Under the Serpent Sea
It’s not really worth giving details about each book. Suffice it to say that the kids go to Droon (and in these early books, the first chapter is a pretty lengthy exposition about what Droon is and how the kids get there–it’s a bit tedious although it’s useful for new readers (like since we started with Book 2). Despite the repetition, Abbott does a good job of keeping each opening chapter different and of supplying enough new information that you can’t really ever skip them (There’s less exposition in the later books).
The title of each book more or less indicates what kind of peril they are in store for (volcanos, giants, wasps, etc). What I like about the series is that Abbott introduces new characters in almost every book. So not only does it flesh out the world of Droon, it also means that there’s some new kind of twist in each adventure. Yes, we get the same group of kids, but the friends or enemies are different (except for Sparr who is behind everything).
The first few books have a basic set up–the kids go to Droon, meet someone and find out what the problem is. They get into trouble and then help in some way. Although Eric is the leader (especially later in the series), it’s nice that the books always talk about how they work together to solve their problems. And often times they do it without the help of Keeah or any magic at all.
[The series has been recommended for fans of Harry Potter, and I saw one review online which describes the series as a H.P. knock off. I agree with the first but disagree withe latter part. Magic is present but the story is never about magic (books after #13 have more magic). The story is also geared a lot younger than H.P.–I certainly plan to read H.P. with my kids but not for a couple of years. Think of the series as maybe an introduction to wizardry.]
The book chug along pretty nicely for the first 5 or 6 and then in Book 7, Abbott either creates or remembers a detail (I can’t really remember myself) which takes the books into new levels of coolness and intensity. The rule is that if you take anything out of Droon something will be taken out of the Upper World. Similarly, if you leave anything from the Upper World in Droon, something from Droon will appear in the upper world. This happens at the end of Book 7 which leads to an awesome cliffhanger–what if the thing taken from the Upper World was alive!–the stakes are seriously raised for everyone!
Another cool twist occurs when Sparr is put out of commission. Everyone knows he’s not dead, but no one knows where he is. Abbott uses this plot development to create new menaces which are different from the trouble that Sparr poses. But we all know that Sparr is lurking around somewhere.
The stories are exciting and possibly a little scary–although Clark has never seemed really frightened. Some of the ideas and concepts are a bit over his head–I guess they’re really more for 7 or 8 year olds, but although I have explained a few things to him he never seems out of his depth. And he loves the comic relief. It’s never a lot, but he laughs out loud a few times per book.
Okay, I complained about the names of Abbott’s characters so let me give a couple:
- Batamogi (is actually fun to say) is king of the Oobja people (Abbott uses a lot of “oo” sounds in his name).
- Demither is an undersea queen (man, is that an ugly word to say).
- Khan (this seems just lazy, unless he wants me to say Khaaaaaaan! every time) is king of the, get this…
- The Lumpies–a race of pillow-like people (that’s probably the most egregious thing in the series–a weird idea that served as a kind of comic relief although they have now taken on more importance in the series.
The names don’t seem so bad written in a list, but when you have to say them out loud many times a night, they are quite awful. But the series is so good that it’s worth it.
For a cool website with tons more information and cool games, and a checklist of the books, check out the Scholastic Droon site.
We’re already on to Book 14.