Part of my job as a children's librarian is reading the books I have on hand to recommend. It's great that I read Charlotte's Web as a nine-year-old, but one should keep up with the new books.
This can be a wonderful adventure in reading. I discover some real gems.
I adore Mo Willems and not just because he is from New Orleans, but because Knuffle Bunny and its sequel and its DVD are hilarious and the new "Elephant and Piggy" I-Can-Read series is a riot.1
I discovered the fantasy writer Dianne Wynn Jones fairly recently. I had heard of her and even read one book in one of her series years ago. But I had no idea about the Christomanci books. They form a loose-knit series which can be read in any order because she wrote about the alternate worlds without any "correct" chronological order. They are funny and full of great magical ideas. She also wrote Howl's Moving Castle that was made into a fabulous movie.
However, there are stinkers. I've finally gotten our copy of The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, which had been on bestseller lists. So I took it home and read it. Forgive me, Mr. Pearson, but it is just not that good. This adventure/fantasy/marketing tool may be good hackwork, but nothing more.
Kingdom Keepers is set in and around Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The book is published by Hyperion or Disney Books. Yes, Disney does books. A lot of books. I'm sure that some are good, but Ye Gods!
So we have now a fantasy novel set in Disney World published by Disney. This is as close to corporate sponsorship or work-for-hire as you can get.
Naturally, the kids in it are great, with some itsy bitsy character development so that you can tell them apart--and they don't always agree on everything. That's character, isn't it? The adults are great. The employees of Disney are great. The Disney exhibits are great. The back of the house information is great. Great as in air-brushed.
The book's villain is the evil fairy in that permanent sleeper of an animated movie, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficient. I don't think that they wanted to waste one of their better-known villains on the first book. I mean, Sleeping Beauty? Really?
Because the Kingdom Keepers is the first in a series, don't you know.
Naturally, as I'm reading it, I'm remembering my two trips to Disney World. I'm thinking about a few horror stories people told me about their Mickey World vacations--the most horrific one of which had nothing to do with Disney, but everything to do with CLUELESS parents.
By now, it seems that everyone has been to Disney World. My father went with a local retirees group. My husband took my older son when he was four and I stayed home. The trip is no longer seen as a highlight of your vacations but a place to return to several times in your lifetime: as a child, on a honeymoon, with your kids, and as a senior. Because going on a sanitized adventure based on tv and movies is always satisfying to your soul's deepest longings. Why not go twice this year?
The low point in Kingdom Keepers is when they are trapped in the ride that plays, "It's a Small, Small World" and NO ONE COMPLAINS about the song. I can sense the red pens of the Disney public relations department hovering over the manuscript.
One of the other annoying things about the book is that it has an experimental hologram program that plays a part in the fantasy "set-up." Disney always has a dislike of science and technology that has lasted from those 1950s movies (Shaggy Professor & Flubber) right up to the present moment (remakes).
No wonder people approach new scientific news with skepticism. Every Disney product they ever saw taught them that scientists are inadequately socialized geeks playing with lasers in their garages, basements, and attics.
Years ago I tracked down and read the library's copy (one of the rare ones) of Team Rat: How Disney Destroyed the World by Carl Hiassen. Yeah, that Carl Hiassen, who's made some money and won prizes for some juvenile books recently, but is better known for his anarchy-filled Florida-set thrillers. Hiassen is a Florida native. And Team Rat is his indictment of Disney World. This non-fiction extended essay by the Miami Herald columnist is a thrill-ride full of corporate sinning.
Disney wanted to have total control over this second theme park. So they established new political boundaries to have more-or-less complete control. This allows the Disney World management considerable self-government in a way that the average libertarian only drools about.
Such a government/corporate structure has not always served the park visitors well. Find a copy of Team Rat and read it. If you can't buy one, use inter-library loan.
As I'm reading the Kingdom Keepers and checking to see how many more pages I have to turn to consider it "done," I realize that Pearson and Dave Barry collaborate on the Peter and the Starcatchers/new Peter Pan series.
Dave Barry, the humorist who has branched into juvenile fiction, is based in Florida.
It suddenly occurs to me that Dave Barry and Carl Hiassen would be very interesting dinner guests to have. But not necessarily close friends.
Disney publishes Ridley Pearson's disney love letter/travel guide juvenile fantasy fiction derivative tv movie script series. Pearson and Barry co-author the Peter Pan series--which I have a sinking suspicion is published by Hyperion/Disney. Hiassen hates Disney with the passion of a native who has seen his state prostituted for corporate greed.
Don't you want in on this conversation? I'm sure that in real life, they are brothers-in-ink, but I want to inject them with sodium pentathol (truth serum) and turn on a tape recorder.
Disney has taken over kids movies, more than one cable channel, the ABC network, radio channels, music, educational software, a cruise-ship, and books. All while selling millions of toys marketing every single show, song, movie, or character (poor Pooh Bear).
Despite the fantasy orientation of all these omnipresent Disney items--kids have less imagination than ever. Because a free imagination is something you can NOT spoon-feed. Imagination is wild and unruly and not politically correct or censored. It won't fit in a marking plan.
Every day I see kids wearing Disney, asking for Disney books or books based on series that Disney developed. I buy Disney books for the library and of course, I keep Disney DVDs and music in stock with a fervent devotion. Over the past 22 years, I've brought home tons of Disney for my sons--a few times gladly, but often only because of impassioned begging.
Escaping Disney's influence is almost impossible for a parent today. At our house, we have a belief that there are 3 or 4 evil powers taking over the world: Microsoft, Starbucks, Barbie, and Disney. The republicans and Walmart are also featured in the occasional rant about the world going to hell in a hand-basket.
Do one small thing for the future--hook kids up with books. Hook them up with fantasies that were not made in conjunction with a marketing plan. Even now, there are some out there.
Instead of reading Kingdom Keepers, try reading
Sabriel by Garth Nix. This is the first book in a trilogy with some original fantasy ideas.
Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. The first in the New Olympians series.
The Last Apprentice series by Thomas Flanagan. This is not the Ranger's Apprentice series, but very good and dark juvenile fantasy.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. This is the traditional starting novel in the Narnia series.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein. This fantasy was followed by the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Reading this series can keep you out of trouble for months or years.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Still hilarious after all these years.
Remember, the book is often much much better than the movie. Think of Mary Poppins and 101 Dalmatians, where a good deal of the sly humor and satire was eliminated in favor of special effects by Walt Disney.
1 Sheepish admission. The Mo Willems books that I rave about all the time are published by Hyperion, another publishing subdivision of Disney.