College for kids.

I know, I know, it happened again.  I read a book and didn’t review it on time.  The good news is, I read it on time.  The better news is, I haven’t been avoiding the book because I don’t like it.  I just felt very anti-internets last weeks and there you have it: no blog.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey is a fun book.  One of the reasons it is so very fun is that it’s targeted at ten and eleven year-old boys, but the main character is a college aged.  The only ten year-old is a girl.   It’s absolutely fantastic.

It was several years ago that The Fire Within caught my eye.  It couldn’t have been too long after the third book came out.  I don’t think the second book was even in paperback in the US yet (the author is British and let me tell you it takes ten kinds of forever for his books to get over here–grumpgrumpgrump).  I don’t know why this is important to tell you, but it is.  I read the first book and was impressed by the fact that the author made the main character twice the age as the target audience and at such a different stage of life than you’d expect.  Also, when I went on to the second and third books there were some seriously existential discussions in the text.  Of course, this bumped up the target age to thirteen or fourteen (writing was still at a ten to eleven level, but comprehension is what bumped it), but I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to treat his readers as intelligent beings.  Some eleven year-olds will be able to follow those discussions and that makes this a great series to consider.  I very much enjoy series that sit on the cusp of an age group.  It does make it difficult to recommend in some ways (well, the writing is a bit young for you but the content is just right vs the writing is right up your alley, but the content might be a bit over your head), but it also gives a chance for a reader to stretch or relax.  These are great books to have around!

I took it in an attempt to find a different sort of dragon book.  I was tired of the same old Anne McCaffrey books (though I love them) and Christopher Paolini gets boring fast.  I had read the Dragon’s Milk series half a dozen times (has anyone else read those?) and as sweet as the My Father’s Dragon series is, it’s not really very dragony.  It was time for something new.  Something different.  The Fire Within is certainly that.

Dragons are not a given in The Fire Within.  They appear to be statues created by the main character’s landlord, Liz.  Her eccentricity, if you will.  David, the college kid/main character, finds it strange, but charming.  He finds Liz’s squirrel-obsessed daughter, Lucy, much more interesting, and less of a mystery.  A friendship that Liz half-approves of, half-disapproves buds between the two “kids.”  It’s pretty adorable.

When I first read this book, I was exactly what the target audience wasn’t supposed to be: I was a twenty year-old female.  It was fun being David’s age and reading the book through the age of his eyes, but with many of Lucy’s emotions.  Reading the book this time around, I felt a lot more like Liz.  David and Lucy get into the most ridiculous shenanigans caused in part by her impatience, his too-rational nature, and an unhealthy desire for secrecy.  Bringing in Liz on everything would have been a much better idea, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels about their parents at one point or another.  And who wants to ask their landlord for help?  I certainly never did!

So, I suppose one of the things I like best is that this book can reach out to so many: boys, girls, young, old, somewhere in between.  It’s not so much about dragons this first time around, but it is enough about dragons to bring the reader back for the next book, which really jumps into the created dragon lore that D’Lacey works so hard on.  I’m very impressed with it, even if I don’t always love it.  It can get pretty out there some days.  And choosing a connection between bears and dragons has–so far as I can find–no mythological precedent.  It’s a bit radical for this stodgy mythologist, but it’s good.  I’ll give him that.

So far as the prose goes, I have to give a hats off to the editor who made this book America-ready!  THANK YOU for not taking out the colloquial British phrases!  I love it that those stayed in.  Children need to get used to deciphering meaning through context and these words are fun to do that with!  “Wuzzled off” is a wonderful phrase for dying.  Wish there was something so good on this side of the Pond.  Props to D’Lacey, too, for using language easy enough to determine via context so that the editor felt he COULD leave it alone.

One of my favorite scenes, stylistically, was one of dragon scenes (no surprise there).  It was the first time David actually communed with his dragon, Gadzooks.  Liz makes special dragons for certain people and Gadzooks was what occurred to her for David.  Gadzooks is a writing dragon (as if there were any doubt I’d like this book, this sealed it).  David finally suspends disbelief and communicates with Gadzooks in that special place in his heart and mind where Gadzooks is not only real, but alive:

Lucy, undeterred, had one last option.  “Can Gadzooks have a try [naming the squirrel]?”

“Pardon?” said David.

“Ask him,” said Lucy.

“How?” said the tenant, looking bemused.

Lucy paddled her feet. “Dream it,” she breathed.

What?” said David.

“Mom, make him do it.”

“I’m cooking sausages, Lucy.”

“Oh, Mom.  Please.”

“Do what?” said David.

Lucy threw herself into the chair beside him. “It’s Mom’s special way of telling stories.  You have to join in and tell what you see.  Then the story really comes alive.  Things happen, things you don’t expect.  Oh, Mom, make him do it.”

Liz sighed and gave in: “David, close your eyes and picture Gadzooks.”

He looked at her askance.  “You’re not serious?”

“I thirty seconds, your dinner will be burned.”

“That’s serious,” said David.  He closed his eyes.  “OK.  He’s on his windowsill, looking out over the garden.  I think he’s wondering if it’s going to rain.”

“No,” said Liz, “he’s biting his pencil, deep in thought, trying hard to thing of a name for you squirrel.  Dream it, David.”

David rocked in his chair and let his mind float. “He flipped a page of his notepad over.”

“Hhh!” gasped Lucy.  “It’s working, Mom!”

“Shush,” went Liz.

“He’s writing something.”

“What?” gasped Lucy, too excited to be shushed.  David let his imagination flow.  To his amazement, he watched Gadzooks take his pencil from his jaws and hurriedly scribble down a name on his pad.


David’s eyebrows twitched in surprise. Liz prodded a sausage or two with a for.  Lucy bit a fingernail.  Bonnington yawned.  The whole Pennykettle household waited for an answer.

“Snigger,” David whispered.

From somewhere came a gentle hrring noise.

David’s dark blue eyes blinked open. “Yes,” he said, “his name is Snigger.”

I wish you could see what the publishing company did with the font for Gadzooks’ writing.  Even visually that scene was compelling.  I love how that was a step-by-step journey into the part of David that was the writer, the part he had been refusing to acknowledge until now.  Yes, Gadzooks is alive in this book, but he is alive because of the creative part of David that David had nearly killed with over rationalization.

Please don’t think I’m one of those crazy “art over science” people.  I advocate balance.  I think that the science and the arts have to work in tandem and one of the things I respect so much about D’Lacey is that he manages to split that balance so very well in this and his other books.  You don’t have to give up one to have the other.

This book is not what I’d call typical YA lit.  It takes a special kid for me to recommend it.  I like it because it pushes the boundaries of expectations.  These books treat kids intelligently, and I am a big fan of that.  I hope to do so well in my ventures into YA lit.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • Even upon second (or third) reading, it goes way against my YA expectations.
  • There are so many different perspectives in the novel to see it from.
  • It’s designed to make you ask questions and think, which I still do second (or third) time around.

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