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Mike Mullin, Author

I'm the author of the ASHFALL three-and-a-half-ology: ASHFALL, ASHEN WINTER, SUNRISE, and DARLA'S STORY.

Proof Positive That Early Chapter Books Can Be Brilliantly Written

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible - Ursula Vernon The Notebook of Doom #1: Rise of the Balloon Goons (A Branches Book) - Troy Cummings Stick Dog - Tom     Watson, Ethan Long

A few months ago I read a highly acclaimed work of literary science fiction for adults. It rambled through multiple narcissistic digressions, provided only the flimsiest hint of a plot, and generally never used two words where ten paragraphs would do. I want to sit that author down and force her or him to study Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible for a month.


Some early chapter books are atrocious, full of stilted dialogue, stereotypes, and exclamation point abuse (cough*Magic Treehouse*cough). Hamster Princess, along with other notables such as Notebook of Doom and Stick Dog, prove that it doesn't have to be that way. Its prose is spare, but still leaves room for gorgeous descriptions such as the wicked fairy whose laugh is, "like bones clattering down a hole in the dark." It smashes stereotypes at every turn. The titular character, when scolded for not acting like a princess, says, "But I'm a princess. If I do it, it's got to be something princesses do! Who makes these rules?" The book is chock full of humor that will appeal to kids and to adults who will likely wind up reading this out loud dozens of times.


Best of all, the author doesn't shy away from exposing her readers to interesting and sophisticated vocabulary. By page three we've already had "deportment," "ethereal," and "melancholy." One of the delights of reading is encountering new words, and I envy the young readers who discover this book. I'm thankful that Dial published it, rather than some other company. Some publishers "level" a book like this before it's released, striking out most of the interesting and unusual words in order to hit a reading level target, which they print on the back of the book. Dial, to its credit, doesn't print a reading level on Hamster Princess.


While teaching and children's literature are generally synergistic, reading levels are one case of teaching influencing kidlit for the worse. The very idea that you can calculate whether a book is right for a particular kid without reference to that child's interests and experiences is nonsense. Kids can, and will, tackle books far above their presumed ability if they're interested enough in the topic. Once consigned to the prison of a "reading level," they never get that chance.


Often as I'm writing, I think about reading levels. If I choose to use two short sentences instead of combining them, my book's Lexile level goes down. (Lexile is a particularly pernicious system of leveling books, since it relies on a mathematical formula and makes no reference to content. According to the idiots at Lexile, Elie Wiesel's classic and horrifying tale of the holocaust, Night, is for second graders.) When the Lexile level of my books goes down, schools that are bound by Common Core are less likely to use them. (Then I think, f*** Common Core, and write it the way I want to.)


Anyway, I digress. If you're a writer, pick up a copy of Hamster Princess. We can all learn a lot here. If you're a parent, try it out on your 7-10 year-olds. Or it's perfectly appropriate to read to younger children. You'll probably be forced to read it over and over, but luckily, it's so funny and well-written that you won't mind.