Animals have always occupied a special place in literature for young people, from Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” to Hedwig in “Harry Potter.” Unbound by the usual limits on human behavior, these characters can easily fly, burrow, make magic, and oh yes, dispense wisdom to their human characters. As many an author has noted, animal characters also flout the conventions of race and class.
Of course, these days, “animals” in children’s books are just as likely to be shape-shifters as friendly woodland creatures. Here are two new standouts in the genre that occupy opposite ends of the animal spectrum.
Werewolves are de rigueur by now, but prolific Austin author and literary blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith took werecreatures to a new level in her young-adult “Tantalize” series, populating her best-selling novels about vampires, humans and shifters with a werepossum, werecat and more. (After all, once you’re shifting, why limit yourself to wolf form?)
Now comes “Feral Nights,” the first of a spin-off series featuring werepossum Clyde and other secondary characters from the “Tantalize” quartet.
Set in Austin, “Nights” follows smoldering, magnetic werecat Yoshi on the trail of his sister, Ruby. Ruby has gone missing after a murder, one that’s left high-schooler and werearmadillo Travis dead. She’s the prime suspect, at least among certain shifter members of the Austin police force, as well as Travis’ former girlfriend Aimee and Clyde, his best friend.
It’s fast-paced and packed full of action. But “Nights” is no simple supernatural thriller. Smith alternates narration between Yoshi, Clyde and Aimee, giving us layers of insight into each. We see Clyde struggle with his feelings for Aimee, since she was dating his best friend, while Aimee wonders if Clyde will ever wake up to her as a potential mate. Yoshi is full of bravado and testosterone, but he’s also learning to trust someone besides himself. (Fair warning for parents: This is definitely a young-adult novel in its references to werecats’ libido, and there are some pretty racy passages.)
Fans of “Tantalize” will recognize plenty — Yoshi meets Clyde and Aimee at Sanguini’s, the vamp-themed restaurant introduced in the first novel, for example. But you don’t need to have read those books to enjoy “Nights.” And half the fun is in the humor Smith is savvy enough to weave into her high fantasy. Take Yoshi’s encounter with Travis’ grandfather — the self-styled werearmadillo king — on the streets of downtown Austin:
“ ‘You may be an uber carnivore, but we Dillos prosper in both worlds’,” thunders His Majesty, brandishing a revolver. “ ‘We are a proud people with close ties to the Weasels, Rats, and Opossums. We have friends and resources beyond your wildest imagining. You don’t know what it is to be hunted until you’ve been hunted by an Armadillo.’
“It’s hard not to laugh except, again, the gun,” muses Yoshi, who goes on to insult His Majesty’s day job as an air-conditioning salesman.
This is a promising beginning to a series for Smith that will no doubt garner new fans who like their shifter tales rooted firmly in real-life settings. (Ages 14 and up)
If your animal-tale tastes run more along the lines of Beatrix Potter, then “The Cats of Tanglewood Forest” is for you. This folktale, penned by fantasy master Charles de Lint, centers on Lillian Kindred, who imagines the titular forest near her aunt’s farm to be full of fairies.
Trouble is, she never sees any proof. Until the day she’s bitten by a venomous snake, and the forest felines use their powers to transform the dying Lillian into one of them.
“ ‘They changed you,’ a voice said from above. ‘Now you’re not quite girl, not quite cat.’
“She looked up to see an old crow perched on a branch.
“ ‘Do you mean the fairies?’ she asked.
“ ‘No, the cats. … You were dying. They had no madstone to draw the poison out, nor milk to soak it in, nor hands to do the work and hold the stone in place. So they did what they could. They changed you into something that’s not dying.’”
To change back into a girl, Lillian must take a journey that puts her face-to-face with such fabled creatures as Old Mother Possum, who has the best knowledge of potions and spell-casting, and the scary Bear People.
Her coming-of-age journey is a classic, lyrically written tale that includes full-color illustrations by Charles Vess, whose teaming with fantasy master Neil “Coraline” Gaiman resulted in two New York Times-bestselling picture books. His illustrations are lavished throughout, lending an Oz-meets-Little House feel to this delightfully old-fashioned story. (Ages 8-12)
“Beyonders” trilogy fans, take note: Author Brandon Mull will be at BookPeople Tuesday to celebrate the release of “Chasing the Prophecy” (Aladdin, $19.99). Jason and Rachel are on separate quests to save their adopted home of Lyrian in this conclusion of the series. Mull, who also penned the “Fablehaven” series, will appear at 6 p.m. You must purchase “Prophecy” at BookPeople to get it signed; for more information, go to www.bookpeople.com or 472-5050.
Sharyn Vane’s column on children’s books appears regularly in the Statesman; email@example.com
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick Press, $17.99
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest
Charles de Lint
Little, Brown, $17.99