It's the time of year when everyone is looking for gift recommendations, and what better gift can you give than the gift of a good book (or two or four or ten)? As an author, I frequently get asked for my opinion on what books to buy people. Here are a few suggestions for readers across a variety of genres and interests--a smattering of new and old, classics and eclectic favorites. A little something, I think, for everyone...
For Your Little Readers (Picture Books):
SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE
Starting with a classic! This is a book I loved to read as a child. Light on magic and whimsy, and with just enough weird scariness to keep your child on the edge of their seat, SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig will not disappoint.
CLICK, CLACK, MOO (COWS THAT TYPE)
Absolutely all Doreen Cronin's books are delightful, but CLICK, CLACK, MOO (COWS THAT TYPE) is my favorite. The perfect balance of that style of humor that tickles adult and child fancy alike, this book is a national treasure. (Illustrated by Betsy Lewin)
THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE (non-fic, faith-based)
If you're looking for a story-a-night type picture bible for your picture book age readers, the options can seem overwhelming. I highly recommend Sally Lloyd-Jones' JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE, which presents each biblical account as a chapter in a connected narrative that leads to Christ. (Illustrated bu Jago)
For Your Young Readers:
THE BAD GUYS series
I will admit up front that I have not personally read this series, but THE BAD GUYS series of books, by Aaron Blabey, is one I have to recommend for young readers (or middle grade readers who struggle with reading) because my reluctant reader LOVES this series, begs for each new book, and reads them cover-to-cover as soon as he has one in hand. He doesn't do that with any other book, period.
EPIC DEVOTIONS (non-fic, faith-based)
It can be difficult to find a devotional book for that transition age between picture bibles and when kids and teens feel comfortable reading the bible on their own. That's where EPIC DEVOTIONS comes in. With clear biblical content tying each story in a narrative arc that leads to Christ, and a graphic novel structure that makes reading it fun and engaging for young readers, Aaron Armstrong's EPIC DEVOTIONS is the perfect book to give a child who wants to start the spiritual discipline of a self-driven devotional time. (Illustrated by Heath McPherson)
I love finding lesser-known titles by well-known authors, and that is what ROVERANDOM by J. R. R. Tolkien is. Published posthumously, this is the tale of a toy dog that finds its way to the moon and back. First invented by Tolkien to console his son, Michael, over a favorite lost dog toy that got left on a beach vacation, it is full of whimsy and puns and fancy and Tolkien's characteristic wit. Adults and older children can easily read this short story in a single sitting, or it makes for a wonderful family read-aloud. I hightly recommend!
For Your Middle Grade and Tween Readers:
THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN
I am forever recommending this series. Although Lloyd Alexander's THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN have been around for decades, have sold millions of copies, and have won prestigious awards, it seems as though the tale of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper is one that causes perennial confusion when I bring it up. So here I am, recommending it again. This series is pure delight, with some of the most truly delightful characters I have ever encountered in any fiction, ever. The fourth book, TARAN WANDERER, is one of the most profound books I have ever read. Buy this series for your middle-grade reader, and then read it yourself.
THE BOOKS OF BAYERN
These books, by Shannon Hale, were such an enjoyable discovery. A mix of traditional fairy tale retellings and original stories--all sharing the same story universe--THE BOOKS OF BAYERN contain and elevate the sort of virtues and virtuous characters any parent would be happy to have their tween child reading. Slow and thoughtful stories, they are a pleasant corrective to our fast-paced world. (Series starts with THE GOOSE GIRL, but they can be read in any order.)
I know this feels like an obvious recommendation, but I keep running into people who haven't read THE HOBBIT by J. R. R. Tolkien! The perfect time to introduce your child to this most excellent work is during the middle grade/tween years. Hobbits, dwarves, dragons, wizards... Need I say more? This is a classic tale everyone should at least be given the opportunity to read.
THE GATEWAY CHRONICLES
Of course I'm going to recommend my own books! It's my blog, after all. :) THE GATEWAY CHRONICLES start with a cast of characters who are age thirteen and struggling with all the difficulties that particular age brings as they go to summer camp--and then stumble through a magical gateway to another world. Even though the characters age up with each book, the stories stay focused on a younger audience. Most YA books are aimed these days at the 17+ audience, so finding age-appropriate tales for your middle grade and tween readers can be tough. My books fall into that gap!
For Your Young Adult and New Adult Readers:
THE WRATH AND THE DAWN duology
Being a retelling of "1001 Nights" and with main characters who are 16 and 18, THE WRATH AND THE DAWN falls solidly within the YA audience readership. If you are unfamiliar with the basic premise of "1001 Nights," it is the story of a murderous caliph who marries a new bride every night, just to have her executed at dawn--and the woman who volunteers to wed him and saves her life by telling him stories that stay her execution. Renee Ahdieh's retelling uses the framework of the original tale and reworks it to tell a story of love, personal responsibility, and of the futility of vengeance. I find very few YA books truly excellent these days, but this one I've read and re-read. (THE WRATH AND THE DAWN is part 1 of 2. THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER finishes the story.)
THE LUNAR CHRONICLES
I love a good fairytale retelling, and Melissa Meyer's THE LUNAR CHRONICLES is just that, with the fun twist that it is a futuristic, science fiction story that is quirky and a little weird... and it somehow still works. Each book in this series focuses on a different character from known fairytale lore, so there is someone for everyone to relate to. My personal favorite is CRESS, but I enjoyed all of the installments. These are great reads for the YA readers in your life.
The fate of humanity rests in the gaming abilities of a boy named Ender in this classic science fiction/dystopian novel by Orson Scott Card. ENDER'S GAME is one of my absolute favorites, and could also be read by an advanced middle grade reader (when I gave it to my eleven-year-old, he finished it in a day). Having one of the best surprise finales I've ever read, it presents for contemplation all the great questions about life that a good dystopian novel should.
THE BREEDER CYCLE
I'm back to my own books! (Can you blame me?) My own dystopian series, THE BREEDER CYCLE, is intended for a YA and NA (new adult) audience. It is thematically similar to books like THE GIVER and BRAVE NEW WORLD that examine the ethics of humanity and life in a distant future where human procreation is strictly controlled by a totalitarian regime. The trilogy that begins with BREEDER stands alone as a contained story, and HUNTER is an added story that can be read at any stage.
For Your Adult Readers:
BRAVE NEW WORLD
I'm starting with a classic! BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley can be a polarizing read. Some people love it; others find it perplexing and depressing. I fall into the loving it camp, and I furthermore think it is some of the most beautiful prose writing I have ever encountered. Love it or hate it, BRAVE NEW WORLD is a cornerstone classic of the modern age and a must-read for any reader in your family who enjoys classics, science fiction, dystopian, philosophy, theology, politics, ethics, sociology... Buy it, read it, gift it, discuss it!
THE SPACE TRILOGY
C. S. Lewis is unarguably one of the most well-known and widely read authors of the modern age, so it is always a surprise to me when I encounter so many people who are unaware that he wrote a science fiction trilogy. THE SPACE TRILOGY (or THE RANSOM TRILOGY) is a brilliant collection of stories about a man named Ransom, his travels to known planets, and his encounters with various angelic beings and malicious forces. These books combine Lewis's profound wordsmithing abilities with his unique talent for telling a speculative tale that is crafted with such care it feels as though it could be real.
Karen Hancock's ARENA is one of those rare books that manages to toe the line between allegory and speculative fiction without being too heavy handed. It is an extremely difficult thing to write a book that somehow feels part PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and part The Matrix, but Hancock manages just that in ARENA, and it's a favorite of mine I've returned to again and again over the years since it's initial release. A rare Christian fiction gem, for me, Hancock's work has always been worth returning for.
WRITE BETTER (non-fic, faith-based)
I do not read hardly any nonfiction, so when I do, it is saying something if it ends up being a book I could not put down. That was just the case with Andrew Le Peau's WRITE BETTER. Addressing the writer as a whole person, WRITE BETTER works in both form and function as Le Peau ably and whimsically instructs in the art of writing--and discusses the writer as a participant in the cultural mandate. Even if you are not a writer, but just someone interested in the arts, this makes for a fantastic read. (Winner of Christianity Today's 2019 Book of the Year in Arts & Culture, for which I acted as one of the reviewers.)
I love all books by Jane Austen, and some I find more enjoyable than others, but in my opinion the best of all her works is one of the least often read. MANSFIELD PARK tends to be under-appreciated, but it is the most mature, theological, and profound of all Austen's excellent books. There is a story within a story happening between the pages of this book--the last one written by Austen before her death (although not the last published)--and it all doesn't fall together until the end. Gift it to your classics-loving reader this year!
THE HISTORIES (non-fic)
Once upon a time, I was a classical history teacher. During that time, I read through and taught THE HISTORIES by Herodotus yearly. Considering I did this with a group of eighth graders, I feel confident recommending this work in my Adult Readers section. If you have a reader on your list who loves history, mythology, and classics, and they have yet to read Herodotus, then this is an absolute must-read addition to their library! Filled with well-known stories about characters like the Oracle at Delphi, Cyrus the Great, and Xerxes, and a delightful mix of unreliable historical fantasy and reality, THE HISTORIES is not only the most well-known account of The Persian Wars (and everything that led up to it), but also a genuinely fun and exciting read. The Penguin Classics edition is very readable and the version I highly recommend.
I know, I know, comparing your books to Harry Potter can be kind of a “No, no” for a number of reasons (I mean — it’s setting the bar a little high, right?). But I dare to make the comparison for a few reasons: For those of us who are huge Potterheads, it can be difficult to find another book series to scratch that “itch,” so I appreciate when someone lets me know about a series that has similarities. Also, this is feedback I’ve consistently gotten from my readers. And last, but not least, while writing The Gateway Chronicles, I studied Rowling’s storytelling methods and intentionally told a similarly structured story so that those who love the world of Harry Potter might find similar story beats in my books, as well. So without further ado, here are the top ten reasons why I think readers who love Harry Potter will appreciate The Gateway Chronicles:
1. It’s a story of friendship
One of the prevailing themes of both Harry Potter and The Gateway Chronicles is that of friendship. In both stories, the narrative turns on the relationships between the main character and his (or, in my book, her) friends. When friendships are out of balance, so is the mental health and wellbeing of the main characters. In the first book of my series, The Six, Darcy Pennington’s success hinges on whether or not she will allow some new friends into her life.
2. It’s a “fish out of water” story
As with any good “gateway” fantasy, taking the main character and trapping them in a new world/situation makes for all sorts of fun. This is what happens to Harry when he meets Hagrid (and proceeds to Diagon Alley, Platform 9 ¾, and Hogwarts), and for my main character, Darcy, it’s what happens when her parents drag her against her will to Cedar Cove Family Camp, where she slowly discovers some odd occurrences that could be magical… until she stumbles through a gateway to another world and all doubt is erased. Like Harry, Darcy (and her five friends) find out everyone in this alternate world knows a whole lot more about them than they know about themselves, and not only that, but they have magical abilities.
3. There is a slow-burning, friends-to-more, romance
One of the things I always loved about Harry Potter was the fact that I could tell Harry would eventually end up with Ginny, but Rowling took her time about getting there. Not only was this appropriate for the intended audience of the books, but it made the ultimate romance more believable and satisfying, in the end. In The Gateway Chronicles, Darcy also meets her eventual great love right away in The Six, but she’s only 13, and they don’t terribly like each other. Dislike turns into friendship in books 2 and 3, The Oracle and The White Thread, and into… more as the series progresses and the characters age. It’s a more prominent storyline than Harry and Ginny’s romance in Harry Potter, but a similarly slow burn.
4. Each book is a year-long adventure
There are a handful of things I intentionally patterned closely after Harry Potter, and this is one of them. Each book in The Gateway Chronicles (with the exception of the final book, The Bone Whistle), is a year-long adventure in the world of Alitheia. Just as you know exactly what you’re getting when you sit down to read a Harry Potter novel (one year at Hogwarts, with some adventures preceding and immediately after), likewise, that’s what you’re getting with The Gateway Chronicles.
5. The adults in the story are not wicked, foolish, or pointless
It is not uncommon in YA literature that all (or most) of the adults in the story end up being wicked, foolish, or pointless. J. K. Rowling avoided this trap so well in Harry Potter, and I sought to do likewise. So, if you’re a Dumbledore, Remus Lupin, Molly Weasley, or Sirius Black fan, I assure you that I have adult characters that are similarly not only not wicked, foolish, or pointless, but who have crucial roles to the story and who treat the young main characters with respect and dignity.
6. Episodic books; series metanarrative
As with Harry Potter, each book in The Gateway Chronicles tells a contained story — that concludes itself — while also contributing to a metanarrative. In other words, just as Voldemort isn’t defeated until Deathly Hallows, so my “big bad,” Tselloch, isn’t defeated until the very end of The Gateway Chronicles. But each individual book has its own narrative arc and individual conflict that, while resolving, also furthers the greater story. I patterned this after Harry Potter because I don’t like getting to the end of a book and feeling like it just ended without resolution, but I also think a series should have a clear metanarrative from beginning to end.
7. Unique magical elf-creatures
Every good fantasy series should invent some unique magical creature. J. K. Rowling has house elves (among others), and I created narks — which are elves that switch from day to night personas depending on whether it’s day or night (two beings housed in one body). There are lots of magical creatures in The Gateway Chronicles, but narks have proven to be, based on reader feedback, the favorite addition.
8. You get to grow with the characters
I loved growing up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. That was part of the delight of reading a “There and back again,” yearly episodic story — knowing that in each book, the characters would be a year older with all the unique traits that come along with each new year as a teen. Thus, in writing The Gateway Chronicles, I wanted to do likewise — not just for my young readers who would get to empathize with the characters who were walking alongside them, but for my older readers, too, looking back on those ages and remembering.
9. There is a magical system to learn
The magical system in The Gateway Chronicles is very different from the magical system in Harry Potter (it’s alchemy and enchantments and elemental magic, no wands or charms or anything like that), but when Darcy and her friends arrive in Alitheia, they get there with abilities that are new to them and no idea how to use them. Although there’s no magic school for them to attend, they are privately tutored in magic, and this instruction takes up a good amount of the story in The Six and on into books 2 and 3 (and even book 4, if I think about it). So if you love the classroom scenes at Hogwarts, there is plenty of that to go around in my books, as well.
10. The kids act their age
A recent complaint buzzing around the internet is that teens no longer act like teens in YA lit. Something I have always appreciated about Rowling’s young characters is that they actually act their age. Her authenticity inspired me, and I think it’s so important to have characters like hers. I’ve striven to do likewise — to have characters in The Gateway Chronicles who act like teens, not like miniature adults.
*Get The Gateway Chronicles now on Amazon, or check out my Books Page for all purchasing options*
One of my great joys this year has been getting to know Dollcie Webb, who is the narrator of The Gateway Chronicles. Not only has she been fantastic to work with and someone who I almost immediately felt really got the books, but she brings a particular joy and light to this story, which is so precious to me. Here's a fun fact: Dollcie lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where The Gateway Chronicles is set! I think you can hear those roots and that sense of place and love of home in her narration of The Six, but maybe you should pick up a copy for yourself and check it out!
I invited Dollcie to answer a few questions so you all could get to know her a little bit, especially if you plan on listening to the audio versions of The Gateway Chronicles. I hope you enjoy this interview!
1. Tell us a little about yourself! How did you get into voice acting and narrating audiobooks?
I discovered voice acting my first year of college. It was actually one of the things that drew me to attending Michigan Technological University waaay up in the snowy tundra of the upper peninsula of Michigan. The Theatre and Electronic Media Performance major has you participating in radio dramas and theatre from your very first semester — one of the perks of attending a smaller school with fantastic Sound Design and Audio Production programs. There are performance opportunities abounding, and I always knew I wanted to be involved in voice acting. My third year of college is when I experienced audiobook narration for the first time and it is something that has continued to stay with me. The fact that I’m still narrating audiobooks is entirely serendipitous with how my life has worked out since graduation from Michigan Tech.
2. What is your favorite part of narrating an audiobook? What is the most challenging part?
My favorite part of narrating is when I find my illusive narrating groove. When I’m so in-tune with the book, my body, and when there are absolutely no environmental distractions — I can marathon read with the best of them! Hours of standing in my booth reading will drift by when I reach “the groove”. It’s an almost meditative state and I feel like I’m at my truest self with no mental hangups and I can be as vulnerable as I need to be. It doesn’t happen often but I hope with more practice the easier it’ll be to find that mental state.
I have to say the other small joys I get that occur on a more frequent basis are 1) getting that fresh manuscript from the audiobook rights holder and delving into the story while there is still so much to discover about the plot and characters and 2) Submitting the final audiobook to the rights holder. There is always an excited rise in my heart rate when I go to press “submit”.
The most challenging part of the audiobook process is when it’s time to bring in music. My husband, Jonah, writes all the music for all my projects. He has an incredible ability to transform the feelings of a scene and turn them into wonderful original musical pieces. I couldn’t do it as well as him if my life depended on it. The hardest part for me is forcing myself to take a step back and allow him room to explore creatively. We think in inherently different ways and this has caused us more than a little disharmony in life and work. He’s a stop and savor, single-thought, linear thinker, while I have to be in motion, always moving forward, multitasking, and progressing to the next opportunity. We’ve known each other for 6 years and have finally reached the point where we appreciate the others’ unique skills and thought processes and don’t immediately dissolve to frustrated discussions.
3. What drew you to The Gateway Chronicles?
Before I audition for any book I would like to narrate I do extensive research. On the book, the author, the person responsible for posting the listing and anything else deemed interesting or noteworthy. I was surprised and intrigued when I saw that The Six had been previously published and had been well-received on it’s initial release. There were amazing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and the first book of The Gateway Chronicles had received the Literary Classics Gold Book Award. All of those things individually were nothing to sneeze at but when I considered them together with the research I did on K.B. Hoyle, I knew then this was an opportunity to be a part of something really special. I realized that this audiobook (and all the following audiobooks) would mean as much to me IF NOT MORE to her and there’s something unusual in that. I’ve met authors who treat audiobooks with indifference and view them just as a way to bring in a little more cash. K.B. Hoyle spoke about her stories with passion and everyone who had posted or commented about the book always left a positive response. That kind of energy and zeal made a powerful impression on me and I knew then that if I didn’t audition I would live to regret it. So I, of course, recorded and submitted my audition that afternoon.
4. How do you think the audio version of The Gateway Chronicles brings the story to life in a unique way?
The audio version of any great story should offer a fresh perspective that humanizes the characters and narrative. It should provide that extra spark to light up the listener’s imagination and transport them into and solidify the world the text sets up. It really laudes back to the days before humanity could keep written documents and instead passed down lore with oral tales. To me, there’s something really beautiful about that. The connection between this technologically advanced society reinventing a prehistoric form of communication that’s existed since the dawn of humanity.
I like to think that the audiobooks of The Gateway Chronicles strive to embrace that philosophy. To embrace the story and honor the author's intent while offering that extra spark to fuel an inferno of creative, immersive experiences for the listener. Jonah and I put pieces of ourselves into each story to offer a pure listening experience. No facades or preconceived notions and with that much love and hard work SOMETHING good has to come out of it!
5. Who is your favorite character to voice in The Gateway Chronicles, and why?
Samantha Palm! She is such a pure soul and a great friend. She’s the kind of person I’d want to be friends with in spite of, or maybe because of, her annoying optimism. She’s the glue that holds the group of friends together and has an innocent and unfettered zeal for life. I feel like everyone could benefit from having a friend like Sam.
6. How can people follow and support your work?
My narrator instagram and FB handles are @daydreamingdollcie. They serve as platforms for all of my professional audiobook works. I have a lot of exciting things in the works and you’ll hear about them there first. The Daydreaming Dollcie website is currently in the works and when it’s launched it’ll be announced on FB and insta-. My studio, Various Audio, has a website and is on FB. Follow me there and see a lot of the work Jonah and I have collaborated on as well as cute updates with our family!
If you want to support my work, I’d love for you to listen and leave a review of The Six! Reviews of audiobooks are one of the best ways to support your favorite narrators and authors while providing proof for future listeners that the work is something worth investing in.
*The Oracle is NOW in audio production! Stay posted to my newsletter for the latest updates!
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