Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great Authors: Jean Ferris

Jean Ferris is probably best known for Once Upon a Marigold and its sequel Twice Upon a Marigold, her updated fairy tales about a mind-reading princess, a runaway boy and the dwarf who cares for him, an evil queen, and the tooth fairy. However, Ms. Ferris has been around for quite a while and is deserving of a wider audience. Her fiction is wonderful for young adults and upper elementary kids -- full of humor and emotion and exiting action.

What I love most about Jean Ferris is her selection of quirky, screwball comedies. The two Marigolds fall into this category, as do Love Among the Walnuts and Much Ado About Grubstake. There's a quality to them that makes me think of John Irving (The World According to Garp); they are full of characters that in other novels would be hopeless misfits and yet in Ferris's stories they are valued individuals and important to the resolution of the story.

It's practically impossible to describe the plot of Love Among the Walnuts, other than to say that it involves a mental institution, a pair of evil uncles, and two people and a chicken who've been put in a coma. In Much Ado About Grubstake, 16 year old Arley has to outsmart a powerful businessman who is trying to buy up all the played-out mines in tiny, run-down Grubstake. That she has to manage this with a misfit collection of townspeople and reformed bad guys is part of the novel's charm.

Her comedies always bring together strange assortments of people with all their quirks and oddities and over the course of the story they manage to find family in each other. I love that about her work.

All of her comedies are suitable for younger readers -- say 3rd grade and up -- but would also work for older readers right through high school. They are great vocabulary stretchers, too, so much so that I had my 9 year old start making lists of words she wasn't sure about. She's probably added 50 new words to her vocabulary thanks to Jean Ferris.

Ferris also has some more serious novels and these would be more appropriate for a little older audience. Of Sound Mind is a fascinating book about a boy who is hearing but has been raised by deaf parents. Theo's role as family interpreter is explored even as it changes when his father has a stroke and his self-absorbed mother can't bear to take care of him. Once again, Ferris does a nice job of portraying people with all their warts, though this time with a more serious bent.

Into the Wind is part one of a three-part series which is more or less a romance for high schoolers, complete with an orphaned heroine and a dashing pirate who rescues her. It takes place in 1814, is loaded with action, and provides some historical detail, all in a wholesome, totally-appropriate-for-older-teens story (no bodice ripping here, folks).

Underground is another historical novel, this time exploring slavery. The main character, Charlotte, is a slave at the Mammoth Cave Hotel. When she discovers runaway slave sometimes come to the hotel on their way north, Charlotte has to decide whether she, too, will run away or stay with Stephen, another slave who doesn't feel the need or desire to leave. Another one which would be good for junior high and up.

Ferris does a wonderful job of creating memorable, original characters in compelling, entertaining stories. It's definitely work looking her up the next time you need reading material for your older kids.


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