I had this whole list of novels that we were going to cover in fourth grade. About halfway through the year, my husband and son were wandering a bookstore when Eamon saw the cover for a Fablehaven novel and said, “I think that one looks cool.” My husband, bless his heart, ran to the library the next day and grabbed the first book in the series, in an attempt to get Eamon hooked on reading one way or another. He succeeded, to a point. It became the next series that my son bugged me to read aloud to him every day. It had way too much heft for my reluctant reader to have the confidence to pick up himself, and it had just enough heft to put us months off of my reading list. So long, Caddie Woodlawn and The Boxcar Children. Tear emoji.
Brandon Mull was new at this game when he began the Fablehaven series in the early 2000s. He’s not new at it anymore, and at least one of his books can be found on just about any Popular Middle Grades display across the country. His intended audience is from upper-elementary school to high school. His books appear to be a great step in the fantasy-nerd direction (no disrespect intended) for the younger kids. I mean, my son’s not about to tackle The Lord of the Rings yet, but Fablehaven has introduced him to the world of world building and to many of the characters and tropes that people and populate these fantasy worlds. You get to find out, “Do I like epic fantasy?” In my son’s case, yes.
While it doesn’t shy away from the strength it would take to really be a part of saving the world (including the death, the betrayal, the stamina), it is a safe read for the kids, I think. Here are Brandon Mull’s books, which largely fit into the epic fantasy genre:
- Rise of the Evening Star
- Grip of the Shadow Plague
- Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary
- Keys to the Demon Prison
- And now Mull has expanded with a sequel series called Dragonwatch. A Fablehaven Adventure is the first book and the next book is due out this year
- The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven companion book
Other books by Mull:
- Beyonders series: A World Without Heroes, Seeds of Rebellion, Chasing the Prophecy
- Five Kingdoms series: Sky Raiders, Rogue Knight, Crystal Keepers, Death Weavers, Time Jumpers
- Spirit Animals series (which is authored by different people and is spearheaded by Mull, it just started releasing): Wild Born
- Candy Shop War, followed by Arcade Catastrophe
This series betters as it goes, thankfully. I didn’t start out liking it nearly as much as my son did. By the end, though, I was fairly sad to see it end. It’s not as good as some other series–ahem, Harry Potter–but, as I said, a fine introductory read.
My issues with the series? Mull maintained a certain distance from characters which doesn’t allow the reader to crawl into their skin. This had nothing to do with the plot, but with the type of writing. In Fablehaven at least, the writing can be a bit stilted: contrived vocabulary (like he’s trying to teach overly-big words to kids), regular tongue twisters (I think he’s fond of alliteration but doesn’t know when he’s gone too far), and just plain clunky writing, especially when you read it aloud. It doesn’t flow. And to top that all off, he mostly tells, not shows (which is one of my biggest pet peeves). So while you might really enjoy the story, you never get to just sink down into it or into the characters.
I kept thinking how I would enjoy this series more as a movie series. Like so many other middle grades books, since the writing itself is lackluster (although not bad–please don’t put Mull in a category with The Land of Stories), I would love to see the story get its legs on the big screen. The chances of this, though? Not tremendous, since children’s fantasy is traded like baseball cards and hardly ever has returns. The Sisters Grimm was another series that would work well as a money-sucking, special-effects blockbuster.
All in all, I would hand the first book of this series to a middle-grader who is interested in fantasy and is in the market for a book. Gladly. They will likely love it and read all five. Then they might even explore Mull’s other series, which I imagine my son will in a couple years when he’s reading to this level on his own. It’s not breath-taking writing, but the story is there for the most part. (You would also ideally get your kid to read classics.) For you grown-ups who enjoy reading kid lit, however, you’ll probably want to pass this by. There’s not enough draw, I don’t think, when there is great fantasy that is also pretty good literature. Or maybe that’s in a perfect world.