NPR

By Dragon, Drugs Or Giant Peach, Fantastic Trips For Every Reader

Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).

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City Of Fire

In 1941, in an alternate universe where magic and technology exist in harmony, the opening of a museum exhibit about the Silk Road is disrupted by a monstrous dragon that wreaks havoc and steals one of the greatest treasures of the Kushan Empire. Twelve-year-old Scirye, daughter of a Kushan diplomat, witnesses her beloved sister's death at the hands of the dragon and sets out to avenge her and recover that treasure. Her companions include Bayang, a shape-shifting dragon and assassin beginning to question her centuries-long mission to kill off every incarnation of one particular killer; Bayang's surprisingly innocent-seeming prey and his annoying best friend/protector; a lap griffin; and a goddess in disguise. They'll travel by magic carpet, sea plane, dragon, surfboard (through lava!) and air raft as they race from San Francisco to Hawaii in pursuit of the richest man and the most desperately evil dragon in the world. And what did you do on your summer vacation? (For ages 8 to 12)

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Papa's Mechanical Fish

Clink! Clankety-Bang! Thump-Whirrrr! And Papa finishes another invention in a long line of them — some potentially useful, some just plain crazy and none completely functional. His children are his greatest source of ideas, so when daughter Virena wonders what it would be like to be a fish, Papa is inspired. After several tries, he eventually creates a working submarine (not the first, but one with plenty of new and strikingly modern elements) and takes the children and his pleasantly tolerant wife on an afternoon adventure under the waters of Lake Michigan. Based on true events, this story invites readers to consider what really inspires us and dream of the dad who looks up at the stars and wonders: Why not create a little spaceship and take the family on a weekend jaunt to the moon? (For ages 4 to 8)

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Grandmother's Pigeon

Grandmother, it turns out, was a far more mysterious woman than anyone in the family realized. However, geography wasn't one of her strengths: During the annual family beach vacation, she sails away on the back of a porpoise to visit Greenland — heading in the wrong direction. Still, her magic and mystery remain in her abandoned room, where the family discovers, among other treasures, a nest with three eggs ... and those eggs are about to hatch into something impossible! Could they actually be passenger pigeons, long thought to be extinct? Could Grandmother's stuffed pigeon have anything to do with it? And wouldn't it be cool to have (or be) the grandmother with the amazing past, varied interests and uncanny ability to travel by sea creature? (For ages 5 to 9)

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Ready Player One

The characters of this book have every mode of transportation available to them through the OASIS, or Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. Outside the OASIS, hero Wade Watts lives in a trailer stacked on a trailer stacked on a trailer on the outskirts of Oklahoma City circa 2044, where famine, disaster and violence are commonplace. Wade has a breakthrough when he's the first to win one of three keys hidden in the OASIS by the program's creators. The prize for winning all three keys is the creator's enormous estate. (At this point, the book's virtual modes of travel start looking a lot like Star Trek, Firefly and Star Wars.) The riskier Wade's adventures in the OASIS become, the more he puts his real life outside the system in danger. The second time he discovers his life is at risk, he is saved by a timely, real-life plane ride — his first ever. But the book's most effective mode of transport is for the reader: a story that takes you into an engaging world full of both the new and the familiar.

-- Jane Gilvin, NPR Library staff

The Great Floodgates Of The Wonderworld

"Three years in [New York City], only one accomplishment: learning to surf," muses Justin Hocking in his charming memoir about the days he spent on the waves at New York's Rockaway Beach. The Portland, Ore., writer knew his way around a skateboard before moving to the city, but he found his true calling on the water in Queens. Hocking's memoir isn't just about surfing — he chronicles, in lovely detail, his obsession with Moby-Dick and his pursuit of a meaningful relationship while struggling to adapt to life in the five boroughs. He comes across as a manic friend so excited to tell you about everything he has learned, he routinely runs out of breath. Funny and heartbreaking by turns, Hocking's memoir is a masterful work of confusion and clarity, of obsession and letting go.

-- Michael Schaub, book critic

Harold And The Purple Crayon

Have you read the biography of Crockett Johnson and his wife, Ruth Krauss, the creative geniuses who transformed children's literature? No, me neither, because I've been busy reading their compact, torn, slightly damp (how did it get that way?) board book to my own budding geniuses. Spoiler alert: Harold, a mere child, has left his bedroom. Don't worry. He "think[s] it over for some time." What's more, he has gone by way of an oversized purple crayon. Here's the thing you might not remember about Harold if a short human hasn't sat on your lap in a while — he gets into some real scrapes. Sure, there are the unlimited pies, and a trip to the big city, but there's also a dragon, a near drowning and a quick descent off a mountain. And here's the best part: Everything that scares Harold is something he created — that dragon may be terrifying but it's the dragon he hath made. Harold draws the sea that swallows him and the boat that saves him. And when he gets home again — who can be sure that the bedroom he's drawn, with the moon in the window, is the same one he left? It isn't, really — and that's OK. It's still home — even when something's changed — even when you've changed. And of course, the question that still haunts me: Is Harold going to step on the crayon when he wakes up? That purple's going to leave a mark on the carpet. (For ages 3 to 7)

-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

James And The Giant Peach

Roald Dahl knew a little something about fantastic transit. His best-known children's book contains a pink candy boat floating down a hot chocolate river. But if you're looking for a mode of travel that's slightly more ... paleo? I'd recommend a giant peach. James' adventures begin with the worst possible catalyst — the demise of his parents at the hands of an angry rhinoceros in the London Zoo. It is the least of his problems. He's sent to live with his aunts, Sponge and Spiker, who prove to be some of the worst of Dahl's wicked adults. So James, with the help of a magical little man, grows the peach, which eventually crushes the terrible aunts and sends him off on a journey with a collection of equally large insects. There are moments of visceral delight that I've never forgotten — particularly the description of what a large peach floating on the sea actually tastes like. But despite the comic fun of the insect gang, and the lurching reversals of fortune aboard the peach, this book is dark. The sadness of this lonely 7-year-old, despite the escape from his aunts' house and the happy surprises that await, permeates the book. This is one of those slightly demented books for children that teach ambiguous lessons. Life is not a giant peach — but if you're lucky, like James, you can make good use of the pit. (For ages 7 and up)

-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

Of Beasts And Beings

A previously privileged man finds himself captured by a desperate wanderer and forced to serve as a beast of burden, shackled to and pulling a wheelbarrow carrying the man's pregnant wife across an urban terrain laid to waste. This is not a post-apocalyptic landscape but a country devastated by conflict in a nightmare that is all too easy to believe. Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding pushes his characters to acts of violence, depravity and surrender that are all the more chilling for the echoes evident in newspaper reports of conflict zones across the globe. As his characters become dependent on each other in a journey that is clearly hopeless, the reader is left grasping for a resolution that will allow some continued faith in humanity. There is little to hope for in the impending birth. Indeed, do we dare hope for anything more than just the capacity to endure?

-- Ellah Allfrey, book critic and editor

The Salt Roads

Born of song, prayer and river water, the spirit of Lasirèn travels through the dancing bodies of black women in different times and places to both experience and affect their lives. Mer, Jeanne and Thais — women born in 18th century St. Domingue, 19th century Paris and ancient Egypt, respectively — each come into contact with her, knowingly and not. Through both their eyes and Lasirèn's, we catch glimpses of their worlds, their languages and their relationships with family, divinity and history. This astonishing novel is thick with bodies and the things bodies do — the ways they birth, break, secrete, come together and move apart. It foregrounds women and queer stories: women in love with women and men, women in plural relationships, women with complicated experiences of sexuality. It's also overwhelmingly about the violence committed on black and brown bodies over the years, and the different ways in which they have resisted and survived it.

-- Amal El-Mohtar, critic and author of The Honey Month

Prospero's Children

A surreal ride across time and space on the back of a unicorn is nowhere near the most fantastical thing that occurs in this book. Fernanda Capel — Fern to her friends — is a no-nonsense teenager, stern, sensible and entirely distrustful of anything smacking of fancy. When a distant relative, a former ship's captain, dies and bequeaths his Yorkshire house to her family, she, her father, Robin, and her brother, Will, drive up to take a look. They find a dreary house in dismal state — but full of strange and unlikely treasures. Among these is an ancient key that is greedily sought after by treacherous people who'd do anything to get their hands on it, the power it represents — and the door it's rumored to open. Full of gorgeous writing, wonderful characters and some of the most alien and threatening representations of supernatural creatures I've seen in fantasy, this stunning debut is the beginning of a trilogy that weaves an original and fascinating connection between Atlantis, Arthuriana and familiar folkloric figures.

-- Amal El-Mohtar, critic and author of The Honey Month

No Horizon Is So Far

Sometimes travel really is the whole story. In 2001, veteran explorers Liv Arnesen (the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole) and Ann Bancroft (the first woman to reach the North Pole on foot and by sled) joined forces to cross the entire Antarctic continent, which made for several more firsts. They even dragged along the tech to connect to classrooms worldwide for an online education initiative. But though both women were seasoned professionals, the trip was going to be dangerous: No help could physically reach them for much of their journey; they had no replacements for their gear; and the weather was swift to turn. Told largely in trade-offs of first-person reflection — on everything from corporate sponsorship to stubbornness as a sport unto itself — No Horizon Is So Far is a wryly personal history and an illuminating glimpse of what it takes to make an incredible journey.

-- Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Howl's Moving Castle

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and according to the fairy tale rules governing the Kingdom of Ingary, that means she's destined for an adventure-free life of hat-trimming in her stepmother's shop. To pass the time, she talks to the hats she makes, unwittingly infusing them with magic. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of the Witch of the Waste, who sees Sophie as a rival. To put her in her place, the Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old woman and forbids her from telling anyone she's under a spell. Nonplussed, Sophie leaves the hat shop and takes employment with Wizard Howl as a cleaner — embarking on a series of wild adventures that break her fairy tale upbringing to bits. This is a delightful, heart-warming book, most highly recommended to my fellow Eldest Siblings and anyone else traditionally given short shrift in fairy tales.

-- Amal El-Mohtar, critic and author of The Honey Month

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kheeew ... kheeew ... kheeew ... the pale marshmallow faces go streaming and bouncing past neon martini signs down the hills of San Francisco, and we're off to the races in Tom Wolfe's classic of New Journalism (jesuschrist, Tom) along with the Intrepid Traveler, Ken Kesey, and his band of Merry Pranksters — streaming and bouncing along the American interstates in a psychedelic school bus with perpetually speed-fueled Neal Cassady at the wheel, hammer-flipping monologuing Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and — the feeling! — enough acid to french-fry the brains of every head in the Haight. Timothy Leary would have been horrified, and in fact, he was — ignoring the Pranksters completely when their bus pulled up at his leafy rural enclave in a cloud of green smoke bombs and blaring rock 'n' roll. You're either on the bus or off the bus, my friends. Get on the bus.

-- Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books

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