Fast and Fangirly

Wow, so working full time actually, you know, takes up a lot of time. Who knew?

Anyway. On the subway today, I reread Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers, probably for the first time since I was twelve. And it’s just as awesome as I remember. It’s about a spunky redheaded princess named Willie (it’s short for Wilhelmina, but an appropriate name, as she’s “the most willful person in the kingdom”). Willie wears army boots under her frilly dresses, and is outraged at the notion that she should get married before she has a chance to go out and have an adventure. So when a dragon appears, she runs away to slay it on her own, and does so with the aid of an aged Knight named Elizar and a brave young squire, Brian. They all want to slay the dragon, though it’s Willie who eventually does so. It’s a cute story for kids, with a truly rockin’ heroine. It was one of my favorites for years.

Which got me thinking. Basically everything Coville wrote was one of my favorites at some point. Right back to one of the very first books I can remember reading. Because the thing was, unlike the rest of my family, I was slow to learn to read. I didn’t have the patience for it, and I have very clear memories of how frustrated I was in first grade, struggling to read a worksheet. And then sometime in second grade, someone handed me a copy of Space Brat, and I tore through it. It’s the first time I remember reading something easily or eagerly. It was also the first time I thought it might be interesting to try and write a story. And it was my first introduction to science fiction and fantasy. In other words, Bruce Coville had an almost absurdly large influence on me, and, not surprisingly, is still one of my very favorites today.

Now, as an adult, I also appreciate them on another level. As a kid, I didn’t realize how hard it can be to find dynamic female characters, and girls I can identify with. But Coville novels are chocked full of them. Willie, obviously, is a good example. But glancing at my bookshelf (yeah, I own a few and am slowly acquiring more — first the ones I had as a kid, and then, hopefully, the many I missed before rediscovering my love of them in college) I see quite a few with girls in the lead (all of whom are ripe with personality and quirks of their own) and even in the books which center around guys, there are usually a few girls in the background. (It’s also not just that he writes female characters well; his books also tend to place high values on honesty and fairness, and have also dealt with self-acceptance and occasionally sexuality.)

So here are my quick rundown of a handful of his books, which I feel are among the most excellent.

The AI Gang
I think I may be just about the only person who has ever heard of this trilogy, but even though I haven’t read it since middle school, I remember most of it vividly. Most vividly of all I remember the female characters. It’s about a group of kids whose genius parents have been gathered on a former military base on an island, to work on a top-secret project. The kids are geniuses themselves and quickly realize their parents are there to create genuine artificial intelligence, and decide to beat the adults at their own game. Meanwhile, a shadowy villain is trying to gain control of the AI for himself.

I think the group was six kids, though it may only have been five. Two of them were female, but, like I said, I remember those two really clearly. Rachel was one of the nicer of the group, and she and her twin brother had built their own robotic head and programmed it to tell bad jokes. She loved music. And she kind of dated one of the boys, which I thought was fantastic, because the boy was also one of my very first fictional crushes. And there was Wendy, who was exceptionally awesome. Like me, she was short, messy, and had an extreme fondness for oversized sweatshirts. Her specialty was miniature robotics, and she had turned all of her dolls into talking alarm clocks that valiantly tried (and usually failed) to get her up in the morning. Her full name, if I remember right (sadly, I haven’t been able to find copies of these books yet) was Wendalyn Wendal III. When asked how she could be the third, given that women usually change their names upon marriage, she answered, “I come from a long line of strong-minded women.” Wendy was smart, she was outspoken, she was unconcerned about her looks (again, dirty sweatshirts — and a tendency to regularly eat hamburgers the size of her head), she was stubborn, and she was all kinds of awesome. (She was also, you might guess, my favorite.)

The Nina Tanleven Ghost Series
An awkward title for another trilogy (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed), but these are about the only ghost stories I’ve ever really enjoyed. I also think that this is Coville’s best series — especially The Ghost Wore Gray, where the ghost is a southern Civil War soldier, and as the book goes on you learn his story and how he ended up overcoming racism. And it brings you that message without being trite or after school special-y. And it makes me cry.

Anyway. The trilogy is about two girls, Nina (“Nine”) Tanleven and her best friend Chris. They meet at the beginning of the first book, having both been cast in a local musical, and quickly become best friends. They also develop the ability to see ghosts, and spend the three books finding tragic spirits, solving mysteries, and letting the ghosts finally sleep. I love both characters, and I love their relationship. I also love Nine’s relationship with her father — her mother walked out on the family, and she and her father are extremely close. Overall, it’s a series with rich characters and amazingly powerful back stories.

My Teacher…
I think these are the best known Coville books; they faded away for awhile, which is a shame, but are now being reprinted with kicky new covers, which is awesome. And though the first book is largely just a wacky story about a girl saving her sixth-grade class from what they think is an alien invasion, the series gets darker and much deeper as it goes on. The kids discover that the reason aliens are snooping around Earth is fear — they’re worried because humans are the first species to develop extremely destructive technology, and to be close to space travel, without having reached a planetary peace. No one knows why humans have such an urge to kill and harm one another, but the aliens are afraid that their sickness will spread if they stumble on to the secret of faster-than-light travel too soon. They’re so scared they’re considering blowing up the planet to avoid the potential dangers. The fourth book is the protagonists’ quest to find proof that humanity is inherently good, that it can become peaceful, and is worthy of survival and respect. In other words, really heavy stuff, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker human impulses: aside from finding beautiful things humans have created, the kids visit war zones, torture camps, and areas of poverty and starvation. I won’t spoil the end for you, but I will say that it’s fucking amazing, and to this day, I still mentally compare every science fiction novel I read to the conclusion of the My Teacher series. (And not that many measure up.)

The Magic Shop
The Magic Shop series reminds me of old fairy tales and fables in that just about every book has a lesson to it; a kid with an obvious flaw will stumble upon the mysterious Magic Shop (run by the even more mysterious Mr. Elives) and end up with some kind of magical object which sparks an adventure. Through the course of the adventure, the kid learns to cope with whatever his or her flaw is. They also often draw upon traditional tales and mythologies in their backstories. These books are all excellent and charming, but I’d have to say the best, hands down, is Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. I adore this book, partially because of the sarcastic talking toad, but mostly because it’s a book about a girl who is unattractive and has low self-esteem, and the story is notably not about how she gets beautiful — it’s about how she comes to value herself for her personality and not her looks. She’s offered the chance to be compellingly beautiful and extraordinarily powerful, and her struggle — her longing to finally feel worthwhile by becoming beautiful — is moving and compelling, and makes the ultimate payoff (that Jennifer is special and smart, and that’s more important) even better.

(In terms of issues that are near and dear to my heart, I’d also give a nod to The Skull of Truth, where a kid who’s a compulsive liar ends up in possession of a skull that forces people within its influence to tell the truth. This causes general havoc everywhere he brings it, but also an interesting scene at a family dinner when his uncle, after many years, comes out to the family. The kid’s reaction is well done; he’s confused and unsure of how to interact with his uncle, and eventually comes to the conclusion that, well, he loves his uncle, who really is the same as he always was, it’s just something to get used to.)

Okay, so, in conclusion… I don’t think I can think of a single other male author — and very few female ones, for that matter — who so consistently writes so many dynamic girls. For anyone out there who might be looking for good, positive books to pick up for a niece/cousin/daughter/young girl who would like to read about someone female, I’d definitely recommend any of the above. Or just about anything else he’s written.

12 Comments on Fast and Fangirly

  1. Beckyverb
    March 19, 2007 at 8:20 AM (12 years ago)

    I haven’t read a lot of Coville, though I remember a lot of the titles, but I thought I’d point you to a project he’s founded: Full Cast Audio. I’ve actually picked up a lot of the Tamora Pierce stuff they have – the prices are decent if you subscribe to Audible.com – and I’ve been listening to the books when I’m doing boring stuff like washing dishes. They do a good job and Bruce Coville makes a pretty good voice actor. They’re pretty conscious of having books to appeal to both girls and boys, too.

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  2. R
    March 20, 2007 at 12:27 AM (12 years ago)

    Have you read Armageddon Summer? It’s by Coville and Jane Yolen, and it’s one of my all-time favorite YA books. The story isn’t all that remarkable (though it is interesting – just not, like, totally awe-inspiring), but the characters are very real-feeling, and the whole thing is very immersive.

    I’d definitely recommend it.

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  3. Reb
    March 20, 2007 at 5:16 AM (12 years ago)

    Beckyverb: I keep meaning to see if I can find ay full cast audio stuff…if there are any mp3s, it might make for some interesting subway listening. On the other hand, I’ve been subjected to many, many books on tape by my mother and usualy can’t stand them, which is why I’m hesitant. But now so tempted, because subway listening = awesome idea.

    R: YES. I read about the book on his website but hadn’t ever seen it, then ran across it in a bookstore, like, a year later. I absolutely devoured it, I couldn’t put it down…I should really go back and reread it so I have some memory of what happened in it. πŸ™‚

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  4. Margot
    March 21, 2007 at 2:15 PM (12 years ago)

    Because Bruce Coville is AWESOME and I may have filled up an entire shelf with his books, and I seem to have lost my copy of Jeremy Hatcher when I moved and I just love him. And it is entirely your fault that I rediscovered him. *loves on you*

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  5. baby221
    March 25, 2007 at 10:19 PM (12 years ago)

    Alas, the only two Coville books I remember reading are jeremy thatcher, dragon hatcher and amulet of doom. I loved the former because I <3 dragons, but the latter really did me over for the "strong female lead" aspect -- which admittedly wasn't all that important to me growing up, but which I can look back on now with a nod and a firm grin.

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  6. Alexandra
    April 3, 2007 at 9:42 PM (12 years ago)

    Randomly jumping in here, but WORD to the entire post. I LOVE Coville. In one slim book, he packs in far more – and not in a trite way, either – than most adult fiction I’ve read.

    And I still compare every book I read to his.

    Have you ever read the tetralogy that starts with Aliens Ate My Homework? That is my absolutely favorite series of his, but the AI Gang runs a close second.

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  7. Anonymous
    May 21, 2007 at 1:24 PM (12 years ago)

    hey, I don’t know who you are, but this page came up when I googled the AI Gang. That has got to be my favorite young adult/kid/whatever you want to call it series ever! The writing style, and the plot, and especially the CHARACTERS! And by the way, you were right in saying there were 6 main characters:

    There’s Wendy and Rachel, whom you mentioned (and I completely agree that they’re awesome). I loved that Rachel was into music–she was actually part of my inspiration for learning to play the pennywhistle.

    Sounds like you remember a lot about Wendy :). I especially loved the robotic dolls–is it sad if I remember that their names were Blondie, Baby Pee Pants, and Mr. Pumpkiss? Anyway, you’re right in that she was an awesome dynamic character and added a lot of humor, spunk, and uniqueness to the books. Actually, though, she was my third favorite (I liked Rachel and Hap too much :).

    Hap was the boy Rachel was ‘dating’ (it wasn’t official, after all, they were only 12/13 years old, but I still thought it was so cute!) He joined the group a little later, but fit in really well because he was such a great mechanic. He’s the grease monkey of the group(I say that with 100% admiration. πŸ™‚ He was one of my favorites partially because he was really mature and even philosophical for his age, although really, the whole group was kind of that way. At the same time, though, he knew how to have fun, and he was great in emergencies, which the gang found their way into, of course. And yes, he was also one of my earliest fictional crushes :).

    Roger was Rachel’s twin brother. He was the one who did most of the programming on the good ole pun machine named Paracelsus. (can ya tell by now how big a freak I am? πŸ™‚ Roger was the leader of the group and was responsible for a lot of the situations the gang found themselves in, and also for a lot of the solutions to get out of those problems. Still, one of the things I loved most about the AI Gang is that there really isn’t a main character: the books focus on everyone, and each of them plays a unique role in the group. Roger was a pretty cool leader, though.

    There were also Trip and Ray. They were cool, but I can see how you could kinda blend them together into one person in your mind. Trip was the really tall one with the artist dad. He was the dreamer of the group, and tended to come up with ideas that were a little more out there and not so scientific–for me, this was nice for a change. He also had a cat named Lunkhead before he moved…wow, I’m pathetic. : )

    Ray was the short one with glasses and really wanted to be a basketball star. Oh, and his dad was the one who invented Gamma Ball…that futuristic 3-D game thing in the books that would totally beat any video game today. He didn’t seem to have a huge role, but more than a few times he would come up with the solution to save the day. Like Trip, Ray’s role in the group seemed to be coming up with unexpected ideas or solutions.

    There’s also a bunch of adult characters, but they’re not as important, and I’m pretty sure that by now you must be sick of hearing me ramble. I was just so incredibly excited to FINALLY find someone who has read the books and still remembers them. They were my favorite books of my childhood, and even now, I think they probably beat out a lot of the books that are around today, both for children and adults. The series had a unique plot, awesome characters, and a style of writing that had it all–humor, suspense, drama, and even a little bit of romance for the Rachel/Hap fans like me. πŸ™‚

    Anyway, you probably think I’m crazy by now (and that’s probably true ;), but I just wanted to say thanks for remembering one of my favorite series, and for giving me a place to spill my useless information. πŸ™‚

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  8. Greg
    January 4, 2013 at 6:00 PM (7 years ago)

    Wha…. I remember “The A.I. Gang” too. “Paracelsus” the robot was the name that stuck in my mind, and “artificial intelligence”, and a clear mental image of one of the covers, and it all fell back into place in my head this afternoon. Thanks for the memories πŸ™‚

    http://www.retroist.com/2009/12/29/meet-the-a-i-gang/
    insinuates that there was intended to be more of the series. I suppose if it had been better received, Mr. Coville would have written more. Or he might have decided that it had run its course: there’s a lot of variables in why a series may have come to an end.

    Most of the cover art on Amazon I don’t recognize, they looked like this to me:
    Images: http://etsy.me/WiYML2, http://bit.ly/1100M1Z

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    Becky Reply:

    Oooh, thanks for the inks. I think there must be two different series out there. The Coville ones in that article are definitely the books I’m talking about (though the cover art isn’t anything I recognize), but one of the other ones you linked to is called “The Cutlass Clue” and is by someone else, so hmmm. Judging by the cover design, it was probably from that same series. Confusing and mysterious!

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