CAPTIVATING ADVENTURE BOOKS GET KIDS READING
There are a handful of youth book series that are so gripping, they seem able to grab the attention of almost any reader. Kids talk about these books with their friends. Dedicated fans stand in line waiting for new book releases into the late hours of the night, sometimes in costume. They snatch up fan gear, like clothing and jewelry, and deck out their rooms with character posters and fan art. At the very least, these books get kids reading.
The adventure books in this list have proven themselves to be the kind of thrilling tales that readers tear through. The series offer a variety of tantalizing elements such as fantastical abilities, historical settings, mythological underpinnings, and more.
To introduce this list of action-packed series, Kevin Sands, author of The Blackthorn Key series shares some secrets of how an excellent adventure story is written. He gives us some of the inside scoop on The Blackthorn Key series, plus zooms out to show how key elements of action books -- the characters, the atmosphere, and more keep us rooting for our heroes, and at the edge of our seats, dying to know what happens next.
A LOOK AT THE BLACKTHORN KEY SERIES
Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key series begins with its namesake, The Blackthorn Key. The main character, Christopher Rowe is an apothecary’s apprentice in a successful London shop. His days are filled with administering and studying medicines and potions under the guidance of his kindhearted master -- along with clean-up duty from whatever mischievous mess he’s recently concocted. These simple times are cut short when a murderous cult begins targeting apothecaries across London. It will be up to Christopher’s knowledge of the apothecary trade and his skills in deciphering codes and riddles, along with the help of his best friend Tom to be sure that he isn’t the next to meet an early grave.
The Blackthorn Key’s setting is engrossing, placing readers smack in the sights and unfortunate smells of seventeenth century London. And the apothecary’s shop, where a good portion of the story takes place, is full of curious powders, iron cauldrons, and vials whose contents can cure a cough or melt through metal.
The story is also action-packed, pulling readers from one puzzle to the next. There are parts of the book where the action is so intense that one’s mind struggles to keep pace with eyes that are flying across the page, desperate to find out what's going to happen next.
Although the rich setting and the action would have been enough to satisfy this picky reader, I also loved the characters. Both the individual characters’ personalities and the relationships that the characters built within the story were so touching, that the events taking place all around them were all the more intensely felt.
In The Blackthorn Key, I was struck by the relationship between main character, Christopher, and Master Benedict Blackthorn, the apothecary who Christopher was apprenticed to. In contrast to many of the tween books that I read, where a parent/guardian figure is often absent, incompetent, or abusive, Master Benedict is knowledgeable, wise and well-respected. There is love between Christopher and Master Benedict – the patient kind that hands out fitting consequences for mischief, but also pays respect and demonstrates generosity. Master Benedict is the kind of parent figure that Christopher can look up to, who treats him fairly, and who nurtures his abilities. I believe that youth need to see, and in some part, identify with the afore-mentioned incompetent parent in order to feel understood. Still, I wish that more tween books demonstrated healthy relationships such as this.
I also loved Christopher’s character. Author Kevin Sands so clearly captures the nature of a tween boy, on the verge of becoming a man, but still unmistakably a boy. Christopher is frequently tempted by minor mischief, but is also capable of accepting responsibility and demonstrating selflessness. I also appreciated Christopher's unselfconscious, humble nature. He represents himself as someone who stumbled into his apprenticeship, but details of the story reveal that he studied diligently to qualify for his apprenticeship. Circumstances and other characters’ insights also reveal that Christopher is actually quite a gifted student and apprentice. As the story progresses, it subtly unveils that Christopher, slightly mischievous boy, who is mainly aware of his own shortcomings, is actually a caring, intelligent, and learned young man – almost.
I can’t wait to find out what happens in the soon-to-be-released second book, Mark of the Plague. Christopher’s adventures continue, but this time he faces an epidemic of the Black Death. There are puzzles to solve, ciphers to uncode, and murderous conspiracies threatening to tip the scales toward evil. Sweet!
BEHIND THE SCENES WITH TWEEN ACTION-ADVENTURE AUTHOR KEVIN SANDS
Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, a business consultant, a teacher, and a professional poker player. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the bestsellingThe Blackthorn Key series.
Q: What traits make a great lead character in an adventure story?
A: Three traits make a lead stand out: courage, charm, and a twist that makes them different.
Courage is obvious: you can’t defeat a dragon by cowering in a corner. It’s important, however, to remember courage is defined not by lacking fear but by overcoming it. A lead is courageous—and human—when they’re afraid but fight on nonetheless.
Charm adds tremendously to likeability. It comes in many forms: smooth, like James Bond; cheerful, like Robin Hood; funny, like Percy Jackson; self-deprecating, like Greg in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. A character can even have internal charm, like Katniss from The Hunger Games: she appears cold to the other characters, but the first-person narration allows us to ride along with her real emotions and form a bond with the girl inside.
The third trait is the twist: what makes this character different? This is generally an ability, skill, or device that makes for interesting reading. Harry Potter studies magic. Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon. Katniss is a master archer. In The Blackthorn Key, Christopher learns apothecary skills which he then uses to solve puzzles and get out of trouble: a liquid that melts metal; a smoke bomb; a disguise that looks like the pox.
Q: What is one writer's secret for keeping readers in that state of excitement and anticipation during an action sequence?
A: The key is to look at an action scene not as one long scene, but rather as a series of mini-scenes—danger, solution, new danger—that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
As an example, consider a character trapped in a dungeon who needs to escape the castle. You break this down into individual actions. Danger: he needs to get out of his cell. Solution: he steals the key. But this solution puts him in new danger: he’s attacked by the man guarding the door! New solution: he knocks out the guard and sneaks into the servant’s quarters. New danger: he’ll be spotted and raise the alarm—and so on. Each mini-scene relieves the tension of the previous problem, but creates a new (and bigger) one. That’s the rollercoaster of an action sequence.
What makes this especially interesting is when the solutions vary: steal the key, fight the guard, disguise yourself among the servants. Nonstop combat might work well enough in films, but in books, you need to change how the heroes get themselves out of trouble to keep it exciting.
Q: What are some important elements in the setting of an adventure story?
A: Any setting will work as long as you bring out the exotic within. This can be the literal exotic of a Bond thriller, where our superspy travels to foreign locales, or the mundane turned exotic by a twist: a secret passage behind the bookcase; a mysterious sculpture in the attic; a wardrobe with a portal to a new world.
I’m a big fan of both of these, so I put both in The Blackthorn Key. The world itself was rich and vibrant: the cobblestone streets, the looming Tower, the sights and sounds and (often horrible!) smells of London Town. There were also fascinating apothecary recipes—did you know they made gunpowder out of pigeon poop? And then throw in a few twists: a hidden library, a chamber behind a tomb, a secret code to decipher. The setting, and the elements within that setting, provide its own sort of rollercoaster ride through the story and keeps the reader turning the pages.
Q: How do friendships play a part in an adventure book?
Friendships are hugely important to children. (They’re important to adults, too, of course, but for kids, they can define their entire world.) So for younger readers, an adventure depends critically on the friendships between the characters; they’re the linchpin on which the story will turn.
What works best is to have a hero and friends (or multiple heroes) with complementary strengths and weaknesses, who support, cheer on, and sacrifice for each other. Think Harry’s courage, Ron’s loyalty, Hermione’s brains: each plays a different but essential role in the ensemble. In The Blackthorn Key, Christopher is clever and has unique apothecary skills to get himself out of trouble, but physically, he’s quite ordinary. So if it comes to trading blows, his best friend Tom, somewhat timid but enormously strong, is there to save the day. Independently, they’d fall; together, they’ll stand.
Q: Books that are based on realistic situations often teach readers a lesson... maybe about empathy, maybe about standing up for what's right. Do action/adventure stories teach a lesson, or are they more meant for sheer entertainment?
A: I read—and write—for fun. This means I’m extremely leery of anything that smacks of message fiction—and kids are, too; you’re not fooling anyone. So before I put anything in, I ask: is this the most entertaining choice for the reader, or not?
Given that, it’s certainly possible to explore issues, as long as they’re secondary to the story itself. In The Blackthorn Key, for example, questions arise regarding power and responsibility: what do you do when you have in your hands a weapon greater than any in history? But I included that because I felt that questioning (and solution) would be part of the overall fun of the book. If there are lessons to be learned, I believe readers are smart enough to come to their own conclusions. At any age!
**Please note: While most of the book images and titles on this website link to pages within the site offering further details about each book, some featured lists, such as this one, contain only Amazon links. This is mainly a time consideration. Still, I encourage you to check Worldcat to find these books at your local library, or to support your local, independent book store by visiting in person or visiting online at http://www.indiebound.org/.
1. The Trials of Apollo by Rick Riordan
Book 1: The Hidden Oracle (Published May 3, 2016)
As punishment by his father, Zeus, the sun god Apollo has been cast out of Olympus and made mortal. With many enemies acquired after over 4,000 years of existence, Apollo seeks out the sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood, only to discover that the camp has been beset with disappearances. Now a 16-year-old boy, Apollo must battle the dark forces that are set on destroying Camp Half-Blood and all the while battle the unfortunate side effects of being human, like acne.
2. The Brotherband Chronicles by John Flanagan
Set in the same world as Flanagan’s earlier series, The Ranger’s Apprentice, The Brotherband Chronicles follows the adventures of a not-so-typical crew of Skandians. While on the small side, this group of boys ae skilled and more than up to the challenge of Brotherband training. They will face bigger, stronger boys during a grueling set of competitions, but with their leader’s guidance, their natural talents could put them on even ground with the other bands.
3. Magisterium by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Throughout his whole life Callum Hunt’s father has warned 12-year-old Callum to avoid the evil Magisterium, training school to young mages. Callum is invited to try out for the school, and despite his best efforts to fail, he is admitted to the Magisterium. Along with two other students, Aaron and Tamara, Callum is chosen to be an apprentice to Master Rufus, the greatest magician of all. Soon the strange world of underground tunnels and mysterious caverns becomes home to the new students, but the twist in the underground aren’t nearly as surprising as the twists in the students’ fates.
4. The Blackthorn Key Series by Kevin Sands
Christopher Rowe is an apothecary’s apprentice in a successful London shop. His days are filled with administering and studying medicines and potions under the guidance of his kindhearted master -- along with clean-up duty from whatever mischievous mess he’s recently concocted. These simple times are cut short when a murderous cult begins targeting apothecaries across London. It will be up to Christopher’s knowledge of the apothecary trade and his skills in deciphering codes and riddles, along with the help of his best friend Tom to be sure that he isn’t the next to meet an early grave.
5. Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud
Deadly ghosts have begun to manifest all over London. Since only young psychics are able to perceive the specters, agencies employing youthful detectives have sprung up to combat the scourge. Quick-thinkers Lucy, Anthony, and George of youth-run Lockwood & Co. take on cases of hauntings such as the investigation of the centuries-old ghoulish infestation of Combe Carey Hall and its infamous Screaming Staircase.
6. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan
Since Magnus Chase’s mother died, he’s lived alone on the streets of Boston. That is, until the day his estranged uncle tracks him down and tells Magnus that he’s the son of a Norse god. To prevent a war between the Norse gods, trolls, and other monsters Magnus must hunt down a sword that has been lost for thousands of years. Can he do it in time, and can he survive this perilous quest?
7. Todhunter Moon by Angie Sage
By the author of the wildly popular Septimus Heap series, comes a new series, Todhunter Moon. The tale begins with Alice Todhunter Moon, who goes by Tod, learning the Ancient Ways of Pathfinders. Pathfinders use a magical compass as a guide in their quests, and Tod is soon tasked with rescuing her friend Ferdie, finding her father, and helping to defeat a dark sorcerer. Lucky for Tod, she’s not alone. Friends and family are her ultimate allies as she learns to depend more and more on her own emerging gifts.
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Hi! I'm Sarah. I'm a former librarian and mother of two -- a teen daughter and a preschooler son. We love to play outdoors... and read. :)
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