Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ranking the Best Animated Pictures from Worst to Best

There are very few areas of art and entertainment where I genuinely consider myself an "expert." Standing in the way of this is my awareness that I haven't read/watched/listened to ALL THE THINGS!!! I'm well read, but never, it seems, quite well-read enough. Admittedly, no one is. We all have gaps in our knowledge that makes comparing pieces or picking a "best of the best" very difficult.

By way of example, based on MY consumption of animated television, I would contest that the best children's animated TV series of all time is Disney's Recess. But I've never felt like I can put a real flag down on that claim for two simple reasons: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe. I keep meaning to watch these, as both are heralded as some of the best animation of all time. (Like, seriously. I can already feel the lectures coming in the comments). But time is short and I really should spend more time reading than catching up on TV and yadda yadda. Either way, until I do, I'm not confident in any grandiose claims I want to make in favor of Recess.

Which means I get excited when I realize that I DO have some area of expertise that I can start shouting my opinions about, and do you know what I realized today??? I have seen EVERY Oscar winning animated movie. Hot Dog!

Whether or not this is something to shout from the rooftops with pride is probably a matter of opinion. For myself, I say it with some satisfaction. I love animation, and I love that I get to use my position as a children's author as an excuse to continue to engage with animated movies as both a high-brow, snooty pants critique, and a rabid, doe-eyed fan.

And for better or worse, there's a huge range in quality between the various films that have won the award. Some of them I don't really even like. Of course, while this list represents just one personal opinion, I've done my best to explain why, from a craft perspective, one movie fell short compared to another. Some of the factors I'll be considering include: Plot and pacing, character, humor, emotional resonance, art direction and rewatchability. That last one mostly came into play when I had two movies neck and neck and struggled to pick which one beat out the other.

Without further ado, here are the Oscar winning animated features! Some of them even deserved it.

#17. HAPPY FEET (2006)



On the surface, Happy Feet is an inoffensive, plucky movie about penguins that sing and dance. Those basic surface details are done well enough. The penguins DO sing, except for Elijah Wood penguin, who dances! And then more penguins dance! If that was all this movie tried to do, I think it would be substantially better. Once you get below the surface, however, it becomes apparent that Happy Feet is an incoherent mess. It starts with one cliche plot - that of the outsider who must win over his town with his quirky skill/personality - only to trade that cliche plot for a different one about... environmentalism? The dangers of putting penguins in zoos? It doesn't really matter though, because neither plot is done well and neither one makes you care particularly about the characters. Once you get past the glitz of the singing/dancing penguins, there isn't much to invest in. To top it off, the animation tends to stray into the "uncanny valley." For those unfamiliar with the term, this refers to when something is made to look life-like, but is missing that "spark", so you're left feeling like you're watching a moving corpse. For evidence, please look at the above image and try to tell me these aren't robot penguins.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: 2006 was a lean year for animation.  There weren't any great contenders, but even so, the award should have gone to Cars. I'm no apologist for the Cars franchise, but its story was okay and it had characters who at least earned the toys that were made of them. More than the gobbledeegook of Happy Feet can claim.

#16. WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005)


Growing up, I was a HUGE fan of Wallace and Gromit. I had knitted plushies of them and everything, at a time when most kids had never heard of these British claymation shorts. (Yeah, I'm gonna go hipster on Wallace and Gromit. Fight me.) I wanted the full length movie to be good so badly, but when it came, it mostly elicited a "meh..." from me. There's some fantastic animation, but aside from that, I think this movie showed that the pair were better suited to short form. The plot was weird in a way that didn't quite hit the same charming note of the previous outings. Also, there was too much Wallace and not enough Gromit. The shorts rode on the appeal of that unibrow dog.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: While not his best of the best, Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle was gorgeously animated and quite enjoyable. Also, while I haven't seen it, I know there are quite a few fans of Corpse Bride out there, so maybe it belongs in the conversation too.

#15. BRAVE (2012)


The first time Pixar tackled a princess movie, they got less than stellar results. Brave had a lot of potential, with a fabulous setting, gorgeous animation and fun voice cast. But it's weighed down with a not particularly original "arranged marriage" plot line, a mid-section that grows more boring the more bears are added and a heroine who mostly just whines her way through the movie and never is particularly sympathetic.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Making this year especially frustrating, there were several better movies that came out in 2012. ParaNorman isn't perfect, but it's fun, creepy and inventive. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is one of the silliest movies ever made and might just be the single best use of the vocal talents of Hugh Grant. But the award probably should have gone to Wreck-It Ralph, which seemed like a big, dumb, goofy story at the time, but has held up on rewatch surprisingly well.

#14. RANGO (2011)


Rango is one of those movie's that got way better critical reviews than it probably deserved for one simple reason: it's appeal rode on nostalgia for Old Hollywood, something film critics and Academy voters are big-time suckers for. That being said, if you fall in that camp at all, it can be quite enjoyable. Rango is a weird movie that follows a lizard who wants to be just like Clint Eastwood, who gets the chance to when he rolls up in an antiquated, Old West town of suffering animals that exists in our modern world because... why not? The animation is quirky and interesting, at least, and the film kinda works as a goofy experiment. Overall, not bad, but lacking in the charm and rewatchability of later entries.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON INSTEAD: This is another tough year for animation. The only other notable entry in the category is Kung Fu Panda 2, and between the pair, it's a toss up, if you ask me.

#13. BIG HERO 6 (2014)



This movie is where the list starts to flip from "not very good" to "actually pretty good, just not as good as other things that came out the same year." The great success of this movie was Baymax, who is so lovable, he almost drowns out all the things that don't really work about this film. Things that don't work include: a villain plot that makes no sense, technology so powerful it's confusing how it didn't solve the plot in ten minutes, and a supporting cast who feel more like catch phrases than fully fleshed characters. Still, the central relationship, between a boy grieving for his brother and the robot nurse who tries to help him is lovely and deserving of praise.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: For all it's color and spark, this movie pales in comparison to How to Train Your Dragon 2. It kills me enough that the original didn't win in it's release year, but this was an even bigger oversight, because it was definitely the stronger film. Poor Dreamworks tends to get overlooked at the Academy Awards, and this was particularly bad. That being said, both movies should have lost to another that wasn't even nominated. The Lego Movie is one of the most enjoyable, thoughtful, heartfelt toy commercials ever made, and easily the best animated film of 2014. Maybe it was the early February release date, but somehow, come award season, this Master Builder Piece got snubbed outright.

#12. UP (2009)


MUAHAHAHAHA!!! I'm guessing this will be my first truly controversial ranking. This movie was so adored in it's day, it's one of a tiny class of animated films that managed to nab a nomination for Best Picture. And if this list was a ranking of the best movie openings of all time, it would be very close to the top, if not number one. I'm with you on that, guys. The beginning sequence with Carl and Ellie is so enchanting. In fact, that sequence alone is why this movie is as high up as it is. When it comes to most of the rest of the movie, very little of it worked for me. The villain plot feels so weird and tacked on, the dogs are annoying and the story of Russel and Carl feels drowned out by these two overblown elements. That being said, this film absolutely did deserve the Oscar it won for best original score. What I'm saying is I understand why people like this film, but I think it's got some pretty glaring weaknesses. That, or you all like talking dogs making unoriginal squirrel jokes 1000% more than I do.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Any of the four other movies nominated this year. The Secret of Kells is one of the most unique and lushly animated movies I've ever seen. Fantastic Mr. Fox is strange and hilarious. Coraline is the most terrifying thing with a label that says "for children" slapped on it, and that's kind of awe-inspiring. And The Princess and the Frog feels like a love letter to earlier Disney movies, told with gorgeous, hand-drawn animation and a fantastic musical score. Honestly, all are brilliant and all have better stories than Up.

#11. SHREK (2001)


Despite my fighting words a moment ago, I did feel a little badly ranking Shrek above Up. I mean, I know which one is the better work of art. But if I had to choose one to rewatch, it would be Shrek every time. At times cute and charming, at times extremely mean-spirited in it's mockery of Disney  (Dreamworks Animation was founded by an ousted Disney animator/director, and you can bet Jeffery Katzenberg did not go gentle into that good night), Shrek still manages to come together as an enjoyable odd ball tale. There are probably too many pop culture references and poop jokes. It set a bad precedent for later Dreamworks films by ending with a dance party. But the characters are memorable and voiced to perfection. Plus, that "do you know the muffin man?" sequence gets me every time.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Fun though Shrek is, I don't think it has the sweet charm of Monster's Inc. In a perfect world, we would have been less dazzled by the quick satire on display here and gone for a story that's much more inventive and touching. Still, as a tween watching the first animation Oscars in 2002, I was so rooting for Shrek to take the prize home. At least it spoke to it's target audience well.

#10. RATATOUILLE (2007)


Just as Up would rank higher if this list was entirely about openings, this one would place better if we were only considering the movie's end. It's always difficult when a piece tries to represent the aesthetic experience of one of the five sense that is not inherently addressed by the art form currently in use. It's why books have to find very creative ways to truly evoke sound, and why Ratatoille had to work so hard to properly portray the sensation of taste. But in the end, did they ever nail that one, key element! Ratatouille succeeds as a meditation on food, pleasure and pursuing your passions. It's not the most magical of all Pixar's offerings, with characters that are less interesting than many others, but the story builds from something that was decent, if not brilliant in the beginning, to a very satisfying conclusion. The ending helps edge it up to here.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: There wasn't super stiff competition this year, however, one underrated gem could, by some accounts, make for a stronger winner. Surf's Up is roughly a million times better than a movie about surfing penguins has any right to be. I love it, and find it more rewatchable than Ratatouille, but if it had won, I'd probably have it ranked at exactly the same spot and would be arguing that Ratatouille should have beaten it. They're very different films, but surprisingly even matched.

#9. FROZEN (2013)


Right here at the half-way point through the list is when I think the movies go from "good" to "truly great" and deserving of the prestigious Oscar award. Frozen signaled a return to form for Disney Animation, ushering in a time when it's become a toss up whether they or Pixar are going to take the Oscar home each year. This movie is so loved and watched, I hardly need to sing it's praises. The music is fantastic, the central relationship between Anna and Elsa is incredibly moving and Christoff is one of the best love interests Disney has ever created. A few elements are clumsily incorporated - the troll clan, the lack-luster villain, the jarringly odd way Olaf is animated compared to the rest of the movie - but over all, it's a solid film that maybe lost some fans recently due to over exposure. Just a couple days ago, my sister and I were talking about what an amazing allegory it makes for learning to live with Major Depressive Disorder and other mental health conditions. Anything with that kind of thematic resonance and cultural staying power is good in my books.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: None of the other North American releases nominated this year really held a candle to Frozen. Both Despicable Me 2 and The Croods are underwhelming, but some solid foreign animation was nominated, I am told. Unfortunately, it's an area I need to fill in some of my own gaps, but Miyazaki's The Wind Rises in particular has some good hype behind it.

#8. WALL-E (2008)


Like Up, WALL-E is a movie I tend to rate a little lower than most Pixar fans, and for almost the same reasons. The beginning of WALL-E is much stronger than the second half. However, while Up has twenty amazing minutes, roughly an hour of WALL-E's run time is so exceptional, I really do feel guilty placing it this low. It's more indicative of how fantastic the later entries are.  I don't love the heavy handed story telling aboard the Axiom, but I don't hate it either, so I can focus more of my attention on the good parts of this film. The opening shots of Earth and WALL-E's mundane every day life, intercut with music and footage from Hello, Dolly are so moving. This is a film that also really lets the animation speak for itself, with most of the story told visually or with music. In fact, the film only really begins to flag once the speaking human characters are introduced. Overall, a breathtaking, groundbreaking and deserving winner.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Considering how weak the animation offerings were some years, it's such a shame that Dreamwork's two best movies came out in years that they really didn't have a chance against what Pixar put out. This year's tragic loser was Kung Fu Panda, which has some of the best choreographed combat sequences not just of animation, but any film. A true credit to the Kung Fu movies it is a pastiche of.

#7.  COCO (2017)


Compiling this list, it was right around the point when I had to slot Coco in at number seven that I kind of panicked. HOW? How did a film this good fall so low on the list? Again, like the entry before, it's more a testament to what comes later. Coco is a beautiful and worthy entry into the Pixar canon, something we hadn't been treated to for a few years. Pixar has fallen victim to sequelitis, but occasional gems like Coco still slip through. Anyone who saw this movie in theaters can attest to how gorgeous the animation is. It's also a good example of how a cliche plot can be retold in a way that makes it compelling again. Coco and Happy Feet essentially start with the same plot (outsider has a weird hobby) but the end products couldn't be further apart. Thematically, Coco is a brilliant meditation on family, culture, memory and death. And if you say you didn't cry during the end, I denounce thee a liar.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: I have heard amazing things about both The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent, but since neither got wide releases, I haven't had a chance to see them. Opinions forthcoming!

#6. TOY STORY 3 (2010)


Toy Story is that rare series that actually improved over its long run. I love talking about these movies in the context of world building, since its a very good example of using a simple fantasy concept, then plumbing it for all the depth possible. The question of "what if toys were alive" is answered so richly in each installment. And not just the goofy stuff they can get up to (like a Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head getting married), but in terms of the emotional struggles that would naturally grow out of their relationships with children. Each subsequent film pushed a little further, until you get to the most recent and best entry in the series. The feels are out in full force, with much of it serving as an allegory for death and rebirth. When I saw this in theaters, most of the showing's audience was my age - early twenties, and sobbing along as we watched Andy let go of the toys that had comforted us for so many years. It's a touching, powerful film and a beautiful farewell for the series. The fact that a fourth one is on the horizon has me a little nervous for that reason. The story felt  resolved here. Regardless, I think this film will continue to stand as a landmark example of how strong sequels can actually be.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: It kills me that this was the same year How to Train Your Dragon came out. Both of these movies hit me profoundly. Dragon's achievements include one of the best father/son story lines out there, a dark color palette that was fairly revolutionary when it came out and an aerial flight scene that I think is one of the best uses of 3D in the past decade. Still, Toy Story 3 had the more surprising and ground breaking story. It did things you generally don't see in children's media and for that reason, deserved all the awards it won.

#5. FINDING NEMO (2003)


Another closely ranked entry. I'm not 100% certain which of Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 is my favorite, or even which is the artistically stronger (jf you can even make such a comparison). But I've gone with Nemo in the lead because it's the one where the details have stuck with me just a little more. It's such a tenderly animated story, with beautiful quiet moments that we don't always get to enjoy in our current blockbuster movie climate. It's also a really well crafted story, perfectly balancing Nemo and Marlin's arcs so that they interlace and inform each other throughout. At the suggestion of one of my professors, I once charted this movie's plot out and yup. The technique in balancing the story is pretty amazing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: There wasn't much else on offer this year, though the foreign market provided The Triplets of Belleville. It's another one on my to-be-watched list. A list that gets longer and longer as I work on this blog post.

#4. SPIRITED AWAY (2002)


As we get into the upper end of the list, a lot of these choices come down to personal preference. With this film in particular, I can see a strong argument for why it should be considered the best of the bunch. This is Miyazaki's masterpiece. The animation is spectacular, the story somehow both simple and surprising, the characters lovable and iconic. No one does detail and fantasy in animation quite like Studio Ghibli, and I'd easily be persuaded their films are the best animated fantasies ever made. Everything about Spirited Away is incredible, and a perfect use of the medium. If you haven't seen this one yet, get it. Do it now. If you haven't watched much Japanese animation, this is a great place to start, as the English dub is very well done.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The rest of the field included some fun flicks, though none of them were in the same league as Spirited Away. The best-of-the-rest goes to Lilo and Stitch, which is a charming, though uneven movie.

#3. INSIDE OUT (2015)


Every so often, animation manages to do something that not only pushes the boundaries of it's own form, but film itself. In the case of Inside Out, this might just be the best representation of mindand emotion on film. And I can say that with authority, guys. My sister is a philosopher who studies mind and emotion and SHE agrees. So there. Inside Out not only gave us a wonderful, fun story to enjoy, it shed light on how people actually experience depression, and how memories and personalities shift over the course of our lives. Conceptually, this film is brilliant. Every time I rewatch it, I find something else to ponder, and that's rare from any movie.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: It was a pretty easy win for Inside Out. I've heard mostly lukewarm reviews of the rest of the field, but if there are any hidden gems in there, do let me know! Always open to more recommendations.

#2. ZOOTOPIA (2016)



She's a bunny who plays by the rules! He's a fox who does what he wants! HOW WILL THEY EVER WORK TOGETHER??? In all honesty, that pitch kinda sucks. This wasn't a movie I felt excited about leading up to its release, since it sounded like a stereotypical buddy cop comedy. Then I went and my jaw about fell off as I found myself watching the best movie about intersectionality and identity politics I'd ever seen. I spent most of the second half muttering, "is this film going to go there? Holy crap. It's going there." It's another one that benefits from rewatches and with jokes as great as jokes can joke, remains enjoyable. This is another example of world building done right. The concept of "animals live in a city together" has been done a thousand times before, but this was the first time that concept was followed all the way to making animals proportional to their real life counterparts. From just that little change, the implications are fascinating and, at times, terrifying. I love this movie so much. It does a brilliant job of working as an allegory for a lot of our own modern problems, without the baggage of being able to map anything directly from it's world onto ours. A tough balancing act, and one that makes this film all the more valuable.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Moana sure is great, isn't it? I don't think it stood a chance next to Zootopia, but over all, this was Disney's year. After a long spat of mediocre movies, it was great to see the studio return to form in a big way. On my to-watch list: Kubo and the Two Strings.

#1. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)



With the second one out in theaters right now, I've been thinking a lot about what this movie means to me. It is, in my opinion, as close to perfect as any film will ever get. It succeeds on every level. The score? Instantly recognizable. The action sequences? Tense, exciting and well motivated by the plot. The humor? Relatable and sharp. The characters? Flawed, but with that verve that drives you to root for them. It's a brilliant story about the stresses of ordinary family life, and simultaneously one of the best razzle-dazzle super hero movies ever made. Interspersed with the spectacle is some thoughtful commentary on what it means to be exceptional vs normal, something the sequel is careful to do as well. I have to give a shout-out to director Brad Bird, who really nailed this. To me, his films suggest that he sees the ways our private lives inform the mask we show to the world. It's this awareness that gives the film its depth and continued success. He never loses sight of the Parr family as human, even while exploring what it means to be super human.  The end result is - dare I say it? Incredible.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The best of the Shrek series, Shrek 2, came out this year. It's major contribution to the world was Antonio Banderas as a swashbuckling cat so... yeah. The Academy chose the right winner.


AND THERE YOU HAVE IT!!!

If there's one thing doing this list has reminded me of, it's the staggering depth and talent on display in animation. So often in North America, we relegate animation to a "lesser" sphere. Because it's drawings. Because it's for kids. But honestly, when I look at this list, I see many films of the same caliber as those that took home the award for Best Picture. Like, dude, you're never going to convince me The Incredibles isn't better than Million Dollar Baby.

More importantly, it reassures me to know that even if animation is still primarily a place for "kids movies" today, at least we're giving our kids something worth seeing.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Speak Easy Speak Love

It's 1927 and down at the Hey Nonny Nonny speakeasy, the jazz is playing and the booze is flowing. Hidden inside a dilapidated manor house on Long Island, seventeen-year-old Hero struggles to keep the place afloat after the death of her mother. With gangs and bootleggers trying to pressure her out of the market, it's going to take her whole crew to keep the speakeasy open.

Luckily, she's got the help of her long-time ally Prince on her side, and sometimes even Prince's mobster connected half-brother, John. The jazz music comes courtesy of rising starlet Maggie, who's loyal to Hey Nonny Nonny to a fault. Plus there's the loving patronage of rich trust fund kid Benedick, who would give anything to run away from his current life of comfort to become a writer. And starting today, there's also Beatrice, Hero's ambitious, would-be doctor cousin, who sees no point in holding her opinions back from anyone. Least of all some upstart, rich boy, writer, like Benedick.

As the summer heats up, so does the battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. And soon, it seems everyone at the Hey Nonny Nonny is at terrible risk of falling in love with each other.

What Makes It So Good

As a teenager, my favorite play by Shakespeare was Much Ado About Nothing. I loved the dynamic between Benedick and Beatrice and I still think some of the funniest scenes in theater ever are the ones where the Prince decides it's time to trick the pair into falling for each other. Also, I loved Denzel Washington. And Keanu Reeves. And Michael Keaton. And of course I loved Emma Thompson. And I loved Kenneth Brannagh almost as much as he loves himself.

In my second year of university, I took a course on Shakespeare's comedies, and this was where I realized that my love of the play was, at least in part, largely based on one fantastic adaptation. Read as plain text, it is staggering how much time is wasted on pretending Hero is dead, in order to give the second half a plot line. The parts I loved best about the show are largely over by the halfway point, and then the pace of the play grinds to a halt.

I came out of that class surprised to realize that, while Kenneth Brannagh may have created my favorite Shakespeare adaptation with his movie, there were stronger scripts in the Bard's canon. I've never seen a bad production of Twelfth Night, because the material is just too good.

So when I found out McKelle George was coming out with a book that was a 1920's update of the story, I was intrigued, because a) I love the Jazz Age and b) even with it's slogging second half, there's still a lot to love about Much Ado About Nothing. It still has some of Shakespeare's best characters. I still ship Benedick and Beatrice like no other couple.

I first heard of Speak Easy Speak Love in a class McKelle George taught at the Storymakers conference in 2017. She and a friend were presenting on the topic of writing books that were based on classic literature, and what went into the process of adaptation. They emphasized the importance of balancing between loyalty to the source material and finding places to make it your own. And the best places to make something your own tend to be where the flaws are in the original.

Of course it's important to still love the source material, and believe me, I came to this book with high expectations because I love the original so much. But it was so nice to not see Hero spend half the story pretending to be dead. It was great that Benedick never has to challenge Claudio and the Prince to a duel (because Hero is pretending to be dead) that never happens (because Hero actually isn't dead) and overall, just wastes everyone's time. Who even likes those scenes? Not me, dear reader.

Aside from some smart updates in terms of plot, the book also excels as a loving adaptation of the Bard's work. Within the theater, it's traditional that directors give their own spin on the setting, since the stage plays Shakespeare wrote are so sparse in terms of set direction. My favorite version of Twelfth Night I ever saw took place in a 1960's beach shack.

Similarly, the setting is so lovingly rendered here. The book is filled with fabulous historical touches, that make the place feel very real, and the Author's Note at the end does a fantastic job outlining where liberties were taken, and what the real-life equivalents of these events were.

The characters are all fantastic as well, though a couple chapters in, I had to come to term with the fact that Emma Thompson was decidedly not playing Beatrice. It almost feels like someone else has been cast in the part. Someone who plays up how smart Beatrice is, rather than how charming. Once I got over that, I loved her. Benedick is utter perfection in his big-headed, big-hearted way and the rest of the cast is just barrels of fun. Overall, I highly recommend it.

What Could Make it Better

Like the play it is based on, the book's plot starts and stutters at times. McKelle George actually does a lot of work to infuse plot into a meandering play, but I think there are some inherent problems that emerge when you base a book on story that feels more like a series of awesome scenes than a fully cohesive narrative.

There's an argument to be made that I'm being unfair to the source material. Story plotting worked differently 500 years ago, and I certainly don't mean to discredit the inherent genius of Shakespeare by poking fun at it here. And it's worth repeating that I do still REALLY love this play. It isn't meant to be overly plot focused, which is why we accept the way the narrative skips around between dramatic and comedic, between the main cast and the Dogberry subplot. There's just so many great characters, with interesting things to do. Who wants to be hogtied to plot when all this other fun stuff is going on?

I bring all this up, because this book is also prone to subplots and taking its sweet time to enjoy a scene. I've seen some reviewers mark the book down for this fact, but to me, it was part of the charm. If the plot had been over-the-top punchy, I'm not convinced it would have felt like Much Ado About Nothing. It would have been decidedly Much Ado About Something.

Regardless, it's still worth mentioning, because it takes a while for the central conflict to land. Whereas the original spends way too long in a dreary conclusion, this book is a little slow to finish setting things up. The masquerade that shapes the opening of the play happens close to the middle of the book. So that should give you an idea of where the balance has swung. Overall, this strikes me as a forgivable decision, because again, the first half of the play is the best part. Might as well spend most of the reader's time there.

So if you're at all a fan of the Bard and especially if you also have a soft spot for historical fiction, pick this one up. You'll be singing Hey Nonny Nonny along with the rest of us.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Contest Re-Visited: If at First You Don't Succeed...

Two years ago, I blogged about my intentions to go to my first ever writing conference. I was a nervous little bundle of excited energy, heading down to Provo, Utah with my best friend, anxious to see what I would learn at the 2016 Storymakers conference. Also, I was excited to see my nephews because, let's get real, I am super good at mixing business with an excuse to crash my older sister's house.

A few weeks later, I'd come home and posted about some of my experiences, particularly what I learned about receiving critical feedback from the First Chapter Contest that I entered at the conference. You can find that post here, but the TL;DR version is that I didn't win anything, and processing the feedback I got from the judges was difficult because so little of it matched up.

Now here we are today. Just shy of two years later, right on the heels of Storymakers 2018. It's been a good year. A REALLY good year. And I would be a lying, ungrateful wretch if I didn't acknowledge that, at least in part, it's because this year, I kinda - ahem - won my category in the First Chapter Contest. Oh, and I took third in another category, just for funsies.



Now, those who attended the conference with me know that I am good at talking about myself. I've been too excited to be overly modest. The conference kindly gives you ribbons that proclaim your winner status to attach to your name tag as well, so for a couple days, both friends and strangers alike were congratulating me and I am honestly so grateful for all of you who were kind to me.

It also meant I was asked a lot of questions about my work. A lot of people asked what genres I won in, but after that, this was the thing people most wanted to know: How many times had I entered the contest before?

Looking back, I'm trying to remember if I asked that same question of the people I saw walking around with winner ribbons back at my first Storymakers. I know of at least one person, I did. I was trying to process my contradictory feedback, and trying to figure out how much longer/more work it would take for me to succeed. This is such an agonizing place to be in; one that I haven't yet escaped myself, as I continue to query my novels and seek agent representation. In other words, I really get where this question comes from.

I'm certainly not *there* yet. I have a long road ahead of me, littered with success and failures. But if you're like I was then, and how I am now, trying to make sense of the swerving trajectory of an unpublished writer's career, then this post is for you. Here's a two year history of Emily, told over the course of three Storymakers conferences.

STORYMAKERS 2016

Number of first chapter contest entries submitted: 1 (YA Fantasy)

I had a lot of big dreams when I went to my first writing conference. I was going to make friends, learn things, and, with some luck, win all the prizes. In a post like this, it can be easy to focus on the thing in that list that I didn't do: win. While it didn't have any long term impact on my motivation or confidence, I was pretty choked when I saw my scores. I came so close. One judge gave me perfect marks. And another basically gave me a C-.

If you read my post about processing that feedback, you'll know that I claimed to have never found that low mark helpful or instructive. Even though the judge listed ways I could improve, it would have meant changing the things the other judges loved. I can say two years later that the answer is still true. That particular feedback form was never helpful to me, and those are the breaks. I stand by what I said then, that there WILL be people who never connect with your work, and no amount of trying to please them will help you.

It could have happened this year, too. In fact, when I opened my feedback on my winning entry, the first judge said how stressed they were that the other judges wouldn't like it as much as they did. There's some divisive content in the book, you could say. The first paragraph was filled with counsel about what advice I should ignore if a judge who didn't "get" my entry gave me feedback, but I got luckier this year. Everyone who read my book "got" it

But let's return to that list of goals. I had way more success in the first two areas. Some of the friends I made at that conference became a critique group for me during the coming year, and those people have supported me and helped me refine my craft. I'm less alone than I was back in 2016, and that was the main motivator for going to a writing conference. I was tired of trying to write without support and feedback.

And then there was the learning piece. One of the classes I attended was on writing Young Adult Contemporary. I'd never done it, but I liked reading it, and had found myself picking up more and more of those books. I read several more that summer, and gradually, that sparked ideas...

STORYMAKERS 2017

Number of first chapters contest entries submitted: 2 (YA Fantasy and YA General/Historical)

Going into this conference, my expectations were WAY lower, at least in regards to winning things. I'd learned my lesson about reasonable expectations but, oddly enough, I entered more entries. One was the chapter I'd entered the previous year, and based on feedback I got from other people, I had changed a lot of it. However, in doing so, the length ballooned and chapters over 3000 words weren't eligible. I cut the chapter at an awkward point around that mark and knew better than to get my hopes up.

It's hard to compare numbers year to year, since the contest format was revamped between 2016 and 2017, but I think I scored worse the second year. I still did okay, but the awkward break didn't do me any favors, plus people had some legitimate gripes with it, some of which I'd never thought of before. I was... pleasantly startled by the results. I incorporated some of that feedback, and I am very grateful for the people who gave me such thorough comments. Storymakers judges, you guys rock!

I also submitted a very rough first chapter for an uncompleted draft of a Young Adult Contemporary novel that I'd started. One of my critique partners currently HATED my main character's best friend, so my hopes weren't high for this one either. Sure enough, one of the judges questioned why I'd included such an unlikable girl, but across the board I got this feedback: rough, but it has potential. They liked the voice. One judge liked the voice so much she marked me higher than I probably deserved in a couple categories. The judge said things like, "so technically this category is about pacing, and nothing really happened in this chapter but I DON'T EVEN CARE! I love your voice!" Other judges did care. I didn't win anything.

But I felt encouraged. I kept working on that draft, and gradually, my critique partner stopped hating that one character so much. I'm skipping over a lot that happened in 2017, but it was a year of drafting and revising, and then revising again. I queried the project, had less success than I wanted, and then rewrote some more. 

Another important thing happened at Storymakers 2017. One guy placed in three separate categories. THREE! I was gobsmacked! I also realized that I could be even bolder if I wanted to. Winning isn't the only objective, after all, since the judges offered feedback. So why not go nuts and enter everything I had on hand?

STORYMAKERS 2018

Number of first chapter contest entries submitted: 4

This year, I threw caution to the wind. Who needed it???? Not this girl! 

That being said, I went in with reasonable expectations. If people are curious, here are the four categories I entered, and how I did in each one.

YA Sci-Fi/Dystopian - I decided to enter a chapter from a book I'd shelved a few years ago. It was a book I still loved, but hadn't been successful in the query trenches. When I reopened it to cut down the overly long chapter by four pages so that it fit the word count, I think I burned my eyes. Cleaning this up was PAINFUL. I hadn't realized how much I'd improved over the years. I also didn't budget enough time to really perfect this one, but whatever. I was subbing for feedback anyway.  It actually did better than I thought it would, and while I haven't had time to go over the feedback in detail yet, I'm hopeful to have some awesome insights from this.

Adult Speculative - This is actually where I subbed that pesky YA Fantasy from the previous two years. I'm toying with the idea that I need to age the book up. It didn't win anything again, but this time I gave the chapter a better breaking point and judges loved the ending. Overall, I improved my marks from the previous year greatly, and I'm excited that this might be a good direction for future revisions. It also might help explain why the previous two years, there were judges who just didn't connect with it. The story probably works better positioned as an adult story than a YA. I'm not breaking as many reader expectations, like I did for that C- judge two years ago. So maybe I did learn something from that low score after all.

Adult Mystery/Suspense - This is the book I'm currently drafting. It's weird and wonderful and exciting and COMPLETELY outside my wheel house. When I started it, I'd read a grand total of, like, five adult mystery books over the course of my entire life. I'm playing catch up right now, but I knew enough about the genre to know that if someone was dead by the end of chapter one, I would be on the right track. Also, I'd learned by writing my YA Contemporary that my strength was first person perspective character voice, and I leaned hard into that. That's what nabbed me my 3rd place ribbon. To be clear, the judges did have a LOT of constructive feedback, and I'll definitely use it as I finish the draft and catch up on my mystery reading. I'm excited for the encouragement and to see where this book goes.

YA General/Historical - Sweet mercy. I am still overwhelmed, you guys. With the previous three categories, I felt like a long shot. One was an old book. One I was trying to switch age categories. One was in a genre I barely knew anything about. But one was Sweet Pee. A book I loved. A book I'd slaved over. A book a judge told me to change the title on last year and my Pitch Wars mentor told me to change the title on last Autumn and another judge told me to change the title on this year and, dang it, some day I might just do it. Maybe.

I won. I finally did it. I'm freaking out.

To be clear though, winning this contest is not the be-all-end-all of my career or anyone else's. It's a stepping stone and learning opportunity. Believe me, I would have been perfectly happy NEVER winning this contest. I wanted to be ineligible SO BADLY, by getting an agent offer before it came around again. Nope. No such luck.

As it turned out, this conference coming up yet again forced me to improve the chapter, and four pages disappeared from it. Moral of the story: at some point, all of my chapters WILL balloon in length and they WILL need to be cut. I think I had to cut about four pages from every single one of my entries this year. Something is wrong with me.

Additional moral of the story: don't be afraid to try new things. A wild chance at mystery got me third place. More importantly, I got up the gumption to try YA Contemporary a couple years ago, when things weren't working so well in YA Fantasy. It can be hard to do, especially when you imagine yourself being known a certain way and for a certain type of book. It was scary for me, but I'm so glad I did it. 

There have been a lot of different versions of this winning chapter and, as you can see, several others, so if you're currently reading feedback and wondering where you're going from here, please don't give up. Whether it's a contest or a query critique or edit letter, don't give up. It may take you two years or five years or fifty. Or maybe you get it right tomorrow. I don't know. I can't tell you.

But if you keep at it, there are happy endings. Maybe not mine precisely, but you'll find one. I believe that about books. And I believe that about you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ranking The Harry Potter Books from Worst To Best

Ah, Harry Potter!

Whenever I'm fumbling around for topics to write on, there is no source more reliable than that great, cultural juggernaut, the mighty wizard himself, Mr. Potter! (our new celebrity)

I have enough opinions about the Harry Potter series I could probably write seven books of my own simply analyzing them and the profound impact they had on children's literature, the cultural conscience, and my own life. I come from the generation raised on Potter - the one that went to book launches in costumes and scoured message boards for theories about what would happen in the next sequel.

Overall, the series is a benchmark for children's literature and I have no doubt it will go on to be part of the "canon," both for Middle Grade fiction and Young Adult. If I had to pick one thing Rowling did consistently well in every book, it would be her worldbuilding. It amazed me how good she was at introducing something new in EVERY BOOK that still felt natural to the rest of the world that came before. She was a master of never over-playing her hand, holding onto good plot twists for years. As a result, each book really feels necessary to the overall series. If you skip out on one, you skip out on an essential part of the mythos she created.

Even so, some of the books are distinctly better than the others. Some are better paced, some have deeper theme resonance, some have better side characters.

Picking a favorite Potter book isn't an easy task. It's not as though any one book is a trash fire, and whether or not you share the same opinions as me will depend on certain factors - like if you're super into Voldemort as a villain or if you really loved reading about Quidditch matches. As a result, I can't help but rank these by how I appreciate the novels, and as you read my brief review of each, you'll start to pick up on exactly what did and did not work for me in the series.

Each book will be ranked on the following list of factors, which I recommend all people use for evaluating Harry Potter books:

Title Element:


Harry Potter titles serve as a tip off towards the MYSTERY! of the book. They rarely made sense pre-release, teasing some element we hadn't been introduced to yet. In this way, they serve as a decent way of evaluating the worldbuilding of each novel.

Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher:


Voldemort cursed the position and so there was always a new one each year! And not everyone can be Lupin. This ranking indicates how strong the side characters were, often a top feature of Potter books.

Ron Weasley:


Ron was my favorite character. Most of the time. He fluctuates between selfish, oafish phases and the wise-cracking loveable side-kick that we - well, loved. My biggest beef with the movies was that they only got that first side. He played the buffoon 99% of the time, never giving us what made him engaging in the books. I get why some people found him annoying. So did I, on occasion. How strong the "Ron factor" was often speaks to how well the dynamic between the main three characters was working. Seriously, when Ron is at his best, so are Harry and Hermione.

Pacing and Theme and Actual Relevant Stuff and, let's face it, where 90% of the ranking is - Yeah, this is the only category that matters. But I you need to hear my Ron related thoughts too.

So, without further ado...

#7 - HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS


Fact: This list would be in a totally different order if it was
ranking the movies because Emily LOVES wizard battles!

Title: 4

This title let us know the series was going to wrap up on a wild note. And the Deathly Hallows ended up being totally rock and roll.

Teacher: 7
Some random death eater we hardly see, since the books don't take place at the school. In general, there is a dearth of relatable side characters.

Ron: 6
Ron emerges from the cocoon of his obnoxious phase back in Book 6! He's a little annoying at times here, but it's building towards redemption, so over all, pretty good.

Actual Ranking: 7
Ugh. This book. I love it. I love every Potter book. But I've always been aware that I distinctly love it less than all the others. It ditches the traditional school setting, to it's detriment. It's missing most of the lovable side characters, only to wantonly kill a lot of them in the last act. It ends with that horrific epilogue.

That being said, it has some real strengths. The Deathly Hallows was a fun level of mystery to sew into the series at a point when the world felt known. Ron's betrayal and eventual reuniting with Harry have a lot of emotional resonance and kind of encapsulate how the whole series has evolved between the three leads. Dumbledore's philosophy about death - a philosophy that's been building up since the first book, finally comes full circle. Molly Weasley blasts some serious witch-hiney and Harry finally takes out old Voldy. And Snape. Oh my gosh, Snape. The "feels" with him are complicated. Whether or not you see him as a hero or still inherently abusive, I like him for the fact that he's always at least interesting.

Overall, Book 7 is a beautiful send off to a great series. So why is it so low?

Partially because a lot of the book is unpleasant. Getting through the camping in the woods section is a slog. Books 4-7 are all too long. Period. They ramble in a LOT of places, but whereas that was mostly bearable in the previous books, here it's unpleasant and boring. There aren't any jokes to break that meandering pacing up. Everyone is too depressed. I get that the book isn't supposed to be happy, but if your children's book is dark, it can't waste time being boring. (did we need to see Lupin have a midlife crisis? Or the Godric's Hollow sequence where they literally learn nothing helpful for their quest?) Honestly, the darkest parts of the book are often the best. It's great when they're in mortal peril. It means SOMETHING IS HAPPENING!!!

The book also does a weird thing that none of the other books do with regards to the central mystery. In the other books, the reader learns what Harry learns with Harry, but in Book 7, for the sake of dramatic tension, Rowling holds information back that Harry knows so that reader doesn't - namely that he controls the Elder Wand. I get why she did this, and I'm not sure I have any kind of work around for it, but it did feel a bit disingenuous. Much of the appeal of these books hinges on the reader discovering the wizarding world WITH Harry, but the very conclusion relies on Harry hiding information from the reader. And I don't like that.

#6 - HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE


Felix Felicis, providing much needed humor.

Title: 7
Despite being primarily about the history of Voldemort and Horcruxes, the title is essentially Harry Potter and the Snape Snape Snape. It's more Books 5 and 7 that strike me as the Snape books - the ones that show his relationships with James and Lily. Overall, bit of a disconnect.

Teacher: 5
We don't get a new teacher here, since Snape is a known entity, but he's compelling, and we DO get Slughorn over at Potions. Still pretty darn good, but there are stronger entries.

Ron: 7
This is the book that all Ron haters go to in order to justify their poor thinking. The trio is at it's angstiest here, with no one really getting along, but no one having a proper, outright argument either. It's just obnoxious. His relationship with Lavender is weird, and I think squandered time that could have been better spent delving into his relationship with Harry and Hermione, especially since he abandons them briefly in Book 7. More on this unfulfilled potential later.

Actual Ranking: 6
In this book, the villain's development matters more than what any of the heroes are doing. We spend a lot of time in the pensieve - most of our more interesting scenes, in fact. Voldemort is a good villain, but I've never been a huge apologist for him. He's evil because love potion. Kinda sad. Kinda lackluster as an explanation. I'm not sure what origin story would have satisfied me, but the interesting evil in the books - the kind that is textured and complex - comes from other villains, like Umbridge and the Malfoys. And Snape. But again, this is a false Snape book. A book that sets you up for Snapeness and fails to deliver.

He is, of course, the title element, but that reveal feels anticlimactic. Also, there's some weird gender politicking over his old textbook where Harry's like "I sense the DUDENESS of the Snape who wrote notes in this" and Hermione is like "OMGosh, please shut up" and what the crap did this subplot add?

The poor pacing is on grand display here, with Harry at odd times stalking Draco, or observing Ron's terrible love-life, in between jumping in the pensieve with Dumbledore. The Ron/Lavender relationship is a low-point for the series, which the book seems to know, yet it plows ahead into it. Harry also gets his own terrible romance, complete with chest monster, and the series Moste Boring Character, Ginny Weasley.

Ginny, who is so pretty even the Slytherin's notice. Ginny, who can play every Quidditch position, then call out that annoying, shrill Hermione. Ginny, who is perfectly understanding when Harry breaks-up with her to go on an epic quest to stop Voldemort. In a series filled with fully realized characters,  with flaws and strengths, Ginny is shockingly flat. All her flaws are conveniently locked away in Tom Riddle's diary, back in Book 2. It stuns me, because there is so much potential for an actual character arc here. Ginny should have so many trust issues from getting possessed by the boy in her diary who claimed to care about her. Or she should be driven to her Goddess-like levels of perfection BECAUSE she screwed up so badly in her first year. But instead of exploring the obvious depth Rowling set up, instead she is nothing but pitch-perfect girlfriend material for Harry. She never challenges him or asks anything of him. She's just super understanding and really cool. A fantasy girlfriend. Their relationship is completely unbalanced, unrealistic and uninteresting. I could say more, but this isn't meant to be a total Ginny hate fest. She doesn't deserve that much abuse. She's boring, not morally objectionable. But man, do I hate boring.

By now, you're probably wondering why this is ranked above Book 7 and I will admit, it came close. If not for the Epilogue where Harry is shown married to freakin' Ginny and all his children inherited her obnoxious genes, things could have been different. But there are some good moments in Book 6. Since they're at school, there are still funny scenes and quirky side-characters breaking the flow up. Harry goes to the Slug Club party with Luna! Yay! Slughorn is fabulous and repping for all the non-evil Slytherins! The felix felicis scene is divine. Moral of the story: Slughorn is great.

Also, I think over the years, we've forgotten how powerful the death of Dumbledore was. I remember after the book came out, we were reeling. There were news articles about people hanging banners off of overpasses that read DUMBLEDORE IS DEAD because no one knew how to process the revelation. This was a moment so huge, it made everyone debate for YEARS whether or not Snape was evil, something that, in hindsight, seems kinda obvious. But it didn't back then.

And even if I got bored of Harry chasing Draco, watching young Malfoy's desperate attempt to redeem his family paid dividends. Heck, it set up the best elements of the most recent Harry Potter book, Cursed Child (otherwise known as Sir-Not-Appearing on this List. For spoiler reasons. And because, c'mon. Even the weakest of the original series is miles better.)

The book had lots of good parts, even if it ran around in circles chasing it's own tail at times. And I can't overstate how much the jokes were needed to keep the lumbering pacing from falling apart. So it gets a spot above the bottom. Hurray for it.

#5 - HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS


That time we learned evil is a fan of anagrams

Title: 6
I'm a firm believer that if you have to call it a "secret," you're veering into telling rather than showing. The sequence in the Chamber itself is pretty good, but I never was crazy about the title itself. This ranking is probably the most impacted by the way the title made me "feel" rather than how strong of a role the title element played in the story, but much of the middle of this list comes out close to each other, so it's hard to rank any other way.

Teacher: 3
I have mixed feelings on the movies, but I will forever be grateful for the greatest casting match-up of all time, when Kenneth Brannagh played himse- I mean, Gilderoy Lockhart. I love him so much, and he might just be my favorite thing about this book.

Ron: 4
Ron is a solid best friend here and adorable confronting his fear of spiders. Yay, Ron!

Actual Ranking: 5
Of the early books, this is my least favorite. It doesn't do much terribly wrong, BUT... I don't like Colin Creevy. And I don't like Dobby. I'm sorry, I just don't. At the end of Book 4, during the three-year hiatus between book releases, I did a lot of theorizing. I was particularly concerned with which characters might die and I started making a list of people I could handle dying without caring much. Top of that list were Colin and Dobby and then they DID both die and I felt like a terrible person, not least of all because even after he died, I STILL DIDN'T CARE ABOUT COLIN CREEVY!!! Dobby sorta won me over in later books. Sorta.

If these characters didn't annoy me, I might have rated the book more highly. It does introduce us to the Burrow, Lucius Malfoy and the House Founders. Some of my favorite aspects of the series have roots in Book 2. I really respect it for everything it sets up in later books, but I think too much of the plot revolved around the set-up of "Harry is annoyed by his adoring fans." Because, you see, I also found many of those adoring fans annoying.

Still, the final battle in the Chamber is amazing, Gilderoy Lockhart is a fantastic flim-flam man and the basilisk in the pipes is super creepy. This book also gives us the best iteration of Ginny, since it's the one where she's sweet and human and fallible. She's a great character to be used by Riddle too, since she's so innocent and inherently valuable to Ron and I value what Ron values.

I know plenty of people love this one, and I've had it pointed out before that this book might be the most plot-heavy. There isn't an inch of fat in this book, with pretty much every scene proving important to the central mystery. It's also the shortest book. While I accuse the later books of being too long, this one might be too short for my taste. There aren't enough character moments. The ones we do get are pretty great, especially those involving the polyjuice potion and Lockhart. But many of the other character moments involve Dobby and Colin. For me, much of my love of the Harry Potter series comes from the character moments, so without these firing on full, it adds up to a lesser whole. Of all the books, this is the one I'm the most indifferent about. It doesn't inspire the sense of frustration that Book 7 does or the wallowing of "what could have been" that I feel for Book 6. It's a good book, just one I found less engaging than the others.

#4 - HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE


Warner Brothers went to great lengths to ensure that Harry and Ron
sported hair as truly awful as high school feels at 14.

Title: 5
I remember being kind of underwhelmed by this title, especially when we found out what the Goblet was right away. I was like, "whatever, it's just a trophy" and then the end came and "OH MY HECK IT'S A PORTKEY TO VOLDEMORT!!! DANGER!!! DANGER!!!" Man, Harry Potter has the best titles.

Teacher: 6
Mad-Eye Moody/Barty Crouch Jr. is one of Rowling's great villains hiding in plain sight. I flip-flopped on where to place him compared to Quirrell, because as a character, he is more enjoyable, but Quirrell was a more shocking reveal. By the time Moody is revealed as the villain, I think you're kind of on to him, but it's a nice twist that it's not even the real Moody. The scene where he preaches CONSTANT VIGILANCE is one of the low-key funniest scenes in the entire series, though it's tempered by the heartbreaking realization at the end that he's taunting Neville, possibly on purpose. Still, it's my favorite piece of Potter to read out loud.

Ron: 3
I may be alone in thinking this, but this is annoying Ron done RIGHT. The Yule Ball sequence is a showcase of Ron's potential for pettiness, meanness and insecurity, but it's done in a way that I think adds to his humanity and shows how awkward and wrong-headed young love can be. His fight with Harry is also well done, and helps confront the inherent imbalances in their relationship. And despite being a bit of a boob for the whole book, Ron is still funny. Some of his best lines are in this book, from jokes dancing naked in Dobby's tea-cozy, to his claim he got a Yule Ball date out of "sheer animal magnetism." He's rough-edged and hilarious here. Lots to love.

Actual Ranking: 4
The middle book! Right in the middle! This was definitely not intentional, but it feels right, doesn't it? This book, to me, is where the problems of the later books began. The pacing fell off the rails, for the sake of stuffing the book to the gills with character moments. For those who don't love the moody teens era of Potter, this is also where the moodiness takes a decidedly "teen-aged" turn.

But it's also one of the funniest books in the series, between the Yule Ball, "Mad-Eye Moody" turning Draco into a ferret, Hagrid falling in love, Dudley going on a diet and Harry bathing with Moaning Myrtle. It's a trip.

I've called out the later books as too long, and I stand by that, though I want to temper that statement here. I believe that we, the fans, are partially to blame for the ballooning length of the Harry Potter books, because all we wanted was more. More funny scenes! More character moments! Rowling was so good at writing side-characters, and once she reached Book 4, she leaned into that, giving us a plethora of extraneous character scenes. Most of Book 4's funny sequences wouldn't exist if it had been as tightly written as the first three. So while we get detours from here on out, they do at least expand the world and let us relish the characters a little longer. There are worse things to destroy pacing for. Man, I remember being disappointed when I learned Book 6 WASN'T going to be longer than Book 5!

Also, this book gets a few things completely right. Voldemort's rise is given lots of room to torment us with the horror of what is happening. Rowling clearly knew this book needed to act as a transition between the Middle Grade aspects of the early books and the mature themes of the more Young Adult inclined later series. She pulls that transition off with the rise of Voldemort brilliantly, setting up the action of the rest of the series in the process.

#3 - HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHEONIX


What's gonna work? TEAMWORK!

Title: 3
Leading up to the book's release, I was excited, because it just sounded so rad. And even though the mystery of WHAT the Order is gets resolved quickly, I still love the way it plays out over the book. This book really expanded the adult wizarding world, letting us in on how the first war was fought and how the Ministry of Magic worked. The book ends with the first wizard war of the series, and it's such a worthwhile build to the shoot-out in the Ministry between Death Eaters and Order members.

Teacher: 2
Yes. The second best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is Umbridge. You hate her. You wanted her dead more than Voldemort. And it's for those reasons she's so fabulous. The main villains of the Harry Potter series - Voldemort, the Dursleys, Draco and Snape - are all introduced in Book 1. They represent separate areas Harry has to confront growing up. His past (the Dursleys), his peers (Draco), his assumptions (Snape) and evil itself (Voldemort). Most of the supporting villains are appendages to these .

But another villain is added when Harry reaches the time that most teenagers find themselves confronting "society" for the first time, and it is personified in Delores Umbridge. She represents the sheer unfairness of the world, and does so perfectly. Her lack of comeuppance is infuriating, and yet also the right fate for a villain of her ilk. Because "society" never goes away. You just have to live with it, even though some days, you hate it more than evil itself.

Ron: 5
Ron is so lovely in this book. He and Hermione realize that Harry is going through a rough time and so they step-up to support him. Ron feels like he's grown up considerably since Book 4, actually complimenting Hermione and thanking her for the things she does for them, something that tends to unnerve her. It's adorable.

One of my biggest problems with Book 6 is it undoes a lot of what feels like genuine character development that Ron underwent in Book 5, for the sake of laughs at his stupid relationship with Lavender Brown. Personally, I think Book 6 would have been stronger if the plot had involved Hermione and Ron ACTUALLY DATING and breaking-up, and letting that fuel Ron's despair in Book 7. And I hate to say it, but I think the reason it didn't happen is that I don't get the impression Rowling is great at writing romance (see commentary on Ginny). But can you imagine how great the Book 7 ending would have been if that big kiss came out of them deciding it was worth being together, despite the hurt of a previous relationship? Ugh! In a better world, that is the arc we would have had.

So yes. This lovely version of Book 5 Ron is getting marked down, because I have a fanfic version of where Book 6 SHOULD have gone in my head, that the actual Book 6 ruined for me. Sue me.

Actual Ranking: 3
Of all the Harry Potter books, this is the one that has moved upwards in my rankings the most over time. When I first read it, right after it came out, I was not prepared for Wizard Angst. Up until Book 5, Harry seemed infallible to me, and I didn't like realizing that he wasn't.

But the more I thought about it, especially as later books came out, the more I respected this book and came to like it, then love it. Harry finally processes the anger and resentment he feels for all the loss he's suffered in life. I wanted him to be too noble to let this stuff get to him, but looking back, I'm glad he wasn't. His hurt and anger made him more real.

But this book also shows the roots of the Harry who will one day stop Voldemort. In the previous books, he's primarily reacting to circumstances that come to him. Here, he's trying to figure out how to act for himself, but he doesn't have the tools to do that yet. So he mouths off to Umbridge. He tries dating Cho Chang. He begins leading Dumbledore's Army. He defies the training in Legilimens Snape gives him, believing his connection to Voldemort to be valuable.

And that last action ends up spelling the death of his beloved Godfather, Sirius. It's a heartbreaking consequence to his unwillingness to cut himself off from Voldemort, but if Harry had followed his training, he might not have been tempted out of the school and into harm's way. Then again, maybe that confrontation would have come in another place. The war was on it's way, and there's something beautifully tragic about that inevitability.

Book 5 is the book where Harry grows up. One part I love is the long denouement after the battle at the Ministry of Magic, where Harry struggles to come to terms with with the loss of Sirius. He's in enough denial that he even asks Nearly-Headless Nick if his Godfather might come back as a ghost, but gradually, he learns to accept that this won't happen.

Rowling has gone on the record several times saying that the series is largely about death - accepting it, processing it. It's there in the first book, when Dumbledore calls it the next adventure to the well-organized mind. And of course, it's there all the way until Harry's mind is well enough organized, that he's willing to take on that adventure in order to stop Voldemort in Book 7. Book 5 is where Harry first confronts death personified, in the form of the thestrals, and then gradually begins to accept it, as he learns to move on after Sirius.

Overall, I think Book 5 has some of the most profound emotional resonance. It's tough to read at times for that reason, but over all, I think that speaks to why it's so good.

#2 - HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE

The precious babies!

Title: 1

The one that started it all. Note that this ranking is based on the original title, and not the abomination that they made of it in the US versions. When I read this book as a smug little twelve-year-old, I relished the fact that I knew what a philosopher's stone was, even though Harry didn't. But then it turns out to be the key to everything in a wonderful, twisty, mysterious plot for immortality, where self-sacrifice is the key to obtaining it.

Teacher: 4
Quirrell isn't the most interesting character, right up until it turns out he's been trying to kill Harry the whole book, then he's kinda fabulous. Plus, he's got an undead, zombie Voldemort on the back of his head. It's creepy and weird and marvelous. A great kick-off to the books.

Ron: 2
In which we meet Ron, and he is wonderful. He is the best friend we all wanted. He insults, then saves Hermione, and it is love. He sacrifices himself on a chessboard. Blessed, lovely Ron.

Actual Ranking: 2
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I will never get over what a great opening line that is. Or what a great opening book to an amazing series this book is. I have a slight bias towards the first books in series that I've talked about elsewhere on this blog. It's my opinion that first books have an advantage over all others, in that they get to introduce the world. Everything is new and exciting, and isn't that just the truth with Harry Potter? Everything we would go on to love about the books starts here. Magic, Quidditch, the Hogwarts express, classes, the trio, owl post, the Forbidden Forest, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts castle. The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

Aside from the setting being new, so are the characters. The Harry Potter books are filled with people worth loving, and one of my favorite parts of the book is watching the central relationships form. There are few groups of friends I've rooted for more in literature than Harry, Ron and Hermione. Each one feels so essential to the balance of the group. This is proven when they enter the trapdoor together, and each one has a unique sacrifice to make for the good of their quest.

The central mystery introduces us to all the fun of a Potter book, and here, the characters are trying to solve it for the same reason we are - not because the world depends on them solving it, but because solving puzzles is fun. Why is there a troll in the dungeons? Why is there a three-headed dog in the third floor corridor? Why does Snape hate Harry? What is the Philosopher's Stone?

At first, they're driven by sheer curiosity, until they realize that an actual plot is in motion, then things get serious. It mirrors the reader experience that would eventually happen across the entire series. What starts off as light-hearted fun, eventually comes to mean much more as Rowling unfurls her stories of loss and triumph.

Altogether, a brilliant start to a brilliant series.

#1 - HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

I still feel annoyed that they ditched the wizard robes for most of
Movie 3, but this scene still rocks.

Title: 2
Otherwise known as Harry Potter and the Hottie McHotterson.

Teacher: 1
After two terrible teachers, the students were due for someone who excelled in his position. Enter Remus Lupin, the teacher everyone dreamed they could have. And like so many good things, he's ripped away too soon. When I finished reading this book, I was shook, because I no longer knew if I planned on marrying Ron or Lupin. WHO WOULD IT BE?????

Ron: 1
Is it weird that I love the Ron and Hermione that fight with each other so much? This book is Hermione's rough year - the one where she takes too much on and suffers for it, disappointing both herself and her friends. And Ron really doesn't let her off the hook, harder on her than almost anyone else. Right up until he realizes that they've also let her down, and she deserves his help too. I've always loved how natural the relationships between the main trio feel, and the fighting between Ron and Hermione here isn't caused shallowly. Ron had good reason to think Hermione's cat ate his rat and in his place, I'd have wanted to kill her for denying it.

And yet Harry's role in the trio here is also fascinating. Back when people used to argue over who would end up with Hermione - Harry or Ron - this book to me served as strong evidence for why Harry and Hermione just wouldn't work, because when she and Ron are fighting, it's consistently Ron's side he takes. Ron is the emotional glue of the trio. He dictates when they're "fighting" and when they aren't. The books where Harry struggles with outright loneliness aren't the ones where Hermione is gone, but Ron. Here, he's given a chance to choose between them and picks Ron. This sucks for Hermione, but I think there's some realism in the relationships here, and what it often feels like being a girl whose best friends are boys. Like, man, have I lived this myself.

This book hits me in a very personal place because of how much I relate to Hermione's falling apart from Ron, and their eventual reconcile. The moment where he promises to help with Buckbeak's trial and she starts sobbing in his arms is so cathartic for me, I just can't deny the personal punch of this book when making my rankings.

Also, Hermione slaps Draco and I'm pretty sure we can pinpoint that moment as the sexual awakening of Ronald Weasley.

Actual Ranking: 1
Rowling has gone on record saying that the Dementors represent depression. This metaphor comes from a deeply personal place for her. They are the death of her mother. They are the failure of her first marriage. They are her struggle to raise a child while living on welfare. They are also Harry's greatest fear.

I didn't know that when I read this book, but I don't think it's an accident that reading it, my heart ached for Harry. Of all the books, this one is the most tender. Harry is vulnerable to the Dementors because of the tragedy he has faced, and he is at times both desperate to escape their influence and tempted to wallow in the memories they bring - memories of his parents' voices, which he can't hear any other way.

Lupin tries to teach him how to face one, emphasizing happy memories as the most powerful means of projecting a Patronus charm. But in the end, he finally succeeds by projecting not a memory, but a hope for his future, that he's going to live with Sirius and finally have a real family again. In the end, it isn't a hope that comes true, but it's enough to get him a little farther.

That message meant so much to me as a young girl. Even though my heart ached when he lost both Sirius and Lupin, his first real connections to his parents, I felt sure things would be all right. Of all the Harry Potter books, this one strikes me the most as being about the inherent value of hope. When Harry expresses his frustration that all he's tried to do hasn't amounted to anything, Dumbledore reminds him that by helping Sirius escape, he's saved two lives, and those two lives have value. The previous two years, Harry was able to fix everything, but this time he must learn to look forward with hope, even when things are difficult.

That theme is also well personified in Lupin, who is kind and decent, even though he's been dealt a hard hand, much like Harry. I love Lupin so much. He exuded goodness, even with his frailties, and while I got annoyed with him a little in Book 7, I do think his issues with commitment were well set-up by his backstory. In the end, he is good and kind and maybe wants people to like him a bit too much, since he's been handed so much hatred. Overall, a wonderful character.

The emotional resonance has always been what I come back to with this book, but it also has my favorite mystery. I love how the story of Harry's parents is revealed. This was also the first book to make liberal use of clues that were sewn several books in advance. Sirius is mentioned in the very first chapter of Book 1. The Whomping Willow is a fun set piece in Book 2, but plays a much larger role here. And most importantly...

TIME TRAVEL!!!!!!!!

I have mixed feelings on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and one of the main reasons why is because the books complicate how time travel works in Harry Potter, and not for the better. What I love about how it's used here, is that time travel can't alter the fact that time is a fixed loop. Harry sees himself stop the dementors, and then he stops the dementors. I love time travel when it's used this way, and it's a fun ending to the mini-mystery that Ron kept trying to solve (but rarely bothered Harry) of how Hermione was attending all her classes.

I struggle to find any weaknesses in this book, though for those who don't like Book 3, I'll admit it can be quite dark. That's kind of what you get when half the plot is a metaphor for battling depression. Plus, there is the sheer weirdness of, um... Ron's rat being the man who betrayed Harry's parents. I had to reread that line the first time I read the book. But, hey! It was a twist I didn't see coming.

CONCLUSIONS!!!

The longer I write, the more pessimistic I get about certain things. I often find myself looking at long series and thinking "man, what are the odds all of those are equally good?" Even with Harry Potter, I don't think Rowling got it all right. I know I have my favorites.

But so do you.

And that's the thing I keep coming back to. Even with the variations between them, I don't think the series has a particularly "weak link." I've looked at enough fan polls to know that favorites tend to follow two patterns. First, that Prisoner of Azkaban usually takes the largest chunk of votes, but never an outright majority. Second, that all the books have their defenders. The series gave all of us something we needed at some point.

And by all of us, I mean all of us who read them. For those who didn't... what on earth did you read this giant list of spoilers for? Go read the books!