The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
On June 21, I was lucky enough to read the best children's book of the year. No, it wasn't written by J. K. Rowling. It was The Wee Free Men, the latest novel by Terry Pratchett, and the second Discworld novel aimed at a younger audience.
The first such book, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, was cute, but relatively light by Pratchett standards; although it had funny characters doing zany things, none of them had the depth Pratchett normally gives to his creations. Although the book might have won a literary prize or two, most notably the Carnegie Award for Children's Literature, it's not one that calls out for re-reading.
The Wee Free Men, on the other hand, is as delightful as they come. It's the story of Tiffany Aching, a nine-year old peasant girl who discovers that that she has inherited her late grandmother's mantle as a witch. With the help of the Nac Mac Feegles, a foul-mouthed (but never inappropriately so for kids), drunken, and moderately insane group of fairies, Tiffany embarks on a quest to stop the dark Faerie Queen, learning how to be a witch as she remembers how her grandmother dealt with various situations.
Although the plot isn't much different from classic fairy tales and works of children's literature, it does have some nice twists, as many a traditional fairy tale convenience appears, only to get turned on its head (the Baron's son, a classic heroic figure, is an incompetent boob, the witches are the heroes, and the talking animals are rarely wise). For the most part, though, this isn't a story about how the bad guys lose, although the story, with Tiffany fighting a world where dreams can come to life and hurt you, is certainly compelling. It's about the folks who take on the bad guys in the first place.
What makes The Wee Free Men so wonderful, as with any of Pratchett's better works, is his ability to make realistic, human characters in the middle of an otherwise zany world. Tiffany is no archetypal little girl. Already smarter than most of her family--she reads the dictionary for fun, because no one ever told her not to--her visits to the teachers (who are like gypsies on Discworld, setting up shop for a day, and then getting kicked out of town when folks have bought their wares) are a delight, and set up less formal education as a witch (a term, incidentally, that has no more of a religious connotation here than it does in the Harry Potter novels). Although perhaps a tad too mature for her age at times--making her eleven or so really wouldn't have hurt--she's a great role model for girls, and a great hero to cheer on for anyone else.
Complementing her nicely are the Nac Mac Feegles. Although they appear, at first, to be nothing more than simple caricatures of Brownies or Sprites, these characters quickly move from simple comic amusement to the heart of the story. For all their bluster, they are a group of warriors who have lost before, and suspect that they're going to be on the losing side again. Tiffany is their only hope, but that never stops them from fighting their hardest for their cause. It's almost heartbreaking to hear them shrug off the comrades they lose in battle, because of their belief that the Discworld is actually the afterlife, and when they die, they return to the "real" world. Deep down, you know they're only using this as a coping mechanism, but their refusal to treat death as a tragedy is touching.
Although a few characters from previous Discworld books appear (The Queen has been a villain before, and the Nac Mac Feegles had a representative in the City Guard books), The Wee Free Men stands nicely on its own, with the Discworld cameos really adding almost nothing to the book. And that's as it should be. This is a wonderful stand-alone novel, and should be on the shelves of any fan of young adult literature.
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins Juvenile Books