"Haroun and the Sea of Stories"
by Salman Rushdie
OK, I'll admit it from the start: I might not have looked at this book in the first place, had it not been for the author's notoriety as one of the (all too many) authors some fundies are trying to kill for "blaspheming" one of their "sacred" books. Odds are, that's what led the local bookstore to buy a lot of copies and display them face out in the "young adult" rack, not the rather enthusiastic reviews from quite respectable sources (the Times Literary Supplement; the New York Times Book Review; Stephen King), and probably not their own judgement that this is a great book - but it is.
This is Rushdie's first book since The Satanic Verses (and, I'm a bit ashamed to say, the first book of his that I've read). While it's not explicitly a "kids' book", it is definitely a great book for kids, much like Alice in Wonderland or the Arabian Nights, both of which it rather resembles. It definitely stands on its own, though, and may well end up as a classic in its own right.
Haroun is the only child of Rashid, a storyteller in "a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name". (Those of you with better memories than I might have noticed that they are "named after the legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun el-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales.") Rashid is an amazingly prolific and inventive storyteller who ascribes his success to his subscription to water from the Sea of Stories. When Rashid's wife runs off with the clerk upstairs, Rashid suddenly finds himself unable to speak in public, and discontinues his subscription. Haroun doesn't believe in the Water Genie and the Sea of Stories - until, getting up in the middle of the night, he surprises the Genie, and manages to parlay a purloined tool into a trip to Earth's other Moon, Kahani [or "story", in Hindustani] to try to get his father's subscription restored. Rashid rather mysteriously manages to appear on Kahani, too, and he and (mostly) Haroun manage to save the forces of Language from the forces of Silence. Happy endings all around; much beautifully-written, fast-paced fun along the way - good luck putting this one down!
As far as age-appropriateness goes: I think that any child who can follow (or read) the Taran books, Alice, or The Hobbit can follow (or read) Haroun. I got it for Sam for his 6th birthday, and he absolutely loves it: he goes around asking silly questions to which we are supposed to reply "a P2C2E" (process too complicated to explain - a phrase you may be sure he never heard before), and likes to write Salman Rushdie in paint programs and with markers. When I told him I was going to write a review (of sorts), he told me to be sure to mention Iff, the Water Genie, and Butt, the Hoopoe, and now I have.
Imho, a fine addition to any Great Childrens' Books list. No sex or religion; very little "real" violence.