Good book vs. Great book

On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I picked up a children's novel called Fablehaven. The book has been on the NY Times Bestseller's list for kid's fiction and I've heard positive reviews about the story. The author Brandon Mull is a fellow BYU alumnus like me (at least I think he is), which piqued my interest even further.

Fablehaven follows a sibling duo Kendra and Seth on a two and a half week trip to their grandparent's house. Slowly, they begin to realize that there is more than meets the eye on their grandparent's land. The butterflies flitting out in the yard are actually fairies. A strange witch lives in a hut out on the property. And even their pet chicken Goldilocks has a few secrets of her own.

The book was a quick and easy read and I found the story well-structured and well-paced. I'm sure children would easily fall in love with the idea of Fablehaven---which is a safe refuge for magical creatures both good and evil. Overall, I was pleased with my purchase and I found the book worthy of the seven dollars I had paid for it.

But after I finished the book I couldn't quite put it away. My brain was humming with thoughts. Although Fablehaven was a good story---I finished the whole thing in about a day---I couldn't deem it a great one. Good book yes, but great book no. And I wondered why I couldn't put it in the latter category.

I've encountered many great kids books throughout my life, some I read when I was a child and others I read as an adult. These "great" books include The Giver, Matilda, A Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Single Shard, Maniac Magee, Harry Potter. So I started to ruminate why I considered these books so great, so timeless, and so readable over and over again while others fall short of this standard.

My basic conclusion is characterization. The books I listed above have different settings, different time periods, different points of view, different narrators, yet there is one thing that they all have in common: fantastic characters. They have characters that drive the story and not the other way around. They have characters that you fall in love with and whom you can never forget. They have characters who seem so real even though they can only exist in the pages of our minds.

The reason Harry Potter has been so successful is because the character of Harry is so compelling. We cheer for him. We sympathize with him. We love him. The world of wizardry and Hogwarts is certainly a miraculous one, but at the heart of these books is a small boy with glasses and a scar on his forehead that we can't seem to shake from our thoughts.

And this is why Fablehaven is merely a good book rather than a great one. Mull is certainly a gifted writer who has a talent for storytelling. But the characters in his book seem more like a means to propel the exciting plot than the kind who take residence in our brains long after we have finished their book. By the end of the story I was more entranced with the idea of Fablehaven than the characters who had brought me there.
In the end, I would highly recommend Fablehaven to the young and the old. It's a fun story that you can't put down until you finish the last page. Yet I wonder if it will last the tests of time. Forty years from now will my grandchildren read this book? I don't know. But I'm sure a tattered copy of A Wrinkle in Time will be found under their bed.