The other night during dinner Child the Younger excused himself from the table, walked over to the cat minding her own business by the front door and proceeded to make large and dramatic conjuring motions in her direction (think Mickey the Wizard in Fantasia.) This was accompanied by those weapon sound effects that all small boys seem to perfect. When he was finished he walked calmly back to his chair, sat down and resumed eating with no explanation. I couldn't resist asking.

"What was that you just did?"

"I needed to give the kitty her laser so she can shoot fire out of her fingernails."

"Oh. Okay."

I managed to keep it together during this exchange, but my husband was trying not to look like he was howling with laughter while snorting iced tea through his nose. It's an admirable parenting skill. Why the cat needed her fire-shooting powers at that very moment remains a mystery to all but one of us.

I've read some great graphic novels lately and one of the best is directly from the mind of a five-year-old boy. Axe Cop is the imagined universe of Malachai Nicolle as drawn by his older brother, Ethan. The title character is a policeman who picks up a fireman's axe and never looks back. He uses his weapon of choice and his somewhat violent tendencies on any number of bad guys, but the best parts involve the crazy sidekick characters including a dinosaur soldier who transforms into an avocado with a unicorn horn, a dog named Ralph Wrinkles, and The Best Fairy Ever. If you would like a direct window into the imagination of a five-year-old, here's your ticket. If you are hoping it will explain why you must NEVER MOVE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES the plastic fireman's axe that currently resides in the drawer with your brushes and combs, you will be sorely disappointed. Not recommended for reading on public transportation or while drinking iced tea, and especially not both at the same time. And remember: only cowboys and warriors can control the magic riding spider.

Smile is Raina Telgemeier's biographical saga about losing her permanent front teeth to an accident in sixth grade and the drama that ensues for the next five years as she simultaneously experiences the horrors of dental reconstruction and adolescence. The combination of compelling story and detailed drawing make it more than the sum of its parts and you will be transported back to middle school (whether you want to go back there or not. And I'm guessing not. But go anyway.)

Kampung Boy by Lat is the luminous story of a boy from birth to boarding school growing up in rural Malaysia on a rubber plantation. The love and humor surrounding this family make the story rise off the page as the tropical environment and Muslim customs and rituals are explored and explained in a down-to-earth manner.

The sunshine is finally here, so park it in a lawn chair and read some comics before Axe Cop comes after you on his transformed Tyrannosaurus Rex-turned-dragon with rocket wings and machine gun arms. Awesome.

If you have ever come home to a preschooler chasing the cat around the house with a tube of Chapstick (because "the kitty wants WIP BALM on her WIPS!") you know that your first task is to confiscate that Chapstick. You also probably know that you will be too late, because by the time you liberate that tube from the greasy little fingers wrapped around it the cat will be staring at you accusingly from under a bed, glistening with fury and emollients.

We all have our monsters. Here are some of my favorites:

The Host
Set in Korea, a dysfunctional but devoted family pays a great price when a nefarious substance is dumped down a drain and winds up in the Han River. This movie is eccentric family comedy, political commentary and kick-ass monster in one compelling package. What is scarier--the thing that lives in the sewer or the self-serving governments that originate and perpetuate misguided terror?

The Abyss
A nuclear sub is sunk in some of the deepest waters on earth, and the only people with the equipment to potentially mitigate impending disaster are a ragtag bunch of civilian, off-shore drilling engineers, including the sparring, married-but-divorcing Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Love-hate relationship plus undiscovered alien life in the Mariana Trench? I'm there.

The Bad Seed
It doesn't get much scarier for a parent than the realization that your adored little girl is an eight-year-old homicidal sociopath. Patty McCormack is not to be missed as Rhoda Penmark in the title role; piano practice and penmanship will never be the same again. One of the best movie endings ever.

My Neighbor Totoro
Sometimes we need friendly monsters, and Hayao Miyazaki's lush animation is a treat. This is an all-ages movie for the whole family; two sisters discover the title "keepers of the forest" as they cope with moving to a new house and their mother's extended hospital stay. Hop aboard the Catbus and prepare to be delighted.

I don't know about you, but when I'm being pelted with hail under a brilliantly sunny sky my mind tends to think, "Hey, look at that. The apocalypse is here." (This is even without factoring distressing global geological and political current events into the equation, which hold their own private audience with my horrified psyche on what seems like a near-hourly basis.) Extreme maybe, but my default setting is "the sky is falling." If I override that, I can remember it's spring.

I should be reading up on how to outwit slugs in the garden or what to do when a child discovers (shudder!) an entire universe of massively multi-player online gaming. Instead, I've been indulging in some fabulous dystopian fiction. What better way to escape the end of the world hosted by our evil slug overlords?

The Hunger Games trilogy is compulsively readable. The first book wins some sort of award for being the only reading material that has ever made me miss my bus stop. The Capitol controls the twelve districts of Panem, a country which covers territory once known as North America. The primary device for this control is the annual Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a manipulated arena on live television until only one remains. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself for the Games when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The trilogy is executed in a spare and accessible style with unexpected twists and a powerful ending.   

If you balk at reading teen fiction, now is your chance to get over it. Really. Everyone else has, and you're missing out. The Hunger Games is now part of the Lucky Day collection, so may the odds be ever in your favor.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.

After a day of work, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the sofa and have obedient and loving children welcome me with my slippers and a cup of tea while a well-trained dog fetches the newspaper (which has not been torn asunder and scattered to the winds in the required-by-law daily comics raid.) This imagined scene gives me a hopeless little chuckle as I enter what I affectionately call "The Battle Zone of Wars Eternally Lost", also known as "My House." For the sake of brevity (the soul of witless parenting) my dear husband and I call this place, simply, "The Zone."

My homecoming assessment of "The Zone" begins on the street as I monitor the noise level from outside the front gate. Silence does not guarantee détente, but screaming, yelling, and whining do almost certainly guarantee impending misery. The sound of a child practicing piano is a good sign, but the sound of, say, deafeningly determined Rachmaninoff means that my co-parent is waving the white flag of surrender and is completely ignoring the children in a last-ditch attempt to save any scraps of sanity he might have left after a day of endless screeching demands. There is no sitting on the sofa (unless my spouse has gone beyond Rachmaninoff and is huddled in the far corner of the couch with a blanket over his head.) There is no tea if I do not prepare it, and instead of a dog we have a cat with a personality disorder who bites only me, routinely and somewhat enigmatically, with no provocation or warning. Whatever The Zone holds, the objective is always the same: survive through Bedtime. If I live to tell the tale, my reward is a little television. I am sorry to say there are only three existing seasons of my latest favorite BBC show, Clatterford. On British soil it goes by the title Jam and Jerusalem, but they changed it for the American audience. Don't ask me why--trading reference to a familiar food and a known geographical place for the name of an obscure English town is the sort of sensible exchange that goes through my cat's brain just before she sinks her fangs into my flesh.

The show is a kinder, gentler comedy from the brilliant mind of Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the searingly hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. The show centers around the life of Sal Vine (Sue Johnston), a nurse and recent widow in the small town of Clatterford St. Mary. Sal's efforts to reorder her life after her husband's death orbit around her grown children and the town Women's Guild, which is populated with fascinating minor characters. Outrageous comedic bits--Rosie (Dawn French) nursing a lamb in the pub; accidental vacuuming of church displays of the Nativity/Palm Sunday/Resurrection in which the primary players have been carefully crafted using stalky roadside weeds with googly eyes; Caroline's (Jennifer Saunders) constant misuse of pornographic sexual terms--are balanced with sincere drama. Loneliness washes in and out of lives as the characters struggle with relationships lost and found. Clatterford is complicated and messy. It's funny and familiar and at the end of the day you can't wait to go there. Just like home. Without the cat bites.

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