Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A young boy named Odd encounters a trio of strange animals and with their help strikes out on a mission to save the gods of Asgard from the Frost Giants.
Odd is as odd as his name, and everyone in his village knows it. After the death of his father during a voyage to raid the shores of Scotland, Odd suffers a terrible injury that leaves him even more outcast than before.
He runs away, and encounters three strange creatures: a fox, a bear, and a one-eyed eagle. With these companions he takes the Rainbow Road to Asgard to save not only the gods but also his own world from the threat of the Frost Giants and their eternal winter.
Odd is a bold, clever boy who carries no hint of self-pity for his circumstances. This story would be a great introduction to the Norse pantheon for kids who already love stories like the Brave Little Tailor or Jack and the Beanstalk. Gaiman captures that matter-of-fact narrative voice that characterizes fairy tales, while at the same time injecting the tale with modern morality.
I loved reading about the Norse gods as a kid: they seem to be the strangest and wildest set of immortals around. They lack the amorality of the Greek (and later Roman) Zeus and company, with a dark vein of tragedy running beneath each wintry tale. These, after all, are doomed gods who choose to fight against fate. And Loki is the most compelling of tricksters, always on his own side and sometimes cutting off his own nose to spite his face.
Plenty of takes on Norse mythology have been published in recent years. One I enjoyed was the YA novel Runemarks by Joanne Harris. I want to check out Mike Vasich's Loki (not YA) and The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse (a loose YA retelling of the epic poem Beowulf). For those interested in a broader overview of the Norse myths, check out Edith Hamilton's Mythology.