Posts Tagged ‘YA fiction’
The Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.
Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.
At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:
As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.
At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.
As part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.
In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.
With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.
By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:
Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions
Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.
The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.
Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”
In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.
*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.
In The Graveyard Book, with it’s sparse language and eight concise chapters, Neil Gaiman shines as a master storyteller. Although written for children, the story, winning the 2009 Newbery Medal winner, follows the Gothic fairy tale tradition, assuring it a satisfied adult audience.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family meets a brutal end when he is just a baby. Unnoticed by the murderer, he escapes from the house and finds his way to the nearby graveyard. There he’s raised by ghosts, given to the Owens’ as a son, to Silas as a charge, and renamed “Nobody,” or “Bod” for short.
In true Gaiman fashion, the usual ghost story is flipped on its head, with the ghosts as protectors and humans (mostly) as villains. The boy has “The Freedom of the Graveyard,” the ability to go places inaccessible by the average living person, and a few ghost-like attributes, such as fading and remaining unnoticed—not to mention the ability to see and communicate with the graveyard’s dead inhabitants.
Trite as it is to say, this book is a coming of age tale. For years, Bod is kept inside the grounds for safety, watched over by the numerous ghosts, all of whom know there will come a time when he’s no longer a boy and must go out into the world to live among the living. As Bod grows older, the years neatly chronicled in separate chapters, he becomes curious, asks more questions, and takes more risks.
The Graveyard Book is a heartwarming story for all ages. Read it and pass it along to the younger ones in your life.
Largehearted Lit at WORD
Last Sunday at WORD in Greenpoint, Largehearted Boy hosted his monthly Largehearted Lit series where every month he brings together two authors and a musician to bring fuse his two loves: words and music.
September’s theme, as each reading has a theme, was the modern golden age of young adult fiction. Brooklyn writers Libba Bray and Steve Brezenoff, came out to read their work and discuss music. Steve read from his book The Absolute Value of -1, a coming-of-age love story, and his latest, Brooklyn Burning, “a love letter to Brooklyn, a love letter to music booming from the basement, and most of all, a love letter to every kind of love (but especially the punk rock kind).”
Alicia Jo Rabins, a classically trained violinist of Girls in Trouble, along with bassist Aaron Hartman, played an incredible short set of songs based on stories of women in the Old Testament. They were at once highly original, dark, and whimsical. You can find their music on their Myspace page.
Libba, author of Going Bovine and most recently Beauty Queens, read an original humor essay, an “aural biography,” about growing up in rural Texas, using music as an escape, and the role bands played in the relationship between her and her brother throughout the years. She then ended the night by serenading the crowd with Tom Petty’s American Girl.
As if the authors and music wasn’t enough, Kiesha, “The Brooklyn Baker,” provided amazing cupcakes.
The McSweeney’s Crew at McNally Jackson
John Warner, who was, up until recently, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, celebrated the release of his latest novel, The Funny Man, with McSweeney’s writers Ben Greenman, Teddy Wayne, and Sarah Walker at McNally Jackson in SoHo.
Ben Greenman read his hilariously cynical piece called “Blurbs,” a piece comprised entirely of blurbs. For anyone in the book publishing business, anything related to it, or an astute reader, this is an amazingly entertaining exercise. It appeared in his short story collection, Superbad: Stories and Pieces. You can read through his McSweeney’s archive here.
Sara Walker writes an advice column for McSweeney’s called “Sarah Walker Shows You How”. That night she read “How to Cure a Hangover,” a funny piece that may or may not help if have a hangover. She also read the first piece she published in McSweeney’s, “When Dakota Fanning Travels to Spain for a Junior Semester Abroad, She Will Take Full Advantage of the Experience”, a bitingly funny sketch about what Dakota Fanning will do while studying in Spain, which was accepted by John when he was the editor. Her full archive can be found here.
Teddy Wayne is, at that time of this post, the most frequent contributor to McSweeney’s online. He’s also the author of author of Kapitoil, a novel about a young man who comes to New York from Qatar and creates a computer program named Kapitoil that predicts oil futures, earning his company record profits. Soon he begins to question its moral implications.
Teddy read his article from McSweeney’s, “Listmania!: Other Books Useful (or Not), for Americans to Read, Beyond William Blum’s Rogue State, by Osama B. L.,” which was a satricial look at the Amazon bestseller list through the eyes of the notorious terrorist. Some of the suggested books include: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. You can read his other articles at McSweeney’s.
John closed the night by reading from his new novel which is (surprise, surprise) a satirical look at the comedic novel. A meta-fiction as only a McSweeney’s author can do. Here’s a bit of a description from IndieBound:
The funny man is a middling comic in an unnamed city. By day he takes care of his infant son, by night he performs in small clubs, sandwiched between other aspiring comics. His wife waits tables to support the family. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re happy, more or less. Until the day he comes up with it. His thing. His gimmick. And everything changes. He’s a headliner, and the venues get bigger fast. Pretty soon it’s Hollywood and a starring role in a blockbuster, all thanks to the gimmick.
What’s on the shelf?
As someone who is perpetually early, even when trying to be late, I wind up with a lot of time to peruse the shelves of bookstores while waiting for readings to begin. Here’s what I came across this week:
The Stranger: The Labyrinth of Echo—Book One by Max Frei
The cover on this one grabbed it. The textured surface, the brown tones with the creepy typeface, and the great illustration that makes you want to know what’s going on with the boy in the picture. It’s billed as “part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy”.
Nobody Move: A Novel by Denis Johnson
I loved the pulpy artwork on the cover of this one and when I read on the back of the book that it was noir, I was sold. Denis Johnson has been getting a ton of attention among the literary crowd, giving him the air of “a safe bet”.
Jimmy Luntz is an innocent man, more or less. He’s just leaving a barbershop chorus contest in Bakersfield, California, thinking about placing a few bets at the track, when he gets picked up by a thug named Gambol and his life takes a calamitous turn. Turns out Jimmy owes Gambol’s boss significant money, and Gambol’s been known to do serious harm to his charges. Soon enough a gun comes out, and Jimmy’s on the run. While in hiding he meets up with a vengeful, often-drunk bombshell named Anita, and the two of them go on the lam together, attracting every kind of trouble.
Pirate Palooza by Erik Craddock
It’s never too early to introduce kids to the wonder of comic books. They show young readers that books can be a lot of fun and in the process maybe inspire them to create their own visual stories. My five-year-old nephew loved the graphic novel B.C. Mambo I picked up for him a few months ago. With his birthday coming up and his unwavering obsession with pirates, Pirate Palooza seemed like the perfect gift.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve been meaning to read this classic science fiction novel for a while. Heinlein is a staple of the space-based scifi novel and Stranger is possibly his best-known work.
Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.
What’s on your shelf?
To celebrate the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week here’s a review of an often challenged book.
I was not surprised when I saw James and the Giant Peach on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list compiled by the American Library Association. I’d never read Roald Dahl as a kid, not even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I’d seen the movie. That all changed this August when Penguin reissued James and the Giant Peach as a Graphic Classic Deluxe. With a great illustrated cover by comics artist Jordan Crane and introduction from author Aimee Bender, I couldn’t resist.
In her recent New York Times essay about children’s book, The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules, Pamela Paul discussed how the now much-lauded books of Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and Dr. Seuss were once deemed inappropriate for kids. All three authors challenged the status quo: the notion that children’s books were to teach children how to behave, not to portray them as how they actually were—rebellious, insolent, and rowdy.
A familiar trope often repeated to children is “respect your elders” and this was what was reinforced by their literature. While most of the time it’s good advice, there are exceptions to the rule. Not that kids should disrespect adults but not all adults are not worthy of deference.
When I began James and the Giant Peach I was horrified by James’s two aunts. He’d come to live with them after his parents were eaten by a rhinoceros while shopping on the streets of London—also horrifying. In no modern society would his aunts be considered fit guardians. They were undeniably abusive: they forced James into manual labor beyond what was appropriate for his age, threatened to beat him, isolated him from others, called him names, and, it appears, often neglected to feed him. The first few chapters are painful to read and will undoubtedly cause a sensitive reader to cry out in desperation for James stand up for himself.
It’s when, as Pamela Paul would say, James breaks with convention and runs away to the far end of the garden to console himself that he’s given magic seed-like things by a peculiar old man. He’s told that if he follows the instructions for preparation and swallows the seeds in one gulp “fabulous, unbelievable things” will happen and he’ll never be miserable again.
However, we never find out what would have happened if James drank the odd, magic seeds because, as Aimee describes in her introduction, in “an almost slapstick move whereby he trips, Buster Keaton-like,” he drops the seeds and they sink into the dirt at the foot of a fruit tree. Instead, what comes of the misstep is a trans-Atlantic journey in a giant peach with life-size insects.
With this turn of events, Dahl adds a twist to the classic fairy tale quest. James ultimately goes on an adventure but it’s not the one initially intended and not one of his own making. It’s a story of mishaps, coming into one’s own, developing confidence, and finding a group that appreciates you for who you are or, as Aimee eloquently puts it: it’s a story of “transformation of small things into large, of a helpless child into someone with power and agency”.
These larger themes, stemming from dark beginnings, make James and the Giant Peach a great book for both middle grade readers and adults—and an even better one if the two can share in it together.
James and the Giant Peach at IndieBound
New York Times essay The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules
Roald Dahl’s official website
Jordan Crane’s work can be found here
Aimee Bender’s website
The American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990 to 2000
The Brooklyn Book Festival celebrated its 6th year this past weekend. One of the panels I was looking forward to was “Crashing Genres” with science fiction and fantasy authors Cory Doctorow, Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Kelly Link—the latter unfortunately was unable to make it. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Anderson, the manager of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a great place for book buying, event going, and general nerding out. Between the three of them there was so much energy the conversation never waned.
Both Cory and Jewell, proponents of childhood literacy, have written novels for young readers as well as books for adults. Jewell’s much-acclaimed book Ninth Ward, an inspiring story with a twist of magical realism, is about a young, black girl living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina. Cory’s Little Brother is a modern-day urban dystopic novel set in the wake of a terrorist attack in San Francisco.
To begin, all confessed they had no idea what “crashing genres” meant but agreed to go with it. While sussing it out, the discussion weaved through the increasing popularity of the young adult novel, the growing acceptance of once-taboo topics, and the sense of identity genre readers carry with them and what that means when their beloved subversive lifestyle goes mainstream. What struck me most during the talk was something Cory said: “You only go to bookstores once you know you’re a reader.” It felt true and hit me as something I’d never given any thought.
As a bookworm I take it for granted that the first place I think of when considering where to spend my time is a bookstore. There are plenty in my area, all with a carefully tailored selection. Bookstores are where I’m most likely to feel most comfortable and meet like-minded people. Doesn’t everyone go to bookstores? The bubble in which I live burst at that moment. Not, not everyone does.
The question Cory opened with this statement was, “where do new readers go to find books?” As someone in the publishing industry, and as a passionate reader, it’s an important one.
Always a wealth of information, Cory went into a brief history of the mass market paperback, the main format of genre fiction and often the cheapest, which makes it a great “gateway drug”.
According to Cory (a brief internet search didn’t bring up much information so this is un-fact checked), before the bookstore chains and big-box stores there were 400 distributors of books, now their numbers have been significantly reduced, possibly to the single digits (again, couldn’t find reliable information). The larger stores who were able to buy in bulk and negotiate for better discounts with publishers passed on larger discounts to their customers. Good for customers but bad for the industry as a whole. Before this massive growth, books could be found in grocery, candy, and drug stores but with chains gobbling up the competition, and with fewer distributors, these numbers have significantly decreased. Cory’s point in all of this is that the majority of “non-readers” found books in these unconventional locations and the inexpensive price of mass markets made them a low-risk purchase..
Michael Connelly, best-selling mystery writer, in the New York Times article The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age, said, “Growing up and reading primarily inexpensive mass-market novels, it allows you to explore. I bought countless novels based on the cover or based on the title, not knowing what was inside.”
The article, citing a survey done by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, says that since 2008 the publishing industry has expanded over all but mass-market paperback sales have fallen 14 percent. Claims of the mass market’s death is nothing new, it’s been going on since the 1980s. This was when the chain stores pushed out many independents with their discounts on hard cover titles—people no longer felt the need to wait for the cheaper edition.
Today, the same thing is happening with e-books. The affordable pricing of the electronic version, available for sale the first day of publication, makes it more appealing to readers who otherwise would’ve waited for the paperback to come out a year later.
And therein lies the double-whammy: although the price of e-books is right, the distribution is not. At the moment, they lack a physical presence in the stores listed above, regardless of how many distributors there might be. While I don’t believe e-books are a threat to publishing, their possible triumph over the cheap mass-market just might mean fewer non-readers finding their passion for the written word.
What do you think? Are non-readers exposed to books in more unconventional ways now than in the days of dime stores? Comments are open.
This week’s selection owes many thanks to the great podcast Books on the Nightstand and their uncanny ability to talk up a book.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This book is getting a ton of attention in the media but as Ann Kingman of Books On the Nightstand says in the latest episode, it’s buzz not hype and there certainly is a difference. Here’s a bit about the book from IndieBound:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos (Illustrator), and Annie Di (Illustrator)
Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand mentioned this one in the episode on graphic novels. He warned that it was a bit of a difficult read but if you’re into Betrand Russell and all those other logicians, you’ll want to grab this one.
Here’s a bit about it, also from IndiBound:
This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal—to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics—continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories edited by John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is a busy man. When he’s not getting married at Worldcon he’s working hard earning award nominations for his science fiction and fantasy anthologies. Not only does he edit short story collections, he’s also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine and co-hosts the podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Brave New Worlds, as the subtitle suggests, is a roundup of dystopian fiction written over the past 30 years. Contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, M. Rickert, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury.
Early in June an article in the Wall Street Journal set off a firestorm of debate within the literary community. Meghan Cox Gurdon, a regular children’s book reviewer for the paper, argued that young adult fiction today has become far more gruesome and shocking than the books of S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, the authors who started the trend in the 1970s.
I know plenty of adults who read YA fiction on a regular basis. Aside from reading The Golden Compass a few months ago, I haven’t read them since I was the target age so, I can’t claim to have firsthand knowledge of what’s in these books these days but the article captured my attention nonetheless.
Gurdon, speaking of the horrific events now prevalent in these novels, says, “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.” To the argument claiming that kids are exposed to far worse online she says, “If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that’s a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.”
I’m sympathetic to her perspective, I remember being shocked by a provocative cover a few years ago, which sounds like the milder of the objections, and while neither of us supports book banning—her last few paragraphs discuss this issue—it sounds like having some sort of label on the back of a book detailing the content, as a heads up to parents, might be in order.
In response to the overwhelming push back the article received, NPR’s Talk of the Nation had Meghan Cox Gurdon on to discuss her piece along with one of the offending authors mentioned in the article, Lauren Myracle. It turns out Myracle had called Gurdon’s thoughts “idiocy” in a blog post right after the piece ran in the paper. NPR called their discussion “Author Apologizes to Wall Street Journal Critic” but after listening I’d say that was generous of them. Her “apology” went like this: “I should welcome people who aren’t on the same page with love and generosity.” Nonetheless, it’s worth a listen if you were interested in the recent kerfuffle.
If you’re interested in young adult fiction there are plenty of thought pieces going around lately. In an article in The Atlantic, From ‘The Giver‘ to ‘Twilight,’ Young Adult Fiction Helps Teens Grow Up, pop culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg has an interesting piece on what trials and tribulations of young adult characters teach their readers.
And back to basics, author Michael Sims has just written a book about how E.B. White came to write Charlotte’s Web, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. In his essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sims discusses his research:
“During my research into the inspirations for and the writing of Charlotte’s Web, which took me back to White’s early childhood, I was intrigued by many aspects of his personality: his anxieties and hypochondria, his passionate defense of free speech and civil liberties, his one-man campaign for world government. But nothing else about him caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.
In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb’s tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey.”
Listen to (or read) NPR’s Fresh Air review. They’ve also included an excerpt.
Do you read young adult fiction? If so, do you think it’s become too dark? What were some of your favorite books growing up? What do you read now and why?
On my shelf:
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Anyone who thinks of themselves as a science fiction fan has at some point read Philip K. Dick. Whether it be his most recognized work, Bladerunner, or some of the lesser known stories, Dick is one of the giants of the genre. Jonatham Lethem recently compiled a three-volume boxed set of Philip K. Dick novels for the Library of America. He spoke about Dick on PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge and when asked which book is a good place for people to start, he included Ubik on the list.
Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
This one’s been on my list for a while. George Saunders is known for his humor and intelligence and I’ve heard nothing but great things about this collection of essays on literature, travel, and politics. He was recently interviewed by BOMB magazine: part one and part two. Here’s an interview with Saunders from 2007 on PRI’s The Sound of Young America with Jesse Thorn. You can also visit his website.
You are Free: Stories by Danzy Senna
I remember reading Senna’s Caucasia when it came out in 1999, the story of a biracial girl growing up in 1970s Boston and struggling with the breakup of her parents. Her new one, You are Free, is a collection of short stories—I’m curious to see where the years have taken her fiction writing. Here she is in 2010 at the LA Public Library discussing “Truth in Fiction; Navigating History”.
What’s on your shelf this week?
My taste in books when younger leaned heavily toward the literal. In grade school Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, a story of a boy coping with his parents’ divorce, was my favorite. In middle school I couldn’t get enough of S.E. Hinton’s wayward characters. In high school I read books about The Grateful Dead, which then led me to Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Tom Wolfe. In my 20s it was Richard Wright, Douglas Coupland, and Irvine Welsh. It’s only now that I’m exploring the realm of make-believe and tracking down the archetypes of the genre, the pioneers who have withstood time’s test. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is one of those books and, although published in 1995, has the feel of a classic.
The Golden Compass, what the Guardian calls “a children’s adventure story,” is the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The accidental adventurer is 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a precocious girl living at, but not enrolled in, Jordan College, a prestigious boarding school in Oxford, England. True to the classic hero’s journey, Lyra is an orphan—told that her parents died when she was young. Now under the care of the school’s Master and her uncle, Lord Asriel, a murky and imposing figure, she roams the grounds in a neglected, semi-unrestrained fashion.
The story begins with Lyra hiding in the Retiring Room, a room at the school where no woman is allowed, not even the maid. Only scholars and their guests are permitted and on that day the Prime Minister’s Advisory Board is holding a secret meeting. Missing an opportunity to leave unnoticed, Lyra hides in a cabinet. Initially afraid she’d fall asleep, she soon finds she had no reason to worry. Her uncle’s slideshow of his expedition to the North, a location near Russia where the Tartars are a threat, is holding her with rapt attention. She’s mesmerized by the photos of frozen landscapes, talk of severed children, and vague mentions of a mysterious Dust.
Not long after Lyra overhears the private conversation, news spreads to Oxford of missing children. The Gobblers, as the kidnappers are nicknamed, soon take on mythic proportions. Lyra’s concern grows when neighborhood children start to disappear and reaches fever pitch when she believes her best friend to be among them. Desperate to save him, she vows to head North where the culprits are believed to reside.
In tow is Pantalaimon, her faithful daemon whose ability to shapeshift into different animals is a handy tool when it comes to Lyra’s needs. One minute he’s an ermine, the next an eagle, then a lion, then a mouse. Described in reviews, although never in the book, daemons are a sort of visible soul, reflecting the true being of their human counterpart. Every human has one but as the person ages the daemon is no longer able to change shape, a feature that gives way to a lesson in self-acceptance.
At one point on Lyra’s trip up North she travels by boat. While passing a school of dolphins, Pantalaimon shapeshifts so he can swim with them. Lyra, able to feel his excitement, starts to worry. Because a human and its daemon can’t be separated from each other for any great distance, if Pantalaimon decides he wants to be a dolphin as his final form, Lyra would be bound to a boat for life. Sensing her anxiety, her adult companion imparts his wisdom on her, and on an astute reader as well:
“Why do daemons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he.”
“Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him. . . . Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.”
“What are they?”
“. . . when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? . . . Waste of feeling, that is.”
Aside from the special effects fantasy calls for—the daemon, for instance—Lyra is, as Pullman said of her, “very ordinary.” Lyra is everygirl and in turn any girl can aspire to be as strong-willed and fearless as she.Lyra is guided by her discerning nature. Unlike many children, due to conventional wisdom, she denies adults equal consideration, never obeying them blindly. Throughout the book she relies on her instincts to evaluate, and reevaluate, her loyalty. The Literary Review pointed out the biblical parallels, calling her a “latter-day child-eve”. Metaphorically, Lyra defies the laws of Eden, tests what is forbidden, and refuses to submit to the control of an authority figure.
It’s important to note that in the Jewish tradition, as opposed to the Christian interpretation, Adam and Eve’s exit from Eden was their entrance into adulthood. They were no longer innocent, protected children. When the Guardian pointed to this in an interview with Pullman, saying he took “the Jewish view of Eve. Namely, that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it” the author responded, “exactly right.”
It’s hard to imagine, in the face of this religious inference, seemingly innocuous, that Pullman comes under close scrutiny for his atheism, of which he is open and unapologetic. The issue features prominently in nearly all his interviews and often threatens to drown out other topics. Arguably, the media has legitimate grounds since he writes for children; to be fair, C.S. Lewis was asked about his born again Christianity. While reading The Golden Compass, I found Pullman to be more of a tame doubter than a rabid Richard Dawkins type.
In another interview conducted with the Guardian, Pullman answers a 13 year-old boy regarding the importance of reading in one’s youth using the word “soul”. He says that reading is “part of what makes us fully human. Some people manage to get through life without reading; but I know that if I’d had to do that, an enormous part of my mind,” he then concedes, “or, my soul if you like, would be missing. No one should be without the chance to let their soul grow.” Dawkins on the other hand, says in his book The God Delusion, that an atheist is a “philosophical naturalist . . . somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles”.
Through a conversation between an unwitting hot air balloon operator and a witch, Pullman wades into the philosophical conundrum of free will.
“You speak of destiny,” he said, “as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?”
“We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not, “ said the witch, “or die of despair.”
Most striking about this brief exchange is the trust Pullman has in his young readers. He believes in their ability to comprehend, or at least glean something from, these difficult questions. No one can accuse him of naivety either, having been a middle school teacher for 18 years prior to his success as an author. He knows his audience well and obviously thinks highly of them.
Lyra’s journey, as with Eve’s, is ultimately one from adolescence to adulthood. Throughout her quest she navigates mature situations—the dark lessons of death, conspiracy, violation, and betrayal, but also the value of true friendship and dedication to those you love.
With these life lessons subtly peppered throughout, it should come as no surprise that the Guardian, when comparing JK Rowlings and Pullman, said that “Pullman’s stories are seen as intellectually sounder, the more heavyweight read in a world where children’s fiction is read by adults.” When read at the age long past that of the intended audience, you’ll wish the trilogy had existed when you were a teen. But there’s no need to fret, if read side by side with a young adult you’ll have a great guidebook to help them navigate that bumpy adolescent terrain.