Reading Road Trip: “The Willoughbys”

May 18, 2009 at 8:33 am | Posted in Children's Book | 3 Comments

The Willoughbys is an instant classic.  A bit of satire, a bit of black comedy, it was hard to remember that this is supposed to be a children’s book.  It never occurred to me to wonder whether Lois Lowry could do humor, but the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

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My man Rocket Scientist and I are developing a family tradition, wherein we read books together on road trips.  Sweetie Junior, at 14, has adapted to this with enthusiasm.  So as we read The Willoughbys, it was hard to get through each chapter due to disruptive laughter.  We also had to stop to speculate what was going to happen next, which characters were the villains, etc.  Then I had to pass the book back so SJ could see the illustrations, and stop RS from trying to peek because he needed to keep his eyes on the road.

We really enjoyed this book, and I’m certain that anyone who liked A Series of Unfortunate Events would, too.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events”

April 17, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction | 2 Comments

I finally finished volume 13 of A Series of Unfortunate Events.  I’ve been chipping away at them over the past three years.  It’s always a mixed feeling, on the one hand finally knowing the full story, yet on the other hand knowing there won’t be any more of it.  If you haven’t read these yet, I’m going to vote that you give at least one of them a chance.

There are some readers who feel no interest in reading children’s books, and others who tend to appreciate them more with age.  I’m definitely in the latter category.  A Series of Unfortunate Events is like the best cartoons:  it has jokes that work for kids and jokes that sail over their heads, aiming straight for the adult audience.  Many of the characters and locations are named after famous literary or historical figures.  There is one scene in which the children find some strange, unnamed objects; only an adult would be likely to realize that they include the Rosetta Stone and the Holy Grail.  See what I mean?

These books are great for kids because the orphan siblings are polite, get along well together, and enjoy reading.  I like to promote those things; I’m square that way.  They’re also great because they’re quirky and original.  I have to say that I was blown away by the ending because it was so different from what I expected.  I thought, after 13 volumes, there would have to be some kind of grand summation of the fates of all the many characters.  No way did I expect “Lemony Snicket” to break this unwritten rule of children’s fiction.  Surprise!

“Harry Potter” vs. “Twilight”

January 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Children's Book, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 40 Comments

I feel compelled to do this comparison, though I just Googled the phrase “Harry Potter vs. Twilight” and got over 600,000 hits.  Yes, I’ve read all eleven books in both series, a total of 6,709 pages, so I feel equipped to judge.

Okay, first of all, according to reviews like this,* not only are these books not worth your time, but reading them has such a pernicious effect that it might even make you immune to the salutary benefits of Real Literature.  (Pronounced Litt-ra-tyuuure, don’t you know).  I think this is pure snobbery, a snobbery that has prevented untold numbers of people from approaching any sort of book with genuine interest out of fear that books make one socially feckless.  I have credentials, too:  I have a BA in history, I’m a Mensan, and I can read at least bits of six languages in five writing systems.  I read mostly nonfiction, though I have tackled – and understood, mind you – many of the greatest works of literature of every nation.  I know whereof I speak when I say that it is entirely possible to enjoy popular fiction, even popular children’s fiction, while retaining the capacity to appreciate Finer Things.  I also think we should accept that not everyone reads at the same level (not that we can possibly tell what that level is by observing someone read any one particular book), and it is wrong-headed to think that every person must aspire to Faulkner, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky.  Remember what happened to John Stuart Mill.  ‘Nuff said.

What do HP and Twilight have in common?  Obviously, they’re both tremendously popular series of thick fantasy novels.  Both involve teenagers with mystical powers, groups of friends, rainy weather, food, and high school.  Both have protagonists who prefer their fantasy existence to the mundane family life at home, attract the attention of supernatural adults, and are frequently injured.  Both were written by young mothers who had no inkling how popular their imaginary worlds would become.  Both succeed because they follow the guidelines for compelling series:  a large cast of easily distinguishable characters, detailed attention to setting, strong rivalries, lots of action, continuity, plot twists, and plenty of interior monologue.

Other than that, I think the books could hardly be more different.  We’ll start with the superficial and progress from there.

Harry Potter is an orphan who longs for family and becomes recognized for his unusual athletic powers.  He has a beloved pet who is a major character.  Bella Swan has both parents, though she can’t wait for the day when circumstances will prevent her from seeing them ever again, and she’s a colossal klutz.  She has no critters at her house.

Harry is a slob; Bella is tidy and does all the household chores.

Harry inherits all sorts of money, but his best friend is quite poor and he falls for a poor girl, too.  Bella comes from modest means, but hangs out with a wealthy family and falls for a rich man.  Harry is fascinated with shopping, though he does it rarely, while Bella claims to hate it but does it all the time.

Harry finds out he was born with magical powers.  Bella wants to die in order to develop magical powers.

J.K. Rowling kills off major characters.  Stephenie Meyer does not.

The adults in Harry’s world are powerful, wise, perceptive, and sometimes dangerous.  The adults in Bella’s world are clueless, immature, and largely irrelevant.  Harry is a child in a world of adults, forced to age quickly; Bella is the adult in her family, and longs to freeze herself as a teenager for eternity.

Faced with the choice between acceptance by an elite group or friendship with a more lowly group, Harry chooses the commoners.  Bella chooses the elites.

Harry’s world revolves around a battle between good and evil; he becomes more mature and responsible over time.  Bella’s world seems to revolve more around the predator/prey relationship and clan loyalties.  She aims for an eternity of hedonism.

In Rowling’s universe, the fear of death and desire for eternal life lead to ultimate evil.  In Meyer’s universe, the desire for eternal life is an almost unmitigated good, the ultimate fantasy.

Rowling raises the complexity of each book with the age of the characters and their audience.  Meyer writes to one age.

Rowling’s work addresses totalitarianism, diversity, integrity, and the inner battle of man’s dual nature.  Meyer’s work addresses passion, mortality, loyalty, and romance.

Ultimately, the Harry Potter series is a great set of children’s books, while the Twilight series is an absorbing set of romance novels.  It’s not such a simple thing to write books that children or teens will love and read enthusiastically; the same goes for popular fiction of all stripes.  It’s the old Wagnerian debate:  who decides what is great art, the artist or the audience?  If we insist that the artist decides, we’re in for a lot more esoterica, while if we insist that the audience decides, we’re in for a lot more pabulum.  Sometimes.  (At least both sides agree that the critics do not decide what is art).  I’m partial to Harry Potter because I think the stories teach some very strong ethical and even moral values, almost without the kids even noticing.  I hesitate to make similar claims for Twilight, though I still think reading anything at all is better than spending the same hours drooling in front of a television.  Reading escapist fiction is not inherently wrong!

*Bloom is wrong about his claims in the seventh paragraph; if he’d read a bit further he would have found out why Harry was placed with a Muggle family – a detail intrinsic to the larger plan of the saga.  I also take issue with his belief in the third paragraph that he’s read the best of the series.  Most readers seem to agree with me that each book in the series was better than the one before.  Ah, who cares about his opinion, anyway?

Forgotten Classics: “Alice Through the Needle’s Eye”

September 22, 2008 at 6:21 pm | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction, Forgotten Classics | 2 Comments

This book came to my attention when I had just discovered the adult fiction section of the library and sincerely believed I could read through it all if I simply started at the A’s and kept going.  Right there at the beginning of the aisle was Adair, G., and… an Alice book!  I was instantly suspicious, even at age 12, that one author could dare appropriate another author’s characters.  And that was before I ever saw any “fan fiction.”  But Alice in Wonderland was the first chapter book I ever loved, and I had to find out if this interloper could stand beside the genuine article.

I am happy to report that Alice Through the Needle’s Eye was entirely convincing.  If someone had given it to me with the author’s name scratched off, I would have believed it to be Lewis Carroll’s work.  Gilbert Adair knows the rules of Wonderland.  The book has enough charm and whimsy that we could wish he had followed it up with another.  (And it looks like he did do a Peter Pan story, though I haven’t seen it).  I would recommend it for anyone who loves Alice, regardless of age.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret”

July 17, 2008 at 5:36 pm | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction | Leave a comment

Here is an unusual book.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret combines graphic art with storytelling, yet it is unlike other graphic novels.  Sketches and photographs replace the text, sometimes for a single page, sometimes for several, and there are no captions or frames.  Drawing from cinematography, Sedgewick mimics film when he uses multiple pages to create a close-up scene.  It works.  Huge as this book is, it’s a compelling story, and a quick read.  It’s also aimed at the 9-12 audience; in fact I plan to give a copy to my nephew for the holidays.


Be careful with the book.  The black edgings on the pages are somewhat easily marred, causing white divots.  It’s not one I would carry around in my bag.  (Well, that and that it must weigh two pounds).

The Party That Grew

July 12, 2008 at 7:22 am | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction | Leave a comment

(February 7, 2008)

The Party That Grew, by Molly Brett, was my favorite storybook when I was 4.  For some reason I started thinking about it and trying to track it down.  Nobody can remember, though, what I did with the box of children’s books that followed me until I was about 20, so my own copy is lost somewhere in the mists of time.  A coworker of mine who is into antiques actually tracked the book down for me, and I was able to buy it for $1 plus shipping.  It arrived today, and I had a chance to compare nostalgia with reality.
This was the first book I ever fell in love with.  I loved this book so much that one night I made my mom read it to me four times in a row.  She did it, too, which may be why I’m the obsessive reader of the family.  (My brothers had to cope mostly with me reading to them, and failed to be captivated by my 7- and 8-year-old reading skills).  I opened the book, half afraid that my memories would be destroyed by a critical adult eye.
The moment I pulled the book out of the mailer, a charmed feeling stole over me.  The cover illustration was a gorgeous watercolor of a group of birds – just as fine as I remembered.  I flipped through, and each page was like a blast directly from my early childhood.  I must have pored over these pictures dozens and dozens of times during my early days.  They were burned into my brain.  I could suddenly see how I grew into a birdwatcher; the dozen or so birds that appear are done with Beatrix Potter clarity.
Then I read the story itself.  I remembered the basics:  a little parakeet gets lost and has a picnic in the woods with a group of wild birds.  Then he finds his way home, where a replacement budgie is waiting – a girl one – so he settles down with her and there’s a happy ending.
What I didn’t remember was that the picnic comes first, and it’s actually a birthday party.  The story is somewhat sinister.  The budgie, Beakie, is lonely and asks for a birthday party, and his little girl helps him with the invitations and the prep work.  Mom makes a cake with birdseeds and things.  The little girl drops him off in the woods with the stuff, and then leaves.  Beakie and his four friends are going to have a nice party, but then these party crashers come.  One of them brings an owl.  There’s a stampede for the cake, and the sparrow gets all his feathers pulled out.  The owl tries to eat Beakie.  He flies away and gets lost in the woods, where he encounters a fox.  He survives through the night and builds a nest, determined to make it on his own.  But a cuckoo comes and ruins it.  Finally Beakie flies into a town and is almost caught by the police when he gets scared and accidentally wreaks havoc in a pie shop.  He flies out and stumbles across a “lost bird” poster – he’s just happened to find the right house.
I remembered how scary things can be when you’re a tiny kid.  The picture of the owl pulling Beakie’s tail feathers really upset me, and the picture of the fox seriously freaked me out.  The story is all about loneliness, naivete, bullies, getting lost, running afoul of authority, and the fear of being replaced in the hearts of your loved ones.  Granted, it has a happy ending, but it’s more a matter of luck than anything else.  It’s possible the same story written now (instead of 1976) would have involved Beakie either making friends with the wild birds and animals or teaching them a lesson in some way.  Then he would have found his way home through cleverness and good organization skills.  At least his little girl would have said she missed him, rather than just showing him how quickly another bird took his place.
Of course, the most enduring children’s stories usually have scary elements.  We’ve got child abuse – Cinderella; abandonment and poisoning – Snow White; coma and dragons – Sleeping Beauty; poverty – Jack and the Bean Stalk (and probably most of the others); etc etc.  What is it about our young selves that makes us eat up these stories, as upsetting as they might be?  As an adult who went on to read a great deal of the horror genre, I can speculate on this.  I love knowing that what I’m reading is just a book.  There’s an element of control in being able to say, “It’s only a story.”  You can read it over and over again – as I did with The Party That Grew – and know it will always play out the same way.  There’s also a sense that even the biggest problems can be tackled, that good will triumph in the end.  No matter how creepy the tale, you’re still sitting in relative comfort, perhaps wrapped in a blanket, turning the clean, dry pages.
There was something else, though, and I didn’t realize it as a kid.  The Party That Grew is a British book, different from all the other story books I had as a little girl.  The paintings are all on the right-hand side.  The story, on the left-hand pages, is interspersed with pencil drawings.  But it’s much wordier than most American children’s books for the same age group.  (I can’t remember how my mom pronounced ‘budgerigar,’ but I might have stumbled over that one!)  The pacing of the story is different, and everything about the writing screams of England.  The illustrations, too – the British birds and flowers, Beakie’s house, and of course the pie shop – were entirely different than my American life.  There’s definitely an element of class consciousness in the problem of the rude party crashers:  Beakie the budgie and his friend the Robin versus the raucous starlings and Scruffy the Sparrow.
I think what enchanted me so much as a kid was a certain magic that’s hard to put a finger on.  In spite of the frightening aspects of the story, the illustrations are full of beautiful wildflowers.  The naturalistic birds and animals have a certain dignity.  Though they can talk, they move like real birds and animals would move.  Beakie writes his own party invitations, but he has to hold the pencil in his beak (not his foot or his wing) and turn his head sideways.  None of the critters wear clothes, except for one scene when they put on flowers for hats.  To a four-year-old, it could be real!  The pie shop scene is chaotic – a jam tart falls on a boy’s head and an old lady has to put up her umbrella – but the pies and tarts looked good to eat.  It was possible to imagine a real pie shop with every dessert you could think of.  The buildings were charming and clean; the people were tidy and polite.  The very essence of British ideas of civilization shone through somehow.  Unlike all the stories with castles and unicorns and fairies and magical powers, Beakie’s England seemed like a place a little girl could actually see in real life.  Birds, flowers, and a pie shop – what more would you need?
The biggest surprise when I received The Party That Grew was that Molly Brett wrote and illustrated several other books.  I can’t imagine why that had never occurred to me!  Now I have to decide whether it would be worth it to track down any of the others, or be satisfied that the one I have may be the best of the bunch and leave it at that.

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