Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, October 23, 2006

what makes a book great?

No, I'm not going to answer the question; I'm not sure I know. I do know, though, that surprise is a central element in great literature. Something in it--formal, aesthetic, ideological, structural--has to surprise me. Of course to the novice reader everything is surprising: the lost dog actually made it home! The good guys won! Cinderella married the prince!

The more we read, the harder it is to surprise us. We understand how certain plots work, and we look for the ways in which they undercut their own structure, their own generic constraints. I was talking with a student today in my office and tried to explain it this way: genre and series novels please us by conforming to our expectations; great literature pleases us by subverting them.

That's not enough, but it's a start. And my most recent YA read, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, volume 1, satisfies in this regard. To call it a historical novel is to suggest that it dramatizes events and characters from history, and it certainly does so. But it does so in such surprising ways as to make the label seem limiting (though still, not inaccurate). The title character reveals himself so slowly, so carefully, that we are hooked before we know where we're going, and when we get there it seems absolutely inevitable that we would be there even though we could predict none of the turns along the way. If all you know of M.T. Anderson's work is Feed (and if you don't know Feed, you should), this book will surprise you simply with its setting: instead of the future, Anderson has chosen to imagine and realize the past. His love of language, though, remains: he is always looking for the ways in which we bend and shape the language to our own uses, and the limits that our language places on our ability to express--and even to think for-- ourselves. This novel also shares with Feed a concern with disease, with the importance of the body to the mind. And both novels question how democracy can really work, given the limits of the people in whom it (appears to) vest power.

But all that is simply to say that it made me think, and that it's going to keep making me think for a while.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

scary stories

What scares you? Do you like to be scared? Do you like to read scary stories, ride thrilling rides, go to scary movies?

I don't. I used to go to scary movies, as a teenager, but I could only take them in a large group, with lots of editorial commentary to keep us all laughing. I still remember going to see The Omen with a group of friends and having someone break some incredible tension by whispering, "Did you know many parts of the pine tree are edible?" Trust me, it saved the moment. We all collapsed in laughter, and I don't really remember the rest of the movie.

I was a nervous kid. I was the babysitter who checked behind the shower curtain, who put a hand on a sleeping kid's back to make sure he or she was still breathing. I was the kid who had to have a light on in the hallway, who couldn't sleep with the door closed, who spent time considering whether it was better to fall asleep facing the door (and the light, and the source of potential threats) or facing the wall (thus perhaps buying me a few more moments of oblivion before the threat materialized). I didn't need to read or watch scary stories; I had enough of them in my head.

I didn't really find too many books scary, though. This was before Goosebumps (no, I'm not going to link!), after all. I didn't find fairy tales scary, or adventure stories, or fantasy/quest novels. In all of them, as Lewis says, there's the acknowledgement of evil, but also the sense that it can be overcome. G.K. Chesterton says, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." I think maybe that's what I got from fantasy tales as a child.

But I also missed a lot in my reading. Teaching "Hansel & Gretel" the other day I was again reminded of how selective we are as readers, how much we willingly ignore or forget. All my students remembered the candy (or gingerbread) house that Hansel & Gretel encounter in the woods; few remembered why they were there in the first place, which is because their parents abandoned them in the woods deliberately, fearing starvation. Fairy tales tell the truth about human life: it is, as Hobbes would have it, nasty, brutish, and short. But it can also be altered for the better, as Hansel and Gretel discover. They eat the candy house, they outwit the witch, and they return home with her wealth to discover that their (step) mother, the brains behind the abandonment plan, is dead.

It's a scary story. But it's also a reassuring one. Sometimes we have to wait for that reassurance (the last novel I taught, Coraline, is a case in point), but if it's there, then the scariness has a purpose, even a value.

In other cases the scariness isn't quite scary enough. In my seminar the other day we were talking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then again yesterday about A Wrinkle in Time, and in both of them I think the authors may pull their punches a bit. Lewis wraps up Aslan's death and resurrection in a matter of hours, after all (does it bother anyone else that Edmund doesn't even know of it?), and then has the lion rally the troops by suggesting that they have to "defeat the witch before bedtime." Nothing deflates the threat of that battle like the homely reminder of the nursery. And in Wrinkle--which in many ways I like quite a bit--the conclusion is so rushed that we forget exactly what the scary thing was. Meg gets her father and Charles Wallace back, yes, but what about IT? What about the Dark Thing? In all of the Time Quartet books, in fact, a cosmic threat is replaced by a personal one. And that's fine--L'Engle is clear throughout the novels that the micro- and the macro- can and should be considered together--but we too rarely return to that cosmic level to see exactly what's happened and how the personal story has reframed or defused that cosmic threat.

It's a delicate balance, and one that each reader and each writer, no doubt, must find for him/herself. I have students who recall being scared out of their wits at Where the Wild Things Are, and others who demanded a nightly reading. And I've already written about Nick and Finding Nemo. (He'll hate me for this later, won't he?) I'll keep avoiding the thrills for their own sake, but I'll just have to test the waters with the scary stories again and again.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Beowulf, good & evil, and (again!) fantasy

Dad's post the other day on, among other things, the presence of evil, resonates nicely with what I'm reading right now, C.S. Lewis's "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." In it Lewis says:

"Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense."

and yet more on fantasy

From Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories," again:

"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make" (74-75).

From an interview with Philip Pullman published in The Lion and the Unicorn (23:1):

"People talk to me, or talk about me, as if I were a fantasy writer, and then expect me to know all about other fantasy writers. Northern Lights [The Golden Compass, in the US] is not a fantasy. It's a work of stark realism."

[edited to add one more bit from Tolkien:]
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it" (87).

Monday, October 02, 2006

more on fantasy

Tolkien says it well (I like his essay "On Fairy-Stories" so much more than I like his novels!):

"If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. . . . If written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."

For "fantasy," read "imagination" but also "strangeness." For "recovery," read "defamiliarization." And for "consolation," read "grace." For Tolkien, as for Chesterton (more on him another time), fantasy's primary value is spiritual: it offers a kind of hope that realism frequently cannot, by virtue of its imagined flights (escape!) and its promise of something better.

There are fantasies that end with the death of the hero (Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy is a surprise entrant in this one), or with separation (think His Dark Materials), or loss (I think they all do this). But the impulse to continue to invent, to imagine, to tell another story, that is implied in the best of fantasies, is profoundly optimistic even in the face of loss.

One thing that makes for bad fantasy, then, is loss that doesn't matter, or consolation that feels unearned--too easy, too quick. I have to admit I can feel this way about C.S. Lewis's fantasy novels: Aslan's death lasts only a few hours, and isn't even known to most of the characters, after all. And to refer to death as "the holidays," as he does in The Last Battle, seems to cheapen the deaths that have led up to this end. But again, more for another time.


I love fantasy literature, but I think it's a relatively recent passion with me. Oh, I read the Tolkien books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Madeleine L'Engle's books as a child, but I really spent more time with the Little House books and other domestic realism. Or that's how I remember it now. I was slightly embarrassed in my teenage years by my pre-adolescent love of the Tolkien books, in particular: how could I have spent so many hours in obsessive fantasy-play with those characters, when there weren't even any girls? And what was the point of all that sword-and-sorcery stuff, anyway?

I re-encountered fantasy, after a hiatus of at least twenty years, when my daughter was small. We read the Narnia books, and I didn't much care for them any more. I read her the Tolkien trilogy, ditto. (I did, and do, love The Hobbit, but the trilogy, with its faux-medievalism and its high seriousness, not so much.) I rediscovered Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander, and those went considerably better for me than the earlier ones. Then we discovered, nearly simultaneously, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. And somehow the floodgates opened, and I began teaching children's lit, and I read The Giver and A Wizard of Earthsea and The Neverending Story (that one I do remember from late adolescence) and, more recently, Skellig and the Chrestomanci books and some Terry Pratchett.

We are living, it seems, in a golden age of children's fantasy, perhaps the third one ever. The first was of course inaugurated by the Alice books and followed up by George MacDonald and a host of other writers; the second, by Lewis and Tolkien. Now we have Gaiman and Pratchett, Pullman and Rowling. Notice the connections? I've got one woman on that list, and not one American. Even if I add LeGuin and L'Engle and Cooper, still it's a list dominated by white British men. And, as a student of mine noted today, it's white British men writing about little (white British) girls--just as in the first "golden age."

Things are, of course, more complicated than that. Many of the books I mentioned are about boys, in fact, and their gender politics are more complicated than mere protagonist-identification could suggest. Britain now isn't Britain then, and the same could be said for little girls.

But this has gone on too long and I haven't even gotten to my point, which is how much bad fantasy is out there now. Has it always been, and I just didn't notice? And how do I distinguish between bad fantasy and good? Here's a start:

The best children’s novels are those that make the real magical and the magical real.

(from a review by Amanda Craig in the Times)

So, the question for the day is: how do children's fantasies make "the real magical and the magical real"? And can domestic realism do the same?