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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist - Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal -

Op-Ed Columnist - Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal - "“Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”"

Hmm. I'm fascinated by this claim, and somewhat skeptical of it as well. I'm writing a paper right now on the ways in which teenagers are represented as learning in various YA novels, and this may be something I need to think over further.

Editorial Observer - Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader -

Editorial Observer - Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader - "The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger."

(Click the link to read the whole article, which is quite lovely.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Famous Fictional Characters

The Guardian books blog poses the question today: who is the most famous fictional character? Apparently Penguin is promoting a new edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories this fall, and, according to The Guardian--"Sherlock Holmes," it is claimed on the promotional material, "is not only the most famous character in crime fiction, but arguably the most famous character in all fiction."

That's a big claim. The comments section over there suggests some interesting alternatives (Satan? God?), but I thought I'd bring it over here. I've long thought that children's lit provides many of the most famous fictional characters--Peter Pan, Alice, Mr. Toad, Winnie the Pooh. The nineteenth century offers us some important ones: I'd add Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and Scrooge to Peter and Alice, for example.

It seems to me, too, that "famous" here means "detachable from their original context." That is, many of us encounter these most famous characters long before we ever read their stories--if we ever do. So while Wilbur or even Harry Potter are obviously well-known, I'd say they're not as famous as Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, whose names have become bywords. Wilbur and Harry still come in their original contexts, with stories attached, even if we meet them first in film rather than literature.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dreamdark: Silksinger

I read Laini Taylor's Blackbringer just about two years ago, when my wonderful Penguin rep gave me an ARC and insisted that I'd love it. She was right. I loved Magpie, Taylor's fierce and determined main character, and I loved Talon, the faery prince who can't fly but can knit. I loved Magpie's crow brothers and I loved the central premise of the novel, that humans, a more recent evolutionary development than faeries, were inadvertently releasing demons into the world, and that the faeries--along with their crow friends--had to stop it.

I no longer have that wonderful Penguin rep, but Penguin has not forgotten me. (In fact I recently discovered that the Tim Travaglini, senior editor at Putnam in the Penguin Young Readers Group, is a UR graduate--though he graduated the May before I started there.) So I was delighted to open up a package recently with the new paperback of Blackbringer, and the ARC of Silksinger, the next book in the Dreamdark series (due out in September).

It does not disappoint. (Side note: check out Neil Gaiman on entitlement today, and on what series devotees say about them. He's so right, as always.) I reread Blackbringer before starting Silksinger--I wanted to reimmerse myself in the world of Dreamdark, and it had, after all, been two years. I found myself right back in the world Taylor has created--sometimes it can take me a while to enter an alternate world, but Taylor has a knack for making her landscape legible, her characters real, her concerns vital. I care about Dreamdark because it is our world, after all. We are a small part of its concerns, and for the most part a difficult one, but --well, we invented chocolate, so we're not all bad.

Silksinger picks up where Blackbringer left off, with another djinn to recover and another evil to do battle with. It adds new characters--Whisper, the Silksinger of the title, and Hirik, the would-be champion of the lost djinn Azazel--and reuinites us with the old ones as well. The gifts her characters have are ingenious--Taylor weaves magic out of everyday activities like knitting and singing, and even manages to make insects a vital and necessary part of the interconnected world.

Reading Dreamdark, I feel almost as if I did while first reading the Lord of the Rings series--I love this world. When we were kids, my best friend and I inhabited Middle Earth, acting out the journeys of Frodo and Merry and Pippin, imagining ourselves engaged in the endless battle to save Middle Earth. I can imagine kids like me doing that with Dreamdark--with the significant difference that they won't have to cross-dress to do so. Whisper and Magpie, Hirik and Talon, offer up all their skills and talents to their interlocking quests--boys and girls are equally valued, equally needed, in this brave new world. The quests are real, meaningful, and dangerous. The new villain is particularly pernicious, and attractive (it's always a problem when the bad guy is just bad--you wonder why anyone would join up!--not so with this one). The stakes are high, and the solutions ingenious.

My son Nick took over the Dreamdark books before I got to them this time around. He's already decided to wear the tattoos on the last day of school (they are pretty awesome), and he eagerly awaits the next volume. So do I.*

*but we don't feel entitled; I know Laini Taylor has something else growing right now as well as her books.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The multiple glories of Diana Wynne Jones

From The Guardian, my favorite newspaper for book news:

Diana Wynne Jones has a unique record of producing books you can't forget. Her intelligent, imaginative brand of fantasy is, at root, down-to-earth – heroes win humanly, by acknowledging their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, and by behaving nicely to other people and giving them the benefit of the doubt even when they appear to be revolting. The fact that the heroes in question might be nine-lifed enchanters with power over space and time is incidental.

Read the rest:
The multiple glories of Diana Wynne Jones | Books |

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book Review: Liar

I started following Justine Larbalestier's career when Jenny Davidson mentioned the Magic or Madness books on her blog, about three years ago. I loved the Magic or Madness trilogy, which takes place in contemporary New York and Sydney, mostly, but which has a sharp fantastical edge to it. I was hooked by her writing, so I started following her blog, which is one of the must-reads in YA blogging. (And, no, I'm not going to name the rest as I'm sure I'm missing some, but if you start with hers you'll find links to many of the others as well.) I was then able to get my hands on a copy of How to Ditch Your Fairy before it came out, and was equally pleased by it--equally, and in an entirely different way. Where Magic or Madness is, in places, dark and threatening, HTDYF is mostly pretty light; both, though, manage to weave fantasy into what feels a lot like realism. Magic exists in these worlds, but it's not what defines them.

I've just finished Larbalestier's latest, Liar, which is due out from Bloomsbury in October, and all I could say when I put the book down was, "wow." Really.

It's hard to review this book without giving too much away, and while I generally don't care much about spoilers, because I value rereading, I do think it would be unfair to give much away about this novel since it's not even out yet. And since figuring out what's going on in the novel is central to its many pleasures.

So here's what I can say. Micah Wilkins is a liar. And yet she is also the narrator of this novel, and I think in the end she's a pretty reliable one. Except when she isn't--but she always tells us when she isn't. So then again in the end she is. And she lies because she has a secret, a secret that's not hers alone, a secret that she can't reveal. Though eventually she does. Maybe.

But she's got a big problem. Her boyfriend is missing--actually, dead--and the police seem to think that maybe she has something to do with it. She tells them what she can, and she tells us what she can't tell them. And that's where the novel really takes off, for me. Because how does someone who's been lying all her life keep the lies straight from the truth? How could we tell? What does it mean, anyway, to tell the truth if the truth is unbelievable--if, in other hands, it might seem more like a lie? Or if it's--yes, I think this is where we have to go--a fiction?

While I might be making this sound like some kind of postmodern metafiction (and while at some level I think it is), Liar is also a compulsively readable mystery. The fact that the detective may know more than she's telling us keeps us guessing throughout. Set in a recognizably contemporary New York City, in an "alternative" private high school where the teachers go by their first names and the students still don't fully trust them, Liar is about family bonds and family stories, about love and desire and need. I couldn't put it down. Trust me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Children's Classics?

Apparently if you ask the former Children's laureates (British) to come up with a list of "greatest children's books of all time" you get a list that's heavily white and, um, old. (Was Ballet Shoes really from 1936? Shocked me...) I can't really complain about too many of the books on the list, but I could certainly come up with a few newer ones. How about you?

What are the ‘classics’ of children’s lit? |