Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Riff: Move Over, Steampunk!

In looking back over the children’s fantasy books I’ve been reading for the last few years, I think I see a new trend forming on the horizon. And, unless you count Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire books for adults, which I don’t, I am proud to say that children’s literature is leading the charge on this one.

Do half a dozen books make for a trend? Possibly—read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and draw your own conclusions. Me, I’m going to go out on a limb and at least predict a new trend, a subgenre I like to call rural fantasy. Now, “rural fantasy” isn’t nearly as cool a term as “steampunk” (e.g., Phillip Reeve’s Larklight and sequels), but it seems an apt counterpoint to the recognized subgenre of “urban fantasy,” as practiced in young adult literature by Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterley, and Holly Black. (I’ll admit I thought about the term “backwoods magic,” but it felt just a little too Hatfield-and-McCoyish.)

Savvy is the most recent example and has gotten the most recognition so far. Joseph Helgerson’s Horns and Wrinkles (2006) is number two, I would say. A less well-known book, Marly Youmans’s Ingledove, is another contender, along with its predecessor, The Curse of the Raven Mocker (2003). Another example of rural fantasy would be Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon, by Sally Keehn (2007), as well as Keehn’s earlier work, Gnat Stokes and the Foggy Bottom Swamp Queen (2005). The Witches of Dredmoore Hollow by Riford McKenzie (2008) is the last book on my list.

I suppose we could add Jodi Lynn Anderson’s May Bird and the Ever After (2005), along with its sequels, except that the rural girl who is its main character spends most of her time in the land of death, not her home town, which I’m guessing makes it Bangsian fantasy instead. (Anderson has since gone on to write Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-type contemporary realism about teenage girls in a rural Southern setting with her Peaches trilogy.)

I hope the Southern belles and the Appalachian folks won’t mind that I’m grouping their work together under one heading, but it does seem to share a similar sensibility. And just what is that sensibility, you may ask? Why, it’s pluck, dagnabbit! Much as I love classic British fantasy, it’s great to see someone come along with a new take on magical storytelling. Not that we’re talking about cross-Atlantic rivalry, but an American tall tale flavor permeates the books I’ve mentioned, particularly Savvy and Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon.

Savvy is arguably the most successful of the group. Rather than being grandly elven, its magic is on the home-cooked side: members of the Beaumont clan have talents like going back in time twenty minutes whenever they sneeze or saving snatches of music in mason jars. Though Mibs Beaumont’s brothers’ talents are more awe-inspiring—channeling electricity and calling up storms—even those gifts have a kind of front porch feel in this particular setting. It only takes a traveling Bible salesman with his troublesome stock of pink Bibles to complete the picture. If Savvy had a guardian angel, I imagine it would be Sid Fleischman’s McBroom, all dolled up in overalls and wings. Savvy is getting a lot of much-deserved critical attention, including a recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award.

Of the two Appalachian tales, Ingledove is dark where Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon is light, although both are quest stories. Moody, atmospheric Ingledove features an orphaned girl who travels the mountains with her older brother, seeking answers about her mother’s hidden homeland of Adantis. When her brother is attacked and then stalked by an evil creature in the guise of a fey young woman, Ingledove must go to the Witchmaster for help. Together they journey beneath the mountain, looking for a cure before spirit-poisoned Lang can be completely destroyed. Marly Youmans creates an unusual mix of Celtic and Cherokee magic in this book.

Sally Keehn based Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon in part on two English fairy tales, one about the lost moon and another called “The Three Heads in a Well.” And speaking of body parts, Keehn’s book has a great first line: “Dear All and Sundry, I mean to visit my brother Milo and give him back his foot.” Magpie Gabbard is so rollicking it makes Savvy seem tranquil by comparison. You should know that Granny Goforth has a prophesying kettle, Gabbard honey has teeth-whitening properties, and goblins have stolen the moon. But Magpie is more than equal to tracking down the moon, let alone ending a backcountry feud and returning her brother’s foot.

Joseph Helgerson’s Horns and Wrinkles opens with Claire being dangled from a bridge over the Mississippi River by her cousin Duke, who has just swiped her box turtle, to boot. When he drops her but she floats her way down, while Duke takes a tumble of his own and ends up sprouting a rhino horn, Claire concludes that “Something rivery is happening.” We soon discover that Duke has to perform a highly unselfish act to keep from turning into a rock troll. Fortunately, the plot turns out to be more adventuresome than instructional. I look forward to reading the sequel, Crows and Cards, due out in April 2009.

I was less impressed by The Witches of Dredmoore Hollow, although I’m hoping Riford McKenzie will pick up steam in his next offering. He has such a great name, for one thing! And his main character, Elijah, is quite promising, as are some of the details of the boy’s encounter with his witchy aunts, who take an inordinate interest in the appearance of Elijah’s first chin hair. Turns out Elijah’s mother never told him she comes from a family of witches and that she is the cause of them losing their magic. Elijah has always been a chicken, but when he observes strange happenings in the family cemetery and then his parents disappear, he finds out his everyday worries have seriously underestimated the potential for real trouble.

So—what are we to make of this sudden sprouting of fantasy set in the backwoods, the back hills, or the back forty? I think one explanation is that writers have felt a need to distance themselves from Hogwarts. It seems that after the first wave of imitation died down, J.K. Rowling inadvertently prompted another kind of Renaissance in children’s fantasy writing, a backlash that is giving us fresh and welcome books to read, including the ones in the infant subgenre I’ve described. Will the woman’s influence never stop?

Of course, it’s only been a few paragraphs and I’m already starting to think about changing the name of this possible subgenre to “tall tale fantasy”—maybe that way we could include Shannon Hale’s graphic novel, Rapunzel’s Revenge, which might otherwise fall under Westerns. Another upcoming fantasy that sounds like a Western is Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, part of her new Frontier Magic series. (Shades of Josh Whedon’s Western sci-fi show, Serendipity!) Still, any which way you slice it, seems like Americana is taking over fantasy right about now... What do you-all readers, writers, parents, and librarians think about that?


Marly Youmans said...


Found the Book Aunt while searching for an anthology review! I shall have to go and take a look at your website.

Thanks for mentioning my books. I have written quite a bit of short fiction that would fit into your comments, including one piece that's online as a reprint: It's a sort of tall tale and won the New Writers Award in Albany back in 1989, which meant money and publication and a reading at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, all of which was great fun--I was nine months pregnant and crossing my fingers that the reading would go well.

Oh, I am dense--I have a "rural" book coming out this spring in two limited editions from P. S. Publishing (UK) that is set under and on trees (California redwoods). It's "Val/Orson," a book that is one of those "between the cracks" books that feels like fantasy even though it's not quite. It uses the old Valentine and Orson legendary materials. It's not being marketed as a children's book, though my former editor at FSG wanted it for his young adult line... Another way it's "between."

Marly Youmans said...

Okay, now I have visited your website and see that you mean "work with" RM in regards to your first book, right? Have you worked with MF since? I shall have to read your book...

Your website is quite cunning; I like the tower spire.

And I love Hans my Hedgehog!

And I like your name as well--makes me think of "the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know." "Coombs" is a grand name.

Gerb said...

Kate, you inspire me. To that end, I am bequeathing the butterfly blog award to you.

Charlotte said...

There's also The Girl Who Could Fly--more rural pluck!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post--I've been trying to figure out what to call these books. We loved Savvy AND Horns & Wrinkles. And I haven't seen the others on your list, so now I have more for my list.

(Just came over from the comments section on Jen Robinson's post about reading to kids!)

Kate Coombs said...

Charlotte, I just got my copy of The Girl Who Could Fly from Amazon--thanks for the recommendation!

Becky--Glad you liked the post! I'm hoping more people will write this stuff. It just adds dimension to children's fantasy, I think.

Deva Fagan said...

Hi Kate -- What serendipity! Thank you for reading Fortune's Folly -- Bloodhound is indeed fine company to be in. I've still working on the Protector of the Small series but have Terrier waiting for when I finish.

I actually found your blog originally while looking at reviews of Thirteenth Child, which I'm reading right now and enjoying quite a bit. I'm commenting on this entry because I would love to see more fantasy with that sort of "Americana" feel, as you discuss here. (And not just because I myself have a second novel due out next year in a fantasy setting influenced by Louisiana bayous and Florida everglades)