Monday, February 23, 2009

Anarchy of the Imagination: Why I Love Children’s Books

The only law I’ve ever been inclined to break is the speed limit. I believe humans need some kind of social structure in order to live well, and I’m basically a solid citizen. Among other considerations, social anarchy strikes me as being shortsighted.

But when it comes to the imagination, I’m all for anarchy. And children’s book writers are some of the most subversive people I know. One obvious example is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, AKA the best picture book of all time. This book actually makes my mother uncomfortable, I suspect because she’d rather not be reminded that kids can be little monsters.

The audacious thing about children’s books is that they cast children as heroes and then refuse to spare them from the law of consequences. In the best children’s books, parents are generally absent from the scene as young characters struggle, problem solve, and pretty much take over the world, sometimes even saving it. In contrast, parents are the ultimate deus ex machina, so they are wisely avoided for pages on end. Max and his mother forgive each other at the conclusion of Sendak’s book because that’s what families do, but in the meantime, Max bravely faces and tames his own ravenous monsters.

Roald Dahl is another author known for his anarchic tendencies. The adults in his books are often despicable, for example the aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the headmistress and parents in Matilda. It’s easy to get caught up in this child-against-parent dynamic and feel, like my mother, vaguely troubled by it. However, Dahl’s adults are ultimately peripheral: what’s more important is the creative problem solving practiced by his young characters. After all, if your guardians are deeply evil, it’s a fantastic idea to befriend some oversized bugs and escape in a giant, rolling piece of fruit.

Where most television shows emphasize predictable solutions to paltry problems, children’s books offer their readers endless possibilities. These books go beyond encouraging kids to think outside the box. In fact, said box lies moldering and forgotten as children travel into enchanted forests or ride swift horses into the distance or follow winding paths of friendship in more realistic settings. The promise of unexpected possibilities is one of the great gifts of children’s literature.

I noticed that an Amazon customer recently reviewed Ingrid Law’s book Savvy with disdain. She was particularly bothered by the fact that Mibs and her friends and siblings choose to get on a bus with a stranger, clearly a high-risk social behavior. But Law isn’t writing a TV episode about serial killers, she’s describing an archetypal journey. Questions of protection are left behind when literary characters dive down rabbit holes, walk through wardrobes, or fight secret wars with their peers (see Printz winner Jellicoe Road). Two of the challenges Mibs faces are figuring out how to get where she’s going—in part by solving the discouraged Bible salesman’s problems—and how to make her savvy serve her cause even though it isn’t what she wanted it to be. Not talking to strangers is an easy real-life lesson to remember. Mibs’s problems require far more effort, imagination, and courage.

In Mo Willems’s books, characters are inclined to make assumptions about the world, and those assumptions regularly turn out to be wrong. That’s what it’s like to be a child, of course. Elephant and Piggie work it out together, but Pigeon is on his own, fighting an inexplicably uncooperative, faceless team of grown-ups. When his assumptions get turned upside down he must adapt, and fast, learning to think in new ways. For example, the Pigeon is sure he will love having a puppy—right up until he encounters one. But his enthusiasm is not squelched. Instead he quickly comes up with a fresh solution, a shiny new goal for himself.

In my favorite chapter of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, young Bod sets out to buy a headstone for his new friend, the ghost of a witch. Like Voltaire’s Candide, he is not nearly as frightened by the obstacles he encounters as he should be. When Bod’s original plan doesn’t work, he comes up with a new one, never losing sight of his compassionate purpose even when he must escape from a menacing pawnshop owner.

The cleverness, courage, and creativity of children's book heroes is one kind of anarchy: these young characters defy the limited expectations of their elders. A more overt type of anarchy is the necessity of avoiding adult supervision in order to accomplish the tasks of the plot. This is so familiar to readers of children's books that we tend to overlook it. Anarchy can also be a literary theme or a character trait. As such, it may be celebrated openly, as in Brock Cole's picture book Larky Mavis or a YA I just read, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Other times anarchy is a whisper, really just the power of a character being so thoroughly him- or herself. Winnie the Pooh is quietly determined to do his own thing, as is supposedly sweet Sara Crewe in the classic, A Little Princess. These subtler heroes may be just as powerful for the young reader as those more obvious warriors clankingly clad in full armor.

I was just talking to a teacher who gave his new student a typical writing assignment to test her skills: "Describe your favorite place." When she handed in her paper, my friend expected to see yet another description of "My Room" or "The Beach." But this girl had chosen well: Her favorite place was her mind.

Together, children’s book writers conspire to build a vast, edgeless playground of the imagination where children can deal with surprising situations in surprising ways. In this space, moral behavior is often rewarded, but so is creativity. Whereas in the real world, kids encounter few true opportunities to stretch their creative muscles and take risks, children’s book writers trust their young characters and the readers who accompany them to accomplish miraculous feats in the land formed from ink and myth.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Review of Medusa Jones by Ross Collins

Ross Collins’s Medusa Jones is kind of like Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief for second graders, which means it's more about saving face than saving the world. Medusa’s parents have forbidden her to turn her classmates to stone using her snaky hair, so the worst of them tease her without any fear of payback. Medusa’s best friends are her fellow geeks, a centaur named Chiron and Mino, a boy minotaur. In typical school story style, her enemies are the popular people: Theseus, Perseus, and Cassandra, AKA the Champions. Of course, teachers like spiteful Miss Medea aren’t much help, either.

Collins has a good time with the idea of Medusa as a semi-ordinary girl. That is, extraordinary things are introduced as if they're ordinary. For instance, Medusa's parents had to work out a deal with the post office after her grandmother turned several postal carriers to stone; the victims now populate the family garden as terrified-looking statues. Oh, and Medusa’s puppy is a too-cute three-headed Cerberus.

After getting teased at school (e.g., “Little Miss Hiss”), Medusa tries to solve her hair problem by going to a famous hair stylist—one of the funniest scenes in the book. Then it’s time for the class field trip, which is entirely unsupervised for some reason. Naturally, the Greek Geeks are thrown together with the Champions, and here’s where Collins’s plotting gets awfully predictable.

Still, in a niche where Flat Stanley sometimes seems like the only interesting option, Medusa Jones is a most welcome entry. I’d like to see a sequel, and I’m hoping the author will come up with a more intriguing plot next time in order to do justice to both his humor and to his young character, the scaly-haired and very likable Medusa Jones.

A Review of Scat by Carl Hiaasen

After I read Hoot and Flush, I tried reading one of Carl Hiaasen’s books for adults and ended up reading all of them. Then a few days ago I read Scat, Hiaasen’s third book for children. The phrase that comes to mind for describing Hiaasen's South Florida world with its colorful characters out to destroy--or rescue--endangered species is “gleeful anarchy.”

When we first meet Mrs. Starch, “the most feared teacher at the Truman School,” she is terrorizing students, as seen mostly through the eyes of Nick and his friend Marta. But when Mrs. Starch focuses her attention on Duane Scrod (AKA Smoke), he’s not quite as intimidated as he’s supposed to be. Duane, who seems like a delinquent, turns out to have a hidden side—and so does Mrs. Starch. Smoke picks a zit instead of answering the teacher’s question in Biology, whereupon she ruthlessly assigns him to write an essay on pimples. A few days later, when she disappears in the Black Vine Swamp during a field trip and a forest fire, suspicion falls on Smoke, whose name does refer to certain arsonist tendencies.

Of course, nothing is quite that straightforward in one of Hiaasen’s books, and thank heavens for that! When the ironically named Bunny Starch fails to reappear, Nick and Marta start trying to find out what has happened to her. They meet a strange man named Twilly who claims to be their teacher’s nephew. They wonder why Smoke has started acting like a human being. And they eventually stumble across a scam involving an oil company and an endangered puma.

While he’s at it, Carl Hiaasen casts a satirical eye on schools with his portrayal of headmaster Dr. Dressler and educational politics, not to mention the worst substitute teacher in the world; no, make that the universe. Wendell Waxmo punishes students by making them sing, but that’s nothing compared to his teaching techniques: “[O]n Mondays I always teach page 117—and only page 117—regardless of the subject matter.”

A subplot involving Nick’s father being injured while serving in Iraq is handled matter-of-factly, yet with quiet, wrenching tenderness as the boy tries to show his dad his support. Many writers would have trouble making this subplot work while keeping everything else going, but Hiaasen pulls it off.

One thing I noticed is that Scat, like Hoot and Flush, is billed as being for 9- to 12-year-olds, but I thought it was a little tougher than the other two, and not just because of the use of a few words like “dumbass.” Hiaasen is a subversive kind of guy, and it shows more here than in previous outings. Then again, Where the Wild Things Are is pretty subversive, as is just about anything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Even so, I would say Scat skews a bit older. The target audience for Hoot and Flush feels like about 10, while the target audience here seems more like 12 or 13.

Despite his famed environmental agenda, I only get the sense the author is editorializing in one spot, and at least it's when the teacher is talking, so a lecture kind of makes sense. Mostly, however, Hiassen does right by readers with "show, don't tell." Scat is a refreshingly nutty adventure that doesn’t have to resort to car crashes to achieve suspense, although there are helicopters involved, also bubble wrap, orange paint and puma poop. Just as long as you're on the side of the pumas, you're safe to enter the wild world of Carl Hiaasen!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sherwood Smith's Latest Books: Thoughts on Feminism and Romance in Children's Fantasy

A lot of girls and women I know really like Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel/Court Duel (originally two books, now published as one): it’s a heady mix of swashbuckling, action-packed fantasy, court intrigue, and romance. In fact, I often recommend the book to young readers still pining over Twilight’s Edward. For better or worse, though, Sherwood Smith has to match the success of Crown Duel in every subsequent book with similar themes. I read A Posse of Princesses last fall and The Trouble with Kings last month—I was delayed in writing reviews, though, because my sister swiped both books and wouldn’t give them back!

I suppose I should backtrack for those of you who haven't read Crown Duel. Inspired by their father's dying wishes, narrator Meliara and her brother Bran set out to overthrow the evil king of Remalna, but the courtiers in the far-off capitol seem reluctant to aid their cause. Though Bran and Mel are Count and Countess of Tlanth, they are untutored in the ways of politics and bumble around, building their rebellion against the king on nothing more than courage and pigheadedness. They also fail to realize that they are complicating a much more sophisticated and well-planned attempt to oust the king. Soon Mel is a folk hero, and the two factions come to work together. But Mel is cranky and defensive toward the leader of the other faction, the Marquis of Shevraeth (Vidanric).

When the rebellion finally succeeds, Meliara reluctantly begins to educate herself in the ways of the court, trying to decide if she should support Shevraeth as the new king. She acquires a secret admirer, along with a little polish and tact, uncovering a plot against the new government in the process. Of course, she and Vidanric have a lot to work out before she can admit how she feels about him. Magic, devious enemies, and the mysterious Hill Folk round out the plot. One of the best things about the book is its moments of unexpected humor. Even more important, Mel and her opposite number are immensely appealing, both individually and together. Mel is constantly misreading situations, but she simply never stops trying, and she has noble aims. Shevraeth is polished on the surface, but is just as single-minded and good-hearted as Meliara in his own way. The moments of romance between the two are funny and subtle as well as tender.

So how do Posse and Trouble stack up? Neither is as good as Court Duel, but A Posse of Princesses is far more successful than The Trouble with Kings, which is a little, well, troubled. Before we talk about the two newer books, however, let's take a look at the larger context: the balancing act required of writers including romance in their books during this age of feminism. You may have noticed that today's children's fantasy boasts a surprising number of freckled, tomboy princesses who save the day on a regular basis. We could call this a PC trend, but I prefer to think of it as a genre evolution propelled by cultural shifts. (Say that three times fast!) Naturally, people in the children’s book community sometimes joke around about the feisty, feminist princesses who have taken over the realm of fantasy, not to mention Zena-like woman warrior characters such as Moribito’s Balsa (see review below).

Despite worries about glass ceilings, American girls growing up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are the most empowered women in history. Aside from the occasional matriarchal society, older models simply pale by comparison. However, fantasy often has a pseudo-medieval setting, which would seem to imply that the women are oppressed. The juxtaposition of strong women characters with a setting that suggests Europe in the 1400s sometimes strikes us as anachronistic, but only if we overlook the very meaning of the term fantasy, which is to say, a created world. Fantasy writers are partly judged on the success of their world-building. Taking a step back, I would suggest that the entire world of fantasy has been rebuilt so that strong female characters are the cultural norm in that larger space.

Another norm in the world of fantasy is "happily ever after," which means, in European fairy tales, a marriage at the end of the story. Detractors of Twilight and its sequels have their reasons for concern, but what the books’ success reminds us is that a typical part of being a tween or teen girl, if not a woman or even a human being, is to yearn for romance, for a happy connection with another person on this planet. Some of the best fantasy books have a touch or more of romance. The idea of wanting a prince or princess to love you, while often disparagingly called the Cinderella syndrome, is more than just a popular theme in literature; it’s still a key item on most people's life lists (George Clooney and Co. notwithstanding!).

Then there’s the related issue of romance novels for adults, which are often considered a tawdry blot on the face of literature in our society.

Romance, while not necessary included in every children’s or Young Adult book, shows up in many of them, perhaps more particularly in the fantasy subgenre, which does have roots in the European fairy tale tradition. Also, whether we like it or not, many tweens and teens are actively looking for romance in their fantasy and other reading. Twilight, however flawed it might seem, is water in the desert for that demographic! But when does the romance in children's fantasy fail, and when does it succeed?

In literary terms, I would say that the characters have to matter to the reader, and the romance can’t seem contrived or rushed. In reference to the idea of strong female characters, we can further ask how the romance flourishes in conjunction with the girl hero’s personal efficacy. In other words, how does the older model of romance in fantasy look when it plays out together with the equally strong idea of the self-sufficient twenty-first century woman?

As a contemporary feminist—meaning, an independent woman of my culturally empowered generation—I find Twilight irritating mostly because Bella keeps saying she isn’t worthy of Edward’s wonderfulness. (The movie, while kind of goofy, does less of that, thank heavens.) Stephenie Meyer can really write characters, in my opinion, but she has trouble with this romance-independence balance.

Of course, different writers handle the issue differently. For example, some books sacrifice romance completely on the alter of the main character’s independence—Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy is perhaps the most well known, although I will point out that many young fans were frustrated by the last book’s ending for that very reason. (Then again, at least the love interest wasn’t demonized. Speaking of which, I recently came across a slightly irate sounding adult self-help book called Kill the Princess: Why Women Still Aren’t Free from the Quest for a Fairytale Life, by Stephanie Vermeulen.)

Other children’s book writers choose the path of compromise rather than sacrifice in their quest for balance. In Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, main character Miri doesn’t end up with the cold and calculating prince, but she does connect with her social equal, Peder, another mountain villager who respects and values her. I’ve also started seeing more picture book fairy tales in which the prince proposes at the end, but the girl says no because she wants to go off in search of adventure. For example, Laura Krauss Melmed and Henri Sorensen’s book, Prince Nautilus, gives us this speech from heroine Fiona: “Prince Nautilus, I cannot marry you now. For years I have longed to see the wide world and its wonders. After this taste of adventure, I am hungry for more!” But Fiona graciously allows the prince to come along as her ship and crew sail off to seek their fortunes. Hudson Talbott’s book, O’Sullivan Stew, about a girl who saves the day by telling deceptively outlandish stories, ends like this: “Oh, it’s funny you should ask me today, Your Majesty. You see, I’ve just decided that after talking so much about the adventures of others it’s time that I go find some of my own.” She does let him know he can come back in five years if he’s still interested, however.

Then there’s The Well at the End of the World, by Robert D. San Souci and Rebecca Walsh. It’s really a very fun book, but a second look showed me that the ending is even more PC than I had remembered. Earlier in the story, readers learn that Princess Rosamond is far better at managing the kingdom than her inept father, who has to be rescued from her scheming stepmother by Rosamond. Then Rosamond puts the kibosh on a hurried wedding to a friendly prince. First she must get to know him better, discovering all of his character strengths: “And Rosamond realized that Egbert, as well as having a sense of fun, was kind and wise and even-tempered—the very virtues he found so appealing in her. They soon fell in love; and, in time, there was indeed a wedding. When he became king, Egbert proved no better at running a kingdom than Rosamond’s father. So she wound up helping them both keep accounts balanced and drawbridges in working order. And with the gold and jewels from her hair, Rosamond helped the needy in both kingdoms, and still had enough left over to buy her father a new set of royal dishes. People would often say what a handsome couple she and Egbert made, but they found their true joy reading good books to each other by the fire every evening, sharing a good laugh, and simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company.” Shades of Cinder Edna! Is that enough Role Model for you? (Note also the Homer Simpson syndrome, in which the heroine’s competence is further heightened by the male lead’s lovable incompetence.)

Books for more mature readers may take a different tack. In Kristin Cashore’s recent Young Adult book, Graceling, warrior-assassin Katsa concludes that she never, ever wants to get married, but might as well have sex with her hunky best friend. Tamora Pierce's warrior heroines aren't as averse to marriage as Cashore's Katsa, though they're pretty blithe about sex. There are more examples of this approach in the YA realm, but you get the idea.

For her part, Sherwood Smith achieves a pretty good balance between old-fashioned romance and new-fangled feminism. Her heroines are generally kind as well as competent and strong minded, while her heroes respect the heroines. The hero and heroine tend to team up to fight the bad guys, though often after an initial misunderstanding worthy of Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen. There's little or no sensuality in the author's books for children/young adults, by the way: Crown Duel has a couple of kisses, while A Posse of Princesses and The Trouble with Kings merely touch on physical longing. A Posse of Princesses actually addresses the question of acting on those feelings in terms of loyalty and choices.

A Posse of Princesses has a Cinderella-inspired setup as Rhis and other princesses are brought to a month-long party intended to introduce eligible young royals to one another, and especially to the event’s host, the Crown Prince of Vesarja. Since princesses are often presented singly by authors, readers may get a kick out of being able to compare and contrast different personality types and approaches to being royal. Naturally, Rhis is kind to people of every station, but beautiful, popular mean girl Iardeth is not. Rhis must use her less obvious influence to combat Iardeth’s sway over the social group and bring out their better sides. There's also a whole lot of flirting going on, but who is sincere, and what does everyone really want?

Then Iardeth is kidnapped, and Rhis and a group of princesses ride to the rescue, pursued by a group of princes who also intend to help. The swashing doesn’t buckle one bit, and Rhis learns a unique lesson about love and duty. However, she and her love interest both acknowledge that they are too young to marry just yet. While undoubtedly true, this slows the book’s ending down a bit, and the well-meaning author is glimpsed here (as in The Well at the End of the World). Still, A Posse of Princesses is a terrific read for the fantasy/adventure/romance crowd.

The Trouble with Kings starts off with a lively premise: Princess Flian finds herself repeatedly abducted by three different royals, each of whom attempts to convince her that he is the hero and the other two are villains. This is partly a detective story as Flian tries to learn who is telling the truth. She is deeply suspicious of all three young men, which both helps and hurts her. Eventually she reorients her loyalties and works to defeat the greatest threat against her own kingdom as well as the rest of the region.

Premise and execution are two different things, of course. This book suffers wildly by comparison to Crown Duel. The biggest trouble with The Trouble with Kings is that the main character and her eventual love interest aren’t that appealing. As a corollary, their romance seems abrupt and unconvincing. Another difficulty is that the plot is so convoluted it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on—and good books, no matter how complex, must provide clarity for the reader. In addition, the multiple abductions take their toll: Smith seems to intend Flian to be a strong heroine, but it's hard to avoid the swoony victim thing when your book really does include that much swooning.

At any rate, while Sherwood Smith fans might still like the book, I would caution them not to expect to like it as well as her others.

I’ll just mention a third book by Smith that I read last summer, A Stranger to Command. This one is a prequel to Crown Duel, giving us the experience of hero Vidanric when he is younger and attending military school in a strange country. While Crown Duel will appeal primarily to girls, A Stranger to Command should appeal to boys, too. WPs (Worried Parents) will find that while the hero does have a girlfriend at one point, their physical relationship is handled tastefully. Still, it's a book I'd recommend for teens, not 9-year-olds. I do agree with the Amazon reviewer who suggested reading this one after reading Crown Duel, not before.

Smith has also written books for adults (and mature teens), featuring a whole lot of military training and pirate fighting on the part of the hero and his friends. Inda, The Fox, and King’s Shield, with the fourth and supposedly final book coming out this summer, are set in the same fantasy world as Smith's books for younger readers, although in an earlier era. They’re very good, but the level of violence and sex means they're shelved in a different part of the library or bookstore. Inda is especially well written, reminding me of a fantasy version of Orson Scott Card’s stunning YA/adult sci-fi book, Ender’s Game.

Sherwood Smith is a strong fantasy writer, and your 10- to 16-year-old daughter will probably like Crown Duel and A Posse of Princesses very much. You might also want to grab A Stranger to Command for your son--or for that same daughter. The Trouble with Kings is a little more iffy. The author's Wren books, an earlier series, are a nice read, though less polished. I do suggest you avoid the author's juvenalia, Senrid and Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook.

Now, as you venture out to the bookstore or library in search of Sherwood Smith's books or any other children’s fantasy, consider that the world has changed, and the genre has changed with it. Wimpy heroines who simply sigh and pine, waiting to be rescued by princes, are pretty much out. How well authors tackle the delicate balance between romance and independence—and how well your daughter will handle the issue in her own life—is the real question.

A Review of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano

The problem is that when a water spirit has to be reborn every hundred years to avoid a major drought, and politics have reshaped the legend to make the water spirit out to be an enemy of the state, it’s awfully hard on the human carrier of the water spirit’s egg. Warrior Balsa is crossing over the Aoyumi River by way of the commoner’s bridge when she sees a carriage on the royal bridge. The carriage crashes, throwing the young Second Prince into the rushing water. Balsa acts swiftly and saves the boy. For her troubles, she is secretly appointed his bodyguard. It seems Chagum is possessed by a water spirit, and his own father is quietly trying to have him killed for the good of the kingdom.

The true hero of Nahoko Uehashi's Moribito is Balsa, a hardened thirty-something female warrior who will let nothing stop her from performing her duty. But as the secondary characters spring to life, we find that each of them is also compelling and dimensional. The emperor’s men aren’t faceless bad guys: for example, we meet the Star Readers, priests who read the night sky for their ruler. One young priest, Shuga, must begin to question the official version of the water spirit legend before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, Mon leads the Hunters, the emperor’s elite group of spies and assassins. An earnest sort, Mon is determined to fulfill his duty by killing the Second Prince. He's got a little Sam Spade thing going as he tries to track down the elusive Balsa, who turns out to be a better warrior than a mere woman should be.

Balsa’s own allies include a couple of beggar children, a healer named Tanda, and Torogai, a wily old woman who weaves magic. Each character, including Chagum, seems realistically conflicted without being scripted. Chagum is properly horrified by the magical egg he carries. He also begins to grow tougher under Balsa’s tutelage, even as he feels loved by the little band of travelers. Together they journey to find the fulfillment of the water spirit’s legend, along with escape from danger.

As if the death threats from Chagum’s own father aren’t enough, Balsa and the Second Prince are pursued by the Rarunga, a demon beast whose favorite food is water spirit’s egg (and who is one of the reasons the legend got mixed up in the first place). Ueshashi’s descriptions of the monster really pop—imagine giant claws emerging from beneath the ground to grab you, with the rest of the creature initially remaining unseen.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is the first of the author’s series of ten best-selling books in Japan, where it is also a TV series (that apparently shows on Adult Swim in the U.S.). This translation by Cathy Hirano just won the 2009 Batchelder Award, the American Library Association’s award for best translated children’s book originally from another country.

Moribito will obviously appeal to the anime crowd, but we should really get this book into the hands of any fantasy or adventure fan. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is one of the best fantasy adventures I’ve read in the past few years. Pick it up for boys who like warriors and monsters or for girls who like kick-butt heroines. They'll join Balsa and Chagum on their quest to save the water spirit and will live in a new world for days.