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Children’s Literature for Adults

Madeleine L’Engle is Dead.

I saw the headline in the online edition of the New York Times yesterday, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Meg Murray, the protagonist in L’Engle’s classic, Newberry Award winning series, is one of my favorite literary characters from childhood. I wanted to be her. I probably was her: nerdy, intelligent, sarcastic, a diamond (or at least a white topaz) beneath the rough adolescent exterior of too-thick glasses and a mother who didn’t pay attention to children’s fashion.

When Jack was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time, I handed him the tattered, oversized paperback I had read so many times myself. He looked at it with a sneer. I sighed. It really was falling apart. I had actually taped a few pages back into it as I reread it before deciding that, yes, it was time for him to learn about fewmets and tesseracts.

Barnes and Noble carried the entire series in hardcover. I bought them. Besides looking really swell on the shelf in their matching dust jackets, I knew that these books would never get outdated. Jack’s children will read them, and maybe his grandchildren. Their grandmother- and great-grandmother-to-be has read them again as an adult and finds no reason not to keep them on the shelf. These are not the kind of children’s books that are outgrown and packed away for a future generation. Like our hardcover Narnia books in their cardboard display box, Madeleine L’Engle’s books are meant to be seen and read regardless of my age or Jack’s.

There are a lot of children’s books that are really, really good even for adults. It seems that the “phenomenon” of Harry Potter surprised some of my adult friends, as well as adults all over the world. Books written for and about adolescents don’t have to be sophomoric. Those that aren’t, that are well written and tell a good story, have universal appeal even if they are sold from the children’s section of the bookstore.

There is a trend to make movies of such books these days. Holes, by Louis Sachar, had a great box office return. The classic story of a teenager punished excessively for something he didn’t do, evil jailers with evil agendas, bullies, friendship, loyalty, and karma had just the right amount of symbolism, philosophy and mysticism to appeal to adult book clubs.

Eragon did poorly at the box office, but that should be no reflection on the book. In the tradition of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Eragon was written by 16 year old Christopher Paolini, who followed it with Eldest. The third book in the trilogy is due to be published within the next year. Paolini is an amazing writer, and I expect to see him producing prolific amounts of real literature as his writing becomes more seasoned. Yes, adults who like science fiction, especially those of us who like dragons, will love Paolini’s books.

In the world of Eragon and Eldest, there are no more dragonriders, because the evil king, who has the only dragon left in the world, declared war on them and killed them all. When a dragon’s egg appears mysteriously in the mountains where Eragon, a teenage boy, is hunting, he takes it home. He thinks it is nothing more than an interesting stone until it hatches. Suddenly Eragon is bound to Sapphira, the young dragon hatchling, and the two embark on adventures that are destined to change their world, and hopefully depose the wicked king and bring back dragons and dragonriders. Elves, dwarves, battles fought on the backs of fierce fire-breathing dragons: it’s all there. Personally, I can’t think of anything more I need in a dragon book!

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is being put on celluloid. The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the series, is due to be released in December. I hope it does justice to the book. As always, I fear for the bastardization of the story. Pullman is a British author. In the UK, the first book in the trilogy was released as Northern Lights. For whatever reason the title of the book was changed to The Golden Compass when it was published in the US.

His Dark Materials have been called the antithesis of Narnia. Parallel universes serve as the backdrop for this series, and demons replace the souls which exist outside the bodies of their humans. Children are being kidnapped and used in horrible experiments with the element “dust” which the religious authority believes to be proof of original sin. The themes in the book pull at religion, authority, and justice without insulting any true existing form of religion. The church in Pullman’s books is perverted from the Christianity in our universe. These books challenge the reader think about authority and faith in different ways. I doubt the movie will be able to convey these themes. I will wait to see.

The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud hasn’t yet been brought to the silver screen, and hopefully it won’t be. In case you couldn’t tell form my comments already, I just hate it when movies ruin the fantastic books they claim to based upon. (I know, I know- they’re making a movie, not making the book. Still, I think the movie makers ought to be true to the story, dammit.) In the first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, a boy with innate magical ability is fostered to a magician who neglects him. The boy is determined to learn magic anyway, so he studies on his own. He calls up a demon just because he can, and naturally all hell breaks loose. Bartimaeus is a sarcastic, secretly good-hearted demon, though, and quite a character. Together the boy and the demon expose corruption among the magicians, managing to topple the government of England in the process. Magical duels, subterfuge, roving gangs, other demons with other agendas, exploding buildings, daring rescues from inaccessible towers… sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Cornelia Funke is to German speaking kids what J.K. Rowling is to their English speaking contemporaries. Her first book to be translated into English was The Thief Lord, and it was all the rage among Jack’s 4th grade peers. Since it was a thick book (like Harry Potter), I picked it up. What a story! Think of Oliver Twist and a teenage Fagan doing their work in the labyrinthine canals of Venice. It’s dark, the water is scary, and someone is chasing our orphaned heros… Funke’s next book to be translated into English was probably better than The Thief Lord, though. In Inkheart, a character from a book is called into real existence when Meggie’s father reads aloud. Unfortunately, Meggie’s dad dooms her mother to becoming a character in the book. Someone has to replace the one that was removed, after all! The challenge is to get Meggie’s mom back out of the book, and to put the characters who have escaped back intro the books. Two minor characters, Dustfinger and Basta, really stand out as examples of how a writer creates a fantastic, fully dimensional character.

When Jack reads something and then presses it one me to read, I do it. He reads what I tell him to, as well. This means I’ve introduced him to other books about kids his age that were written for adults, and he’s introduced me to children’s books that ought to be read by more adults.

Jack and I have always shared books. When he was in kindergarten, I’d climb into bed with him and we’d read a chapter or two from whatever book I had chosen. We read the entire Narnia series aloud that year. We also read the first three Harry Potter books that way. I think Jack became a stronger reader because he would follow along in the books as I read them aloud, giggling when he caught me skipping words or saying something that wasn’t actually written. By the third grade he was reading adult level books on his own.

I asked him about books to mention in this blog, and he told me, “Most children’s books are terrible. It’s the same stories over and over again. Kid finds something magic, kid goes on quest, kid meets girl, kid and girl become friends during the quest, kid and girl almost don’t complete the quest, but then find that the thing they need to complete the quest is inside them the whole time, like it’s ‘love’ or something.” Jack liked and likes the books that are original, that have more complexity.

Jim Butcher, the author of the wonderful Harry Dresden, Wizard mysteries, has started a series about people who can call up the elements to do their bidding. Air, water, earth, metal, wood, and fire are at the beck and call of talented individuals in this post-Roman Empire alternate world. The main characters start as teenagers in the first two books, and by the third they begin to come of age. They fight deadly giant insects who possess people making them zombies, go to war against a race of wolf-like creatures, and they get involved in diplomatic maneuvering among nobility with powerful magic. I’m really looking forward to the fourth book in the Codex Alera.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to give to any kid who likes video games. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is probably his best known work, although he is a prolific writer of several genres. The Ender series is pure science fiction. A six year old boy, Ender Wiggin, is sent to battle school where he spends countless hours playing battle-type video games. Although he is initially segregated from the other students, Ender’s status as a strategic battle prodigy earns him the respect of the other students to whom he teaches tactics after regular school hours. Ender deals with bullies among his peers as well as an adult military command that puts him in charge of battle groups over his objection. Spoiler: When it is finally revealed to Ender that every battle he has fought on the video screen has been a real battle against real enemies, he falls into a catatonic state for several days. He has destroyed an entire race of aliens, including their home planet. The books that follow all address xenophobia and mental illness in creative ways. The series should be a classic for adults and kids alike.

Card also wrote an alternate history series with a teenage boy as his primary protagonist. In Seventh Son, the first book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin is known to be a man of incredible talent. He has a “knack” for making things – out of virtually nothing. His almost god-like powers change the world, and in later books characters from history interact with Alvin and have their own “knacks.” Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and the Indian Prophet Tenska-Tewa make their appearances, and Tippecanoe isn’t quite the same.

My philosophy has been to give Jack books that are about kids his own age, and a little older. When I read a story of a teenager who goes on the quest, or is thrust into a position of having to use his wits to survive, I give it to him. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good one for teenagers because a teenager is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, and must act creatively and desperately to save himself. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanarra is the classic quest book that Jack complained of, but its complexity is sufficient to keep not only Jack but plenty of others entertained through a long series of books. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is about adolescents who are prophesied to save the world and fight against the veritable gods of their reality.

I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Maybe it is a bit of science fiction when a man is chronologically challenged, but when he materializes naked at the age of forty-three in front of his six year old future wife, things get interesting. The wife grows chronologically through the book, but never knows whether she will meet her husband in his future or his past.

A girl is identified by a homeless man to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary in The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hollowell. Although her mother tries to protect her from the headiness that comes with being suddenly invested with the power to heal and the power to bless, Francesca’s aunt is more avaricious and sees the potential for making a profit off the situation. As Francesca herself matures, so do her powers. Book clubs loved this selection, because of the possibility of a mass psychosis that either caused or resulted from Francesca’s powers.

I know my list is weighted heavily toward science fiction and fantasy because Jack and I both love the genre. There are other books out there about kids, though, that are great. I’d love to hear what others have read.

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September 8, 2007 - Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Children's Stories, Conversations With Children, Science Fiction/Fantasy

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