First off, a note for the locals: I’m having a signing this Sunday at 5pm at lovely Laguna beach books! You should come by and say hello! For directions and more info, click here. If you can’t make it, I’d love for you to spread the news by Tweeting the word — just click here!
ON TO REAL BUSINESS: This week there was a kerfuffle about a NYT op-ed by children’s lit scholar Maria Tatar called “No More Adventures in Wonderland.”1 Tatar argues that children’s books of the present lack the “redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”
Lots of people in the kidlit community got very upset by this article. I urge you to read the comments at the School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal and Fuze #8 blogs. I generally agree that Tatar is exercising some willful blindness (I’d hardly call Peter Pan a “redemptive” figure), but I also think the children’s publishing community does themselves a disservice by automatically shouting down an established children’s literature scholar such as Tatar.
For my money, the best response has come from Monica Edinger, who took a moment to consider why Tatar chose Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland as her touchstones.2 Edinger rightly observes that both books were very much about the act of constructing a world in which actual children (the Liddels and the Davies) were meant to play. In fact, story details in both Neverland and Wonderland were actually taken from these children’s own playtime adventures.
Perhaps what Tatar is trying to say is that in this current market of well-plotted, well-written stories — ones that adhere closely to the rules of dramatic structure — we lose the chance to create worlds that are incomplete … places that invite a child not to re-create the actions of a hero, but to inhabit the same spaces as the hero inhabits?
This subject looms large in my mind right now because my wife is currently writing a dissertation that deals with the role of “child worlds” in early children’s literature. Tatar might have given the wrong diagnosis, but her op-ed still speaks to a legitimate difference between books of today and books of the past. Any contemporary reader of Alice in Wonderland will have to admit it contains a pretty lack-luster story … but what a world it creates.
For a completely different view on the subject, I urge people to check out this recent article from Salon magazine that argues for the value of teens reading adult fiction — darkness and all.
I’ve got an interview up at the WIRED GeekDad blog today. This is a big deal for me, as I’ve been a gigiantic fan of the blog ever since they taught me about this dot-matrix printer made from Legos and Crayola markers:
I was interviewed by Jonathan Liu, who also happens to be a virtuoso Etch-a-Sketch artist. Check it out:
And while you’re at it, check out our interview. Mr Liu and I covered a ton of great topics — including the importance of men modeling reading, the impact of nonsense on children’s literature, the writing process, Laurence Sterne, yo-yos, etc. Also, I finally talk about the single work of children’s literature that influenced me more than any other! (Hint: it’s NOT Peter Pan!) Wanna know what book it was? Find out here.
“Before we are citizens, he thought, we are children, and it is as children that we come to understand freedom and authority, liberty and duty.”
– Orson Scott Card
“The dew lay heavy and thick upon the grass by the roadside, and over the miles of network that the spiders had woven from blossom to blossom of the heather. The dew is the Sun’s breakfast; but he was barely up yet, and had not eaten it, and the world felt anything but warm.”
Juliana Horatia Ewing
The Brownies & Other Tales
This weekend, I’m headed up to Portland for the Wordstock Writer’s Festival! I’ll be doing signings, reading, a few panels about writing for young readers (with a whole host of awesome authors). What’s more, I’m also teaching a workshop this Sunday:
This topic was borne out of a recent observation made by Mary. It came during the heat of final revisions for Peter Nimble. I was cursing how much extra work it was to tell a visually rich story from the perspective of a blind child — going through every line to make sure I wasn’t taking my own sight for granted. Mary heard my grumbling and responded with typical perspicacity: “But isn’t that what you always do? You only pick the stories that force you to write with one arm tied behind your back.”
Of course, she was right. I have never had a shortage of story ideas, but the projects I actually finish all contain some ridiculous formal hurdle that makes them insanely difficult. Why write a feature film when I can write a silent feature film? Why tell a horror story when I can tell a horror story for children? Why inhabit the real world when I can build an entirely different world from scratch?
Readers love stories that tackle hurdles, but writing them is a serious pain! Now, however, I’m starting to believe that the formal challenge is the very thing that gets me through a draft — long after I have grown bored with my plot and characters, I have this “Pet Hurdle” to keep me involved. Since then, I’ve started doodling pictures of my Pet Hurdle:
Isn’t he cute? The workshop on Sunday will walk writers through the process of identifying the Pet Hurdle in their own work-in-progress and give them some tools for turning that challenge into an asset.
It makes me wonder: if Peter Nimble hadn’t been blind … would I even have finished telling his story?
Upon seeing an evil ancient god:
“I don’t know how to describe it — it’s like the devil, only I always pictures the devil as nicer.”
The Neddiad ch. 67
Hey, Readers! Today I have a treat for you lucky folk in the form of a wonderful guest post by my friend Rob. Some months ago, Rob and I found ourselves in a debate about stories that include a “chosen one” (read about it here). Rob has some interesting ideas — including a theory as to why Harry Potter isn’t really a hero. I’ll let him explain …
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Hi. I’m Rob. Jonathan and I were good friends back when I was handsomer and less hairy. I live in South Korea (not the scary one), and write a blog about South Korea. I’m no expert in fantasy or young adult books, but I am a breathless lover of awesome things and a frustrated thinker-abouter (some editors prefer ‘think-abouterer’) for things that try to be awesome but fail: for example, stories, songs and raspberry sorbets.
We once discussed what Jonathan called “prophecy stories,” stories featuring “Chosen Ones” like Harry Potter, Ender Wiggin and King Arthur, here, here, here and here. “Chosen Ones” have some great destiny expected (sometimes prophesied) of them. Now, I thrill to a great hero story, but not any old hero thrills me: I’m not easy. So let’s talk about some “Chosen Ones” I adore:
**Spoiler Alerts** for The Harry Potter Series, Ender’s Game, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV series)
Harry Potter started off as my favorite hero ever. The first three books were fun and gripping, the characters were lively and hilarious. Courage, cleverness, and awesome friends helped Harry, and the author threw him a rope when he got in too deep.
Then, in book four, Harry’s preparations for the Triwizard Tournament were as last-minute and half-hearted as his quest for a date to the Yule Ball. When Harry learns he won the tournament because somebody wanted him to, a hero would think, “That should have been my hide. I’d better not bank on luck again.” The time had come to start kicking butt through resourcefulness and preparedness, not courage and luck.
Cue training montage:
Harry forms Dumbledore’s Army. He also lies about his connection with Voldemort, quits Occlumency, walks into more traps, and fails to get the information Dumbledore needs without JK Rowlicis… oops I mean felix felicis.1 Instead of watching a kid learn from mistakes and improve, we watch Harry beat himself up for his mistakes and resent a lot of stuff. Holden Caulfield, yes. Heroic, no.
But the undoing of Harry the hero is this: long ahead of time, Dumbledore and Snape knew Harry had to die to destroy Voldemort2 Except they didn’t tell Harry! In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are,” but by hiding vital information until it was far too late for Harry to do anything but sacrifice himself, Snape and Dumbledore (mostly J.K. Rowling) robbed Harry of real choice.
And that means I read seven books to learn Harry’s a weapon aimed by Dumbledore and Snape, or a cog in Rowling’s plot mechanism: less heroic either way. It means the first three books telling me he was the crucial choice-maker in the series, were misleading me.
Yet I give Ender Wiggin a pass, though he had no choice in Ender’s Game, either. Why? Because once he learned the consequences of his choices, he took ownership of them. Because heroes live with their choices, and learn from them, and change (heroes don’t walk into another trap in book five, and another in Godric’s Hollow, despite what happened to Cedric and Sirius).
Also, nothing in Harry Potter reaches the level of nuance and insight Ender displays here:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them–“
“You beat them.”
Ender Wiggen was special from birth, but he was also recruited for his talent: Ender had to pass a test before going to Battle School to fulfill his destiny. Excalibur didn’t magically come out of the stone for him. His talents, though, made him especially suited to perform his task.3
Finally, which “Chosen One” checks every box? My favorite hero right now is a boy named Aang, from the awesome Nikelodeon cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.
In Aang’s world, some people can “bend” or control one of the four elements — Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. The Avatar is a continually reincarnating person with power to control all four, tasked with keeping the four elements in balance. So … imagine the Dalai Lama was a diplomat with superpowers. But Aang ran from his Avatar training, and got frozen in ice for a century while the Fire Nation took over. Now, he must take up the responsibility he once shirked, master all four elements, and then defeat the Fire Nation king to restore balance.
Traveling with a team of friends, Aang masters the four elements. He learns, in his training and in his relationships. Aang deals with the guilt of abandoning the Air Nation (who were wiped out). He is also a kid, and acts like one. He plays pranks, cracks people up, and makes faces at babies. The supporting characters are humans too, with strengths and flaws, journeys, and tough choices. They suffer loss, and even grieve. They learn from mistakes. Or they don’t. Each earns the fate they receive.
For the final battle, sprits of previous Avatars encourage Aang to kill the Fire King. Aang’s journey has made him hate killing, so he is unwilling to live with having made that ultimate choice. Instead, Aang negotiates a new path, true to his values as well as his duty as Avatar. By balancing his individuality and his destiny, Aang’s “Chosen One” journey is totally satisfying.
These stories show me I like heroes who take control of their situations, earn their victories, and own their choices – including mistakes. Their authors put them in situations where they are real people with real choices, not just props and placeholders. Without these elements, even “Chosen Ones” (perhaps especially them) fail to move me.
Call me picky.
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Thanks for the fantastic insights, Rob! Bloggers Matt Bird and Tanner Higgin have been after me to watch Avatar for ages now … between your three recommendations, I find myself with no choice but to check it out! Ooh, look! It’s on Netflix … (promptly wastes the entire afternoon)
I learned a new word from Daniel Pinkwater’s The Neddiad:
“Melanistic” – adj. referring to animals that have an unusual amount of melanin in the skin tissue, making them darker than normal
“The first thing I saw was an African lion, about one foot from my nose. I jumped … It only took a second to realize that it was stuffed and not alive — but you can go through quite a number of emotion in one second. The emotion I settled on was that it was an extremely neat thing.”
The Neddiad ch. 34