Children’s literature maven Monica Edinger recently wrote a thoughtful response to a recent Slate piece on the “epidemic of niceness” that plagues the modern publishing industry.1 Both writers voice their frustration over the dearth of negative book reviews online.2 Here’s an excerpt from the original article:
“But if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.” Jacob Silverman, Slate
For me, reading is too often an experience of discovering that the emperor has no clothes. When that happens, I feel betrayed by my community (Somebody should have warned me!). And yet, when I read an openly negative book review, it turns me off. While I agree to the importance of quality criticism, quality criticism is no fun.3
There is, however, one safe place where negative reviews thrive: the celebrated book
While I bite my tongue about contemporary books I dislike, I am more than comfortable speaking out against boring old books. I am not alone here; the internet is awash in snarky takedowns of overrated classics. For more contemporary targets, one only need look at the upper echelons. For every hundred glowing reviews of Freedom, you can be sure there will be a BR Meyer review attacking it.
Sometimes these dissenting voices come off as prophets, other times they come off as attention-hungry trolls (Armond White, anyone?). I think there is a sense that a successful work can afford to be taken down a few notches. Perhaps this is true, but since when has that been the purpose of criticism?
In Edinger’s comments, she mentions that SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog stands out as a place where honest criticism is alive and well. I agree with her, and I think the blog gets away with that because of its conceit: any book mentioned there is already a contender for the Newbery. There is no such thing as a bad book on that blog, only varying levels of good.
I think the success of Heavy Medal speaks to a larger point. Perhaps the reason bad books do not get panned is because we subconsciously know they are undeserving of critical engagement? And perhaps this is the way it should be? What is the value of our greatest literary minds attacking Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that has no literary aspirations?
Let us save our very best criticism for our very best books — because those are the books whose flaws are worth discussing, and those are the authors who we want to see grow.
- if the name sounds familiar, I posted about her last year ↩
- This is a problem that goes beyond just books. Just a few weeks ago, there was the notorious fanboy uprising against the reviewers who dared criticize the latest Batman movie. ↩
- As Edinger points out, things get even more complicated with children’s literature because adults are not the primary/sole reader. Who wants to be the jerk who disparaged a child’s favorite book? ↩
I’m a fan of the science-fiction blog Io9. A few weeks ago, they posted a pretty nifty piece of forgotten versions of famous movies. Among the list were several children’s literature adaptations, all of which are free watch on YouTube. (Hooray for the public domain!) Highlights include silent versions of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as well as a saxiphone-laced Finnish adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Click any of the below images to read the whole list:
I’ve recently been reading a lot of short stories by Edwardian master Saki (the pen name of HH Munro). The stories are largely wonderful — a combination of funny and macabre that I haven’t seen since Roald Dahl. Speaking of Dahl, he was a huge fan of Saki. Here’s his blurb on the back of the Complete Works:
“In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point. I love that. And today the best of his stories are still better than the best of just about every other writer around.” – Roald Dahl on Saki
Why is this interesting? Well, I have recently been thinking about Betsy Bird’s SLJ poll of the top 100 children’s books — in her piece on Matilda, Betsy mentions a rumor that the character of Matilda was originally conceived to be “a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death. Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today.”
This seems like a good comparison, but for the fact that Belloc’s Matilda is not terribly smart.1 So imagine my surprise and delight when a few weeks ago, while reading Saki’s short story “The Boar-Pig“, I encounter a shrewd little girl named Matilda Cuvering whose sole mission in life is to terrorize stupid adults. In the story, Matilda humiliates and extorts a pair of social climbers trying to crash a garden party. And she doesn’t limit her wrath to adults:
“I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong … It seems [My aunts] thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle … Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle.”
Of course, we’ll never know for certain whether Dahl had this character in mind when he created Matilda Wormwood, but I can’t help but wonder.2
Ever asked yourself why science-fiction came about in the 19th century? Recently I listened to a series of interviews that Bill Moyers conducted with science-fiction wizard Isaac Asimov.1 Asimov gave a description of the origins of science fiction that really grabbed me:
“The fact is that society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history for a variety of reasons. … It was only with the coming of the industrial revolution that the rate of change became fast enough to be visible in a single lifetime. So people became aware that not only were things changing, but they would continue to change after they died. And that was when science fiction came into being (as opposed to fantasy and adventure tales) because people knew that they would die before they could see the changes that would happen in the next century so it would be nice to imagine what they might be.”
Sounds pretty dead-on, if you ask me. If you want to watch the whole interview, click the link below:
- Asimov Fun Fact: he is one of the only authors in history who has published books under all ten major headings of the Dewey Decimal system! ↩
A few weeks back, awesome teacher Mark Holtzen wrote in with a question. His class was just finishing a unit on Roald Dahl, and he wanted me to share with them how Dahl has influenced my writing. I figured my response might be of interest to readers of The Scop:
I think one of the things that makes Roald Dahl so fascinating is the way he writes grown-up characters. A lot of people talk about how he always makes the adults in his books mean or stupid … but that’s only half the story. For every Trunchbull there is a Miss Honey — a person who helps the hero become who they were meant to be. When I think of my favorite characters in Dahl’s books, I think of the wonderful grownups who guide and care for the young heroes:
Miss Honey from Matilda
The Queen from The BFG
So based on what he’s saying there, it seems like his adult characters — good and bad — are actually meant to be a lesson for young readers about how to grow up. Dahl wants everyone who reads his books to see the difference between a dreadful parent and a delightful one … and hopefully resolve to become the latter.
This is something I tried to remember while writing Peter Nimble. The book has its share of awful grownups, but there are also one or two adults in Peter’s life (The Professor, Sir Tode, Simon) who are a bit more “sparky” … and having those grownups in your life makes all the difference.
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.
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)
The above picture is from Kelly Butcher’s excellent blog, the Lemme Library. Note the second name on that checkout list!1 Yesterday I had the honor of teaming up with fellow Abrams’ author Tom Angleberger to write a guest post for Kelly on a topic very dear to my heart: What to do when you hate a classic
It’s a lively conversation and definitely worth checking out if you’ve ever felt at odds with the critical mass. (Tom may or may not refer to Peter Pan as “dreck!”) In the post, I mention three books that I was forced to read in school that turned me off from reading: The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Romeo & Juliet by … some dude … can’t remember his name …
Anyway, a few readers expressed a desire to learn what about those particular books bothered me so much. I thought I’d take a crack at answering the question here!
First off, a disclaimer: I am not saying these books are actually bad, only that my experiences with them were negative. But the fact remains that they did more damage than good.
The Yearling – I read this book in seventh grade Language Arts class. Nothing too pointed in my criticism beyond the fact that this book had nothing to do with me or my life. By that age, I was enough of a reader to know that there were many wonderful, exciting books out there. But instead of reading Ray Bradbury or SE Hinton, we were stuck with this story of a farm kid and his pet deer. What was the damage? The choice of text led me to believe that great stories (which I read at home) and English Literature (which I read in class) were completely unrelated things.
Romeo & Juliet - I read this play in grade ten. There is a common problem in pop culture where Romeo & Juliet is peddled as a love story when it’s actually a cautionary tale. Even as a young adolescent, I could tell that whatever Romeo and Juliet had going on between them was not real love — certainly not an ideal to aspire to. And yet the play was presented to me as some kind of timeless love story. I remember reading it and thinking, “If this is Shakespeare’s idea of true love, then he doesn’t really know much about the world.” What was the damage? When I later read other Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream), I was unreceptive; I had already made up my mind that this was a writer who had nothing to teach me.2
A Tale of Two Cities – I don’t know what makes educators think that this book is a good introduction to Dickens — yes, it’s short, but it is also devoid of Boz’ trademark humor and charm. I read this in my junior year of high school, and I hated every word.3 I already knew and liked some of Dickens more kid-friendly stories (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol), and I deduced wrongly from Tale of Two Cities that this was what happened when authors wrote “serious” books … they got boring. I suppose a positive effect of this experience was that it drove me to further embrace children’s literature as the sort of stories I wanted to write!4
So those were a few classic books with which I really struggled. I’ve since gone back and re-read the latter two, and I have to say they were better the second time around. I’m not sure whether a different teacher could have gotten me to respond to the books or whether I was simply too young.
My wife and I were discussing this topic yesterday, and I asked her what the solution might be. She said the best thing for her in high school was a (wonderful) English teacher who alternated between fun and challenging texts: students read one difficult assigned book, and then they read one book of their choosing (from a list). Seems like a nice carrot-and-stick compromise!
- I would be lying if I said the thought of Peter Nimble checking out a book also read by Lucy Pevensie and Edward Tulane didn’t make me cry a bit! ↩
- Of course I could not have been more wrong on this point — I owe a tremendous debt to both Julie Taymor and Niel Gaiman for setting me straight! ↩
- Looking back now, I think I struggled because I lacked the necessary historical context. To really appreciate this book, you need to have a sense of both the French Revolution and the Victorian social reform movement — only then can you start to understand why Dicken’s English readers would be interested in things that transpired half a century earlier in a different country. ↩
- It took me even longer to come around to Dickens; I didn’t start reading him again until I went to graduate school and met an pretty young Victorianist with pigtails! ↩
Few picture books seem to be so divisive as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. 1 While the book has no shortage of fans, many other people protest how the story sentimentalizes (and promotes) a one-way relationship in which a Tree gives and gives and gives without ever getting so much as a “thank you” from the capricious, selfish boy.
This criticism puts me in a mind of one other great doormat in literary history: William Dobbin from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.2 In a nutshell, Dobbin is a sweet, loyal soldier in love with the vapid-but-beautiful Amelia Sedley. Dobbin spends much of the book as Amelia’s friend, caretaker, and confidant — putting up with an endless stream of abuse in the process. At first a reader admires Dobbin’s loyalty and firm character, but slowly we start to get the feeling that we are not watching a hero, but a chump.
One of the most shocking (and delightful!) moments in the book comes late when Amelia — who has since fallen on hard times — finally condescends to accept Dobbin’s oft-repeated proposal of marriage. And that’s when something wonderful happens: Dobbin rejects her! He finally shows some self-respect and demands a woman who actually appreciates him for who he is. Awesome.
Unlike Vanity Fair, The Giving Tree does not have this satisfying reversal — at no point does the Tree stand up for herself. Instead she continues to be exploited and (the narrator would have us believe) continues to be “happy”.
What could Shel Silverstein have been thinking?
I’ve recently been spending a bit of time with the book, and I think I’ve found some things in the text that actually complicate the offensive “doormat reading”. Let’s dive in …
2) WHAT KIND OF LOVE? An essential assumption of the doormat-reading is that the book’s relationship is meant to be an allegory for romantic love.3 However, there are clues in the book that indicate that the dynamic is much closer to parent/child than girl/boy. Consider the fact that the boy moves from child to old man, while the tree essentially stays in a fixed state, always older and wiser. Consider the fact that the Tree shows no jealousy or feelings of betrayal when the boy courts a girl under her eaves. Consider the fact that at every stage, the boy comes to the tree as a provider, rather than a romantic companion. I don’t know why, exactly, but I am much more comfortable with the doormat reading when it is taken out of a romantic setting. No matter what happens, the parent in a parent-child relationship always maintains a degree of dignity and power.
1) “BUT NOT REALLY” Every scene in The Giving Tree ends with a refrain: “And the Tree was happy.” Some readers see this phrase as a tacit endorsement of the relationship — and the boy’s terrible behavior. This, however, assumes that the author is being completely straightforward with the word “happy.” Wouldn’t it be nice if Shel Silverstein found a way to indicate that the refrain “And the Tree was happy” was, in fact, ironic? Lucky for us, he does just that! Right before the final scene, Silverstein adds a twist: “And the Tree was happy … but not really.” Of course this does not instantly negate all of the Tree’s aforementioned happiness, but it does point to the fact that the author understands the difference between declaring oneself happy and actually being happy.
3) “I AM VERY TIRED” I have long maintained that an author cannot hide from his ending: the final scene of every story works as a key with which the reader can unlock and interpret every scene before it. Throughout much of The Giving Tree, it does indeed seem as though Silverstein is sentimentalizing a doormat relationship. The end, however, tells a different story. In the final scene the boy returns to the Tree one last time, now old and decrepit. He is made to remember all the things that he has taken from the tree, each one more humiliating than the last (“My teeth are too weak for apples,” “I am too tired to climb,” etc.). While he does not openly apologize for his past behavior, I do think that some sense of remorse is implicit in his tone.4
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I suspect the one thing missing for people are the actual words “I’m sorry.” The old man may be sad and humiliated, but he is not repentant in a way that we wish he were. To this I would answer that an overt apology would undermine the entire book. The point of unconditional love is that it has no conditions.
Of course, we will never know what Uncle Shelby meant to say in his book. However, I tend to believe that if there are two valid readings of a text — one of which makes the book awful, and the other makes it better — we would be best served to grab hold of the reading that lets us enjoy the book. Call it an Occam’s Razor of Interpretation.
- The movie Blue Valentine contains a charmingly direct critique of the book, which you can read about here. Also a nice article on Silverstein’s unlikely rise to kidlit stardom here. ↩
- Mary and I have long hoped to one day name a dog “Dobbin” … it is a good name for a loyal friend. (Also, for the curious, the title of this post is a reference to Vanity Fair’s subtitle: “A Novel Without a Hero”. ↩
- This is a moment where CS Lewis’ exploration of The Four Loves becomes very helpful in articulating such differences. I would argue that Giving Tree haters assume it is a story of “eros” love, whereas defenders see the book as a portrait of “agape” love — the love that transpires between God and mankind. ↩
- You will notice that this is the only scene in the book in which he does not directly ask for anything from the tree. Perhaps because he is too ashamed? ↩
This morning I read an engaging rant on a topic close to my heart: Whither the children’s book?1 The post came from Australian Judith Ridge’s excellent book blog, Misrule. “Misrule” is the name of a cluttered, sprawling home (think Von Trapp family crossed with the Lost Boys) in Ethel Turner’s Australian classic Seven Little Australians.2 Mary and I have, in fact, long dreamed of one day christening our own home “Misrule” and then filling it with lots of ill-mannered children.
Ridge’s post bemoans what she sees as a trend in the book industry of labeling books written for children as “Young Adult” … some even going so far as to call chapter books “Young Young Adult.” This is obviously a market-directed phenomenon, and thus something that will pass after a few more YA movies flop at the box office3
Of course, this new trend begs an old question: what is children’s literature? It’s a slippery question because for every rule you put down (Rule #1: “Children’s Books Feature Child Protagonists”), you can find an adult book featuring the same trait.
After many years of wrestling with this definition, I came across one trait that might actually apply to every children’s book … and is virtually antithetical to adult literature. It is something my wife (who studies Victorian children’s literature) learned while working with children’s literature scholar June Cummins. Are you ready?
children’s literature assumes a teachable audience
This is not limited to books with obvious morals. Nor does it specify that this “teachable audience” must be a literal child. Rather, it specifies a tone in which the author is speaking to a reader who is still unformed in his/her opinions.
I understand that this is an infuriatingly-vague definition. It’s akin to “defining” comedy as being anything that’s funny. But unlike the a posteriori checklists obsessed with reading level and plot specifics, Cummins’ definition is both parsimonious consilient.4
What really excites me about this definition is that it might also be applied to YA books … and it goes a long way toward explaining why some Young Adult titles feel like adult books and others feel like children’s books.
- thanks to Fuse #8 for pointing me to the story! ↩
- Seven Little Australians is a delightful book that, along with The Paper Bag Princess (Canada) and The Wonderful Adventure of Nils (Sweden), seems to have been relegated to “local favorite” rather than part of the larger international canon. This is a pity. ↩
- Note how Cowboys vs. Aliens and The Walking Dead are not being touted as a comic book adaptations — quite the change from five years ago when everything was boasting its comic creds. ↩
- Which my freshman geology course instructed me was essential for any good scientific theory! Go college! ↩