I’ve just finished reading AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is not a book for children. It is a sprawling, virtuosic chronicle about idealistic artists at the turn of the 20th century. The “main” character is based on real-life children’s author E Nesbit (named Olive Wellwood) and the book primarily concerns itself with Olive and her family. I’m a big Nesbit fan, so this book was fascinating.
The thing that most struck me in the book was the fate of Olive’s oldest and most beloved son, Tom. Tom is beautiful and smart and kind and innocent: he is presented as a character from a book caught in a harsh world. The novel shows Tom’s tragic decline as the victim of betrayal: abuse, cruelty, deception, parental infidelity, and (implied) addiction. But none of these are what kills Tom. Instead, it is his mother’s writing that drives him to suicide at the end of the book. Since he was a small child, Tom’s mother has been writing him a special storybook (“Tom Underground”) that was written just for him. As Tom grows up and becomes more and more troubled, these stories serve as a sort of life-line for him. But then his mother mines these private childhood stories in order to create a beautiful and successful stage play. Tom only discovers this on opening night, when he’s watching from the audience. Shortly after, he drowns himself.
The book has many disturbing elements, but this was the most disturbing by far: that the selfishness of Olive Wellwood in her writing harmed her son more than anything else. This mirrors a real-life tradition of authors publishing private stories originally created for/with children: Christopher Robin, Alice Liddell, the Davies Boys, etc. None of those children fared well in adulthood. I’ve never quite understood the nature of such trauma. Like many others, I have always assumed that there must be some other explanation for why the children grew up to be bitter and miserable. (There is no shortage of speculation about abuse.) But Byatt argues in The Children’s Book that commodifying and publicizing the private worlds of a child’s imagination is trauma enough.
Byatt forces readers to ask if the cost is too high. Yes, we have Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but those masterworks came at the expense of real people’s happiness. I consider myself a loving father and husband, and I certainly do no conscious harm to my children. But I have always been unapologetic about using details from real life in my books–it’s all fair game if it serves the story. Byatt’s novel made me reconsider this long-held stance, which is no small thing.
This last week for my Children’s Literature course, we read Treasure Island. This is a book I have loved for a long time — the character of Old Pew was a major influence on Peter Nimble.
Recently, I had students watch a lecture by Mike Hill about the subtextual themes of Jurassic Park. Hill does a great job explaining how great stories contain a primal/Jungian undercurrent that runs beneath the surface plot — in the case of JP it was about the anxiety of creating a family.
The lecture paid off nicely while discussing Treasure Island this week. When we look at Jim Hawkins’ journey through Hill’s lens, it becomes clear that Treasure Island is the story of a boy who has lost his father and refuses to accept that reality. And so he searches for replacement father figures, all of whom disappoint him in different ways until he can finally accept the truth: he is no longer a child.
I have long thought that the true climax of Treasure Island comes not when they find the treasure, but in a scene right before that, where Jim defies the advice of the morally-upright Dr. Livesey to break his promise to Long John Silver and escape:
“Jim,” the doctor interrupted, and his voice was quite changed, “Jim, I can’t have this. Whip over, and we’ll run for it.”
“Doctor,” said I, “I passed my word.”
“I know, I know,” he cried. “We can’t help that, Jim, now. I’ll take it on my shoulders, holus bolus, blame and shame, my boy; but stay here, I cannot let you. Jump! One jump, and you’re out, and we’ll run for it like antelopes.”
“No,” I replied; “you know right well you wouldn’t do the thing yourself–neither you nor squire nor captain; and no more will I. Silver trusted me; I passed my word, and back I go.”
This is the defining test of Jim’s character — a moment where he places the integrity of his word as an English Gentleman over even his life.
It calls to mind the values of the age so well captured in Kipling’s poem “If …?”, another text we read for this class. A daunting list to be sure, but one I think this book strives for:
For those interested, you can see the Hill lecture pasted below. It’s worth checking out!
Earlier this year, I took a break from my own novels to play in someone else’s sandbox: The Burning Tide is the heartstopping conclusion to the blockbuster Spirit Animals series.
These books are all written by different authors–including names like Shanon Hale, Garth Nix, Brandon Mull, and Marie Lu. Fans of the books are also encouraged to log onto Scholastic’s site, where there’s a pretty impressive video-game world that fills out the experience. Click here to read an excerpt of the first three chapters. It was great diving into the world of Spirit Animals … hope you enjoy!
When I teach my Children’s Literature course, I always start with a lecture on the “Golden Age” of children’s literature–starting with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and ending (to my thinking) with Peter & Wendy. I wrap up the lecture by identifying six Golden Age children’s authors who set the template for what the genre would become in the century to follow. On the list is L Frank Baum, who I credit with creating something that has perhaps had the greatest impact on contemporary storytelling: platform worldbuilding.
The 1939 movie has made such a cultural impact that it’s hard to remember the Oz books for what they really are. Baum’s books weren’t just about Dorothy and Toto. There were dozens of Oz stories containing hundreds of characters. The books continued even after his death. Baum himself wrote 18. They were published around the holidays and it was a tradition among children to get the new Oz book for Christmas. He wasn’t just telling a single story, Baum was building a WORLD.
Storytelling utilizes three main tools: character, setting, and action. At various points in history, popular stories have emphasized one or another of these elements. Presently, we are entering an age that celebrates setting above all. Today we value not just compelling narratives (Shakespeare) or characters (Dickens), but settings rich enough to contain a multitude of characters and plots. Think of visionaries like Tolkien, Gygax, Lucas, Roddenberry, Jack Kirby — their legacies are not single narratives so much as entire universes. Part of the reason this brand of storytelling has ascended is because it allows the creation of franchises–which are very valuable. Another bigger reason is because it fits more seamlessly into interactive storytelling (video games); what is World of Warcraft if not an ever-expanding narrative landscape?
One might argue that Scott or Homer worked within this tradition, but I think the real innovator was Baum. In Oz, Baum created a place that could contain infinite stories … which was a pretty radical concept at the time. So the next time you see yet another Star Wars movie in the cineplex, or yet another version of Zelda at Gamestop, thank Baum. or curse him.
Every fall I teach a class at
Hogwarts Chatham University’s MFA program. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with young writers and talk about children’s literature! This year, I’m shaking up my standard reading list, and I thought I’d share it for those who want to play at home:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Peter & Wendy by JM Barrie
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls (movie) dir. JA Bayona
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
A lot of thought goes into the selection of a reading list. Even the best books can get stale over time, and it’s important to strike a balance between books that teach well (Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web) and books that excite me (A Monster Calls, Crenshaw). This year, I decided to multitask and include a number of books that tie into my own current work in progress … which is to say that there are CLUES about my next novel buried in this list!
So … I have another book coming out this year! It’s an installment in the juggernaut Spirit Animals series, created by Brandon Mull. It’s a fantasy series about a band of kids who each have magical animal companions. It was really fun taking a break from my own characters to spend a little time in another author’s world–I even got to kill off a main character! (True story: freedom to kill a character was a requirement for my taking the job.) Here’s a summary from the astonishingly comprehensive Spirit Animals fan wiki, which I used quite a bit while writing the book:
Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan are four heroes who are split between worlds, braving separate paths in order to stop this evil. With a strange and unlikely new group of allies behind them, the young guardians have a real chance at saving their home—but they will have to move fast.
An ancient trap exists, hidden within the folds of Erdas itself. Though it has the power to end this war for good, the means of starting the trap have been lost. The young heroes only have one shot. They must work with their spirit animals to uncover a secret older than time. If they can’t, then everything will be consumed.
Find out more over here!
I am delighted to announce that after more than 4,000 hours of writing, Sophie Quire & the Last Storyguard is finished!
This book has been without question the most difficult challenge of my career. Two years is a lot of time for most writers, but for me it was a sprint that very nearly broke me. More than a few times, I considered abandoning the book altogether. But every time I got to that point, I thought of Sophie — mending books in a city that no longer read stories — and I knew I had to finish.
Sophie Quire is technically a companion to my first novel, Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes — but it is also a standalone story with a different hero set in a different world. The combined books are in many ways an examination of what it means to live in a world that has lost its sense of enchantment. Peter Nimble and Sir Tode are a major part of the story … but it is not their story. The tone is darker and the stakes are much higher. Also, it has way more monsters! The book will come out Spring 2016.
I cannot wait to share this story with the world.
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