Sunday, November 22, 2009

Young at Heart

Tackling the "List" from the top!

The “children” and “young adult” genres are favorites of mine, although I quibble with the idea of labeling books as such. (And yes, I know this post is propagating the very classification I’m griping about). Maybe I should clarify that it’s not the label I object to, but the idea that these books are somehow “simpler” or “not worthy” to be read by adults. They often deal with Big Life Questions in a way that is neither patronizing nor pedestrian. Unlike much modern “adult” literature, they get to the point and stick to it. And they almost always make me think about the sort of person I want to be, because this is often the question their protagonists are facing. I like that, because I consider myself a work in progress.

Children are demanding readers. They won’t simply accept as book as “good” because a critic tells them it is. (Confession: I’ve never read a Booker Prize novel that I haven’t detested – or even finished.) If a book’s crap, they’ll shrug and move on, not afraid to say that it “stinks.” The best YA lasts because it is both enlightening and entertaining.

The following books are some of the best I’ve read, period. Most of them can go toe-to-toe with any “adult” novel. They’re certainly better than anything written by Tom Clancy or Jodi Picoult.

Little Lord Fauntleroy, Francis Hodgson Burnett

Poor boy becomes adopted son of crotchety old man, eventually winning him over with his generous heart and affectionate ways. This disarming book is too sweet for diabetics to safely consume, but it’s charming nonetheless.

The Witches, Roald Dahl

Four words: bald witches with psoriasis! And they want to turn all the children of England into mice with Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker! Shivers are running up and down my spine, but I’m still laughing. I must have had this read to me as a child in school, but I didn’t recall much about it. There’s definitely an element of darkness here I didn’t remember. The bittersweet ending is different from the movie, so definitely don’t pass the book by.

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

Bored boy Milo goes on a magical adventure, and has fun with words and numbers! Clever, clever, clever. I was distracted by some personal issues when I read it, so I’ve forgotten much of what happened. I think I’ll have to revisit this one soon.

A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L’Engle

Vicky has one last summer to spend with her dying grandfather at his house on the shore. She also learns to communicate with dolphins. (Kate, I suspect that you must have read and loved this.) L’Engle really excels at creating a sense of place here, and the scenes I’ll remember most are those where Vicky is simply sitting by the water, thinking the thoughts that adolescents think. Count this a coming-of-age classic.

The Arm of the Starfish, Madeleine L’Engle

Rather unique in the L’Engle canon, this is more of a political mystery-thriller than a fantasy/sci-fi adventure, although it does feature Murray-O’Keefe characters and Adam Eddington from Endless Light (though Starfish was written first). Adam travels to an island off Portugal to serve as Dr. O’Keefe’s research assistant for the summer. Dr. O’Keefe is working on the regenerative properties of starfish, and some unsavory international characters think they can use Adam to discover his secret findings… Femme Fatale included.

Troubling a Star, Madeleine L’Engle

Vicky from Endless Light gets the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antarctica (disclaimer: no penguinjas make an appearance in this story). Like Starfish in that it involves international political intrigue. Pleasant enough, and individual scenes stand out, but I don’t really remember the actual plot all that much, except that Vicky ends up stranded alone on a glacier…

Dragon Haven, Robin McKinley

Raising a baby dragon is hard, and McKinley doesn’t spare you any of the grisly details here. (You have to hold them close to your belly to keep them warm, which gives you "psoriasis" -- or at least that's what you tell the doctor. And damn, can they scratch!) Our hero is the son of a dragon researcher, and lives with his dad in the national reserve where America’s last remaining dragons are given freedom to roam as they will. One night, he discovers a dragon dying from wounds inflicted by a poacher. He can’t save her, but her baby’s mewing in the darkness. The only problem? Dragons are protected, but actually saving one is a Federal crime…

The Complete Tales, Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter tales are the perfect “bite-size” bedtime stories. And her drawings are adorable. I didn’t read these as a child, because my American Mom isn’t a reader, and my German Dad only read me what he knew: mythology and Der Struwwelpeter. Maybe I would have been more adjusted if I had? You really can’t compare Peter Rabbit to Little Tom Suck-A-Thumb.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce

A British children’s classic that’s somewhat fallen into obscurity here in the U.S. But it’s a wonderful story about a boy who wakes one night to hear the clock strike thirteen. He goes downstairs and opens the back door of his aunt and uncle’s urban apartment building, only to discover that the gravel-covered backyard has been transformed into a Victorian garden. He returns every night, becoming friends with Hatty, a girl who lives in the house at the time of the garden. But Tom doesn’t notice how Hatty’s growing older, and will the mystery of the garden ever be solved? I really liked this. Gardens enchant me, and the book excellently evokes a time and place where the most exciting thing a kid could do was “go outside and play.” Modern childhood seems so cold and electronic in comparison…

Unfortunately, sometimes even a children’s book by an otherwise decent author can be a complete dud. The following are two unfortunate examples:

Runaway and Swear to Howdy, Wendelin van Draanen

Wendelin van Draanen has written one of my favorite YA books, Flipped, which tells the story of the developing relationship between middle-school neighbors Bryce and Julie. But van Draanen’s other creations haven’t impressed me. Both Runaway and Swear to Howdy were extremely disjointed. Runaway begins as the gritty and realistic story of an orphan girl trying to survive on the streets, but degenerates into unbelievable schmaltz when she is suddenly adopted by two kindly old ladies. Swear to Howdy moves in the opposite direction. It starts with the breezy shenanigans of two mischievous boys, but plunges abruptly into tragedy and darkness. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. Both these books left me scratching my head, wondering what van Draanen was thinking.

Of course, kids aren’t always the most discerning readers. Like adults, they can fall head-over-heels for simple wish-fulfillment tales. It’s the current craze, and I was curious about it, so I read…

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

I can see the teenager I was obsessing over this – maybe. Luckily, we do outgrow some things. Bookish wallflower attracts the interest of the hottest, most mysterious boy at school. He just happens to be a vampire. If future scholars ever study Twilight, it will probably be for the rather obvious “chastity is good” message. You see, boys, like vampires, have appetites that can’t always be controlled around girls who smell good. But if you find one that’s a chivalrous gentleman, he’ll protect you, even if it means bullying you for your own good. Despite the supernatural elements, it’s quite a conservative book. The Byronic hero, Edward, listens to classical music while driving his Volvo. And his opinion of rock music is that the 50s were great, the 60s and 70s detestable, and the 80s were … okay. Sorry, tweens, I just can’t dig a vampire who doesn’t appreciate a good Led Zeppelin song!

posted by Elizabeth at 5:57 PM


Blogger Kate said...

Not only do I believe that I both read and loved A Ring of Endless Light, but I also suspect I have it at home. Perhaps I should read it again soon.

11/30/2009 3:27 PM  

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