Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

For nearly two months, I have been immersed in the world that Kristin Cashore created in Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue, completely swept up in the events of the Seven Kingdoms and the Dells. Every element in these books is perfectly balanced:

  • Character. Each book features a strong female character: Katsa (Graceling) is “Graced” with what others think is the power to kill, but she comes to realize is the power to survive. Fire doesn’t have Katsa’s physical strength, but she has mental grit, and a determination to use her “monster” powers of influence only for self-defense, not to control people as her father did. Bitterblue is neither a Graceling nor a monster, but a queen – and she must figure out how to put her kingdom back together after her father’s manipulative 35-year rule.
  • Setting. Cashore’s talent for world-building is comprehensive. Graceling and Bitterblue take place in the Seven Kingdoms (largely in the Middluns, Monsea, and Lienid), where some people are born with two different-colored eyes that denote a Grace – some kind of special power – and are subject to their kings’ control. Bitterblue takes place in Monsea, but there is news of uprisings and rebellions in other kingdoms, and the discovery of a tunnel that might lead to an entirely new land. That new land is the Dells, where Fire takes place. There are no Gracelings in the Dells, but there are monsters: brightly-colored animals and, rarely, people whose beauty is compelling to others and can be used to mesmerize.
  • Plot. Most of the kings in the Seven Kingdoms are corrupt, and King Leck of Monsea is beyond corrupt: he uses his Grace to control people’s minds. In Graceling, Katsa starts the Council to combat the kings’ unfairness; she teams up with Prince Po of Lienid to rescue his niece, Leck’s daughter Bitterblue, once they realize that Leck isn’t as kindly as his reputation suggests. In Fire, the Dells, too, is about to explode into conflict: the new king, Nash, and his brother Brigan, the commander of the army, face threats from powerful lords from the north and the south. The royal family wants Fire to use her powers to compel captured spies to give up their secrets; she is reluctant, because her father Cansrel used his monster powers to influence King Nax (Nash and Brigan’s father), but she agrees, after setting some ground rules. Just as war breaks out, Fire is kidnapped by a monster-trader and a peculiar, creepily sinister boy with two different-colored eyes.
  • Theme. These books are full of adventure and intrigue; Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue face significant physical, mental, and emotional obstacles, and they all insist on their independence, while also learning who they can trust and rely on. They are determined to do the right thing, but the right thing isn’t always clear; they are especially concerned that they not abuse their powers (Katsa’s Grace, Fire’s monster-ness, Bitterblue’s position as queen). The importance of independent thought – and the danger of the lack of it – is highlighted in each of the three books by the existence of those with the power to control others’ minds, read others’ thoughts and feelings, or communicate wordlessly. Trust and consent is especially important in romantic relationships; each character has to overcome some deception or lie of omission in a relationship and recover from it. The truth – in their own lives as well as the broader historical context – is valued highly.

These three books neatly avoid the trilogy trap where second book merely serves as a bridge from the world-building of the first book to the action, climax, and denouement of the third. Fire is set in another land – the Dells, not the Seven Kingdoms – and precedes Graceling by a number of years. A reader could pick up Fire before Graceling and not, I think, be lost; a reader could also go straight from Graceling to Bitterblue – as I was tempted to do – and not be confused, though the ending of Bitterblue would be less satisfying.

Romance is an element in each of the three books. Katsa and Po, in Graceling, remind me of Lyra and Will in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which is an exception to the “trilogy trap” I mention above) in the way that they face obstacles together. Katsa is staunch in her refusal to marry and insists on her independence; she also has no wish to be a mother, and takes measures to ensure that this does not occur. (Like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, Cashore’s leading women have access to a version of birth control: in their case, it’s herbs.) But just because Katsa won’t marry doesn’t mean she’s a nun, and the attraction and love between her and Po is undeniable.

Fire, too, insists on her independence, breaking off a sexual relationship with her longtime friend Archer when he becomes jealous and controlling (hypocritically so). “You don’t love me as much as I love you,” he says to her, and she replies, Love doesn’t measure that way. Fire finds love with Brigan, the king’s brother and the commander of the army; having seen firsthand Cansrel’s effect on King Nax, Brigan is suspicious of Fire and guards his mind against her. Their relationship is a slow process, but is all the stronger for it as they learn to trust one another.

Bitterblue begins to fall for Sapphire (Saf) while she is in disguise, and when he finds out her true identity, he is furious. His reaction causes Bitterblue to examine more deeply her identity as queen, and the wealth and power she has taken for granted. They reconcile (more herbs are required), but like many first loves, they are not meant to be; my guess is that Bitterblue ends up with Giddon, in whom she often confides and to whom she promises always to be honest.

Cover image of Graceling

Graceling, 2008

World-building, adventure, intrigue, and romance aside, the cover designs deserve to be mentioned. Beautiful and timeless, they represent their main characters’ talents (fighting/survival for Katsa in Graceling, archery for Fire and her friend Archer in Fire, ciphering and keys for Bitterblue) and colors (Katsa’s blue-and-green eyes, Fire’s hair, Bitterblue’s name).

Cover image of Fire

Fire, 2009

If you look carefully, there’s a face somewhere in each: one of Katsa’s eyes reflected in her knife, Fire’s face floating behind her bow and arrows, Bitterblue’s face behind the set of skeleton keys that gain her entry to Leck’s rooms. But the faces are not so much a part of the image that they will look dated a decade or two from now.

Cover image of Bitterblue

Bitterblue, 2012

Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue were every bit as good as I’d been told to expect, and I’m sure I will be thinking about them and recommending them to other readers for years to come. I’m already tempted to re-read Graceling – my favorite of the three – but I’ll try to make myself wait. The audiobook versions of all three books are excellent, but Graceling, with a full cast, was again my favorite. (Don’t give the print books a miss, though – they’ve got useful maps, and Bitterblue has illustrations of Ashen’s embroidery cipher, the Dellian alphabet, and the bridges.) If you loved His Dark Materials and are looking for your next fantasy series, here it is.

Did you miss the moment?

“Did you miss the moment? And, would it kill you to miss it for good? I think it would.”

This is, according to my memory, the beginning of a prose poem inside the liner notes of a CD by a band called Chamberlain that I discovered when I was fifteen or sixteen. The song lyrics were printed in the booklet too, in the obligatory tiny font, but this wasn’t a song, and yet it’s lodged in my head all the same.

The teen years are an incredible time to encounter new things, a time when you feel things intensely (“more feelingly feel,” as Rilke would have it), absorb them, adopt them as your own. You are, to some extent, a product of your time, but you also pick and choose from what’s on offer to construct your identity: do you listen to the Top 40 or do you scavenge punk rock records made before you were born? Do you read Jane Austen or Stephen King (or both)?

But the real question is, as an adult, do you latch onto books and music in the same way? Do you feel, at twenty-six or thirty-six or forty-six, the way you did at sixteen? If you didn’t hear The Smiths as a teenager, are you likely to love them as passionately as someone who did, or does it just sound morose and kind of whiny? (For the record, I discovered The Smiths at the perfect time, thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s including the song “Asleep” on a mix tape in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which led directly to my purchase of Louder Than Bombs.)

Cover of A Wrinkle in TimeMore to the point for book lovers: If you didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Golden Compass or Alanna at “the right time,” did you miss the moment?

I’m not sure. When I began dating my now-husband, we kept having these conversations where I would mention a book that I just assumed “everyone else” had read, and he would say he hadn’t read it, and my jaw would drop, and I would lend him a copy or, if I didn’t have it on hand, buy one at a used book store and give it to him to read. He was very good about reading them (see: now-husband), but it was hit or miss. A Wrinkle in Time simply isn’t and never will be part of the fabric of his mind in the same way that it is woven into who I am. The Golden Compass, on the other hand, he liked so much he read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass without any prompting from me (and then he nicknamed our dog “the subtle knife” when she tried to nose between us on the couch).

Cover of Alanna: The First AdventureEvery reader misses some things that “everyone else” has read, and I am no exception. Recently, I read Alanna by Tamora Pierce, which had been recommended to me by a friend who couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it (sound familiar?). I read the other three books in the Song of the Lionness quartet as soon as possible. My adult mind cheered for feminism (a fantasy novel with birth control!), while my tween mind (though we didn’t have that word then) inhaled the characters, the story, the world-building and mythology, the romance.

I wish I’d read Alanna when I was twelve or thirteen, but I enjoyed it immensely as an adult too. It is rare for me now to lose myself in a book in the way I did routinely when I was younger, but it still happens – and it happens more often, I’ve noticed, in books with a fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, or magical element, books like The Night Circus or The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven. These books are worlds in which I’m immersed, rising out of them at the end only reluctantly and regretfully. But of course, I can always read them again.

In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character writes a note to his adopted daughter about “the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.” He urges her to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” The perfect time to encounter a book may be when you’re thirteen, or it may be when you’re thirty; you may read it once when you’re thirteen and once when you’re thirty and discover different things the second time, or simply enjoy it all over again.

Though some books and some readers will never be a match – and that’s okay – it’s worth keeping an open mind and going back to books you may feel you’ve missed. Now might be the perfect moment.

Thanksgiving vacation reads: middle grade books

I read a lot of picture books, and a lot of YA (to say nothing of adult fiction and nonfiction). Recently, though, I went on a middle-grade kick, and found some fantastic books. (Plus, it felt great to read an entire grocery bag full of books in a week. You can do that when the print is a little bigger, and you don’t have to go to work.) Some of these were recommended to me by friends and librarian-friends, some I chose from the ALSC summer reading lists for grades 3-5 and 6-8, and others came from review journals or blogs.

Print books

bookcover_questforamaidQuest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry: Someone at my book club was staggered that I hadn’t read this growing up, so I remedied the situation, and this book was right up my alley. It’s got a little bit of magic and a lot of adventure, with a gutsy young heroine, Meg, and her loyal friends: Peem Jackson, a cottar’s boy whose life she saved (and who, in turn, saved her life several times over), and Davie Spens, a clever young boy with a harelip that prevents others from understanding him. (Meg can understand him, though, and they wind up betrothed at a young age.) Meg winds up as the protector of the young princess of Norway during an ocean crossing that is cursed – by Meg’s own adored older sister Inge. (Inge is definitely the most complex character in the book, but it’s Meg’s story.) This fits perfectly between The Boggart by Susan Cooper and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. The Scots dialect isn’t too tricky, and there’s a glossary in the back.

bookcover_wednesdaywarsThe Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Set on Long Island during the 1967-68 school year, this is the story of seventh-grader Holling Hoodhood, lone Presbyterian in a class full of Catholics and Jews, often at the mercy of his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who makes him read Shakespeare, probably because she hates him. (Actually, Holling realizes pretty quickly that she doesn’t, and also that Caliban has some pretty good curses.) Beyond ordinary seventh-grade concerns, world events intrude into the everyday life of teachers and students, most notably the war in Vietnam. This is a great piece of realistic recent-historical fiction that features a character who is beginning to be aware of the world and people around him, including his conservative father, flower child sister, disempowered mother, and his teacher, who, it turns out, wasn’t born behind that desk.

bookcover_lemoncelloEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein: This was such a fun read! It reminded me of The Westing Game and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’ve always liked mysteries and puzzles, and this is full of both, plus there are tons of allusions to other books and authors, from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Sherlock Holmes. The main character, Kyle, is the youngest of three brothers, and he loves playing games, especially Mr. Lemoncello’s games. It turns out that Mr. Lemoncello has designed the new library in town, and Kyle is one of the lucky twelve to enter it first. The lock-in turns out to be a contest, a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Kyle quickly teams up with his friend Akimi. Kyle demonstrates a really interesting set of qualities: he loves games and is competitive, but he’s also fair to the other players, and he’s generous with his family, friends, and teammates. Charles Chiltington provides a foil for Kyle: he’s got all the competitiveness but none of the sense of fair play, and he’s arrogant besides. Naturally, Kyle’s team prevails, but the tight time frame and the puzzles make for a page-turner. (Grabenstein’s next book is out in March 2015!)

bookcover_dollbonesDoll Bones by Holly Black: He wondered whether growing up was learning that most stories turned out to be lies.” Poppy, Zach, and Alice are all struggling with the transition from childhood to adolescence: Zach’s dad, who has been absent for years, wants him to be more manly; Alice’s grandmother will ground her for the slightest offense; and Poppy is afraid that she isn’t changing, when her closest friends are. These realistic fears blend with the surreal: a doll they call the Queen makes ghostly overtures to Polly, sending all three of them on a quest to return her to her home. Will this be their last game? Or is it for real? Between Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, I actually expected this to be much creepier than it was. It has remained pretty vivid in my memory, though.

bookcover_grimmlegacyThe Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman: This was a really enjoyable read full of fairy tale lore, set in modern-day New York. Elizabeth Rew hasn’t really made friends yet at her new school, but one of her teachers sends her to interview for a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Depository. It’s a library of sorts, but instead of lending books, it lends all kinds of things – including objects from the Grimm Collection, objects associated with the fairy tales the Grimm brothers collected. Something shady is going on with the GC, though, and Elizabeth has to figure out if she can trust her fellow pages – hotshot basketball player Marc, prickly Aaron, and beautiful, competent Anjali – and how they can find out what’s going wrong, and put a stop to it. The Grimm Legacy is fast-paced, magical, and realistic; it will capture the imaginations of those who want to believe magic exists, but know that sometimes it creates more problems than it solves. (It inspired me to pick up Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, too.)

bookcover_titanicTitanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson: No matter how much I read about the Titanic, it turns out I can always read more – and learn something new. Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic is an excellent new resource, with a clear, chronological narrative; she highlights a few lesser-known survivors, including men, women, children, passengers from all classes, and crew members. There’s plenty of added value in the form of photographs, illustrations, charts and lists, a timeline, primary source documents (such as letters from survivors), and a bibliography. One letter from a third-class passenger who survived read: “Our ship struck an iceberg. I went on deck and met a sailor who asked me to help lower the boats. The sailor said, ‘Take a chance yourself.’ I did, as did my friend, but the officers came along and ordered us off the boat. A woman said, ‘Lay down, lad, you’re somebody’s child.’ She put a rug over me and the boat went out, so I was saved.”

bookcover_wimpykidDiary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney: This “novel in cartoons” takes us through a year of middle school for Greg Heffley. Greg’s certain he’s amazing, but he’s stuck with a lame best friend, a jerk older brother, and bullies at school. He gets himself (and hapless friend Rowley) in trouble trying to circumvent rules and/or make money, but despite the repercussions, he doesn’t really change his ways – he continues blithely on with his self-confidence intact. He’s honest, if unreflective, in his journal, and it’s clear he’s trying to do his best to jump through all the hoops set up by school and parents. The cartoons are entertaining and I can definitely see the appeal, though I’m not the target audience.

bookcover_bignateBig Nate: In a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce: Nate knows he’s “destined for greatness,” and a fortune cookie fortune confirms that he will “surpass all others today,” so it must be a great day! But class after class, Nate collects detention slips from each of his teachers…when is his good fortune coming? Irrepressibly optimistic and confident, Nate is somewhere between Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Jeff Kinney’s Greg (Wimpy Kid). Text is interspersed with comics, and both are pretty funny. (“You have so much POTENTIAL!”
“And this is news? Dude, I KNOW I have potential. I’m just SAVING it for something more important than school.”)

bookcover_countingby7sCounting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan: For someone grieving, moving forward is the challenge. Because after extreme loss, you want to go back.” Twelve-year-old Willow Chance was adopted at birth, and she is also a genius, but that doesn’t help her fit in during her first day at middle school. It also doesn’t help when she loses her adopted parents in a car crash. Without extended family or close family friends, Willow latches on to teenage Mai, Mai’s mom Pattie, and her brother Quang-ha. Willow’s unimpressive school counselor, Dell Duke, is also drawn in, by virtue of having been there when Willow got the news. Over the next few months, in shock and grief, Willow binds these people to her and begins to rebuild her life. Willow’s insights and the way she processes her loss are unique; this is a memorable book.

Audiobooks

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: This is YA, and I’ve read it before, but the audio version is amazing. Should you happen to be going on a seven-hour car ride, you can’t bring a better traveling companion than Tiny Cooper.

bookcover_nightmaresNightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller: I’ve been waiting for this to hit the shelves ever since I first heard about it. Celebrity books can be hit or miss, but I had faith in Jason Segel (The Muppet Movie, How I Met Your Mother, and did I mention The Muppet Movie?), and my faith was rewarded. I missed out on the illustrations in the print version, but his narration more than made up for it. Segel and Miller used some familiar elements – a stepmother (“stepmonster”), a haunted house, a doorway/portal between worlds (the waking world and the Netherworld where nightmares reside) and spun them into an original tale about Charlie Laird, a boy who faces his fears and defeats them. Charlie is afraid – his fear is so big that it allows the door between the worlds to open – but when his little brother Jack is threatened, Charlie finds he has the courage to rescue him.

bookcover_gregoroverlanderGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins: I’m less than halfway through this right now, but I like it very much so far. Eleven-year-old Gregor and his two-year-old sister, Boots, fall through an air duct in the basement laundry room of their New York apartment and find themselves in the Underland, which is populated by four-foot-tall cockroaches (“crawlers”), pale and violet-eyed humans, bats, and most terrifying of all, rats. Gregor realizes this is the place his father disappeared to over two years ago, and he makes it his mission to find him. The Underlanders believe Gregor is the warrior in one of their prophecies, so they agree to help. Fly you high, Gregor: I suspect you’ll survive your mission, as this is a series now.

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

altheaoliverSometimes it’s easy to remember why you picked up a certain book: a friend recommended it, or you read a great review somewhere, or you liked the cover or the title. Sometimes one recommendation or review isn’t enough, and it’s not until you hear about a book a few times that you’re motivated to pick it up. In the case of Althea & Oliver, I first heard of it in a Booklist review, then it showed up in my e-mail through Penguin’s First to Read program. I liked the names in the title; I liked the fancy ampersand. Was that all?

If it was, it was enough. Taking place in the pre-cell phone 1990s, Althea & Oliver reminded me of some other excellent YA novels, including John Green’s Paper Towns, Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility, Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Set in Wilmington, NC, Althea & Oliver has a few things in common with these books: the focus is close on two characters; it takes place in the South (mostly); and while parental supervision isn’t entirely absent, Althea’s dad Garth and Oliver’s mom Nicky aren’t helicopter parents, either.

Althea and Oliver have been best friends for ten years, but just as Althea begins to see Oliver as more than just a best friend, Oliver falls asleep. Not metaphorically, and not just for a nap: Oliver falls asleep for weeks. While Oliver is asleep, he has episodes – an incident at Waffle House, for example – that he can’t remember when he wakes up. When he wakes up for real, he wants everything to go back to normal. But when it happens again, his mom Nicky begins to do some research, and discovers that Oliver isn’t the only one; what he has is called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), and there’s a study going on in New York.

Oliver doesn’t tell Althea about the study and his imminent departure, at first because he doesn’t know how, and then because of something that happens between them during one of his episodes. When Althea realizes that Oliver is gone, not just asleep, she finds out where he went and goes after him, launching herself into a new phase of life, alone. Althea arrives at the hospital in New York just minutes after Oliver falls asleep again; she winds up in Red Hook, in a house with a bunch of other young adults, and astonishingly – after being friends with no one but Oliver for years – Althea makes friends with them.

Oliver wakes up just before New Year’s, escapes the hospital with another boy in the study, and goes in search of Althea. Improbably, he finds her. He tells her about a possible solution to his KLS, but even if it solves his sleep problems, it won’t solve what went wrong between them. They can’t go back to normal – they can only go forward.

Unconventional and utterly, convincingly real, Althea & Oliver is full of well-rounded, believable characters. No one is a prop, no one is one-dimensional; from Wilmington punk friends Val and Howard (a.k.a. Minty Fresh) to the Red Hook house full of dropouts and vegans, every character in this book could be the center of his or her own story. But it is Althea who is the heart of this one; Althea who is angry and violent, heartbroken and determined, scrappy and searching; Althea who realizes, at last, that neither she nor Oliver are going to get what they want, but that there is something else out there for them both.

I received an e-galley of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program. Althea & Oliver will be published in October 2014.

Half Magic, Half Real: Reading in childhood and adolescence

halfmagicRecently, over on my library’s blog, we’ve been doing a series of collaborative blog posts, where we come up with a question and each offer our answers. We started with how to fit reading into a busy schedule, and then we discussed book-to-movie adaptations. This month, I asked the impossible: One favorite book you read as a child, and one favorite you read as a teen. Naturally we struggled to choose just one each, and some of us (ahem) outright failed. But it’s a good failure, when you think back to all the books you grew up reading and they’re all so deeply embedded in your memory that you can’t choose between them.

As every librarian and bookseller and book lover knows, there are many ways to categorize books, but what I noticed about the books I remembered from growing up was the division between fantasy and “realistic” fiction. (I didn’t really read nonfiction for fun as a kid, except those DK Eyewitness ones – Crystal & Gem, anyone? – and one about King Tut’s tomb with that terrifying black and gold death mask on the cover.)

I wish I’d kept a reading log my whole life so I’d know now when I encountered each of these, but I haven’t. Here are some of the earlier books that I remember reading and re-reading:

castleintheatticHalf Magic by Edward Eager
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville
Matilda / The Witches / The BFG by Roald Dahl
Wait Til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck
The Boggart by Susan Cooper
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Lion Tamer’s Daughter by Peter Dickinson
The Golden Compass / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

boggartThat whole batch – and these titles came to mind almost instantly once I’d formed the question – are fantasy. Magic, dragons, ghosts, time travel, ageless Scottish spirits, doppelgangers. I read realistic fiction too – the Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell, and several standalone works by the likes of E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Lois Duncan, Joan Lowery Nixon, and Caroline B. Cooney – and I remember those as well, but the books with an element of magic seem set apart, unique. The authors had to invent whole new worlds, or twist and shape our world in such a way that it seemed foreign. Then – Once upon a time…It was a dark and stormy night… – they invited the reader in, as a co-imaginer, a sidekick, a tagalong.

wrinkleintime2Part of the appeal of fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, fairy tale, myth, and horror is that they invite the reader to consider how she would react when placed in a strange situation, or how she would fit in to an unfamiliar world, from the safety of wherever she happens to be reading. These genres open the imagination of all readers, young and old, who are willing to suspend disbelief and engage with them. Books with these elements are, sometimes, more memorable than strictly realistic books. That element of magic catches at us, makes us think; these stories use otherworldly frameworks for concepts we have, but have no name for.

This month, I read Shirley Jackson’s literary horror novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. The latter had an introduction (“Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors”) by Penguin Horror editor Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, “[I]t is a fact that, through the ages, most storytellers have had to resort to the fantastic in order to elevate their discourse to the level of parable….At a primal level, we crave parables, because they allow us to grasp the impossibly large concepts and to understand our universe without and within.”

goldencompassThe books I mentioned above aren’t parables, exactly; they are, first and foremost, stories, and if they have lessons in them, they are more subtle than most parables (or fairy tales or myths, for that matter). But many of them do offer a way to grasp “impossibly large concepts” at a young age. Think of the tesseract from A Wrinkle in Time, where instead of traveling in a straight line from point A to point B – commonly thought to be the shortest distance between two points – points A and B are instead brought together. Or think of any number of Philip Pullman’s inventions, from the daemon – an aspect of the personality or soul that lives outside the human body in animal form, invisibly connected – to the intention craft (just what it sounds like), to particles of consciousness (the misunderstood Dust), to a simple concept that resonates: you can visit other worlds, but they cannot sustain you for a full long lifetime, as your home world can. We can travel very far, but we still have to return home from time to time for sustenance we can’t get from any other place.

What’s your favorite childhood or teen book, magical or non-magical?

7/29/14 Edited to add: Further reading from YALSA’s The Hub: “There’s No Escaping the Power of Fantasy Fiction”  by Kelly Dickinson, and “YA Books That Changed Our Lives” by multiple contributors.

 

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

404 Day: Action Against Censorship

Join EFF!

Today is 4/04, “a nation-wide day of action to call attention to the long-standing problem of Internet censorship in public libraries and public schools.” Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) piece about Internet filtering in libraries and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Though CIPA requires some Internet filtering in libraries that accept federal funding, libraries often go further than is required. (Also, no filter is perfect: some “bad” content will always get through, and plenty of legitimate content will be blocked.)

Barbara Fister at Inside Higher Ed is also eloquent, as always, in her piece “404 Day: Protecting Kids From…What?” She mentions Gretchen Casserotti, a public library director in Meridian, Idaho, who live-tweeted a school board meeting in which Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was, ultimately, removed from the school curriculum. (Book Riot collected these tweets in order.)

Kids don’t need to be protected from literature. They need to engage with it, think about it, and discuss it; if adults can help with that, all the better. But as Fister points out, it would be better to protect kids from, say, hunger, than from “dangerous” books.