When I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and very...moreWhen I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and very well-realized but lacked a little something due to its abstract nature and the limitations of L'Engle's descriptive prose.
When I heard that Hope Larson was creating a graphic novel adaptation of the book, then, I was very excited. Done right, this could be a remarkably accessible interpretation of the classic children's story.
I'm here to tell you that Larson has done it right.
The illustration work on display here is pitch-perfect: Larson's whimsical style roots the whole thing in a youthful mindset, even when the story turns dark and edgy. Her depictions of difficult-to-reconcile elements from L'Engle's original (Mrs. Whatsit's centaur/pegasus form, Aunt Beast, IT, etc) are superb and even her characterizations of the principles is pretty great (the lone exception being Calvin, whom I pictured as being more athletic and handsome than gangly, but it's a very minor critique).
Even Larson's adaptation is precisely executed, never deviating from the source material but manipulating it subtly to take full advantage of the graphic novel format. It's impressive, honest and shows a true connection between Larson and the material. Perhaps the most significant aspect on display in this version is how much Larson feels this story and these characters. It comes through in nearly every panel.
I liked the original novel, but I loved this version of it. It's so good in fact that I think this may end up being the first edition I give to my daughter to read when she gets old enough. Not just a faultless execution on converting a beloved story to a new medium, this project manages the remarkable feat of actually improving upon the original.(less)
To say that Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book is kind of like leveling the same "accusation" at the Harry Pot...moreTo say that Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book is kind of like leveling the same "accusation" at the Harry Potter books. This is a big, grand adventure book featuring remarkable children as protagonists and as such it will appeal to middle-school readers, but I think there is plenty here to draw in adult readers as well.
The story concerns Reynie Muldoon, an exceptionally bright young orphan who really wants nothing more than to fit in. He answers a peculiar ad in the newspaper and finds himself taking a series of curious tests and meeting a small band of other, similarly exceptional kids: Sticky Washington, a nervous, timid boy with an incredible head for knowledge; Kate Weatherall, perhaps the most resourceful bucket-toting girl he's ever met; and Constance Contraire, a world-class stubborn grouch who completes several of the tests simply by refusing to cooperate.
Thus assembled, the team then meets a strange man named Mr. Benedict, who tells them an alarming tale about the efforts afoot at a secret Institution nearby to control and influence the world via mind-control techniques broadcast through television and radio signals. The kids' mission then is to infiltrate the Institution, learn what they can, try to stop the plot and keep in contact with Benedict via Morse code signals.
It's the kind of set up that I think appeals more to the younger audience than the adults, to whom it may sound a little corny and convoluted, but the strength of Stewart's writing is in his ability to help older readers like myself recapture some of the youthful wonder of storytelling, back when every plot contrivance was fresh and new. I found myself not dismissing the notion of a hastily-assembled team of children secret agents as implausible, but embracing them the way I might have when I was ten or eleven years old. This is the same effect that J.K. Rowling achieved in the early Potter books, to force suspension of disbelief through the power of imagination.
Despite drawing two parallels to Rowling now in four paragraphs, I do want to point out that The Mysterious Benedict Society may feel at times like a gadgety/spy analog to the high fantasy of Harry Potter, this book isn't quite as good as the early books in that other series. Part of it is that Stewart needs his action to take place predominantly at The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, but, frankly, the Institute (and even the mission) isn't as interesting as the recruitment and the hideout of Mr. Benedict. One thing that Harry Potter's stories did was make the principal setting—Hogwarts—this amazing place that you really wanted to visit. Having Benedict Society's action take place in a mostly unpleasant place that the characters don't want to be means the middle (once they begin their mission) drags in comparison to the beginning. Eventually the pace picks up around the two-thirds mark and the book becomes much better toward the end, but there is a reason everyone and their pet hamster has read Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone but this book is far less well known.
Still, I really enjoyed the book. It's big and meaty (and probably could have been even bigger, if Stewart had wanted it to be so), it has extraordinarily likable characters, crisp pacing, some fun nods to puzzle solving and love of obscure trivia. In fact, this is a book that very much celebrates the cerebral; unlike a lot of hero tales aimed at kids, the protagonists in Benedict Society survive and thrive by their wits far more than their hits, and I like the focus there.
I also can't get through this review without mentioning the absolutely wonderful cover and chapter art by Carson Ellis. Her work and style will be familiar to those who have enjoyed artwork done for the band The Decemberists, but the distinctive, whimsically old-fashioned feel to the art gives the book just the right touch of tone and really helped propel an already swift read even faster toward the back cover.(less)
Occasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience an...moreOccasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience and manage universal appeal. Then there are those like Lemony Snicket's Series Of Unfortunate Events which are clearly, perhaps almost painfully, for kids. This isn't, I suppose, as harsh of an indictment of The Bad Beginning as it sounds, since it's only doing what it was designed to do. But the frequent vocabulary lessons—in this case meaning in-prose definitions of words that may not be familiar to young readers—can be pretty distracting for an older audience.
Additionally, this is a wisp of a book in which not terribly much happens: The Baudelaire children—Violent, Klaus and baby Sunny—lose their parents in a fire, are put under the care of their evil uncle, Count Olaf, and try to thwart a plot by Olaf to steal their inheritance. There are a couple of other minor characters here and there, but that's basically the gist of it. Granted, there are twelve other volumes to the series so between them all I suspect there may be a small handful of more complete novels, but The Bad Beginning seems particularly glib, almost unfinished.
I will say that Snicket surprised me with the resolution of the central conflict and the characters of the children are all likable and egaging. Plus the gentle dark humor strikes a tone that my ten year-old self would have really enjoyed so overall I can say that it was enough to make me think that at some point I might like to finish the whole series. However, they strike me as the kind of books that one might find in a family bookcase while housesitting for some friends or borrowing a cabin and read through in a sitting on a slow weekend afternoon. They don't feel like something I want to dedicate a lot of time to tracking down and acquiring.(less)
It is my opinion that if you, as a writer, are going to take on well-tread territory such as, let's just say, a lone survivor tale, you had better bri...moreIt is my opinion that if you, as a writer, are going to take on well-tread territory such as, let's just say, a lone survivor tale, you had better bring something new or at least interesting to the table. Take a book I read recently, The Island Of The Blue Dolphins. In that book, Scott O'Dell made his protagonist a native of the island she was stranded on, which meant that the survival element was more about loneliness, the societal compartmentalization from her gender and mental survival than about her ability to figure out how to make fire.
I guess the "twist" on Hatchet is that the survivor is a pampered, modern, TV-watching 13 year-old, but to me that was hardly enough to make this story feel unique. The other possible hook that Gary Paulsen might have had to work with was The Secret, which is the overdramatic flourish given to the fact that the hero here, Brian Robeson, knows more about why his parents were recently divorced than half his family. There might have been some dramatic, psychological territory to mine here or perhaps even a tie-in with the life-or-death struggle he's thrust into, but Paulsen wastes it and then cheapens it by not even resolving the issue in the Epilogue.
If it isn't really clear already, I kind of hated this book. The prose is stilted and repetitive, and while it starts off interestingly enough, the triumphs of Brian's struggle to survive are constantly undercut by the fact that this feels incredibly familiar and the fact that, in terms of places you might find yourself having to survive on your wits alone, the Canadian wilderness in summertime is hardly the worst. He has plenty of food sources, clean water, finds an ideal shelter and he has a very useful tool in the titular hatchet. I guess it has to be somewhat believable that a 13 year-old might survive in this environment, but the problem is that believability quickly becomes a serious issue for Hatchet.
Let's ignore for a moment the fact that Paulsen has to over-explain the presence of the hatchet in the first place. Near the climax of the book, there are two events that happen in short order that strain credibility to the point where I practically stopped reading. If I hadn't been 170+ pages into a 200 page book, I probably would have. The author's insistence on having Brian's running commentary be variations on the refrain, this is insane doesn't make up for the fact that in this case "insane" is code for "improbable and suspension of disbelief breaking."
And after earning the dubious honor to be the first book since Michael Chricton's The Lost World to make me say, "Yeah, right!" out loud, Hatchet then races to a terrible climax and finale that are unsatisfying, before hand-waving the whole thing away in the rage-inducing Epilogue.
Here's the thing about young adult fiction or children's literature: I enjoy it, even today in my mid-thirties, and I don't make excuses about it. Good stories are good stories, that's how I look at it. But good writing and good storytelling should be the common thread among "adult" and young reader books, and if I'm going to accept fiction aimed at a younger audience for its successes I have to hold it accountable for its failures on those same terms. And any way I look at it, I can't see anything in Hatchet worth recommending it, unless I start to use the qualifier, "...for a children's book." If you want a children's book about survival with actual emotion and themes beyond "you're more capable than you think," try The Cay. As for Hatchet, give it a pass.(less)
The thing I liked the best about Scott O'Dell's Newbery-winning story Island of the Blue Dolphins comes actually in the Afterword, where it is reveale...moreThe thing I liked the best about Scott O'Dell's Newbery-winning story Island of the Blue Dolphins comes actually in the Afterword, where it is revealed that Karana, the story's protagonist, is based on an actual person, the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. This is a very fictionalized account according to O'Dell since very little is known about her other than the barest of facts: White explorers did in fact collect all of the natives from an island off the California coast save one girl who jumped off when she found her brother had not made it to the ship; the brother was killed by wild dogs and the girl was later rescued wearing a cormorant skirt and accompanied by a wild dog. The rest has been added by O'Dell's extrapolation of those few facts.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is not altogether unlike plenty of other cast away stories, like Robinson Crusoe, although it is a bit less of a self-discovery tale since Karana is a native of the island and not an accidental visitor so she is already familiar with the basic skills needed to survive. What she doesn't have is accompaniment, assistance or support (until she eventually befriends the leader of a pack of wild dogs, whom she dubs Rontu), and that makes the novel incredibly lonely and often very melancholy.
What is interesting is that O'Dell allows the inconsistency of loneliness to shine through as well. Sometimes, loneliness is a terrible, oppressive thing. But solitude can also be incredibly liberating and one gets the sense that while ultimately Karana desires the company of others more than anything, she mentions the island and the animal friends she makes in a wistful, contented sort of way that suggests she doesn't always long for escape from her life.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is kind of a strange, sad little book. I like that Karana has to buck the societal conventions that her tribe set for her as a girl/woman in order to survive which makes her a strong and admirable female character, and I like the adventure it conveys that is frequently devoid of any exploitative elements (it is never overly violent, not oppressively preachy nor saccharine). Karana's voice is somewhat clinical and detached which at first I thought was odd and off-putting but later seemed to be more deliberate in its effort to characterize a girl who grew up and lived nearly all her life with only her own thoughts and some domesticated animals for company.
I definitely plan to keep this book on hand and give it to my daughter when she's a little bit older; a very good children's book and every bit deserving of its fondly-recalled reputation.(less)
Lois Lowry's Newberry Medal winner isn't really much of a story, to me. It felt much more like a parable, a bit reminiscent of 1984 only without the s...moreLois Lowry's Newberry Medal winner isn't really much of a story, to me. It felt much more like a parable, a bit reminiscent of 1984 only without the sort of depth of focus applied to the speculative aspect permitting the book to answer the questions about how this would all work. Much of the detail is left out of the operational whats and whys in the utopian/dystopian society depicted here, perhaps to grant it a certain timelessness or perhaps because Lowry didn't feel it was necessary to get the point across.
The Giver is the story of Jonas, a boy who is about to reach the age where he is assigned the role he will fill in his idyllic, though neutered, society where a collective selects mates and jobs for the populace and permits only adoption-based atomic families to exist. When Jonas gets his assignment, though, he becomes the Receiver of Memories, a solitary advisor to the community Elders who is responsible for holding all the memories that ever were to provide context for decisions among Elders who otherwise are only ever concerned with the present. But as Jonas begins to train with the previous Receiver, who now becomes The Giver, he starts to see what the community has sacrificed in order to become the way that they are.
Obviously Lowry is preaching about the importance of knowledge and highlighting the dual nature of human experience which contains both limitless suffering but also the capacity for colossal happiness. This is a middle school English class discussion waiting to happen, filled with enough emotional hooks and light symbolism that can be readily transferred to modern society or at least paralleled with current warning markers. It's easy enough to see how The Giver is working to transmit its message.
This transparency, however, is why the novel works more on an illustrative level as opposed to a literary one. In many ways this reads like a short story, where things happen just because they do and characters behave in a particular way for no reason other than that they must to propel the thin plot forward. The Giver and Jonas are the only reasonably detailed characters here and the society itself, which is the only antagonist Lowry bothers with, is so vague as to be hardly a menace at all. In this the true conflict lies between Jonas' childhood acceptance of bland comfort and conformity of the institution and his new insight into the joy and tragedy of real life. It's an allegory for adolescence whose moral I can't fault but whose execution I can't really recommend.
The flaw in The Giver is that Lowry doesn't seem to know how to conclude it. After a brisk but deliberate pace for the first three fourths of the book, the last few chapters are rushed and lack tension despite the dire circumstances. Then further, the finale is vague and hazy, leaving too much up to the reader to decide. For a story that is trying to say something, its inability articulate the consequence of its lesson is a regrettable failing, in my opinion.
I think I wanted to like The Giver a little more than I was actually able to. I lend no credence to the idea that the themes in this are inappropriate for children and I admire what this book can spur as real conversations with young readers, but I wish the execution of the concept had been done a little more precisely and with a clearer, lighter hand so that the novel itself could stand alone and not be a mere mechanism for discussion.(less)
Nobody Owens lives in a graveyard. When he was very young, the man Jack killed his family and he narrowly escaped his fate by falling under the protec...moreNobody Owens lives in a graveyard. When he was very young, the man Jack killed his family and he narrowly escaped his fate by falling under the protection of the kindly ghosts of the graveyard on top of the hill who have taken on the task of raising Nobody in spite of their limitations—namely, incorporeality and death. The Graveyard Book chronicles the youth and adventures of Nobody as he makes unlikely friends, gets into trouble, gets rescued, attends school, and tries to learn the truth of where he came from and who he is.
Neil Gaiman is incredibly imaginative and fills this book with the often dark, quirky twists that are kind of his signature. As a children's book it can be fairly grim, though I suppose for this day and age no more so than, say, The Wizard of Oz was at the time of its release. The book flies by quickly and Bod (as he is known) rapidly becomes a lovable protagonist, head-strong, adventurous, resourceful and prone to dreaming. The book is structured kind of like a handful of smaller stories tied together somewhat loosely—one could see this being almost a comic book mini-series (perhaps unsurprisingly given Gaiman's background) though Bod ages naturally throughout.
It does seem as though there were perhaps more adventures at earlier ages that could have been included, perhaps to keep the book at a manageable length some side plots and sub-stories were cut out or intentionally left unexplored; the final chapters however do draw the tale to a satisfying conclusion. I wonder if an imaginary sequel would go back and fill in the gaps of Bod's upbringing or focus on events that happen chronologically following The Graveyard Book's end.
My favorite part of the book is the section/chapter titled "Danse Macabre" which is kind of a small, almost throwaway tale of a unique sort of irregular holiday that is described in a particular way as to be mysterious and yet so full of joy and humanity (the significance of which is only relatable once you understand what it is), it left me with an uncontrolled grin. I've read several of Gaiman's adult novels (American Gods, Anasazi Boys, Neverwhere) and often Gaiman's biggest failing is that his wild imagination outpaces his descriptive abilities which occasionally—sometimes in regrettably pivotal scenes—don't quite convey a ready vision of what he sees in his head. In The Graveyard Book this is never the case and especially in the closing paragraphs of Danse Macabre, it felt as though I were right there with Bod and all the others.
That descriptive image transfer actually leads to my chief complaint about the book other than that it feels like it could have contained more, which is Dave McKean's illustrations. I like McKean's art, quite a bit, but I'm not sure his style suits this book. There is an abstractness, a kind of hazy dark quality in McKean's work and I felt like it lent too much of an ominous maturity to the feel of the book which didn't match the unexpectedly breezy tone of Gaiman's writing. Don't get me wrong, the tone of the prose is spot-on, clear and crisp as one would expect for a book meant to be read by middle-schoolers, dark in just the right amounts but also full of vibrancy. But McKean's art plays a big part in setting that tone and it draws it to a much more melancholy place than might otherwise be found in an unillustrated edition.
Overall, this is a delightful book and one which I hope to share with my daughter, seven or eight years from now, an example of modern classic children's literature that is just perfect for reading around Halloween.(less)