“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.When I examin“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
In the normal scheme of things, I would have read this “children’s book”* first, as my introduction to the amazing writing of Catherynne Valente. But because this physical book took longer than expected to arrive - and because I was already bitten by the Valente bug through my good friends Catie and Nataliya - I began by taking on the highly complex and challenging (though shorter) AI fantasy - Silently and Very Fast.
Having read the complex novella, I expected this ‘simple’ middle-grade fantasy to be a leisurely cruise by comparison. Easy Peasy.
Silly me. Catherynne Valente, in my two-book experience, does not do Easy. Her writing is rich, layered, packed with ideas and playful, all at the same time and often in the same sentence. If you are looking for an easy read, look elsewhere.
But that’s okay by me, because I LOVE that kind of writing as long as it works on its own terms. By that, I mean I can handle the occasional sentence that needs to be read 2 or 3 times. I can unpack it, see the parts and understand the whole, admire what I see, and be ready for more.
Even so, I place a heavy burden on the author who writes that way. There must be beauty in the language and meaning in the lines. I need to care about the protagonist, and do a minimum of cringing over the latest stupid thing she has done. In the best case, she doesn’t do stupid things - or learns very quickly when she does. A no-argghhh narrative, that’s what I want.
Valente succeeds brilliantly on those terms, in my view. I would be hard-pressed to think of another author who displays the sheer power of beauty AND substance that she does. It is simply dazzling to watch her prose come to life, dance off the page and into sparkling structures that whirl off in all directions. I can’t get enough of it, and I intend to read a lot more (hopefully all) of her work.
In this Andre Norton Award winning tale, a 12 year old girl named September has a difficult and dreary life, full of mundane routine and with parents who are off to war (father) or working in war industry (mother).
With thanks to THT and her moving review, I have borrowed a few stills from the book trailer for this amazing work. I thank THT for the link, and I want to repeat her recommendation to watch the video both before and after reading, if and when.
September gets an invitation to ride off to Fairyland, and accepts with minimal hesitation - whether in her thoughts and dreams, or in a realistic fantasy, Valente is artfully unclear.
”Ever so briefly, Latitude and Longitude kissed, and when they parted, there was a space between their mouths just large enough for a Leopard carrying a Harsh Air and a little girl.”
From there, a series of adventures unfolds, with a master fantasist at the controls. We tour a series of richly imagined creations, and meet a fascinating set of characters that any author would envy and most readers will love.
Fairyland is full of wonders, but governed by rigid bureaucratic principles. September is only a young girl, with no experience of any of these things, but she must make do and accomplish what seems impossible, to her and to us.
”The going was not easy. Gold is very slippery to walk on and insists on sliding all over the place. She found that her bare foot was actually a bit more suited to the task than the shod one, as she could grasp at the gleaming ground with her toes.”
She shows remarkable resilience, and develops a group of marvelous friendships along the way. Each of September’s friends has marvelous powers, but the powers have very specific limits. And the prose sings to us as we watch these adventures unfold, with characters and settings that glisten and glow as they carry us deep into Fairyland.
The journey is difficult and dangerous, and September must call on all of her resources and learn as she goes.
”Remember, they are fast and tall and vicious! Many have perished or, at least, been roundly dumped off and bruised in the attempt to travel by wild bicycle.”
She is a classic smart, tough heroine, stiffening her resolve with every new challenge.
”September yelped in victory and set about hauling several of the log-size sceptres together and lining them up side by side.”
And yes, there is evil afoot - monstrous and well-disguised, very, very resourceful and SNEAKY. The values that September learns and applies are the classic virtues of loyalty, self-reliance and a persistence that wavers but never dies.
It is a wonderful story, and the story teaches as it tells. The drama builds to a tremendous finish, and I was shaking my head in awe at the end.
There were points in the story where I struggled with some of the layering, and a few of the twists and turns of events. But it is hard for me to imagine a more beautiful overall effect from beginning to end - one in which all of the pieces are seen (in hindsight) to fit perfectly, and every element is in a sensible place.
Thoughts After Reading
So, I loved it. After I finished this beautiful story, I mused a bit on the comparisons with Silently and Very Fast, and the more general theme of what adults can learn from children’s books (and why they would do well to read them).
First, the comparisons. In my review of Silently and Very Fast , I discussed questions that are raised when highly adaptable software takes on human ideas and desires. I mention that discussion here because a related set of questions emerges (for me) in this book. The same gifted writer takes a child through a fantasy world, but includes very ‘adult’ evils, trickery, bureaucracy and manipulation. I had some fun thinking about what (I believe) Valente is getting at, in the deeper levels behind the magic show up front.
The lesson I drew is that kind-hearted determination, intelligence, and perseverance can push through dark and powerful forces, find the points of vulnerability, and engineer a different and better outcome. For me, this was highly reminiscent in theme to the classic tale of A Wrinkle in Time, which I discussed here . Two great writers, teaching important lessons in two fanciful tales with extreme depth, for those who take the time to see them. Adults must work much harder at this, because our own layers of bias and cynicism have likely taught us a very different set of ‘virtues’. But we can see much more, if we really look. Children grasp the essential concepts immediately, unburdened by our adult baggage. But they can get caught up in the fantasy, and may miss the deeper meaning.
For me, Valente does something incredible in both books that I have read. She uses a mystical fantasy to dazzle the reader, but also to provide an alluring passageway to much deeper ideas. She explores the implications of these ideas, in such a charming setting that the lessons come across as we simply process the fantasy. Here, the net effect is that we get a fresh perspective on matters of ethics, philosophy and 'political' action. And we don’t get the dense, formal or emotionally loaded discussions of ‘adult’ treatments. In Silently and Very Fast, Valente conveys similar implications of ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’ in machines and their human companions, and a trove of other deep concepts. And we don’t get a listing of computer algorithms, or a technical discussion of central vs. distributed processing.
If I read these two works again, I would start with this one per my original plan, and that would be my recommendation for anyone. But for now, I will be moving on to see what other wonders Valente has in store for us. (Just as soon as I clear away some of the TBR pile that has collected around my feet)
Very Highly Recommended
* There are reasonable grounds for doubting whether this is really a children’s book at all. I hope to test this idea on my 5th-grader, but he is absorbed in Charlie Bone at the moment.
4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from 4/10/12 Okay, this is the longer review. The added bit follows the dashed line ---
I learned about this outstanding book and its brilliant author from Catie’s wonderful review and blog post. Yes, I should have known about it many years ago, but this was a gap in my experience. To make up for lost time, I now have the boxed-set series of 5 books for my family.
This is a wonderful adventure story for children - one that speaks to them as adults, and conveys a bundle of important life-concepts without getting weighed down by them.
It is also a great book for re-acquainting adults with the potentials of life - and the critical importance of faith - even as we deal with hard and often scary realities.
My review won’t be nearly as good as Catie’s - in part because she has read the book from both a child’s and an adult’s perspective, and in part because she just writes fabulous reviews (not to mention the artist renderings!). However, I will follow Catie's suggestion and focus mainly on my perspective as an adult, reading this for the first time. -------------------------
At one level, this is a delightful - but harrowing - children’s adventure in a science fictional setting. The story is centered around a strong, smart girl named Meg, and her intuitively wise and precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace. The interplay between these two is a beautiful thing to see.
Charles Wallace: “It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad—inadvertently. That’s a good word, isn’t it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me.”
The narrative very cleverly promotes timeless values of family, loyalty and love. It also edges the reader toward a growing realization - that perseverance is critical to success in any difficult endeavor. It is the kind of book that you really want your kids to read and understand, and to come back to as they get older.
Meg: This has been the most impossible, the most confusing afternoon of my life, she thought, yet I don’t feel confused or upset anymore; I only feel happy. Why?
At another level this is a story for adults, but told from a child’s perspective. The adult story, when you step back and think about it, is a circle of ideas that are connected and interdependent. Within that circle are knowledge - what we know and what we don’t; reasoning to solve problems, even when you are too scared to think clearly; the importance of faith - that there are answers, even when you can’t see them; and a related kind of faith, that you can and must act without knowing some of the most critical facts.
Charles Wallace got his look of probing, of listening. I know that look! Meg thought suddenly. Now I think I know what it means! Because I’ve had it myself, sometimes, doing math with Father, when a problem is just about to come clear...
This is all grownup stuff, the sort of thing that philosophers have trundled on about for millennia. But the lessons here are concepts for living, simply stated, and at their core are simple truths that are easily lost in the day-to-day. We humans know a great deal, about a great many things, and (like Meg) we can reason our way through tough challenges to a brighter future. But arrogance about our knowledge can lead us to think we are masters of all around us. In the book, experiments with tesseracts are a great example. The experiments are in a noble cause, but they lead down a very dark path. In the bigger picture we know pathetically little, and all our knowledge is but a tiny scratch on the surface of what IS.
What she saw was only the game Mrs Whatsit was playing; it was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be.
And here is the critical point that is so well expressed in the narrative. We have to take our pathetically limited knowledge, and our dangerous arrogance, and get on with it. And when we fail, or things go wrong, we get angry and point fingers, just as Meg does here. As our brains scream about fears and anger, and point us in a lot of wrong directions, we have to pull ourselves together and move forward, using our limited working knowledge and accepting that we have to find answers as we go along. All of this involves faith, of different sorts and in shifting applications.
“What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?” “Yes.” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
In short, all of us must proceed into the darkness and reach for the light. For me, reading as an adult, that is what this book was all about.
This was my first read of a Lauren Oliver book. It was obvious after the first few pages that it was extremely well written, and that there was a specThis was my first read of a Lauren Oliver book. It was obvious after the first few pages that it was extremely well written, and that there was a special - one might say ineffable - quality about the writing.
All of the great books have a special quality in their prose. But there was something about this one that just radiated warmth. The phrases and pages had a symphonic quality as they wound around my head - a sort of perfection of timing and tone, of musical phrases moving separately and then coming together.
I kept thinking, as I read, about just what it was that made the book so magical for me. After all, this was a “children’s book”, and I had bought it for my my two grade-school-age boys. I did that because of glowing reviews from GR friends that I trust implicitly, including those from Wendy and Kaethe. As I have said before, it is extremely easy to find the best books to read when you rely on advice from those who REALLY know books, and have read (seemingly) EVERYTHING.
Well, of course our boys were too busy destroying intergalactic aliens on the Wii, DS, computer, etc. to be bothered until ‘later’ with any book that I recommended. Especially when I hadn’t read it, and especially when there were Big Nate and Wimpy Kid books lying around handy - known and trusted sources for boy-humor. (I get nightly Big Nate passages read to me by the younger one, when he is supposed to be asleep)
So, I picked a propitious moment to tag along with my friend Cillian and read this book. And promptly fell in love with it.
Liesl is a lovely little girl who has been locked away by an evil force in her life. Living in miserable conditions, she grieves for a lost loved one. When Po appears, her life begins to change.
“...Po wasn’t exactly sure why it had appeared in Liesl’s room... Over the past few months Po had seen a dim light appear at the edges of its consciousness at the same time every night, and next to that light was a living one, a girl; and in in the glow of that light the living girl made drawings.”
As each new character is introduced, we get a fascinating thumbnail of the personality, but little idea of how the pieces will fit.
“...a very frazzled-looking alchemist’s apprentice was standing on the quiet street in front of her house, staring up at her darkened window and feeling sorry for himself.”
“Pathetic, the alchemist would say. Worse than useless. As ridiculous and deluded as a frog trying to turn into a flower petal...”
The potions and magical elements start to appear. And the story begins to take shape around a small wooden box and an unfortunate (and portentous) mistake.
What follows is a series of highly fortunate, and then most unfortunate coincidences. And if you are like me, you are not bothered at this point by trivialities such as probables and plausibles. After all, the bending of realities is not sooo egregious, and the elements of fantasy are so beautifully delivered that every piece seems to fit exactly in its proper place. Even the evil ones are deliciously bad, and the whole structure moves forward with a sublime rhythm that I found completely mesmerizing.
“Augusta produced a large golden key from her purse, and with it unlocked the gates. She gestured grandly for the Lady Premiere to precede her into the yard. Inwardly, Augusta trembled with excitement. A visit! From the Lady Premiere! Who was a princess in her native Spain (or was it Portugal...?)! It was outstanding! It was unheard of! The neighbors would seethe with jealousy.”
The plot lines cross and re-cross, and this magical story winds along, with all of its twists and turns. The prose is superb throughout. Every step of the way, you get a clear (3rd person) picture of the thought processes in each of the characters.
For me, this book succeeds at every level. I was particularly pleased with the treatment of the good-vs.-evil themes and characters. It is easy to look around us and see evildoers (use your own definition) who succeed beyond any notion of ‘justice’, and to conclude that there is no justice in this life. But if you observe carefully, you can often find examples where evil is its own undoing. And every now and then, you can give a little boost to the process and speed things up just a bit. If you think about how that happens, you might just find some of the same elements at work in this tale.
I felt a wonderful sense of calm as the story ended, thinking about the mastery of what I had just read. Then I read through the poignant afterword, and the whole story made even more sense to me. I strongly recommend that Author’s Note, for a personal perspective on what she was feeling as she wrote this, and how she came to see the story when it was complete. I don’t want to spoil that here.
As an adult reader, I was completely taken away by this book. I would recommend it for most adults, and of course for children above, say, age 6 or 7. There are some frightening bits at various points, but I really see this as one for ‘kids of all ages’.