Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Greatest girl characters | The Atlantic, Tor, and myself

I came across this post by Jen Doll at The Atlantic about the greatest girl characters of young adult literature through Tor.com (my number one stop for procrastination when writing papers...), where Mari Ness criticized The Atlantic's article, pointing out the fact that the majority of books on the list aren't even technically designated for a young adult audience. But setting aside the technical problems Ness is so troubled by (which truly are worth considering), the premise of the list is deeply flawed.

Doll's article is built on the premise that Katniss (of The Hunger Games fame) may be a revolutionary character in American film, but not in literature. It's a noble (if altogether warped) premise, but the execution is clumsy at best. What I'm bothered by is the fact that Doll's list is almost exclusively comprised of very old characters, with only The Book Thief as a remotely modern book. Not that these choices are necessarily void because they're old, but this is certainly not the list that I would ever come up with.

At Tor, meanwhile, Ness unsurprisingly comes up with a different list entirely and opens the floor up to nominations. As I read through the list (and subsequent comments), I was struck by how different the two approaches are. Half of Doll's heroines live in a society of young women who seem forced to exceed society's expectations, while the other half are simply well-characterized girls. It's all very reality-grounded. Ness' choices and the majority of the choices listed in comments, meanwhile, predictably lean in the direction of fantasy. Many comments name one of my personal favorite characters Lyra Belacqua (of His Dark Materials), and Ness specifically addresses another unacceptable omission in the form of Hermione Granger, who despite not being the main character of Harry Potter is definitely a main enough character to justify appearing on any list of this kind.

These omissions - among many others - make Doll's original list very puzzling. While I don't deny that these are remarkable characters, these young women share very little with Katniss, who sparked the whole debate. Beverly Cleary's Ramona is a wonderful little girl, but she is no way the predecessor to Katniss. The whole matter is quite frankly bizarre.

I have my own lists of great characters (girls or boys). I've already discussed Leslie Burke, and I can certainly discuss Hermione or Lyra for hours at an end. And I have to admit that I was thrilled to see one commenter add Antimony Carver of Gunnerkrigg Court to the list, though she's only one of many wonderful girls in the story. Others: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, obviously Meg from A Wrinkle in Time (thankfully included in Doll's original list), Coraline from Coraline, Tamar from Someone to Run With (my own addition), and many, many, many others. This seems like a field worth delving into further.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Childhood discoveries too late | Chrestomanci

In the space of a few short months, I've gone from having read nothing by Diana Wynne Jones to wanting to read everything she's written. The fault lies squarely with DWJ's Chrestomanci series, which is an undoubtedly entertaining and amusing series. And, to a certain degree, with the character of Chrestomanci himself, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Best of the bunch
The wonderful thing about the Chrestomanci series is how perfectly it occupies a personal, treasured niche in my reading history while remaining entirely new and fresh. I purchased the combined edition of Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant half by accident - it was available for only a couple of dollars at the Border's going-out-of-business sale, and as the only title by DWJ available, I figured it would have to do as my introduction to her writing (despite having previously concluded that it was perhaps better to start with something a bit more mature). I read it almost out of necessity - I was craving a kids fantasy, and Charmed Life fit that bill perfectly. It also happens to be a delightful book and is immediately followed by The Lives of Christopher Chant, which is an even better book (and still one of the best books I've read in recent months).

The only problem I can find with the Chrestomanci books is that I came to them too late. These are silly, witty fantasies involving young children engaging in silly and often even downright weird activities and experiencing magic in different and strange ways. It's a good deal of fun, and all I can think about is how I would have enjoyed these books as a young bookworm. The writing is unabashedly childish and fun, indeed charming. These are books to be read and enjoyed, books that remain as entertaining today as they must have been twenty-thirty-plus years ago when they were first published.

And then there's Chrestomanci himself. That is, Christopher Chant, who features as Chrestomanci in three of the four books that I've read in the series, and in the fourth is outright the main child character. Chrestomanci is one of the best characters of kids fantasy literature, period. His affinity for good clothing, his seemingly ambivalent outward demeanor, his unique sense of humor, his childhood passions and quirks, and a myriad of other original traits make him a strong character in The Lives of Christopher Chant (and the reason that that novel is the best of the bunch, by a long shot), and a delightful guest star (or even featured guest star) in the other books. Witch Week, which features perhaps the broadest cast of characters, shines brightest once Chrestomanci enters the picture and ties the story (and characters) together. The Magicians of Caprona, meanwhile, falls in part because of Chrestomanci's minimal involvement (though is rescued by an absolutely thrilling second half).

Whether or not the next DWJ book I read will be a Chrestomanci book, I cannot say. But I am certain by this point that there will be a next DWJ book, and that I will eventually want to finish reading all the Chrestomanci stories. And even more certainly, I know that when I recommend good fantasies for kids, the Chrestomanci books will be high on my list.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family and fantasy themes in "The Barbarian Nurseries"

When I started reading Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, I felt a twinge in my stomach. Oh no, I thought, another disappointing book. The writing felt choppy at first: a third-person story that enabled multiple points-of-view without any clear indication of the shifts. But once I'd passed the first chapter, suddenly the movement between the POVs was seamless. The writing fell into place. The characters leapt out at me. And instead of getting annoyed about another sub-par book, I realized that for the first time in a while, I was reading a really good book and was able to just enjoy it. 

I can list several reasons why a reader might not like The Barbarian Nurseries. Unlike my favorite books, the flaws in this somewhat poorly-concluded novel jump out at me. Unlike most books, though, the flaws don't trouble me that much. That is, they're there, but for once the phrase "the good outweighs the bad" really does fit. Whatever faults The Barbarian Nurseries may have, they made little difference in the face of some truly wonderful aspects. But I don't want to review the book*, I want to discuss two themes in the book that jumped out at me.

Tobar is no ordinary author. Clearly. In addition to writing the brilliant character of Brandon Torres-Thompson, Tobar manages to play with a few themes in a clean and simple manner. There are the big, overwhelming ones - the obvious immigration theme, for starters, as well as the overarching family theme - but then there are ones that are more subtle and subdued, namely that of fantasy. 

The matter of family (and how to manage one) is an apparent theme in The Barbarian Nurseries. Right from the early pages, Tobar introduces readers to the family unit - mother Maureen, father Scott, the three kids, and housekeeper-now-nanny Araceli. Tobar spends the first hundred or so pages setting up the family dynamic, displaying the emotional strain each adult character is under in their attempt to achieve "perfection". It's a wonderful and fascinating theme, particularly because of its near-universality: few readers, I suspect, will not find some form through which to relate to Tobar's realistic family drama. Tobar raises excellent questions about child-rearing and parenthood, about boundaries and space, about responsibility and personal desires and needs. 

And yet it's the fantasy theme in The Barbarian Nurseries that truly struck home for me. Introduced in an offhand manner in the first chapter - Maureen mentions Scott's obsession with video games - it gradually lets the reader see how every character engages in some form of escapism, whether through reading, art, video games, or just extensive use of the imagination. The most successful outlet for this theme is through Brandon's literary imaginings, particularly in the scene in which he tells other children of the fantasy books he so loves. In conversation with the underprivileged young boy Tomás about various fantasy books, Tomás thinks how he "did not know books could contain dramatic and violent tales rooted in real life." This echoes Brandon's disbelief and innocence regarding the harsh truths of world outside his sheltered existence. 

The more I think about The Barbarian Nurseries, the more I find myself wanting to pull it apart piece by piece, to reread it carefully and savor its words again, to write out all the excellent passages within its pages, and to pass the book along to others. Though the abrupt shift in tone and theme in the last section could have been done a bit more realistically with fewer stereotypical characters, at the end of the day I was completely swept away by the book. The conclusion - though the weakest aspect of the book - nonetheless contains wonderful closure to the family theme. 

And the fantasy theme? One of my favorite scenes in The Barbarian Nurseries takes place in the final pages - Brandon, he of the fantastic imagination, finds himself distracted from his story recollections in the face of a stronger reality. It's a moment in which the real world wins and fantasy takes a backseat. But is Brandon done dreaming? Has he forsaken fantasy worlds? I think not. Tobar leaves this theme open, perhaps recognizing that sometimes things are best left to the imagination.
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* My "real" review of The Barbarian Nurseries can be found here

Friday, October 28, 2011

Children in grown-up books - Brandon and Bran

Think of this as a teaser post for a book I'll be discussing more in depth in a few days (and a few additional thoughts on the book I read almost immediately after). The books are as different from one another as books can be, but the core of this post is the similarity between these vastly different tomes... and one of the finest aspects to both.

The books in question are The Barbarian Nurseries and A Song of Ice and Fire (technically it should be A Dance with Dragons but I don't feel like nitpicking); the main topic is children in adult literature. As a child growing up, one of the things I learned to hate about so-called "grown-up books" was the complete and total inability of adult authors to write believable children. Many of the kids books I'd read still maintained believability, but once children were set alongside adult characters and were created with an adult audience in mind, they suddenly stopped behaving like children.

Kid characters typically fall into one of two categories: exaggerated in their childishness or precocious. Typically the latter. Kids are all brilliant and clever and speak like adults and read Shakespeare and talk about adult things. Even those who don't fall into the precocious category tend to have some adult-like behaviorisms to them. It can get incredibly frustrating. There are cases, though, that somehow avoid the typical pitfalls. Not many, but in recent months I have encountered two: Brandon (Bran) Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Torres-Thompson from The Barbarian Nurseries.

In addition to having the same name, these two Brandons have a few common traits: both are clever kids without broaching the unrealistically talented realm, both have an undeniable romantic streak to them, both are on the cusp of their relative maturity (one of Bran's most common sentiments is that he's "almost a man grown" despite being only eight years old...), and both are given "feature" status on the surface but never the screentime they deserve.

That these two highlight my favorite characters in their respective books actually comes as a surprise to me. Bran Stark is a young boy forced to grow up all too quickly, but he retains an air of childhood around him, an air of innocence. His view of the world is simple to begin with, but gradually grows as he sees and learns more. Something to his wistful dreaming and his passion made him a character worth appreciating, a character worth loving. Meanwhile, when Brandon first appeared in The Barbarian Nurseries, I was certain he was going to be another cliched young character, another clever little reader who somehow sheds light on the adult world while the adults squabble like children. But Brandon's observations are astute and in-tune with his age.
Brandon arrived at the conclusion that Araceli was just lonely. And when he thought about her loneliness, he concluded that she should read more, because anyone who read was never alone.
Or another example: the scene in which Brandon - seeing the poor and the homeless for the first time in his sheltered life - immediately thinks of a fantasy series he'd recently read. Much as I viewed the world at the age of eleven, Brandon applies what he read in the books to this strange and frightening new world he suddenly encounters:
...as he sat in the train with his nose pressed to the glass, the violent and disturbing denouement of that epic narrative seemed the only plausible explanation for the existence of this village of suffering passing below him.
[...] Brandon had begun to warm to the idea that the [...] saga was, in fact, a thinly veiled, detailed account of a real but primitive corner of the actual world. Entire cities emptied of good people, civilians tortured, their homes and their books set to the torch. How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it?
The funny thing is, both Brandons are characters in books that acknowledge their importance to the story, but seem unwilling to allow them to fulfill their potential. Like most children, they're ignored in a sense - given moments here and there but never the full flow of things. Brandon is a character with much to say in the first half of The Barbarian Nurseries, but we learn of him in too few scenes and he gets very little attention in the second half of the book. Bran, meanwhile, is the neglected character in his world, often derided as boring... but there's something about him that nonetheless has me hooked, something about the way his character is drawn - childishly innocent on the one hand, cautious and wise on the other - that raises him high in my eyes.

This is how authors should be writing kids. These kids should be believable, should inspire passion, should view the world with the innocence-yet-wisdom that only children have. They don't need to be brilliant and they don't have to be bookish (for example, while Brandon is bookish, it's as much a part of his personality as is his love of video games) and they don't have to play chess. They can be clever and stupid at once (children have an often skewed way of viewing reality - this plays a key role in The Barbarian Nurseries), they can make mistakes, and they can act like kids. If only there were fewer cliches out there and just a few more Brandons.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leslie Burke

In a recent set of interviews and application psych tests, I found myself faced with a question that has stumped me for years now: Name and describe a fictional or historical character you admire and respect. It's always difficult with historical figures, because the ones I know most about are either inherently evil or malicious (or at least are perceived as such), or entirely ubiquitous. Instead I take this as an opportunity for literary fun, where the first concern is that of audience. Who am I writing this for? From the first instant, I find myself limiting my options. It can't be a character with too grim a setting, because this is ultimately an  application. Just as television's most popular bookworm Rory Gilmore once commented, you can't write down Sylvia Plath for all your admiration, because that leads to the question of: "So do you also want to shove your head in an oven?" The more you know about an author, the more you realize that it's incredibly difficult to admire and respect them. I turn to fictional characters and then the trouble begins...

You can't pick something too common, like Hermione Granger (for all her wit and bravery), nor can you pick a character too tortured to truly be respected, like Ender. It has to be a reasonably well established book, can't be so obscure the reference is lost on the examiner, but also can't be so common the choice shows nothing of your personality. Almost all adult characters are deeply flawed in some way (that is, of course, one of the measures by which we hold quality literature these days) and are therefore tricky, complicated choices. Oh, and this choice is in the midst of timed testing.

And so it came to be that Leslie Burke was my choice as character of the decade.

Are you scratching your head? Leslie Burke, Leslie Burke. The girl from Bridge to Terabithia? Yes.

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books I like recommending to just about every kid I come across. It's far older than I am and by the time I read it, it had shown that it could survive generation shifts with kids still appreciating it. Heck, even scenes like all the kids wondering at the fact that Leslie's family doesn't own a TV set are still relevant today. It's a story suited for both boys and girls, tough and sporty at times while magical and emotional at others. More to the point, it's a well-written book with believable, breathing children characters that handles difficult topics with ease.

Back to Leslie. The tragic heroine of Bridge to Terabithia, the imaginative, spunky, sporty, intelligent and all-over adventurer Leslie. Independent by the standards of the town she lives in, unconventional as compared to Jess (the primary character in the book), and fiercely driven, she is given the rare opportunity of playing out only childhood virtues, never reaching adulthood faults. Her flat curiosity in religion, for instance, is intriguing - she does not seek it for herself, but wonders at the lure it poses for others around her. She is nonchalant (we must assume, based on her character) when posed with the childish question, "But what if you die?", still clearly detached from the standard beliefs that bind the other characters. Hers is a world built on imagination and creativity of her own. She needs little else.

The problem is that precisely because Leslie cannot grow up, nor can she develop much in the confines of a children's book, she is almost too good to be true. Her good nature is sincere, but innocent. Her attempts at bonding with the school bully fixate around the fact that she's willing to talk to her, to hear of her troubles. But what if Leslie was only a few years older and the trouble appeared to her as dark as it truly is? With a childish innocence, Leslie can help and coax the anger out of a young woman who, given the few facts we have, has every right to be angry. If she understood the gravity of the situation, would she be able to help quite as much? I very much doubt it.

Even so, I can think of few characters who even ten years down the line have affected me so, without having had to reread the book dozens of times (once or twice, perhaps, but not much more... I'm due for a reread). If ever a young girl to set an example for boys and girls everywhere, it is the figure who is marked by tragedy, whose good nature, spunk and imagination can inspire just about every child. It should not be so surprising, then, that it's Leslie Burke's character who I respect and admire. Even if I seemed to outgrow her a long time ago.