Young adult fiction

young adult

“How did you spend your weekend?” Apollonia asked. “Gambling? Moping?”

“Mostly moping,” I said. “Also reading young-adult fiction.”

She roared with laughter. She, of all people, knows what I mean. Apollonia is the world’s most tragically obsessed Twihard, and would happily pluck a leftover egg-salad sandwich out of the garbage and eat it, if there were any chance it had been gnawed on by Robert Pattinson. It goes without saying that she knows the Stephenie Meyer books by heart, the way Islamic clerics know the Koran.

Naturally all of us read the Harry Potter books, though they were “too young for us.” Why? Because they were well-told stories, and entertaining, and full of conflict on every level. They ask questions like: why is my family (and Professor Snape, for that matter) so mean to me? Why won’t Hermione and Ron realize they love one another? Why is Lord Voldemort trying to kill me? Also, the novels funny and colorful and full of incident. (There are some dull patches – the middle third of “Deathly Hallows,” in which Ron and Harry and Hermione wander around in the wilderness and snipe at each other, was pretty deathly itself – but overall these books move pretty briskly. And who doesn’t like a six-hundred page book that moves along briskly?)

Also, some years ago, I discovered Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be A Wizard” series, which is serious fun. Who doesn’t want to be a teenage wizard? You get to save the planet, and sometimes the entire galaxy, over and over again. You get to meet interesting people like the Archangel Michael and Satan. And Diane Duane can really write; she’s light-years ahead of Meyer, and I think she writes more fluently than Rowling. Naturally you really ought to read the books in order, but I didn’t, and I don’t think I missed out too much. I especially like “A Wizard Abroad,” in which a New York girl (and secret wizard) is sent off to Ireland to visit relatives, and ends up discovering an entire world of Celtic folklore, helps to reenact the Battle of Moytura, and (incidentally) saves the world one more time. (Diane Duane also maintains a great Tumblr in which she interacts with readers and fans – I don’t know how she finds the time – and is very obviously a funny and generous person. This makes me like her writing even more.)

And if you still find yourself with time on your hands, try Rick Riordan’s Greek-mythology series – the five novels of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and the three novels of “Heroes of Olympus” he’s published for far. (The fourth, “The House of Hades,” is due out around the time that this blog is to be published; the series is set to conclude a year from now.) These are reimaginings of Greek and Roman myths, set in modern America; they’re goofier than the “Wizard” books, and the humor can be juvenile, but the stories are gripping (let’s face it, Greek mythology is good source material), and there are some nice touches. (If you saw the first movie based on the series, “The Lightning Thief,” rest assured that the books are much better.)

I could go on. Do Tove Jansson’s Moomin books count as Young Adult? Parts of them skew a little young (even for me!), but I love them anyway.

J. R. R. Tolkien said it best, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:

In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? . . .


For Sunday: Tim Tebow reads “Green Eggs and Ham”

tim tebow green eggs and ham

Sometimes we need a relief from the difficulties of our everyday lives. We need something deeply silly to help us escape.

So: here’s Tim Tebow, who is Christian but delectably cute, doing a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham.”

With hand gestures, yet!

Eat your books

eat your books


Natalie Babbitt (the wife of one of my old bosses, and the author of “Tuck Everlasting”) is a terrific person who writes and illustrates pretty good books. She was featured in a documentary called “Library of the Early Mind” a few years ago. Some of the documentary’s participants complained about the publishing industry. Natalie, being smart, did not complain about it, probably because it’s like being an oxygen breather complaining about breathing oxygen.




Instead, she talked about her own love of books.  “I write books for children,” she said, “because my childhood was the most important part of my life to date.  And I’m seventy-two.”  Later she talked about her love of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” noting that Alice was the smartest person in the book, and that the adults were “idiots.”   “And,” she added, “I grew up to find that that’s true.”




That’s one of those sharp little zaps you get from a really smart observer. Myself, I didn’t read the Alice books until high school, and I was immediately taken with Alice’s brisk businesslike manner, and how she deals with the various kinds of nonsense around her.  She can be brusque, as with the Queen of Hearts; she can be nannyish and mothering, as with the White Queen; she can be sweet and sentimental, as with the White Knight. Alice, at the age of seven, is the only really adult-acting person in either book.




Children are generally not surprised by this. Children love their books. I know I loved mine.




I once read a wonderful Maurice Sendak anecdote, which I hope is true:




“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”



So: you really liked that John Grisham novel, did you?




Let’s see you eat it.



Movie review: “The Hobbit”


Partner and I saw “The Hobbit” on Xmas Eve. I’m a big Tolkien nerd, so I couldn’t stay away, but I was dreading it a little too. The “Lord of the Rings” movies were beautifully made, but they didn’t always precisely agree with the way I’d imagined the books when I read them in the 1960s, and it hurt my heart a little.

“The Hobbit” is a children’s book. It tells the same basic story as “The Lord of the Rings” – a journey, lots of adventures along the way, spiders, monsters, battles, a distant mountain in the East – but it’s jokey and cute. There are some solemn bits, but they’re solemn in a long-ago-and-far-away fairy-tale way.

So the question was: could Peter Jackson take a funny clever children’s book and make something of it that wasn’t just “Lord of the Rings: the Prequel”?

The early reviews weren’t great. David Edelstein last weekend said that “The Hobbit” was “our punishment for liking ‘The Lord of the Rings’ too much.” Other reviewers complained of all kinds of things: too fast, too slow, too much CGI, too serious, too long. The only reviewer I saw who liked it was the FT’s Nigel Andrews, who calls it “a sort of masterwork.” He allows that you “have to like looking at folkloric weirdos with beards, hats, and bulbous noses,” and also that the first part of the movie has too many “walkies and fighties,” but it carries you along with it anyway.

I am here to tell you that Nigel Andrews was right, and I am the kind of person who likes bulbous noses and pointy hats, and I liked the movie very much.

First, however, the bad news: it’s much too long. The book moves along very briskly, so Jackson really had to pump a bunch of stuff into it to make it longer: flashbacks, explanatory sequences, framing devices. He drew, not only from “The Hobbit,” but from “The Lord of the Rings” itself, and its appendices, and lots of other Tolkien material. I didn’t find it tedious – as I said above, I’m a Tolkien nerd, I can name all thirteen dwarves while standing on my head – but I wondered how Partner was dealing with it. Was he overdosing on Middle-Earth?

But no! He liked it!

So there’s got to be some good stuff there.

Are you kidding? There’s a ton of good stuff there. There’s Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, funny and very (ahem) human; Ian McKellan as a (slightly) younger Gandalf, irascible as ever. Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and he doesn’t look constipated anymore: he actually looks cheerful at times! And, naturally, you will find Andy Serkis’s Gollum, creepy and sad and horrible, in the movie’s best scene.

Jackson departed from the book, naturally, but his choices were mostly good. Bilbo and Gandalf are travelling with a group of thirteen dwarves. How in the hell do you create thirteen distinctive characters all at once and make them memorable? The answer: you don’t. You make maybe five or six of them distinctive, and rely on the rest of them to make background chatter. So we get to know Balin and Dwalin, and Bofur (I think), and Bombur (well, even in the book he’s the fat one), and Fili and Kili. And that’s plenty.

Jackson made the fight-scenes monumental, and dramatic, and even clever. (Barry Humphries, the comedian who created Dame Edna Everage, is the Great Goblin, a horrible creature with a huge goiter and a gift for snappy dialogue.)

But here’s the best bit of all.

In the book, about fifty pages along, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter three trolls with Cockney accents. The trolls want to eat Bilbo & Co., and have a big argument over how to cook them.

Before we went, I said to Partner, “I hope he gets the trolls right. And I hope they have Cockney accents.”

And they do.

Elbereth bless you, Peter Jackson.

The Hobbit


Are we looking forward to Peter Jackson’s filmization of “The Hobbit”? Yes, of course we are.

I was born into the Lord of the Rings Generation. When I was in the seventh grade I bought “The Two Towers,” not knowing that it was the second book in the trilogy, and not understanding how trilogies worked in any case.  Naturally I didn’t understand a bit of the plot, but I struggled through it anyway. Then one of my teachers, Mister Lorenz, bless him, noticed what was going on, and offered to lend me his copies of “Fellowship of the Ring” and “Return of the King,” so long as I didn’t damage them.

I was an immediate convert to Tolkienism.

A summer or two later – around 1970, anyway – I wrote to Ballantine Books, and sent them my $2.00, and received in return a copy of “The Hobbit,” which was described on the cover as “the enchanting prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”

I devoured it in a couple of days.

Have you ever noticed that “Hobbit” is exactly the same story as “Lord of the Rings”? A hobbit (Bilbo / Frodo) is enticed by Gandalf to leave the Shire with a group of oddball travelers. They encounter problems on the way (trolls, Nazgul, whatever). They get to Rivendell and have a chitchat with Elrond. They cross the Misty Mountains, but not without difficulties (Bilbo with Gollum and the goblins, Frodo in Moria). They pop out the other side and have a little rest (Bilbo and the dwarves with Beorn, Frodo and his companions in Lorien). They cross the river, and get into trouble, and get separated. There are spiders. There’s an ominous mountain. There’s a treasure that needs to be thrown away or given away (the Arkenstone / the Ring). There’s a big climactic battle. “The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!” A few key people are killed in each battle (Thorin in “Hobbit,” Theoden in “Rings”).

And then the hobbit goes home to the Shire.

I’m delighted that Jackson is bringing back some key people: Ian McKellen, the perfect Gandalf, and Hugo Weaving, a grave (if intense) Elrond. (Please note that I love the Elrond that Tolkien gives us in the books; he’s thousands of years old, but he’s also very nice. Hugo Weaving looks irritated all the time, or maybe constipated, which is maybe more likely for someone who’s half-human and thousands of years old.)

Martin Freeman, like Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, is a perfect hobbit; like them, he’s a little unearthly-looking.

I hope the movie isn’t too CGI-reliant. “Hobbit” is a children’s book, but this had better not be a children’s movie.

And I don’t know if this is true, but I hear that Stephen Colbert is in the movie, as an elf. (He’s spoken Elvish on his show more than once, so he’s got the right background.)

We will see.

Here’s hoping for the best.

Chapter books and picture books

Last summer, my assistant Ezra said: “Are you going to the bookstore at lunch today? Because I want to go with you.”

“Why?” I said. “You want a book? I can pick it up for you.”

“No,” he said with certainty. “It’s the new Game of Thrones book. It’s the first one in six years. I want to buy it myself.”

So we went to the (now defunct) Borders Bookstore, and I turned him loose.

He was immensely happy, and I left him alone with his prize. I wandered off to the “graphic novel” section, and browsed for a few minutes, and rejoined him shortly with a big black-and-white Superman anthology. “What’s that?” he said suspiciously.

“It’s an anthology of some comic books from my childhood,” I said happily.

He looked down on me (seriously: he was at least five inches taller than me) with disdain.

He was buying a chapter book and I was buying a picture book.

Well, so what? I love my picture books. Some of them remind me of my childhood, which is reason enough. Some are artistic / beautiful, which is reason enough again. Some are profound and moving (like “Maus”). Some are just for fun, like my comic anthologies, or my volumes ofLynda Barry and George Herriman and Edward Gorey.

To quote Charles Dodgson (from – surprise! – a chapter book!):

 “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’”

Amen, sister.

For the first day of summer: a young-adult reading list


Summer is all about recreational reading, but everyone’s idea of light reading is different.  Some like John Grisham, or Patricia Cornwell, or Stephen King.  I like young-adult stuff.



For me, “young adult” is any chapter book not directed to an adult readership.  Some are perfectly appropriate for bright eight-year-olds, and some aren’t. 



Young-adult literature is unassuming, and it gets right to the point without dithering.  There’s very little padding in most young-adult books.  Sometimes the authors pander – they lay it on too thick, or they get the atmosphere wrong – but there’s some pretty good stuff out there, both old and new.



Let’s acknowledge J. K. Rowling right at the top of the list.  I hope she figures out a way to continue her story.  What about Harry and Ginny’s kids? 



Still have your set of Narnia books?   I’ve purchased them and gotten rid of them twice over.  I like the characters and the storytelling, but C. S. Lewis’s drippy Christian moralizing makes me feel sticky after a while.  I can’t even touch “The Last Battle” anymore, although Neil Gaiman has written a wonderful short story about the flip side of that story.



(Lewis, for all his faults, was a pretty good writer.  If you haven’t read the space novels – “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra,” and (especially, and weirdest of all) “That Hideous Strength” – do it.  Great stuff.  Nasty stuff here and there, too.  If you don’t wince a couple of times while reading these, you’re not reading very carefully.)



If you like surreal whimsy – and who doesn’t? – try Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.  My favorite is “Moominland Midwinter”: the Moomin family is hibernating, but the little Moomin boy wakes up and discovers that, during the winter months, their house is completely taken over by all kinds of peculiar creatures.  It has the creepy stillness of a deep Scandinavian winter, and it’s lots of fun: perfect ice-cold reading for a hot New England day.



P. L.Travers wrote “Mary Poppins,” and “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” and “Mary Poppins in the Park.” Her original Mary Poppins is not Julie Andrews: she’s ferocious, and truly scary sometimes – the cobra in the London zoo calls her “cousin”! – and Jane and Michael worship her.



Thornton Wilder wasn’t really a young-adult writer, but some of his novels – especially “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” – fit perfectly in this category. I read it in high school, and was moved to tears, and I still quote it endlessly. If you haven’t read it, read it immediately.



And finally, here’s a writer who’s still among the living: Rick Riordan.  The Percy Jackson books were a Greek-mythology knockoff of Harry Potter, but Riordan can really tell a story too.  He left the Percy Jackson story to tell a sort of parallel story involving Egyptian mythology instead, but it doesn’t quite have the energy of the Percy Jackson books. He seems to have realized this, however, and has gone back to Percy, with a side twist through the Roman version of the Greek myths; he’s written two of these, and they’re both wonderful, and I’m looking forward to number three.



There’s your summer reading assignment, kids.



And it’s fun.



So get reading!



%d bloggers like this: