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? . . .

 


London 2012: the opening ceremonies

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I think the Olympics are great. I especially like the opening ceremony.

 

 

Actually, the opening ceremony is pretty much the only thing I like. I find the athletic events dull. (Over the past few days I have watched bits of volleyball, and cycling, and swimming, and I cannot stifle my yawns.)

 

 

But the opening ceremonies – yowzah! They are an opportunity for the host country to tell a story about itself. We all remember the powerfully choreographed opening of the Beijing Olympics, with 2008 drummers in sync with one another, and later the adorable children from all over China, in ethnic costumes. (I vaguely recall that one of the children was lip-synching a song, but let us not speak of that.) I also recall the Vancouver Olympics, with a sort of rippling pool of light in which we saw Native American images, and a huge bear, and fiddlers, and – well, all kinds of things.

 

 

The London ceremony was huge, and sloppy, and very endearing. We knew in advance that it was going to be the “English countryside,” and snippy commentators were predicting sheep and cottages. Well, we did in fact get sheep and cottages. We also got the countryside (literally) rolled away. We got the World-Tree ripped from the top of Glastonbury Tor. We got Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” growing out of the floor. We got suffragettes, and the Jarrow Marchers, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

 

 

Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” did a wonderful thing: he tried his very best to include everything. And I think he may well have succeeded. (I think he put up a posterboard: “What is the UK?” And he, and everyone, put up notes, for days and days. And he included everything that everyone suggested.)

 

 

We got music, and weather reports, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” and “Jerusalem.” We got J. K. Rowling. We got Tim Berners-Lee. We got the Stones, and Cruella de Ville. We got Paul McCartney! We got the Sex Pistols. We got the Queen (the actual Queen!) and her corgis, with Daniel Craig as James Bond. We got allusions to Austin Powers and J. R. R. Tolkien. We got Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

 

 

We got an elaborate salute to the UK’s National Health Service, right in front of Mitt and Ann Romney, and I would have loved to ask them how they enjoyed it.

 

 

The Beijing ceremony in 2008 was about unity and power. The London ceremony was about diversity. The choreography – dear God! – was elaborate in the extreme, but it seemed almost random: groups of marchers drifting together, marching through one another’s ranks, and separating again.

 

 

One of the Financial Times commentators last weekend said, nicely: “The parts that didn’t work highlighted the parts that did.” Exactly right. The rock-and-roll section was a little long, and maybe Rowan Atkinson / Mister Bean was a little over-the-top, but it all worked. (A lot of people on Tumblr seem to think that the Olympic cauldron, which only came together in the last moments of the ceremony, was the Eye of Sauron. I don’t think so. But – who knows?)

 

 

Sadly, I had to watch this ceremony on American television, on NBC. Matt Lauer (whom I thought was smarter than this) treated it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and  giggled and talked through the whole thing. Bob Costas (to whom I am used by now, after many Olympics) thinks he has to do color commentary through the whole thing. My Tumblr idol, wellthatsjustgreat, wrote some wonderfully scathing commentary on Messrs. Lauer and Costas, which I encourage you to read. In effect, they almost ruined the thing, especially the Parade of Nations. (Well, NBC helped; they decided that we didn’t need to see whole chunks of the ceremony, and dumped in a fatuous interview with Michael Phelps. Also, I am told by a correspondent in the UK that the BBC coverage was even worse.)

 

 

I have the ceremony on the DVR. I have already watched bits over again. I still haven’t gotten all of the British-culture references. I probably never will.

 

 

It was wonderful, nonetheless.

 

(And now I have to go back and watch the Vancouver ceremony from 2010, because I still don’t have all of that one figured out either.)


 

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

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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!

 


 

Fan fiction

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I think one of the great by-creations of the Internet has been the proliferation of fan fiction. It allows fans to pay homage to their favorite movies and books and TV shows by creating new versions of them. Porn versions of “Mary Tyler Moore.” Pirate versions of “Twilight.” Gay versions of “Harry Potter.”

 

 

My goofy friend Apollonia, the #1 Twilight fan in the world, subsists on fan fiction. After all, once you’ve read all four Twilight novels, and while you’re waiting for the godlike Robert Pattinson to complete the movie cycle, what do you do? If you’re Apollonia, you read fan fiction. “There’s one,” she told me breathlessly, “where Edward has Bella trapped, and he just drains her a little bit at a time, and he’s in love with her, but she’s – “

 

 

I will not complete that sentence. Dis – gus – ting.

 

 

But I do understand.

 

 

I saw an entry on Tumblr.com recently about Harry Potter. I’m not the biggest Potterite in the world, but I respect J. K. immensely; I own all 300 pounds of her work, mostly in hard cover.  She recently released a tease that seemed to indicate she was writing more wizard-related material, and then it turned out it was just some bits and pieces to be released on the Net.  

 

 

And the world pants for more.

 

 

Anyway: so we know that Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, right? A long time ago, right? And there was conflict between the four of them, right?

 

 

This would be an awesome movie, right?

 

 

The Tumblr people even cast it! Rachel Weisz as Helga Hufflepuff, and Michael Fassbender (the handsome somber young Magneto in the most recent X-Men movie) as Salazar Slytherin . . .

 

 

To quote Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein”:

 

 

“It! Could! Work!”

 

 

Are you listening, J. K.?

 


 

Harry Potter and the box-office juggernaut


Partner and I (and most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) saw the new Harry Potter movie yesterday. Now, I’m one of those people who read the ending of a book first, because I hate suspense. But I could not make head or tail of the ending of this book! (No spoilers here – but is there anyone who doesn’t know how this story ends?) But still. I mean, if Harry’s linked to Voldemort, that means he – but, wait a minute, Voldemort drank some of Harry’s blood, so he – and there’s the whole Horcrux thing, so they both – but they have the same wand, so they –

 

Anyway. This movie only gets us halfway through the book. We don’t have to worry about the face-off between Harry and Voldemort until next July. In three-D. It will be spectacular.

 

Partner and I liked this movie. It’s dark without being obscure. It breezes right along (mostly). It’s a whole Who’s Who of British cinema, too. (Colin Farrell, on Graham Norton this week, made a funny/sad observation that he hadn’t been asked to be in it, and that he was probably the only actor in the British Isles who wasn’t asked. It’s a shame. He would have been adorable.) There are a few jump-out-of-your seat scenes, which are pleasantly startling without being heart-stopping. The magic is beautifully depicted; it’s become so natural over the course of the past six movies, they don’t need to feature it anymore. When a newspaper photo turns and looks at you, or someone lights a lamp with a wand, it’s not even surprising, even for us Muggles. It just seems normal. (Also, now that Daniel Radcliffe is all grown up, he takes his clothes off a lot. It makes for a pleasant diversion.)

 

But there’s a long dry spell in the middle of the movie: Ron and Harry and Hermione wander in the woods and bicker with one another. Time passes. The scenery is very stark and lovely. Aren’t we on the clock here? Isn’t Voldemort doing bad stuff off in the distance? Why are you guys just kicking around through the dead leaves and pouting at each other? It’s exactly the same dry patch that the novel had, and I remember being very irritated with it. A couple of the novels gave me the sense that Rowling was just filling pages with words, to bulk up the novel – kids like their novels bulky! – and this was one of them.

 

The movie has a sad / ominous ending. Voldemort (what’s with that nose? Do evil wizards get their noses revoked?) is winning. Helena Bonham Carter is a cackling maniac. And somebody nice dies.

 

But don’t worry, kids. Stay tuned. All is not lost. There’s more to come.

 


 

 

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