In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Other people's favorite books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Chaos Walking now goes on my list, absolutely.  I'm drooling to get my hands on Mockingjay.

One of the things I'm enjoying about blogging is the increased number of book recommendations I've gotten in the last few months, both from you, from our readers (hi readers -- please keep posting comments and recommendations!), and from friends in conversation.  When we wrote about Paul Fleischman's work a little while ago (here and here), I emailed him to let him know we were talking about his books.

I met Paul in 2002 at a teaching conference where I was promoting with their eyes, the book of interview-based monologues about the aftermath of September 11th that my students and I created that year.  (I'm planning to write more about the book next Friday, as the anniversary comes up.)  Paul was signing books at the HarperCollins stall too, and we got to talking; as well as being an excellent writer, he's a perfectly lovely guy.  In the years since then, we've kept up a correspondence.

After reading my post on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Paul mentioned that he'd never read it, and we made a deal: he'd read one of my favorite children's books, and I'd read one of his.  For me, he suggested one of the following:

The Night of the Comet by Leon Garfield: A hilarious comedy-of-errors by a British YA master, with prose that contains more pleasure per paragraph than almost any book I know.

Krippendorf's Tribe
by Frank Parkin.  For adults, perfect for parents.  If by chance you saw the movie, erase it from your mind.  Comic writing at its best.

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser.  The first in a series, a terrific account of a ne'er-do-well's rise to the top during the time when Britain, not we, were mired in Afghanistan.  Withering and wry, a savory literary kebab.

I haven't kept my end of the bargain yet, but he has, and here's his reaction:

In Breakout there's a line about people's disinterest in walking a mile in each others' shoes, not to mention their families, diets, politics, favorite colors, and definitions of fun.  A book from someone's All-Time Favorite list can be similarly hard to love.  This actually made them laugh, you think (or cry, keep turning the page, etc.)  Can I still regard this person as a friend?  As human?  Despite which, I'm a believer in serendipity and therefore constantly writing down suggested titles and bringing them home from the library.  Recently I took the plunge and read one of Annie's favorites, one I should have read decades ago--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The book was on the shelves in my childhood home, but I didn't discover reading for pleasure until high school and had already put away childish things.  Its reputation as a Christian allegory didn't help.  Plus, I've never been a reader of fantasy, in the same way other people can't eat dairy.  The wacky names and top-heavy morality have always put me off.   This actually gave the present project added impetus: I'd walk a mile, or at least around the block--the book was brief--in some footwear most definitely not my own.

My report?  I can certainly see kids being attracted to it.  To pass through a wardrobe into a hidden forest is a hook with immense appeal.  I was going to say that having the four siblings come from our world would help children identify, but today's young readers might regard names like Edmund and Lucy and phrases like "by Jove" and "hang it all" as coming from a realm light-years away.  Entering into a world of danger without parents at hand, but with each other and a cast of beneficent animals holds great appeal as well.  Alas, I see books through a writer's eyes as well and found much to squint at here.  The narrator--an intrusive old-fashioned sort--subverts suspense by giving away actions and cushioning readers from too much anxiety.  The deck feels too strongly stacked for the forces of good, with Aslan as the deus ex machina that writers are always urged to avoid.  The children do a bit to earn the ending, but far less than we're accustomed to.   They're also amazingly undeveloped, as is the world they've been evacuated from (covered in one sentence) and the house they're occupying, headed by its mysterious professor.  I found gaps at every quarter, from the children's never even remarking on the animals happening to speak English to the one mention of their mother, far offstage.  I might have been pulled into the fantasy more fully if the avuncular narration contained more original description--but that's a quibble I feel about most books I read.  Full disclosure: I'm hard to please.  I deal with issues like the above all day, month, and year, and expect other writers to solve them before setting their books in type.  Many of my complaints are the result of the changes wrought by the last sixty years.  Can't blame C.S. Lewis for those.  Most of them will be as unnoticed by young readers as the book's Christian element.  And I must admit that I feel more likely to try more fantasy in the future, having now passed through the wardrobe into that world.  Overall, a positive experience.  Thanks, Annie...


I'll be sure to post my thoughts on one of Paul's favorites sometime soon.  And what a great project to take up with a friend!

Love, Annie


  1. I have never read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, either, and I could have written exactly Paul's words as to why: "Its reputation as a Christian allegory didn't help. Plus, I've never been a reader of fantasy, in the same way other people can't eat dairy. The wacky names and top-heavy morality have always put me off. "

    Now I will have to check out his books, since we seem to have similar taste!

  2. Mockingjay was amazing. Whereas normal book series tend to falter after the first book, the Hunger Games Trilogy just gets better and better. Mockingjay's the BEST book I've read in a long time-- it quite literally rendered me speechless.

    It's mind-blowing. Please read it soon! :)

    In response to Paul Fleischman's post:
    I remember when I was six or seven (which, to be frank, wasn't all that long ago) and I picked up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at a library used book sale. I finished the book in just a day or two, and I absolutely adored it. I was, and am, an athiest, and as a six-year-old the allegorical references didn't matter to me so much. The story had everything I could ever want as a reader of that age-- talking animals! kings and queens! epic battles! It became my favorite book and I grew ridiculously attached to the characters-- so much so that when I found out that Susan and Peter would be absent from the following books, I immediately stopped reading the series. (Not sure what that says about my dedication, but oh well...)

    I reread the book when I was eleven, and while I found the writing much more elementary than I had when I'd read it five years prior, I still enjoyed the story. A lot. It was once again my favorite book. By this time, I already knew there were biblical references embedded into the story, but I still loved it. The characters felt well-developed to me at the time, and once again I grew attached.

    I think the book was a success for a children's novel (if the last few decades haven't proved that already...). I wasn't fixated on how the author wrote, maybe like I would be if I were to read it today. It was the story that enraptured me, and I think that's more important to the younger readers.

    Such a long post... Sorry! Um, in conclusion... Everyone should read Mockingjay, and C.S. Lewis writes good books..?