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 23, 2011

The pleasures of a complete universe

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm afraid we've reached the limit of my recent YA series knowledge, but I have been thinking about what these series we're calling keepers have in common: Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings.

Part of it, I think, is the pleasure of getting to know a complete universe.  Each of these series allows you to become familiar with a world over a period of time.  They are rich worlds, filled with detail, like our world in some ways but totally unlike it in others. 

And they are worlds we want to inhabit.  There is some kind of magic in each of them that is deeply attractive.  In Narnia, there is the portal to another world, the prospect of going through the back of your closet and into a forest populated with talking animals and other fantastic creatures.  In The Golden Compass, there are the daemons: each person in this alternate world has one, an animal of the opposite gender who is part of that person and travels with them throughout life, able to change shape until the person hits puberty, then choosing its permanent animal form.  How can you read Philip Pullman and not wonder who your own daemon would be, what form he would take?  And then of course there's Hogwarts.  Even without Harry, Hermione, and Ron there, who wouldn't want to get the letter from that first owl, proving that the strange sense of not-belonging you've been experiencing was an indication that you are secretly a wizard?  Though all these worlds are mired in war, there's a sense of what they would be like in peace as well.  There is an invitation to join them.

I loved reading Chaos Walking and The Hunger Games, but the worlds they describe are not places I would ever want to be.  Their dystopian strength seems to me to be about showing me dark things about the world I live in already, rather than opening an aspirational escape.  I wonder whether this makes them more of our moment, and whether they will last.

Love, Annie

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