Fear and the Uncanny in Children’s Literature

This post’s delay brought to you by homework… and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the two, I entirely forgot about posting here yesterday.

My homework, by the way, involves rereading Parable of the Sower (and The Girl Who Owned A City, and The Summer Prince). My short end-of-term paper this semester is on the way in which fear and the uncanny are used to replicate the home-away-home structure of a children’s story (discussed by many people, though I’m mostly sourcing from Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature and Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature), without requiring a spatial journey. Essentially, I hypothesize that by using fear and the uncanny to create emotional distance from a space, the departure and return inherent in a home-away-home story can be emotional instead of spatial. Plus, you get some interesting dynamics where the protagonist tries to make an un-homelike space homelike (again, or maybe for the first time) instead of returning to a safe space that has remained safe the entire time. Oh, and I know that Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a kids’ book, but it’s sometimes cross-shelved in YA and has a teenaged protagonist. So.

On the storytelling side of things, I’ve come up with an excellent conceit for an adventuring setting that allows you to go on dungeon crawls without having to twist yourself into pretzels trying to justify why there are so many monster-filled ruins all over the place. I won’t go into more detail here at present, because I want to write it up and submit it to Worlds Without Master. Maybe if I can’t get it published there I’ll put it up here.

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Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce

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I have to say, I rather enjoyed this book. It’s not without its oddities (failings in some cases), but dang. Maybe it’s because I’ve had to read so many other books that I’ve liked less, but I really liked this one.

It’s worth knowing that there’s some real weirdness to what’s going on in the setting, if you spend much time looking at it and trying to explain it in relation to our world. For example, I’m not sure why so many people are described as blond / red-haired, despite apparently being in close contact with a maybe-Aztec country. The geography is almost certainly what we think of as California, but the history certainly isn’t. The truth is, we aren’t told enough about the history of this setting (in this book) for me to be able to say much more. Maybe there’s a good reason for all of this.

All I know is that it felt weird reading about a bunch of people in a magical quasi-California, none of whom seemed to be non-white. It helped when I consciously separated everything from our own world, despite the similarities, but that can’t solve everything.

Setting that aside, I had a good time. Strange and distinct magic, jam-packed with events and adventure and obvious future plot hooks, fun characters, a believable recent history if you’re willing to accept the overall premise… it’s good stuff. Potentially complicated by other factors, but good stuff.

Also, it somehow straddles the weird space between middle grade and young adult in a way that I really appreciated. It’s more or less where I’d like Barium Deep to be, though not in exactly the same way.

Ugh, Warriors: The Prophecies Begin

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I am not a fan of this series.

If the young people in your life really like reading stories about cats fighting each other and hunting things in the woods, then I would strongly recommend this series. If you’ve been struggling to get them to read anything and they like this stuff, that’s great. I’m all for giving people things to read, especially when it turns someone who is not a habitual reader into a habitual reader.

But if you’re looking for high quality material, I think there are far better options. This feels like fodder, the kind of popcorn literature that fills your time and leaves you wondering what you just ate. I don’t find it exciting; it broadcasts its upcoming plot twists from a mile away and basically defines “formulaic and tropey.”

Were I younger, and not already familiar with the expectations of the relevant genre of coming of age adventure stories, I suspect that I would enjoy this. I would have loved the fact that there are huge piles of these books being churned out by a collaborative collective known as Erin Hunter. But, while I freely admit that my judgement is tinged by distance and nostalgia, I think the Animorphs series may have been higher quality.

So. I’m not a fan. I’m not really enjoying reading this series for homework: it’s solid but too simplistic for my tastes. Maybe I would enjoy breezing through them if they weren’t a requirement. But though I don’t like them, I can see that this series does meet some niche needs. You might have someone in your life who would fall head-over-heels in love with it. And if you think that’s the case, by all means share the series with them. Otherwise, I’d suggest that you move on.

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

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Fun! I admit, I was a little worried around sixty pages in that it would be a tropey retread of territory already covered by American Gods. The voice and perspective are significantly different, which helped, but it wasn’t until a bit later that I felt the story really found its stride (around the same time that it decided to double down on fairies). If I weren’t reading this for class and therefore about to rush into another wildly different book, I think I’d enjoy polishing off this series.

Speaking of which, the cover says The American Fairy Trilogy… which is too bad. Obviously, you want to mention that there are more books for your audience to buy; doing otherwise is bad marketing (shooting yourself in the foot, really). But it also shaped my experience of the story in a way that makes analyzing how I feel about the book as a whole more difficult. It’s very obviously not the end of the story, though I think Zettel sticks the landing for this section of it, and I wonder whether I would have preferred to read the whole thing in one go. Or what might have changed if it weren’t divided into parts. There’s a lot to be said for how my genre and story-length expectations shape my reading, and I think that may confound Zettel’s goal here to some extent.

That said, Sarah Zettel very clearly knows what she’s doing, and does it well. The book is catchy, fun to read, and really gets a move on once you get out of the very beginning. Future plot hooks are well established, I feel like I have a decent sense of the characters, and life is plenty complicated for the main character despite (or maybe especially because of) the presence of magic in her life. Well done. If you enjoy YA, fairies, Americana, and blues and swing, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Later note: with a little more time to reflect on this, I’m less certain that I like how it deals with race and Native American beliefs. I feel like it tries, and wants to do a good job, but I’m not certain whether or not it succeeds. Your mileage may vary.

Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac

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I know that young adult action stories might not be everyone’s preferred genre, but how about a post-apocalyptic young adult action story that weaves Native American history, lore, and culture seamlessly into other general Americana such that it feels like a fitting piece of a larger tapestry without feeling lost or subjugated by other elements?

I can’t take full credit for that astute observation. It was mentioned by one of my excellent classmates.

Killer of Enemies is a good, punchy story that fits with mythic narrative traditions in a number of deeply appealing fashions. It’s very nearly pulp. And it’s written by a member of the Abenaki Nation, which gives me a wonderful home-feel due to my fond early childhood memories of listening to Wolfsong telling stories around Vermont. It doesn’t hurt that it’s all about the badass warrior woman Lozen, named in honor of the real Lozen of the Chiricahua Apaches. I’d say that this book is pretty good stuff.

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

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This book is a quiet piece of genius. It’s hilarious, and far deeper than I had expected it to be. And somehow it delivers on its premise without beating you over the head, even as it makes its commentary abundantly obvious to anyone who’s willing to pay attention. I think I’d be hard pressed to find a middle grade adventure novel that I liked more.

I wouldn’t say it’s the best, because I don’t like committing myself to statements like that, but you’d damn well better do yourself the favor of reading this book.

The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Yet another excellent book that I’ve found through this semester’s syllabus. Nnedi Okorafor’s combination of a post-apocalyptic setting with fantastical afrofuturism is absolutely magical. I would strongly recommend this book for so many reasons; the setting might honestly be the least of them, despite how much I like it.

I understand that there’s a sequel in the works, titled Stormbringer, and I can’t wait to get my hands on that too.

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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I know, it’s not more Barium Deep. My apologies. But I’m busy and this is an easy recommendation to make. The Summer Prince is an excellent book. I won’t go in depth, because I have a submission due for my editor tomorrow and I want to give her more material, but it’s an excellent book and was one of the few items on my syllabus so far this semester that I’ve found myself reading for pleasure.

I guess I’m part of the target audience these days, but this gave me a great deal to think about in terms of art, and what art means and what it does. It also contains queer romance, and a sometimes hopeful sometimes not vision of a post-apocalyptic future. It’s very much worth reading.

Oh, and in case this is the sort of thing that you care about, this book is written by a woman of color and has (exclusively) non-white protagonists. I really liked it.

A Fever Sampler

Still feverish, though not as bad.

But while I’ve had this fever (and haven’t been writing my regular posts) I’ve watched and read several things that you might like to hear about.

First, Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is incredible. It’s coarse and dirty and poignant and magical and HOT DAMN. It tells the story of a group of caravan guards, and of those amongst them who are both human and more than human. Nate, I think you are basically required to read this. For the rest of you, to paraphrase Gabriel Squalia, “Hi, I’m Henry White and you should read Kai Ashante Wilson.”

I think I need to read that book again to figure out who the narrator really is. And figure out how Wilson works so well with disparate timeline inclusions.

Second, I saw Red Tails because I really wanted to see WWII planes, and because the story of the Tuskegee airmen seems like such a rich vein. While I certainly got to see WWII planes, Red Tails was about as disappointing as the many reviews had said it would be. It’s not that they were working with a lack of talent, because that cast was about as awesome as you could ask for. But somehow a story that could have been incredible came off feeling trite. You could see most of the character and plot beats coming from a distance, and they rarely felt very exciting. So I had fun watching planes zoom around in the sky, and wondered how it was that they had turned one of the most impressive feats of military aviation history AND of resistance to institutional racism into “just another feel-good war movie.” Oh well.

Still Busy: Have A Paper On Lloyd Alexander and Characters’ Emotional Growth

I don’t know if you want to read about how Lloyd Alexander constructed emotional transformation for his characters, but I wrote a paper fanboying about it last fall. I don’t want to fall out of the habit of posting something, even if I’m too busy to write a new post, so I’ll share that paper with you instead. I’m not sure how well the formatting has survived the transition. It looks legible from where I sit. Cross the vast gap of this break to enjoy it.

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