I’ve always had a thing for maps. It started when I read The Hobbit and found myself enchanted by the quaint illustrations of Misty Mountains and mysterious runes and wispy-lettered place names that let Middle Earth bloom in my imagination. Later I became fascinated by early Western maps of the New World, where legendary places like Quivera and El Dorado hovered tentatively in places the mapmaker had clearly only imagined. When I was a young man in Edinburgh, I even met a real cartographer, one of the few remaining mapmakers in the world who still made maps by engraving them with special tools on copper plates. His name: David Webster. While he was no relation—or was he?—I took this for a sign: maps were destined to be part of my life, somehow.

Maps of imaginary places continued to play a role in my private inventions, and now a map itself is an actual character in one of my works-in-progress. Thus when I was browsing my local library’s collection of middle grade fiction and my eyes fell on N.E. Bode’s The Slippery Map, I quickly snapped it up. I was curious to see how another author would use a map in a middle grade fantasy, since my WIP is also a middle grade fantasy. More than 270 Bode pages later, I now have a pretty good idea.

First of all, The Slippery Map is a story, not a map. It doesn’t even have a map, despite a wildly imaginative and times confusing array of places, invented creatures, and quirky people. It’s well titled because the story itself is sort of slippery. An orphaned boy (yes, another orphan story) with the reality-challenged name Oyster R. Motel lives in a nunnery and uses a map to enter into an imaginary world that he later learns was created by his parents when they were children—and his parents are still alive in this imaginary world. Oyster must not only defeat the assorted threatening creatures (Spider Wolves, Snapping Dirt Clams, etc.) that stand in his way by employing such oddities as menthol-flavored figs, he ultimately must face down Dark Mouth, an industrial tyrant who enslaves the various Perths, Wingers, Doggers, and other whimsical denizens of this imaginary world. Dark Mouth also holds Oyster’s parents captive. Oyster finds his inner hero to rescue them, but he also needs the help of the nuns who have heretofore raised him, who come flying through the map with habits flapping in a frenzy.

I must confess there were times when I could have used both a map and a glossary to keep track of the places and characters in this story. It dragged in places, as episodic children’s stories can do at times. Two qualities proved to be its saving grace, however: a dreamish sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Oyster’s own soul-searching.

For me, the most touching humor comes when Oyster is temporarily seduced into giving in to the “good life” by one Vince Vance, a two-bit TV celeb hired by Dark Mouth to be his happy-happy mouth piece to keep the poor Perth citizens down. Oyster’s first impression of him:

A pair of Vicious Goggles snarled on either side of him [Oyster], and this alerted a Perth in a nearby lounge chair. The Perth was wearing swim trunks, a foil sun-reflector on his chest, and a pair of blue sunglasses. He looked freshly broiled.”

This pathetic “celeb” takes Oyster on a tour of his mansion staffed by elderly Perths, with stupendous, loud, famous-sounding music and an exceptionally fancy kitchen. Sensing that Vince Vance wants to be famous, Oyster mentions Hollywood. Intrigued, Vance tries to locate Hollywood on the Slippery Map, but instead inadvertently brings in Sister Mary Many Pockets from the Nunnery from the other side. Vance later obtains the Map and again tries to locate Hollywood—this time bringing in the entire nunnery.

The nuns have all taken a vow of silence, but Oyster manages to communicate with them through his heart. Despite his many self-doubts*, Oyster’s heart is his super power. With it he not only saves people, he reintegrates them into his life, and isn’t that something we would all like to do?

*A note here: the author Bode constantly—constantly—gives us updates on what Oyster is thinking and feeling: “It was strange to be so close to them [his parents]. He realized he was scared to see them. How would they react? He wanted so much from them—all the love he’d missed his whole life. His chest felt heavy with all of his wanting.” The Show Not Tell Police must have had a cow when they read this book, but hey—it’s middle grade.

Sometimes, the film is better.

Such is the case with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s 1991 YA novel that was turned into a movie in 2012. Twenty-one years is a long time for a best-seller to make it to the screen, and after reading the novel recently I was curious to see what unspeakable horrors Hollywood would visit on it. I mean, 1991—not only was that before social media, before cell phones, before the Internet even—that I imagined the movie would be some kind of bastard marriage between worlds so different that it would be bound to fail, and fail miserably.

I’m glad I didn’t read any advance reviews of the movie, because discovering how wrong I was had a wonderfully powerful effect on me.

First, the book. The cover blurbs compare it to Catcher in the Rye. The main character in the story, a wallflower named Charlie, mentions Catcher in the Rye several times throughout, so the author is clearly telling us: “My character is awesome and relevant like Holden Caulfield. So, if you like relevant fiction that speaks to ‘today’s generation,’ you will agree that my novel is part of that canon.”

Charlie is like Holden in that he tells the story and is an angst-ridden teen. Other than that, the characters are very different. Holden suffers from an unnamed, existential anxiety that reflects the post-WWII nuclear age. He spends most of the time wandering around by himself. Charlie suffers from a buried trauma that isn’t exposed until story’s end. Meanwhile, despite his pathological shyness he makes friends with a pair of upper class highschoolers. He spends a lot of time with them smoking cigarettes, drinking, getting stoned, and then smoking more cigarettes. In between, he cries. A lot. And tries his best to impress us with his sincerity. He really does.

This guy was supposed to be a genius? He kind of seemed made of cardboard to me. Especially toward the end, he kept saying the same thing over and over again. As I read on I grew restless: isn’t something exciting supposed to be happening, about now? Instead of hearing about all the stupid people in his life? Like, doesn’t someone die, or at least try to die? By the time the Big Reveal happened, I was mostly relieved the story was almost over.

So I was expecting more of this when I popped in the DVD. The first pleasant surprise came when I saw that the character Sam, the girl Charlie has a crush on, was played by Emma Watson. I loved Emma Watson in Harry Potter, and she doesn’t disappoint here.

Then I realized that the movie doesn’t try to stick two eras together: this takes place in the early 90s, completely. As the movie progressed, I heard no references to Holden Caulfield. People drank and did drugs, but nobody smoked a single cigarette. So, yay for that.

Movies often have to cut out a good amount of both dialog and exposition, given the restraints of the medium. Often a good novel loses too much, particularly when a conceited director decides to make the movie “his creation.”

In this case, the novel’s author also wrote the screenplay. And clearly, in the 21 years since the book was published, Chbosky has thought about what worked in the novel, and what didn’t work.

For example, in the novel Charlie repeats himself. Over and over. Maybe that’s realistic, given his personality, but it makes for tiresome reading. In the movie, most of the repetition wound up on the cutting room floor. As a result, the film moves along at a nice clip—propelled by some really great acting, BTW. Three quarters of the way through, I had warm feelings for all the main characters, and felt touched by their problems because they had such lively personalities—personalities that never really came out in the novel. By the end I was wiping away tears and blowing my nose—my eyes and nose don’t lie, if they’re going at the end it means I like the movie.

So congratulations, Mr. Chbosky. I’m glad your YA novel found its way into my heart via my flat-panel TV. Even if it took 21 years to do it.

Does children’s fantasy have its own rules? Specifically, are atmosphere, whimsical setups, and a character’s imagination more important than plot and story arc?

I ask these questions with regards to a specific children’s fantasy I read recently: Christopher Pennell’s first-time novel, The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). This book, from the spooky-yet-cozy front cover illustration to the cutesy concept of musical rats playing on rooftops to the girl MC with quirky sleep habits, screams kid fantasy designed by hipsters. It checks in at a user-friendly 215 pages and features artsy doodlish illustrations throughout.

The problem is that while it promises scary spooky excitement with a dash of quirk, it mostly just serves up quirk. The main character, a girl with the properly quirky name Carly Bitters Bean, casually accepts such oddities as rats that play musical instruments, accompanied by vegetables atop her roof that do the same. This, combined with her day-for-night nocturnal habits, might lead one to believe that she is in deep trouble. The trouble eventually does come, in the form of a whispering feathered monster named Griddlebeast, but Carly shows little fear or even astonishment. About halfway through her adventures she casually considers the fact that she may be losing her mind, but this thought gets easily discarded.

This rather blasé acceptance by her creates an emotionally flat storyline, and the events that follow—trying to save her rat friends, finding the secret of the woods—lack resonance or even much coherence. What should be at least a little nail-biting turns out to be fluffy entertainment. While I’m an adult, I know that kids who are old enough to read this book, and be amused by it, will not at all be thrilled by it.

The story has some promising moments, such as when Carly discovers mysterious stories inside library books, stories that give the beginnings of an intriguing backstory. Unfortunately, when it’s time for the orphan Carly (aren’t all child heroes orphans these days?) to learn about who she really is, the backstory doesn’t quite fit, and the appearance of yet another nonsensical quirky character to explain things feels dropped out of the night sky.

Nonetheless, I’m guessing that Houghton Mifflin decided that a safe nocturnal fantasy with a proto-goth girl character and the usual assortment of magical creatures written in an accessible style could occupy a few kid readers (and at least a few adult ones) long enough to make it worth their while. Christopher Pennell is not devoid of writing talent—I did read all it all the way through, which is more than I can say for some novels. But it takes more than that to put together a satisfying story, which means ratcheting up tension and making characters and situations serve to move the story along. This is not at all easy to do, and I wish Mr. Pennell good luck with his next effort at wrestling the Fiction Beast.

Most of you reading this will know who Robin Williams was, how he fought depression that ultimately led to his suicide. Far fewer will know who Walker Judson is, a fictional character in Janice Strubbe Wittenberg’s recently published first novel, The Worship of Walker Judson. Coincidently, I learned of Williams’ death right about the same time I completed reading about the fictional Judson. Both have been on my mind recently, but more than that, both—despite obvious differences—are men who had vast talents (humor, healing arts) who fell prey to their inner demons. So I decided a comparison was in order.

Comedians have long been viewed as having shamanic powers, using humor to expose our hidden fears in an act of audience catharsis. Robin Williams did more than just do this symbolically in the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays the lead role as a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. Fittingly, his character is a maverick who contemplates suicide after his girlfriend is murdered. After he bounces back, he still has to fight the state medical board on charges of practicing without a license. Just as in real life, his character is a misfit who struggles against conformity. In real life, of course, Williams didn’t bounce back, and took his own life—a victim of his own demons.

[spoiler alert!]

In Strubbe Wittenberg’s novel, Walker Judson is a faith healer who is also a nonconformist, though in a completely different way. Though blessed with the power to heal others with his hands, Judson is a passive-aggressive masochist, abused as a child, a chain smoker who also has a peculiar way of attracting females. Judson doesn’t take his own life, but he seriously compromises it, especially when he is convicted of sexual assault. He is in many ways a typical cult leader, and falls prey to the darker aspects of his own powers. And yet, paradoxically, he heals many—often without asking for anything in return—including a young woman who falls in love with him and becomes his acolyte.

Williams and Judson are both complex, charismatic, and in touch with powers that most of us only glimpse fleetingly throughout our lives. It takes a strong person to not let those powers destroy oneself, and in the end both men succumbed to those powers. Being a shaman carries inherent risks, but for those compelled to be one, the risks are worth it. I for one am glad that Robin Williams took that path; and those healed by shamans such as Walker Judson are undoubtedly glad as well. Who am I to judge them, after all?

(spoiler alert)

I guess I should have seen this coming way back in 2007 when Gregory Maguire rescued the reputation of Oz’s Elphaba in Wicked. Postmodern feminist lovefests are rapidly replacing the old fairytale memes of evil queens and noble princes riding to rescue damsels. This can be seen most clearly in the most recent line of Disney movies, which all feature a kickass female lead who challenges the patriarchal bad guys. And the two most recent ones—the highly popular Frozen and this summer’s Maleficent—go even further by booting romantic love to the curb in favor of love between women. (Not sexual love, of course—we haven’t reached the point where Disney would feature a romance between two women.) To accentuate the point, in each film this female bonding twist gets revealed in the exact place in the narrative where the male lead is supposed to bring his love magic and win the day.

(Memo to Disney: We get it. It’s not a big surprise anymore, it’s the New Normal. So how about a story where love between women is expected and even taken for granted? And then do the same for men.)

Of course there’s more to it than a plot twist. Let’s take a look at these two movies.

Frozen distinguishes itself with not one but two princesses. One good and one bad, right? Not so fast. They actually love each other deep down, despite the bad one’s icy habits. And they both have what appear to be eyes from an alien species: huge, saucer-shaped, and floating tentatively on their plastic CGI faces, screaming “I’m cute!” in 142 different languages. So we know right off that, deep down, they love anime and are awesome.

Good Princess Anna, the goofball, falls head over heels for a gorgeous prince and his equally gorgeous horse, so the postmodern feminists know right away he’s gonna eat it, and he does. Anna eventually has a safe romance with an ice hauler who is strong and loyal but no royal. So it’s no real surprise when her frozen heart is rescued not by him but by her big sister Elsa.

What I found interesting about Frozen is that it has no backstory at all to explain Elsa’s peculiar ice-generating powers. Was she put under a spell by a witch? Bombarded by a radioactive ice storm? Or just born that way? I suspect that the under-12 crowd who make up the main audience don’t give a flying icicle. She just has it, the power that is both a wonder and a curse. For adults, it’s a different matter. I want to know who did this to her, and why, and what the ramifications are for the world of Arrendale, and how did their parents meet, and why was the Prince of the Southern Islands such a shmuck? Guess I’ll never know.

On the other hand, Maleficent—with a much more complex target audience—is virtually all backstory. It explains “what really happened” in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, so we need to know the fairy tale first, just as in Wicked we need to know The Wizard of Oz. And just as we learn how Elphaba is unfairly branded in Oz, we learn how Maleficent’s cruelty sprang from crueler treatment at the hands of a prince who could have been her lover.

And my goodness, once you get past staring at Angelina Jolie’s supernatural cheekbones, consider all the different messages and subtexts this movie has! Overly cute fairies and other sprites and goblins, check. Innocent princess eager for first love, check. Rampaging patriarchal madness, check. Doofus prince, check. Violence and war (without a drop of blood shed but plenty of sturm und drang), check. And a once-innocent, then kickass, then evil, then repentant witch queen with devil horns and wings of a Fury, check. Then underneath it all, hints of bondage and illicit desire. It’s like the bastard child of Spiderwick Chronicles meets Legend meets Neverending Story meets Once Upon a Time meets Batman. Too violent for kids, too Magic Kingdom glittery for adults, Maleficent tries to please everyone and fails, despite entertaining visuals and a reasonably good storyline.

I wanted to love Maleficent, I really did. And it almost delivered. I crave magic tales with dark themes and haunted characters. Without buckets of gore. I guess it’s good the story didn’t have any Ewoks or Jar Jars, but that’s not saying much. Now that Disney has postmodern feminist plots down, let’s hope they can put one in a real dark fairy tale without the cute stuff.

I have it on the authority of one George Lucas that Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the ultimate blueprint for those who wish to fuse contemporary fiction with the timeless tales of the ancients. Since my many-twisted tale Kid Midas involves a teenage boy with issues who wants to be a hero and does so while getting tangled up with the gods of ancient Greece, I decided to consult Campbell to see what he had to saw about the matter. What I found was by turns enlightening, entertaining, and baffling.

The part most apropos to my purposes was his exploration of what he termed the Monomyth, in which he maps out the various archetypal stages a hero typically must pass through in order to complete his or her adventure. I won’t go into details, but it was pretty clear to me that Lucas applied much of this to his original (NOT the insipid prequel) Star Wars trilogy. The stages should all ring a bell: the hero is called to an adventure, at first refuses it, but then with supernatural aid commits to it and crosses the threshold into a different reality (the Underworld, Faerie, etc.). He battles demons, dragons, guardians, and other monsters, and is either crucified, dismembered, or abducted deeper into the pit, where with helpers he finds atonement and either steals an “elixir” or is given something of great value; he is then either rescued or resurrected after a chase scene, and crosses back into normal reality carrying the elixir that he uses for the benefit of the greater good.

I applied my own story line to this map and found that it actually followed the Monomyth pretty well, though my story is more of a family drama than one about a superhero or prince with high political or social stakes.

While the Monomyth is necessarily simplistic, Campbell does a great job showing how myths from different cultures fit the pattern in different ways. I found myself fascinated how he found common themes running through ancient epics and Maori folk tales, for example. He spends as much time delving into the heroic aspects of Buddha, Krishna, and other Eastern divinities as he does classical Western pagan gods and heroes. Everything he does is carefully footnoted, and he has an extensive bibliography. Clearly, he spent an enormous amount of time researching, connecting, and condensing this material.

Campbell is more than just an academic star. Though he died 27 years ago, thanks in part to a PBS interview with Bill Moyer he continues to this day to exert considerable influence on creative artists and thinkers, and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as Carl Jung. His writing can be astoundingly absorbing, and even amusing.

And yet…at times I found myself scratching my head as I tried to decipher a particular way he tries to apply poetics to sophisticated psycho/metaphysical concepts, resulting in something that sounds like it came out of an academic committee: “The constriction of consciousness, to which we owe the fact that we see not the source of the universal power but only the phenomenal forms reflected from that power, turns superconsciousness into the unconsciousness and, at the same instant and by the same token, creates the world.”

In general, Campbell is less successful at wrestling these tales into academic pigeon-holes as he is sticking to the stories themselves and how they relate to our cultural commonalities. Fortunately for us, he is quite successful at achieving the latter.

Having not read Ms. Russell’s previous two novels Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I didn’t know what to expect from this acclaimed collection of stories. What I discovered about midway through the third story, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” is that Karen Russell is fearless. She will pick up any wacked-out idea for a story, something that would get buried in my ever-growing pile of notes on old calling cards and shopping lists, and run with it. And not just run with it, she’ll find a voice that’s funny yet literate, that fits the bizarre nature of events real or imagined to a T. She’ll produce memorable lines that work on many levels—symbolic, graphic, sensory, slapstick humor—at once. Then just when you finish chuckling at an odd phrase or admire a clever twist, you realize that Russell cares so deeply about her characters that she has shared something precious about herself as well.

That’s “precious” in a non-sarcastic way, BTW.

But the ideas that run through her head! Who would have ever thought of old vampires hanging out in an Italian lemon grove, desperately trying not to revert to their old ways as they suck on the bitter fruit for decade after decade? Or a barn full of dead presidents reincarnated as not-so-special horses, who like the vampires cannot quite abandon their previous lives?

Based on my perusal of comments left on Amazon, some people who picked up this book thought it would a collection of horror stories, and were severely disappointed. The thing is, Karen Russell is a protean chimera—just when you think you have her sussed, she goes Monty Python on you and comes up with something completely different. Case in point: after bemusedly cruising through two funny stories, I ran smack into “The New Veterans,” a 50-page tale of a massage therapist caught up in a soldier’s terrifying memories of war in Iraq—as told by a monumental tattoo on the soldier’s back. Not exactly laugh-out-loud stuff!

Still, my favorite stories are the ones that did make me laugh out loud. The horsey presidents tickled my inner animal, and she follows that up with an amazingly creative satire, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” a confounding mashup of sports fan culture, marine biology, and tough guy survivalism; she even gets in a not-so-subtle dig at Twilight fandome when she refers to fan groups with names such as Team Blue Whale and Team Krill. The narrator of this short but hilarious gem is so off-the-wall deadpan enthusiastic about such things as an Antarctic tailgate recipe (“1. Whale Meat 2. Fire”) and the dead themselves (“Nobody likes a litterbug. You can’t get much lower class than a boat of tailgators who just leave their dead around.”) that I found myself wishing that 1. I had written it, and 2. It would go on forever, with the tailgators fixing themselves permanently to the vaults of heaven in the dreaded Antarctic night.

Well, maybe not.

Anyway, I came away from this collection amused and enthused. Karen Russell is definitely going up alongside Kelly Link and Ramona Ausubel as Queens of Quirk Fiction.


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