Posts Tagged ‘kidlit’

Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.


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There is a school of thought in kidlit that the surest way to grab a reader is to create a memorable character who is so likeable, huggable, charming, and just plain nice that, once said character is placed in peril, the kid reader will glom on to him or her like a limpet to a rock. (For another example of this, see my review of Shannon Hales’ Book of a Thousand Days.) The trick is to make the character real enough to gain our trust as someone who is genuine. Because if the Dontcha Like Me character carries even a whiff of fake, the whole thing can turn a quick read into a put-it-down-and-maybe-finish-it-one-day read.

Wonder, a middle grade novel by R.J. Palacio, depends greatly on the reader having an “I heart” moment early and often with her main character, Auggie Pullman. Auggie is going into fifth grade for the first time, having been previously homeschooled. His distinguishing feature is a face that was disfigured at birth by a genetic defect. He required numerous operations just to stay alive, and the followup plastic surgery couldn’t hide the fact that his face was too shockingly bizarre for many people to look at easily. How his new classmates respond to him, and he to them in kind, makes up the preponderance of the story.

To offset his disturbing looks, Palacio gives Auggie one of the most likeable personalities of any character I’ve ever read. He’s brave, smart, doubts himself but is never judgmental—a regular kid with a keen sense of others’ feelings. His parents adore him, especially his mother, who showers him with affection and acts overprotective at times. His older sister resents him, yet loves him as well. The one boy at school who tries to make him an outcast appears petty and pathetic. In short, Auggie is the Good Guy Supreme.

For the most part, Palacio succeeds in pulling this off. I admit, by the end I had bonded with the “little dude” and found myself tearing up a bit. Helping to make it work is the narrative technique: the story is told, not just by Auggie, but by his sister, her boyfriend, and a girlfriend. All these characters, including Auggie’s classmates, come off as genuine and multifaceted. I had no trouble buying into them. Palacio’s prose is easy to read, and she’s adept at showing how people’s minds work.

Her biggest challenge, by far, is in presenting Auggie. I did have a few problems with him. His mind at times feels a bit too old—his take on others’ behavior seems too adult-like. Also, his emotional response to the ugliness around him is inconsistent at times, from pretty mature to very childish. He never lashes out at others, choosing to blame himself instead, for instance. It’s not that his behavior is unrealistic—there are plenty of children his age (ten or eleven) who are both remarkably upbeat and mature even while they also act babyish.

It’s just that, as I read along, I wanted to see him totally lose it—just once. He came close a few times, especially when a friend hurt his feelings terribly. But he bounced back in such a way that, even at the climax when he was in physical danger, I just knew he was going to prevail winningly, in a way that kidults love. A bit more suspense, or an unexpected side of his character revealed—these would make the story more intriguing. Still, I had no trouble getting through the 300 pages or so. Palascio’s style is very accessable, with short chapters that made it easy to pick up where I left off.

If Auggie Pullman does carry a whiff of fake, it would be that he’s too good to be a main character. Most of the conflict he faces is external, not internal. I would have liked him to be a bit more of a rebel, especially with his (gah!) mother. For the middle grade reading audience, though, this lack of nuance probably doesn’t matter. But what happens when Auggie gets older and has his first crush? You just know some devastation will be waiting for him, and Mama won’t be around to cushion the blows. But that’s for another day, when Auggie Pullman turns YA.

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Half Magic by Edward EagerLearning to write kidlit can be a singularly frustrating task for the simple reason that authors need to be both adults and children and the same time. Not only that, their target audience is for adults and children as well. This contradiction influences everyone involved with kidlit, not just authors.

Case in point: what, exactly, are agents and editors looking for? This question is often asked of them at writer conferences, and in listening to their answers, I’m frequently struck by discrepancies between their own confessed likes and what the marketplace apparently demands. In particular, I find they are often attracted to comfort books from the past that are written in styles that nowadays would be considered hopelessly out of date—you know, the books written with an Adult Voice who offers clever asides and wry observations about their charming child characters and the world they inhabit.

Case in point: consider Edward Eager’s 1954 classic, Half Magic. At a recent SCBWI conference I heard an editor extolling this work as one of his favorite books from his childhood, so I picked up a copy from the library and read it. The first thing I noticed is that the children characters are full of themselves and talk like English teachers. Next, the author constantly adds chatty comments that sum up his characters: “Katherine was the middle girl, of docile composition, and of comfort to her mother.” Apparently the Show-Don’t-Tell dictum didn’t exist in those days.

The authorial voice also is demented, in a way he believes children identify with conspiratorially: “You all know what watching a fire is like, the glory of the flames streaming out through the windows, and the wonderful moment when the roof falls in…” Later we meet an abusive Arab man whose depiction in today’s world comes off as very racist. The hero of the story, the one who finally convinces the children’s mother to accept magic, is the author himself, poorly disguised. Only one of the four children is a boy, yet the girls defer to him as the only one who really knows what’s going on: “She had great respect for Mark, who was a boy and knew everything.” Yes, this is a gentle tease on gender assumptions, but it’s still cast in a wink and the attitude is never really challenged.

Eager’s solution to the Kidult Contradiction is to make his adult narrator kidlike, and hope the kids reading the story adopt the chiding/mocking adult attitude themselves. This attempt is made more explicit by the author frequently addressing the reader as You, making the assumption that of course the reader is in the same class of intellectually superior kids as both the author and the kidult characters. And these kidult characters not only talk like adults, they are in effect a kidult lit editors’ dream: they don’t watch TV, use adult language, and would rather read books than do anything else.

Now I’m the first to admit that I frequently found this book to be funny and charming, but what did you expect? I’m a literate kidult myself. I would like to point out, however, that if such a manuscript somehow landed afresh on an editor’s or agent’s desk today, it would be laughed off immediately and tossed into the circular file. That the same editor or agent can also extoll the virtues of classics like Half Magic is an irony that I’ve yet to hear expressed by any of them.

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Ender’s Game is one of those legendary novels that refuses to stay in the remainder piles, growing from cult status to being part of the officially-sanctioned kidlit canon. Apparently a movie has been in the works for awhile (http://io9.com/5844789/the-enders-game-movie-puts-out-casting-calls-for-10-characters–including-ender), and Ender fans are just starting to go agog at the possibility. No doubt the novel is excellent—check out my review on Good Reads.

But will Hollywood capture the true essence of the story, which lies not in thrilling space battles, but in probing the psychological essence of young people in groups? (Yes, Ender’s Game stacks up with Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange in that regard.) Given Hollywood’s continuing love affair with CGI, no doubt there will be times when what we see onscreen will be closer to, say, Transformers. I hope not, because their Hive Mentality has a perverse tendency to suck the life out of good sci fi and fantasy (classic example: the horrible treatment given Ursula Leguin’s A Wizard of Earthsea).

On the other hand, there’s LOTR, and of course the Harry Potter films. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope Hollywood does Ender justice.

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Me as the DevilWriting class is always a fresh opportunity to remind me that no learning comes without a degree of pain. Because no matter how much people say they like my writing, it’s the stuff they criticize that sticks in my craw later when I try to incorporate their comments into my story.

It would be one thing if they only talked about relative trivial, easily fixable problems, like eliminating a few “he saids”, or trimming an overly-long exposition. No, everyone seems to agree that my grasp of the English language is sound, that I “really know how to write.” Unfortunately, the one thing I hear over and concerns my main character, the one the reader is supposed to clutch tight to his or her breast.

Such as:

“I don’t get what your character’s goals are.”
“He’s inconsistent.”
“Where is your character’s arc? He doesn’t seem to have one.”

And, most cruelly,

“Does your character have a heart? Because I’m not seeing it.”

That’s right. People have trouble bonding with my protagonist. Now if I were writing a postmodern novel for a grad school teacher who reads Thomas Pyncheon in his spare time, not only would this not be a problem, it would almost be required. But while my aim is to be literary, I also want my story to be grasped and treasured by younger readers, readers who know nothing of deconstructionist anti-heroes and have little patience for same.

At one point in my story, my character is put on trial by the gods themselves. My character manages to acquit himself—barely. But what about me, the author? I’d say the jury is still out on me. Unless I build a better case for this guy, I’m afraid my story will be consigned to the literary dust pile. Worse is the nagging thought that I myself am directionless, inconsistent, and ultimately without a heart. And that’s a sentence I cannot abide.

Only one thing to do: yank that nasty stuff out of my craw and hold it up to the screaming light of day.

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