Alex Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm is a retelling of a bunch of Grimm’s fairy tales, but pulled together into a single narrative about Hansel and Gretel, who are siblings who have to deal with a great number of terrible parental figures. It’s written for a modern audience and doesn’t shy away from the violence in these stories (Hansel and Gretel get their heads cut off in the first chapter to bring their father’s faithful servant back to life).
One of the best parts about the story is the narrator, who helpfully tells you when the really little kids should leave the room, and gives them a good number of false happy endings (much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves picturebook). The narrator also talks about when we’ve reached the sad part of the book and tells the reader how to pronounce names and commiserates with the readers about the sometimes inexplicable things that happen (like when Gretel has to cut off her finger to open a door because they lost the key).
The narrator is like a built in commentary for reading the book aloud to a kid. It’s the kind of stuff I’d like to be able to extemporize when reading fairy tales, but having it actually written makes it much more clever (and less repetitive than I’d be).
So yes, this is an excellent fairy-tale retelling. Bloody and heroic and filled with the agency of children. Great stuff.
Ben Hatke’s Zita the Space Girl: Far From Home is a great science fictional kids comic. Zita and Joseph find a big red button in a field. Zita presses it and Joseph gets sucked through a vortex. Then she summons up her courage and presses it again to go after him. They’ve both ended up on an asteroid filled with aliens (and robots), some of whom speak English. The asteroid is going to be destroyed by a comet in three days though, so they need to get out of there. Joseph has been kidnapped and taken to a castle to be imprisoned and Zita gathers up her resources to go find and rescue him. She makes allies and gets betrayed and eventually everything works out pretty well.
There’s nothing crazy complex going on with the plot, but the characterization is fun. There’s a war-bot that likes to tell stories of his escapades (much like warship in The Culture novels) and a giant mouse who doesn’t speak but prints out little messages from his collar. The art is cute and the story moves really quickly. I liked it a lot.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief might now be my favourite book about World War 2. Yes that means it beats Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow (though really, Gravity’s Rainbow was never really a favourite). This story is just as disjointed in time as those, but it feels more connected to the characters.
The story is about Liesel, a German girl who is living with a foster family outside of Munich. The mother is rude and terrifying, always yelling about everything, and the father is a house painter who can’t really find much work in their town. They also hide a Jew in their basement.
The thing that makes this book amazing is how it’s put together. You see, Death narrates the story, and does the narration with this detached wit that’s also surprisingly empathetic. Death keeps on spoiling the story for you, but it doesn’t matter because it’s told so beautifully. The main text gets interrupted by these bold, centred pronouncements and lists about characters or events, but the story circles back and back and around.
Liesel has a friend who painted himself black to be like Jesse Owens. She steals books and learns to read and rereads the only books they have because they’re poor and the book is about the hope that comes from story even if you know how it’s all going to turn out.
It’s an amazing piece of work and one of those things that gets marked as children’s literature just because the protagonist is young. Which is fine, I want young people to read this, but I also want adults to read it.
The Wee Free Men isn’t the best title for Terry Pratchett’s excellent book about a girl, Tiffany Aching, who becomes a witch-hero.
Like The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents this is an excellent younger readers-focused book set in the Discworld but kind of off to the side somewhere. It has less to do with storybook tropes, and more with analysis of what a witch actually does.
Basically Tiffany Aching is a ten-year-old badass through her careful paying of attention to things and when her little brother (who she doesn’t really like) is kidnapped by otherworldly creatures she goes off to save him because who can wait for the “real witches” to show up? She’s got help from a toad (a bit) and the titular Wee Free Men, who are pictsies that fight and steal and cuss. They’re kind of awesome and stuff, but it bugs me that the book is named after the assistants, rather than the hero. I guess there are a lot of them, and they may have intimidated Sir Pratchett.
Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the book the movie Hugo was based on. It’s the story of a little boy whose father has died, leaving behind only notebooks with drawings of an automaton. This is in 1930s Paris. Hugo winds the clocks in the train station, stealing what he needs to survive. There’s a grouchy old man and a little girl who constantly accuse him (accurately) of being a thief. Then discoveries are made.
The book is told with lots of full page pictures, interspersed with pages of prose. It’s not a traditional illustrated novel as the pictures and words are in sequence, not together. The pictures carry a lot of the action, which is good efficient storytelling in my book (reading action scenes isn’t my favourite thing in life). The black and white pictures aren’t amazing though, with the characters all seeming a little generic, but whatever.
The story of Hugo is actually kind of boring. There are predictable bits of him being unloved and forgotten. He doesn’t really change throughout the book. The girl, Isabelle, is a jerk the entire time. The old man has a sudden change of heart that’s a little inexplicable. For a children’s book I guess that’s all right, since you really want clarity of action and things moving forward. For an adult reader it was kind of meh.
I did enjoy all the discussion of filmmaking and films that the characters love. It’s easy to see why this would be made into a movie. So yeah. Not a bad book, but nothing insanely wonderful. And not enough automatonishness!
I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a long time ago. I remember liking it, but rereading it now made me realize just how good it is.
Ender Wiggins has been bred to be a genius and maybe go to learn to be a genius military commander. He is a gifted child who’s forced into difficult situation after difficult situation in training to become a gifted strategist. He is 6 years old when the book begins.
The Game is about battle simulation and learning to become a leader. There is no romance in this book. There isn’t even real camaraderie, just the isolation and pain of duty and becoming the best. I don’t agree with the military glorification that happens throughout most of the story but the ending redeems even that for me. While they try to make Ender into a tool, so incredibly tough and lethalm he also remains human.
This humanity despite the fact that he acts little like any child I ever knew. The main strategic thesis of the book is that you respond with overwhelming force so you never have to fight the same battle twice. This is something that makes sense tactically but as the novel shows, it doesn’t make for a very happy life.
I’d always thought it was written before I was born but it wasn’t. One thing I really appreciated was the description of the simulations in the Battle Room. They’re like zero-G laser tag games, but they feel much better than that. Supposedly they’re making a movie but man, that’s going to feel so dated with all the CGI. The simulation technology in a book is so much better in its infinite upgradeability, no remake required.
I almost didn’t reread The Graveyard Book for this SF librarianship class. I already knew I loved this Neil Gaiman book, so maybe I could spend my time better.
There is no better way to spend your time than reading about Nobody Owens, especially if you’re thinking about change and life and growing up and the future.
The story starts off with a toddling baby’s family having just been murdered. A man with a knife is climbing the stairs to kill the baby. Some people get squeamish about this being a kids’ book at this point. The baby toddles off up the street and heads into the graveyard where a family of ghosts takes him in and Silas undertakes to be the boy’s guardian. They hide him in the graveyard and the murderer’s mind is muddled and there you have it.
Now the book can begin.
It’s done in a series of short accounts of Nobody Owens’ life. There are ghouls and witches and a tutor who makes terrible soup, and Bod learns history from the people who were actually there (it’s very idiosyncratic). There’s a girl who thinks he’s her imaginary friend and there are bullies at school and police and a bunch of murderous men with something in common who’re looking for him and it’s all so good.
This is a book of atmosphere, of creepiness and funniness and all that good stuff Gaiman brings to everything he does. It’s written for kids and doesn’t need to talk down to them to do it. And I dare you to suggest a better coming of age and heading out into the world than in the end when Nobody leaves the graveyard.
It’s so fucking good. There’s a reason I give this one as gifts to all and sundry.
I read Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel for my SF class. It’s weird how 1950s it feels (even as it namedrops brands like Goodyear and GE). The kid (who I think is way younger than he’s supposed to be because he talks with this really juvenile idea of adulthood) gets abducted by aliens because he’s out wearing his spacesuit he won in a soap jingle contest. It’s the kind of old SF where we have a Moon base and use slide rules. Which is cool and all for me, as a study of SF, but there’s no way I could recommend a book like this to a kid with a straight face today. The past that this was written in is so different that that would be the weirdness in the story.
Heinlein’s ideas of justice and what’s good and right come shining through especially in terms of what a man should be doing (smashing open doors and alien heads, learning hard sciences and being a bit belligerent).
Some people insist that ‘mediocre’ is better than ‘best.’ They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly.
One of the parts of that philosophy that I enjoy the hell out of is the complete denigration of people with narrow worldviews. Right off the hop the narrator is referring to “creeps who wouldn’t consider leaving Earth.” But the hero also has a very simple assumption that the way a white male “who can always get what he wants” sees the world is the way a human sees the world.
It was interesting and I’m glad I read it, but there’s way better stuff out there.
Saki (H.H. Munro) wrote a lot of stories. The Best of Saki was my introduction to them. I really enjoyed how cruel they were. No. Not cruel. How unflinching they were. People who were self-important were punished. Animals and children told the truth (and occupied sunrooms). In one story a baby is lost and when the baby is found the parents gush over it as being a miracle and then they find their actual baby and it’s revealed that the first one wasn’t theirs at all, even though they were gushing over it. So the woman who found it has to take it back to the road. I don’t know. Everyone’s just such self-involved assholes. It’s very entertaining. I mean, I can get behind this kind of wit, which feels so different from the Oscar Wilde bullshit that seems so contrived. The cutting remarks in Saki just feel like things smart people would say off the cuff for real. Not like those bon mots that people would pass around afterwards. I guess because these ones tend not to be said for an audience, which is my impression of that Wildean stuff. Maybe I’m completely misremembering how that all worked. Anyway. I liked the black humour of Saki.
Last night after my shift was done excitement occurred at the branch. Two boys, who’d been on the computers suddenly got into a fight. Not a fight, a beating. My coworkers tried to hold the beating one back but a rage filled 12 year old can often shake off us bookish folk. So they were kicked out. Evidently they’re cousins and the beatee had “stolen” the beater’s PIN for the computers. So there was that.
And then one of the 11 year olds who’s banned from the branch till October came in and wouldn’t leave when my coworkers told her to. And then she was running and yelling and throwing books on the floor and hanging up the phone as our branch head phoned the cops.
As us staff understand it, we can’t physically remove a person from the premises. We can’t even touch a kid. I’m not sure if that’s actual policy or just our individual fears of assault charges. I know there’s no policy saying I should leave the door open for Teen Book Club; it’s my awareness of the power of allegations that make me leave that door open, and the rest of the patrons can fuck off if we’re too loud. It seems like the employees could use some sort of guidance instead of ad-hoc word of mouth ideas. But that’s not how our library system works. Selah.
The security guard we got today (and who’ll be with us being bored out of his skull for a couple of weeks) has been given express permission to keep the banned girl out “using any means necessary.” It’s true. That’s what the head of security told him, right in front of me. It was kind of action-movie awesome. The guard was kind of “I’ve never really had to do any physical restraining” and his boss was all “She’s 12. You can take her.” I didn’t butt in and tell them she’s actually 11.