Damn You, Spring!

March 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

We have a tradition in Canada, perhaps you’ve heard of it. Once a year, we put our clocks ahead an hour in order to supplicate the wild mandates of our goddess, the Queen Beaver. Her orders are interpreted by a elite cadre of priests who listen to the thumpings of her tail against the water and translate them into our laws.

There’s a reason we suck the lifeblood from trees for candy: they live, they hunger, and only the Queen knows it.

Other things involve making John miss most of his day. So, it is to his shame to report that he is not yet finished Metro 2033. He might have been able to with another hour, but that got sucked into the whirling vortex of chaos that is my sleep schedule.

And so, the backup: it’s kid’s day!
Ranger’s Apprentice 1: The Ruins of Gorlan, and Alex Rider 1: Stormbreaker

I read these books a few weeks ago because I wanted to know why these books are so damn popular. These two series are pretty much our best series for boys (sorry girls) outside of the super-popular series (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and so on), and I wanted to know what makes them tick.

Let me just say that I am totally jealous I’m not a kid growing up now, if only because of the books that they get to read. Now don’t think I’m ashamed of the books I read as a kid (indeed, my dad read me The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit, and the James Herriot books just to name a few, and if you say any of those are bad I will cut you), but the best books I read were not intended for kids my age. Sure, there were a few kids books I read as a young buck (by which I mean the 7-12 age group), but most of those have been forgotten or were classics that I was kind of expected to read.

As an aside, I find the idea of the “classic canon” amusing. It almost seems like there’s a secret plan to divide the population into “those who have read Dostoyevsky” and “those who read People magazine”. It’s not that I don’t appreciate classic literature or treasure some of it, but sometimes it seems like you have to be in one of those two camps. Either you are well-read, i.e. 90% of the stuff you read is from the 1800s, or you’re not, and you’re a hair away from being a knuckle-dragging barbarian.

"You haven't read Considerations on Representative Government or Thoughts for the Times of War and Death? Get out of my office before you stink up the place, Philistine!"

As someone who works in a bookstore, I can assure you that you could drown in good books before you would have to read any of the classics. In any case, back to children’s books!

These two books are great examples of literature that’s been crafted for children, and with the weight of our knowledge of how to write books behind it. We’ve learned a lot in the past century or so that we’ve started intensely studying what makes us read books and why (remember I bitched about the Hollywood formula last week?), and one of the things it’s allowed us to do is really focus on getting people interested. These books do a great job of that, and are built from the ground up to hold the reader’s interest. I’m jealous, therefore, because books have come a long way even in the twenty years it’s been since I was being read them, and it really shows.

These books start with a bang, move fast (sometimes hilariously so), and don’t let up. Things happen, those things are interesting, and then it’s over in time for the next book. A common complaint I get is that kids read these books too quickly because they’re that good. I know that it’s also because the way these books are written means they have relatively little substance, and that’s what caught my attention as I was reading them. Sure, I can’t compare Alexander Dumas to a book for children, but I will. These books, as children’s books, aren’t nearly as deep as books for teens or adults, and I want to think about what that means. We know why (because children = dumb), but what does it mean?

Now I'm no literary critic, but I think I see the problem with that boat.

Shallowness, per se, isn’t bad. There’s a thing called abnegation in video games (Extra Credits talked about it, and if you like video games but don’t watch them, you should) which is basically the ability for media to entertain us without really engaging our brain. It’s bubblegum of the entertainment sort: it tastes good but lacks nutritional value. It’s usually considered a bad thing by people who are paid to think, however anyone who’s worked for a living knows that occasionally you need your brain to coast for a while. There is such a thing as mental fatigue, and sometimes, you really just want to watch Wheel of Fortune.

But too much shallowness is (I’ll say it! I’ll really say it!) bad. After a point, you get negative returns, not just diminishing. If you don’t think occasionally, then you get dumb and it gets harder to think. And besides, candy can’t be the substance of your diet (unless you’re a Carebear, and if so, don’t you have Heartless to be fighting?), and if all you’re reading is fluff, then you’re either a) missing out or b) are an 80 year-old woman who reads nothing but romance and mysteries.

And if you get in the way of her and the new Danielle Steel, no Werther's for you.

But children are neither, and considering that they really do need to be lead by the hand sometimes, it’s important to think on what they are reading. Or, if you’re like me, you just can’t turn your brain off even while reading children’s books.

The big bone of contention I have between these books is that one is shallow and the other is sparse. I’ll explain both, and say that neither are bad, but that I liked one much much more than the other for that exact reason.

Stormbreaker suffers because it’s trying to do too much too quickly in too little space. In the span of two hundred or so pages, the protagonist goes from an orphaned English boy to parachuting out of a cargo plane into urban London and shooting the detonator out of the Prime Minister’s hand. This takes place, in-setting, in about two weeks with little character growth and only insignificant character interaction. He’s a young James Bond and so he’s our vector for enjoying the action, but God help you if you wanted something with character or heart.

That said, if you want thrilling (for a 9-12 year-old) non-stop action, it does have that in spades.

The Ruins of Gorlan excels because it cheats, and in this case in a good way. This story is about a character, the titular (tee-hee!) Apprentice as he grows up, is trained as a Ranger (medieval fantasy spy), and has his first adventure. This works because it would work in real life, if real life had evil wizards and monsters (which, for the record, I wish it did).

But here’s why it works so well. First, the time frame is reasonable. The book telescopes you through several months of training, so his growth isn’t surprising. Second, the boy is still treated as a boy. Sure, a capable, intelligent, and adept boy, but still a boy. He’s not out-performing trained spies or hardened killers as Alex Riders is, and he’s certainly not doing anything a 14 year-old would find impossible. There’s a reason adults rule the world, and youth authors sometimes forget that. Third, and this is the most important reason, he doesn’t complete the whole mission in one book. The first book is one adventure, but he doesn’t knock out the evil organization/wizard, nor does he save the kingdom in one stroke. Actually, he doesn’t even do it by himself, and literally finds himself in the right place at the right time.

His story continues through the other books (technically, so does Alex Rider’s, so I’m being a little unfair. But this is my party, dammit) and doesn’t resolve itself in one go. Sure, he can only do this because there are other books in the series, but the book still stands on its own, and I’d say better than Stormbreaker does. This is what I mean about sparse: the book is read quickly and there isn’t much depth, but there is depth that’s spread out over several books. I’m using “depth” with a variety of meanings here, but I hope you generally understand.

Of course, I could just be taking this far too seriously. But as I sit here and look up at my MA, I can hear it speaking to me: pedantry is the source of all knowledge, and nothing can be taken too seriously. Tune in next week for my essay on Bolivian Underwater Basket Weaving and what it can tell us about the world economy.

Or my Deathbreaker discussion. One of the two. Metro will have to wait!

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