Note: a version of this review will appear in the Summer 2008 issue of Dialogue.
If you’re at all familiar with literary talk these days, you might be aware of the chatter about children’s and young adult literature being the hot new thing. Everyone’s wondering what will be the “next Harry Potter.” What was once a ghettoized field of study—because children are a self-perpetuating lower class, and literature for children must therefore serve a purpose: teach a lesson or make kids get good grades—is now legitimate at many institutes of higher learning. Adults are getting reading recommendations from children and teens, and vice versa. Despite frenzied reports to the contrary, reading is not dead among the younger set.
When people ask what I do for a living, invariably the reaction to my answer—that I’m a children’s book editor—is “how exciting!”—especially when I say that I edit children’s and young adult fantasy novels.
It is exciting. We’re living in a golden age of children’s and young adult literature, full of breathtaking storytelling and artistry. And some of the leading names in this golden age are authors who happen to be Mormons.
When I read submissions at work, any variation on “the moral of this story is…” will make me want to stop reading. If a writer tells a good story, the message will take care of itself. Katherine Paterson, the author of beloved children’s and YA books including Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia, explained the religious content of her books thus: “What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write.”
A lot of times I hear, “I liked that book because it was a clean read,” implying no sex, minimal violence, and no swearing. While I applaud those who are looking for stories that don’t offend their sensibilities, for me as an editor the question isn’t what isn’t there. Is it a good story, told well? is my foremost question. What I look for? A story that draws me into a world that I don’t want to leave. Characters I empathize with, adventures that I want to go on, and twisty plots that spin my head. All done with beautiful writing.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The [story’s] the thing.” A bad story told well will get more kids excited about reading (and yes, even teach them a thing or two) than a good story told poorly—and all the better if it’s a good story told well! That’s my agenda as an editor, to find books that fit in the latter category. The story is what matters, making the moral message secondary—a given, if you will (though perhaps depicting evil in the process) . Moralizing and excessive preachiness get in the way of the story. A great example of that are the final touches to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. An otherwise excellent story, the mentions of Susan’s lipstick keeping her from heaven were a bit heavy-handed— and if I were his editor, I would have tried to convince him to strike those comments. The message was already obvious; no need to bash the reader over the head with it.
This then brings up the question: am I saying that it’s okay to have a “bad” message in a book if the story is well told? As is often the case, it depends. The idea of the power of books is ingrained in Mormon culture. After all, if we believe the Book of Mormon to be the most correct book on the earth, we definitely believe in the power of the word (not to mention the Word) to transform a reader.
But do we believe it to be so powerful that it will take away agency? Unlikely. Interpretation of the message of a book, if one must have a message, is at least in part up to the reader to decide to agree with or not—and the message itself might be up for debate.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a timely, though controversial, example of a story that some would say is a well written but bad story. Recently, the debate over this trilogy resurfaced and gained attention with a wider audience because of the movie release based on The Golden Compass, the first book of the trilogy. The argument against the books—even to the point of calls for banning—crop up because of their message alone: the “Authority,” a character set up as a despotic God, must be overthrown for the world to be set to rights. But the message of the His Dark Materials story could be reinterpreted as a tale of unrighteous dominion, or perhaps a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Lucifer has won the War in Heaven and must be defeated, a morality tale that many would agree with. As one reader of my blog put it, “If [my children] think that the God Pullman describes is the God they learn about at church, then I need to do a much better job at teaching them who God is.” Either way you interpret it, books like His Dark Materials can open up conversations, if we allow them to.
Because a “bad” message can be interpreted with such wide variation, it’s hard for me to call His Dark Materials “bad” for its message. I would instead say that sometimes the preachiness of that message, however you might interpret it, overshadows an otherwise romping good tale.
And I don’t just look for romping good tales in my slush pile. I look for them in my personal reading, as well. Which is why I’m excited to share with you a brief sampling of the excellent books out now in the mainstream children’s and young adult market by LDS authors. Some names you might recognize. Shannon Hale received a Newbery Honor for her middle-grade novel Princess Academy. Stephenie Meyer’s YA novel Twilight and its sequels have topped the bestseller lists. Several other authors may not be as widely-known, but each has fits my criteria of a good story told well. These writers are tackling the age-old questions of good and evil in a way that resonates beyond their LDS culture into a world welcoming stories about that deep struggle.
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2003). Young Adult. Shannon and I were once on a convention panel together, and someone asked her why she wrote this retelling of the Grimm’s fairy tale by the same name. She said something to the effect of how the tales are so intriguing because they leave so much out. It’s just so fun to flesh out a story, to give motivations to inexplicable actions and figure out how the magic in that story would actually work, she said. Goose Girl is an excellent representative of this genre, the story of princess Anidori Isilee and her conniving handmaid who forces Anidori to switch places with her while journeying to the home of Anidori’s betrothed prince. Finding employment as a goose tender in the new city, Anidori begins to better understand her ability to talk with the wind, and makes friends with her fellow animal workers. These relationships and newfound power make all the difference in Anidori’s eventual triumph.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown, 2005). Young Adult. If you’re a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, you’ll see that Edward has a few things in common with the Buffy character Angel—brooding topping that list, Unlike Angel, this vampire’s love interest is in danger just from being near him. But Bella Swan is a little too curious and a little too fascinated with Edward for her own good.
This book gets rave reviews—and not always from the people I expect them from. It’s well written and there’s plenty of romance, but I wasn’t convinced by Bella’s attraction to Edward simply based on Edward’s utter beauty. Hey, he’s a vampire. He wants to eat you! I freely admit to being a Buffy fan, but then, Angel only tried to eat you when he was evil. Meyer’s Edward is much more nuanced than Angel—Edward chooses to abstain from his monstrous side rather than having it thrust upon him, and that sets up an intriguing situation of denial and passion. This book might be the best example of how a well-written story done well will draw the right reader. Just because I don’t necessarily love vampire stories doesn’t mean that it isn’t a well-drawn story that appeals to its target audience.
The Princess and the Hound by Mette Ivie Harrison (Eos, 2007). Young Adult. Prince George has a secret: he can perform forbidden magic. When he becomes betrothed to a princess from a neighboring country whom he’s never met, he figures it’s best to never fall in love. George doesn’t want his life is complicated by losing someone dear to him as it was when he lost his mother early in life. But Princess Beatrice has her own secret, and as George and Beatrice near their wedding date, the expectations a reader might have of this original fairy tale that feels like a retelling are all turned on their head.
Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (Scholastic, 2007). Middle Grade. A prolific author of fantasy for adult readers, this is Sanderson’s first foray into children’s literature. If you like whimsical humor coupled with original adventures, this is a book for you. The protagonist Alcatraz Smedry has been raised in foster homes most of his life, shuffled from home to home due to his inordinate ability to destruct everything around him. On his thirteenth birthday, everything changes—opening a door to an unseen world of evil librarians trying to dominate the world’s flow of information. All that stands between them are one boy who breaks things, his perpetually late grandfather, and a bag of sand.
Red Dragon Codex by R.D. Henham (Mirrorstone, 2008). Middle Grade. I couldn’t resist including a book I edited in the list. Rebecca Shelley is the author behind the pen name of this adventure. A boy named Mudd sets off on his own to seek a silver dragon who can help him rescue his friend Shemnara from an evil red dragon. Mudd must navigate all sorts of dangers, not least of which being the decision to team up with his little sister, Hiera. I chose to work on this book precisely because Shelley’s writing fit my criteria of a good book. This is a tale of high fantasy adventure peopled by characters that a reader can’t help but root for even while you’re laughing at them. This book releases in January 2008.
Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (Shadow Mountain, 2006). Middle Grade. When Kendra and Seth go to visit their grandparents for a two-week vacation, little do they know that they’re visiting a secret forest reserve for magical creatures. Their secretive grandfather insists that they stay within the yard and never venture out into the woods, but Seth, inquisitive and adventurous, ventures out anyway and meets an old woman in the woods who will prove to be both friend and foe. Meanwhile, Kendra tries to find the locks that three mysterious keys open, and what she finds will unlock Fablehaven’s secrets to the siblings—leading to danger and intrigue.
Shadow Mountain, the publisher of Fablehaven, is an imprint of Deseret Book that publishes books by Mormon authors for a mainstream audience. This book skirts the edge of the line between telling a good story well and allowing the message to overshadow the story, but the slightly-preachy parts serve the adventurous story—after all, the folklore of the fairy world depends on agreements, negotiations, and abiding by complicated rules rather than letting the story serve the message. So this one remains on my “recommended” list.
Other great titles: Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star.
You might notice that every single one of these recommendations is a fantasy book. Space limits me in my ability to recommend all the many books I’d like to, and because of my line of work I’m partial to the genre. There’s a lot of really great fantasy out there, written by Mormons and those of other faiths. Several LDS authors write realistic mainstream YA and children’s literature—Ann Dee Ellis, Louise Plummer, and Kristin Randle are three examples—and several other authors write crossover titles, published for adults but accessible to younger readers such as Orson Scott Card and Tracy Hickman. Other excellent LDS authors writing mainstream children’s fantasy not covered here include Dave Wolverton (sometimes writing as David Farland), Dan Willis, James Dashner, and Jessica Day George.
Every single author I mention writes good books well—adventure, fantastic creatures, absorbing characters, and engaging plots. Anything less would be to underestimate the intended readers of these excellent stories: children of all ages. Including me.