I have been writing my fingers off for hours, dear Readers, but I’m so pepped up on adrenaline left over from my dissertation that I decided I’d have a chat with you this morning!
First things first, my thanks to those of you who wrote to me about my brainstorming post: the Changeling and I are having an absolute ball and I look forward to trying out some of your suggestions once we’re settled in our new place and have, you know, bookcases again. In the meantime we’re making do with those books which aren’t yet packed: she reads This Is Not My Hat to me, and I read The Little Bookroom to her (my sneaky way of getting some Eleanor Farjeon into my life after all). It’s so wonderful to share the reading: I’d anticipated that it would be fun, but I had no idea it would feel so special.
What this means, though, is that most of what I read with the Changeling right now is pretty repetitive– mostly books I’ve already written about here, or ones like This Is Not My Hat, which are already pretty well-known. (You know it, right? It’s a fun one. Highly recommended, especially when read aloud by a charming Changeling of your own.) I’m looking forward to sharing more picture books with you soon, but right now, as we prepare to move, well… how about some more Saturday books?
The first book I want to share is not new, but is new to me. Somehow I grew up without reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I can still see the exact place on my mother’s bookshelf where this book sat: I remember the spine and everything. And it has “witch” in the title, and that’s a word which would have attracted my notice, and, basically, I cannot explain what ridiculous turn of events prevented me from reading a book that was right there and did everything it could to attract me. I just don’t know.
Then the owner of The Children’s Book Shop mentioned it to me and my mind flew right back to that spot on my mother’s shelves, and next thing I knew I was wandering along beside the Changeling over Passover with the book in my pocket, ready to read it while she played at the park.
Fellow readers, this is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager or pre-teen, so if you have a pre-teen or teenager in your life, do try to ensure that a copy is hanging around where they might see it.
This is not a “suspense!” type of book so I’m not worried about spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of book where the how it happens supersedes the what happens. So, be warned, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to discover the what happens without having the least detail spoiled: I am planning to spoil some bits of the plot below. For you, I’ll just say that this book is about home and belonging and how you get there. For the rest of you, let’s dive in a bit more deeply.
Kit Tyler is a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in her literate, wealthy grandfather’s home in Barbados in the late seventeenth century. When her beloved grandfather dies, circumstances force her to rush without any warning to her aunt’s home in a Puritan settlement in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Think of it as a change in hue– and, indeed, Elizabeth George Speare certainly emphasizes that sensory experience: Barbados is bright, it is warm, it is jewel tones; Wethersfield is dark, it is cold, it is all natural hues. Barbados is silk, Wethersfield is wool.
Which is better?
This is a question Kit has to answer for herself. In Wethersfield, she has, initially, enormous difficulty fitting in. Her impulsive, independent nature, nurtured by her highly educated grandfather who taught her to read literature, is utterly out of place in stern Wethersfield where the highest virtue is obedience and the only book to read is the Bible. Kit gradually fits herself in, but she just can’t get the hang of obedience in the face of what she considers the right thing to do: befriending a taboo Quaker woman and teaching a neglected child to read. This brings her into high trouble… and, ultimately, out of it. Rather than squashing herself to fit in, she learns to absorb the virtues of Wethersfield and the beauty of Barbados in equal parts, and, thus, makes two homes for herself without in any fashion compromising her own identity.
Get why I wanted this when I was sixteen? I’ll bet you do! Let’s make a pact to keep this available to every sixteen-year-old child who may need its lessons: Don’t change who you are, but also don’t dismiss every new experience out of hand. Adaptability, I think in hindsight, is the key to adolescence, and that’s what Kit Tyler has to teach us.
The next book I want to tell you about is a debut novel, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by one insanely talented Jessica Townsend. (Hey, Jessica? All of those expletives I muttered as I read your basically-perfect first novel? Please don’t take them personally! You’re amazing, and I’m just a tad bit jealous of your extraordinary level of skill for a first novel!!!)
Nevermoor is as different from The Witch of Blackbird Pond as you can get– at first glance, at least. Blackbird Pond is history and realism, Nevermoor is fantasy and whimsy. Blackbird Pond is stern and ruthlessly structured, Nevermoor is giddy and sprawling. Blackbird Pond is short, Nevermoor is nearly twice as long.
Nevermoor may be fantasy, full of magic and fun, whimsical and sprawling in nature, and quite long, but let’s talk about that a little. A book like Blackbird Pond wears its heart and structure on its sleeve; Nevermoor? Not so much. So I want to posit that it is, despite being a whimsical fantasy novel– realistic! It is also masterfully structured in its own sense, following a very careful narrative arc. Finally, it may be longer than Blackbird Pond— I mean, it is, that’s not up for debate, the page count is 480 while Blackbird Pond is 249– but it doesn’t feel long. It’s still pretty tight (there’s that structure at work) and I’d be hard pressed to point to a chapter or other section and say, “Cut this.”
I’m going on about this for two reasons: I’m frankly fed up with reading opinion pieces or otherwise talking to folks about a fantasy novel (or sci fi, horror, or other genre) and having them sort of pat them on the head: “Yes, I’m sure it was entertaining and good… for a fantasy novel.” Hear me now, loud and clear: FANTASY DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT GOOD. This here? It’s a first novel by a skilled novelist who, I’ll bet you anything, is just going to get better at her craft, and she knows what she’s doing. It’s good stuff, and deserves the accolades it got from Publisher’s Weekly and lots of other notable places. So, even though it’s apples to oranges, yes, I’m comparing it to Blackbird Pond. And I mean it, too.
Oh– the second reason I’m talking about structure, voice, length, etc? Unlike in the case of Blackbird Pond, I’m really leery of spoiling the plot for you.
So, then, let’s talk about the elements that go to make Nevermoor, in its own way, quite as skilled as a classic like Blackbird Pond. (Note: I said skilled, not “as good as” or “you’re wrong if you don’t like it” or anything else implying a moral issue here: just that it’s well-structured and should be up for as much serious discussion as a realist classic of children’s lit. Your personal taste is your own, however, and up to you.)
I started by talking about realism. You may think that, because Nevermoor is fantasy, that it’s not grounded in realistic characteristics of life lived: Kit Tyler faced real life issues in Barbados which caused her to make her way to Connecticut, where she faced more realistic life issues. What about Morrigan, the female protagonist of Nevermoor? She was born at a cursed time and is therefore believed to carry a curse by her community and her family. Not so realistic. Except–
Well, remember that Kit Tyler is earmarked as “different” with her bright clothing, swimming skills, and impulsive nature? She’s marked out and doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to handle that situation. Morrigan is marked out, can have no friends (she’s cursed) or place in her community (that curse again) and doesn’t even fit in with her own family (her father resents her curse for making life difficult for him, for example). Until, that is, she makes her own big trip to a place where– well I won’t give away the plot, but, trust me, there’s something very real and human about her seeking her own tribe, as it were, and slowly finding people and creatures who seem to understand her– as well as discovering that nowhere and no one is perfect.
Thus much for “realism” and “fantasy,” but I think we need to talk a bit about structure and length now.
On the one hand, I’ve noticed books creeping longer in length over the past while– I’m not going to call out ones that felt long to me, but I think it’s generally the case that the books which have survived to be classics (Blackbird Pond, Alan Garner, The Perilous Gard, I could go on) dwell in the area of 250 pages, give or take. More recent books, especially perhaps fantasy?, are creeping up towards 450 pages. Think of the Harry Potter books, which started fairly short and crept up towards– what was Order of the Phoenix? Over 500 pages? And maybe that one was a bit longer than necessary? It’s hard for me to say anything negative about those books, though– they were so formative for me and I remember the thrilling wait for each one as it emerged from J. K. Rowling’s brain into my hands in book form… I feel a bit sorry for the Changeling, who will get to plow through them all straight away without waiting in line at midnight for each book to come out!
My point is: I think longer books are becoming more acceptable in MG fiction, and I don’t know that this is entirely a bad thing. On the one hand, oh, those deliciously concise books where every word is weighed in the balance and only placed if truly necessary! On the other hand– Cat Valente, anyone? The Glass Town Game was pretty damned good, with its long sentences, plot rising like dough in a warm spot in your kitchen, and generally fabulous characters. So, I’d say it all comes down to the skill of the author (and the keen eye and ear of the editors)– is this a book which can comfortably occupy 400+ pages, or is it better pared down a little? Is this a style which would work better in a concise format or with rolling, delicious prose? That is, I trust Cat Valente to use every page well, but other authors work better in a tight, succinct format (I can’t imagine Alan Garner writing a longer text, for example: he’s so good at keeping it trimmed down and elegant).
I’ll admit: the length of Nevermoor did truly give me pause initially, not because I’m afraid of long books (one of my all-time favourites being Tom Jones, so, you know, I’m used to lengthy reads), but because of my Saturday constraints. I didn’t want to embark on a long read, get totally hooked, and have to either: a) sneakily read it during the week when I should be working, or b) actually have to wait a week to find out what the [expletive] HAPPENS!!! (Yeah, I was one of the kids who got the latest Harry Potter book at midnight and started reading it while walking home from the bookstore. Instant gratification takes too long.)
I’m so glad I fell down hard and read this anyway. It turns out to be a great balance of suspense and well-crafted writing which it was a pleasure to savour. I read it all over two Saturdays and enjoyed the week-long break in between. I simply thought about Morrigan Crow on occasion, wondering, “What will happen next?” and “I wonder if Plot Point X is going to come back?” I was into it, but it wasn’t torture to be made to wait a while. It was like eating half a slice of a really good pie, and then being called to a conversation with a charming friend before you can finish– you really want the rest of that pie, but no one’s life is in danger if you wait to get back to it. Maybe I’d have felt differently ten years ago, but speaking from the ripe old age of 31*, I enjoyed the slight suspense without being totally immersed in concerns for Morrigan. Frankly, I think this had a lot to do with character design: I trusted Morrigan to get through anything.
So, folks, there you go. Two splendid books, both well-written, both with engaging characters and lessons about persistence and adaptability, both carrying you along with a narrative which was imaginative while at the same time being grounded in excellent characters with real-life applications. And both being exactly the length that was right for them.
*This reminds me that I never shared my wonderful birthday gifts from my charming husband. I suspect you’d enjoy them, but that will have to wait until we move.