I wrote a while ago about Saturdays and what they mean for me. And what they mean (in part!) is getting to read light fiction, mostly MG novels. (I mean, I can’t take notes or write on Shabbat so reading academic stuff in a useful fashion isn’t really possible.)
Do you know what? I’m going to be up front about this: I often go around feeling like a failure, and my reading is part of this. I could do more academic reading. I could read “better” books. I’ve never in my life read anything by V. S. Naipaul– how can I be considered literate and intelligent if I’ve never read V. S. Naipaul, I ask myself. Am I just lazy? Unintelligent? In short, I never think I’m doing enough and I’m consistently ashamed of myself for this. (I’ve spoken to other grad students, so I know I’m not alone in this.)
So, along come these Saturdays, designated as days for rest reading , and my husband is reading Proust and I read MG fiction. Well, my self-esteem takes a real hit: I’m not reading academic prose because my memory’s gone down the drain since I had the Changeling, and I’m not reading V. S. Naipaul because apparently I’m convinced that I’m stupid, so what am I reading?
Let’s get to a place of no shame, an answer which gets to the heart of things. That answer? I’m reading some damned fine fiction which shines a light on some of the most important questions we, as humans, face, if I do say so myself (read that in a defiant tone of voice). And I think it’s worth sharing with you. Please read on to find some intelligent, thoughtful, fun reads which, well, are really damned good, no matter which age they’re aimed at.
Let’s start with Hilary McKay. Saffy’s Angel and its sequels came as something of a revelation to me. I hadn’t really thought about what we might call “family stories” in a long time– I remember enjoying stories such as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, but most of the MG fiction I’ve been reading in the past several years has come from different angles: adventure stories, Gothic horror, tales of mystery and magic… not the plain old down-to-earth story of a family going about its business.
But to call the Cassons in Saffy’s Angel “plain old” and “down-to-earth” is to wildly misrepresent them. Who are the Cassons? The Cassons are an eccentric, artistic, and slightly loopy family living a short train ride from London. In fact, Bill Casson, husband and father of the family, spends much of his time in his London studio apartment, where he creates Real Art. He is very proud of his Art, particularly as compared with his wife Eve’s paintings, which he considers “not exactly Art.” Oddly, despite this infuriating attitude, Bill Casson manages to have some endearing characteristics (he is, ultimately, devoted to his family), and, refreshingly, he is challenged by his own children (both in terms of his art and his way of participating in the family), and, of course, by the flow of the narrative.
While the parents are fully fleshed characters in their own rights (a nice contrast to how often parents are pretty one-dimensional in “family books”), the real emphasis of the books, however, is on the children. The first book, Saffy’s Angel, opens with Saffy (Saffron) Casson discovering that she was adopted. Eve Casson is not her mother, but her aunt, and her mother, Linda, had died when little Saffy was only three years old, and since then she was raised by Eve and Bill along with their own children. I won’t spoil the plot, which extends throughout the series, but you can imagine the fallout: Saffy begins to question her place in the family and in the world she’s always known. Along the way she makes friends with spunky Sarah, and finds her “siblings” warmer and more caring than she had, perhaps, suspected. Her development through the book, and, in fact, the series, is realistic without being dark and gritty, and consistently intelligent and believable.
Perhaps Hilary McKay’s strongest skill (and she is immensely skillful) is in creating a whole cast of strong, realistic, flawed but lovable characters. As the series progresses, these characters grow; little details from Saffy’s Angel onward are brought forward, developed, and given whole new roles to play. For example, Rose Casson holds a fairly mid-level role in Saffy’s Angel, but little hints of who she is are planted in that book: her artistic skills, her unconventional ways of seeing the world, her distrust of her father– all of these elements are small points in Saffy’s Angel, but are picked up on in the later books and brought to full fruition. And she’s not the only one. In short, we really get the sense that Hilary McKay knows these characters, and her deft handling of them gives the full series a strong sense of cohesion– it grows and fleshes itself out without ever feeling disjointed. (A skill I strongly envy as I begin to think about how to bring my dissertation to a cohesive whole!)
To sum up: this is a family story, but not your run-of-the-mill Happy Family story. Everyone is explored fully. Each character is created in full detail and each detail matters. And while the stories don’t play down the more complicated aspects of messy family relationships, ultimately it comes back to a place of warmth, love, and mutual respect.
Dear readers, this is yet another family-based set of novels, perhaps more reminiscent of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit than of Sydney Taylor– or maybe the comparison I’m looking for is to Louisa May Alcott. What I want you to expect is the feeling of children comfortably settled in a warm, loving home, but getting up to well-meaning antics as they go along.
The Penderwicks are each very distinctive, and all very lovable: they have a remarkable sense of family pride and honour, and they all have strong, loving bonds as a family. And yet they’re not faultless, not infallible, and not so prissy they’re boring or insufferable to read. Let me introduce you to them:
- The father, Martin Penderwick, is a loving, caring, but slightly absentminded father. He’s a botanist with a tendency to slip into Latin at odd moments. (I love that about him.)
- The eldest sister, Rosalind, is serious-minded and very reliable and maternal. After the death of her mother, Rosalind stepped up, and is, if anything, too reliable and caring; she has a tendency to put others ahead of her own needs.
- Skye Penderwick: the only Penderwick girl to inherit her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes, she’s also brainy, good at math and science and facts. She also has a temper to be reckoned with.
- Jane Penderwick is as dreamy as Skye is down-to-earth. A writer, she fills notebook after notebook with the exploits of Sabrina Starr. She’s as messy as Skye is neat.
- Batty: the littlest Penderwick, born as her mother was dying of cancer, she’s shy and retiring, but don’t let yourself think that’s because there’s nothing much going on. Batty has a very firm sense of justice and would do anything for those she loves, animal or human.
Also of importance is Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwick girls’ close friend and a fantastic musician.
I’m deliberately not saying much about what happens because the characters grow as time goes by and I don’t want to spoil any events for you, but expect adventure (the kids meet a bull at one point which leads to– wait, I won’t tell you that), and hominess (baking figures largely in these books), and sisters sticking up for each other against any external forces. Any more details I give you will spoil the books for you, so for once I’m asking you to take it on trust: just go and read, OK?
Warning: when I read the last book, The Penderwicks in Spring, I actually got sniffly more than once. (OK, full confession: I outright cried. Full and complete confession: It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep until I finished reading and I was sobbing over a book aimed at kids less than half my age because MG fiction is the best and I am not even remotely ashamed.) These books may be gentle family stories, but they are not messing with reality: remember, the girls’ mother was dying of cancer as Batty was born, an event which isn’t romanticized; it’s horrible. Expect your emotions to go through the wringer, expect to be called on to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. There are no clear, easy answers, and even an adult would be challenged by some of the situations which arise in these novels (I mean… I am an adult, and I find them challenging to read), but, at the same time, this is, unequivocally, a book for children, so these highly emotional and complicated events are being gently introduced at a level children should be able to understand. It’s a fine balance, and Jeanne Birdsall handles it deftly.
I encourage you to read the whole series, and if there are any children of the right age for it in your life, share it with them! You might be surprised at the conversations that will result from reading it together. I can’t wait until the Changeling is of an age for these books, because I fully propose reading them aloud together. OK, confession: I tried reading a few passages aloud, just for the hell of it, and it reads as beautifully as the Moomin books.
Lastly, I want to tell you about a new-to-me-but-not-so-new book, The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I bought this because I went to the Children’s Book Shop and asked Terri, the owner, about a different book (which shall remain nameless). Because she’s wonderful and knows my taste, she told me to skip that book and asked if I’d read this instead. I hadn’t, somehow, and was immediately intrigued by her description and the excellent flap copy. Note to publishers: good flap copy matters! Note to everyone: support good independent bookstores! Look, Amazon can’t tell you: “This one is over-hyped and not your style; read this instead.” Terri can.
Folks, this is possibly one of the best books I’ve read, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a book I return to again and again in years to come. The action is set during the waning period of Mary Tudor’s reign, shortly before Elizabeth comes to the throne. The paranoid Queen Mary has Elizabeth effectively under house arrest at Hatfield. Alicia, one of the ladies of Elizabeth’s court, writes innocently, incautiously, and, frankly, stupidly to the queen to protest her treatment of Elizabeth. The queen lashes out against Elizabeth and her ladies: she orders Alicia to be brought to her own court and has Alicia’s sister, Kate, sent to the Perilous Gard, out in Derbyshire, under the guard of Sir Geoffrey Heron.
The Perilous Gard turns out to be a rich and fine enough hall, and Kate Sutton seems to be in a good enough position, all things considered– until mysteries start to pop up all over the place. Who is the woman she spied on the road? Who is the young man in green lurking by the window? Why does Sir Geoffrey disappear for such long periods of time, leaving the running of the manor to his steward? Kate being who she is, she’s unable to leave the mystery alone– especially when she hears the story of Sir Geoffrey’s daughter’s disappearance. Following along the story with the headstrong, intelligent Kate, who has nerves of steel, common sense, and a ready sense of humour, you will also find the mysteries intriguing. Rational Kate pulls apart the myth of magic and finds that, from beginning to end, her own nerves and her own mind, are more than a match for– well, I won’t tell you that bit. Read the book and find out for yourself!
One last word, this one on style: I don’t know why it is, but I’ve lately been thinking about book length. It seems to me, unless I’m totally generalizing and making things up, that MG and YA books are getting longer. When I think about, for example, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, they wasted no words; something I fully and completely admire in them. (Now, Little Women is a long book, so, well, make of that what you will– I’m probably generalizing. It’s not like long= bad.) The Perilous Gard is fairly short. It’s also packed with action. It’s also full of intelligent, thoughtful characters (Kate being one) who make you think along with them. You don’t need more space to make a book more complex or intelligent; you need to be able to write the right length for the right book, and I suspect that practice and editorial help are of assistance. Anyway, I just find this book succinct and clipped clean and perfect, so in style, plot, and character, this is a truly perfect book.
(There’s another book along those lines I want to tell you about, but I’ve already written too much– there’s a smidgen of delicious hypocrisy for you!– so I’ll wait for another day to talk about… well, we’ll save that, won’t we?)
So there you are! Two series, one stand-alone book, all succinct, gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. Happy reading, and tell me what you think if you do read one of these, OK? I’d love to hear your thoughts.