Two Books

Over Passover, I had the wonderful, amazing opportunity to read. I won’t go into the details of why, but, suffice it to say, after the intense, focused work I’ve been putting into my dissertation work, getting the opportunity to read two MG novels of very different character, and very different style, and very different construction– etc., etc.– was a distinct pleasure.

So let me tell you about them, and encourage you to read them both. One is a fantasy book, the other realist fiction. Both were gripping, both are highly recommended.

The first, Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi, is colour and magic and fun.

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It reminds me, in the colourful worldbuilding, the glorious characters, and the lush prose, of Catherynne Valente. The comparison does credit to them both, and I hope that both would be delighted with it, because both take these skills and use them to create fiercely original worlds and characters.

In Furthermore, Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, our story’s protagonist, is the only girl in Ferenwood, which thrives on colour, to be born colourless. It is difficult, of course, to be different, and she feels this on many levels: at school, at home, and– once her buffer, the father who always loved her no matter what, disappears– all throughout Ferenwood. Convinced that she is magicless and talentless in a society which lives on magic and magical talent, she remains proud and strong, and faces her world with what she has cultivated herself: her talent for dance.

It is not enough.

Devastated, she goes out to seek her father– and I think that’s where I should stop telling you the story. Instead, I’m going to tell you a bit about the construction and the feeling of the book, and tell you why I think you would enjoy it.

The construction is, on the surface, your classic “quest” story– girl goes out to seek father. Spoiler alert: she finds him in the end. Yawn.

Except not.

Everyone knows, of course, that Alice is going to find her father. Just as everyone knows in Howl’s Moving Castle that Sophie will conquer the Witch, and everyone knows in the Odyssey that Odysseus will complete his journey and come home and find Penelope and throw out the suitors. But… but. Did you know he’d find his old faithful dog again, too? Did you know that Penelope would test Odysseus to see whether he was still the husband she loved? In Howl, did you know what would happen with Calcifer? At the end of these books, it’s the relationships that matter, and they run in many directions.

The same is true, gloriously true, in Furthermore. Alice’s relationships grow and blossom and the isolated child of the first chapter ends the book surrounded by people who mean something to her. And it’s complicated by the fact that the relationships aren’t just between people, but between places, but I can’t tell you more about that… and apparently there’s a sequel… Tahereh Mafi is new to me, but Furthermore already feels like an old friend. I love books that do that.

One final word about Furthermore: It’s a story about colour, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t underline what I alluded to above: the colour of the language. This book is positively symphonic in its use of language. It’s gorgeous. Baroque, by times, colloquial by other times, it doesn’t feel inconsistent, it feels harmonic. Different registers, different uses of adjectives and adverbs– often elaborate, never overdone. You’ll enjoy the enthusiasm of the language as much as you enjoy Alice’s enthusiasm in the plot.

Now, the next book I wanted to tell you about is a new-to-me-but-old one: Joan Aiken’s Midnight Is a Place.

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This one just fell into my lap over Passover. I had finished Furthermore more quickly than I’d anticipated (see above regarding how much I loved it to understand why that happened), the weather was dull and grey, I couldn’t work because it was a holiday, and basically, I needed a book. Fortunately I was in a place where books were in plenty, and this one was by Joan Aiken which meant it was good and–

Reader, it is the spiritual polar opposite of Furthermore, and it is phenomenal.

Gripping, haunting, grim, but, somehow, hopeful– the ending very nearly brought me to tears.

Lucas Bell is an orphan, living in Midnight Court, the splendid but cold and somewhat mysterious home of his guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby. He can tell something is not quite right, but he can’t put his finger on what, or why. Gradually, gradually he finds things out– his guardian had won the Court in a bet from its rightful owner, but under dubious circumstances, and seems haunted by his past; there’s a girl, Anna-Marie, who suddenly shows up at the hall who is somehow connected to it, but how?; and when the Court goes up in flames, Randolph Grimsby dies in the blaze, and the children are left alone and penniless in a hostile town which hates anything remotely connected to their late, unlamented guardian–

It’s a dark story, isn’t it? And then consider the Dickensian or Gaskellian angle: Grimsby had owned the Mill, the horrible, inhumane carpet mill which runs through employees as swiftly as Grimsby himself ran through money. There’s the cruelty of the employers and the management, but there’s also the sadism of the Friendly association of the employees, ostensibly out to protect the employees against the hard press of the owners of the Mill– will the children end up having to work at such a place?

Or will they take the alternatives, turning to the town with industry, vim, and youthful vigour? After all, they’d hated the Court, and were wary of the Mill, so why not first try to earn their keep on the streets– or, in Lucas’s case, under it?

This book is a combination of brooding realism, Gothic mystique (think of the big house and the mystery surrounding it), and almost fantastical elements: is there a witch living in the old ice house? what happened to Mrs. Braithwaite’s baby when she goes off to Australia? and what’s in that mysterious box?

But nothing is allowed to remain too fantastical for long… after all, this is a grounded, realist piece of literature. The colours are all dark. If Furthermore was a riot of colour, Midnight Is a Place is all black and charcoal grey– or is it? Isn’t there a streak of colour in Anna-Marie’s frivolous little pink dress? I would argue that, dark as it is, if you read it closely, you’ll find it a shadowed rainbow, while Furthermore was a bright one.

But both are beautiful, and, ultimately, hopeful.

What have you been reading?

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Here We Are

Where are you?

I’m on planet earth, in North America, in the United States, in Massachusetts, in Boston, in Inman Square, working and visiting my old neighbourhood… and suddenly I got the urge to write to you. And I thought, “Here We Are.” Here We Are is a beautiful book by Oliver Jeffers, whom you know (along with Sam Winston) from A Child of Books.

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Oliver Jeffers is (arguably) one of the best-known children’s author-illustrators working today, and deservedly so. And Here We Are really shows his work at its best.

What do I love about Here We Are? Oh, there’s so much to love! The art is Jeffers’s best– the sketchy, child-friendly feel with infinite sophistication in the details. The text is warm and communicative without ever talking down to the child or the adult reading to the child.

But what I love best is the trajectory of the story. Do you remember way back when I first told you about Madlenka’s Dog? It’s been a while, so I won’t be offended if you need to refresh your memory. In brief, Madlenka’s Dog starts out with the universe and rapidly narrows its scope to Madlenka herself, and the others on her block who own dogs. Oliver Jeffers does something pretty similar, but his focus is a little difference and his pace is more gradual.

Oliver Jeffers begins in space, with a map of the solar system (“probably not to scale”), and talks about our place therein, then relative to the moon, then the land and the sea, then the sky, then the nature of the land and of the people who inhabit the land. He talks about our relationships to the earth and to each other. He talks about how similar and how different we are, one from another. Then he gets more specific, talking about families and what people do (“Generally how it works is that when the is out it is daytime, and we do stuff.”), and how things move slowly sometimes and quickly sometimes. And then he steps back, “Well, that is Planet Earth,” but never too far back (“I won’t be far away.”)– the direct address, as parent to child, keeps the book very intimate.

And I tell you this much: I am not a weepy sort of a person (except for the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Giselle, and… fine, I can be weepy, but not gratuitously weepy, OK?) but I got choked up at the last few pages of Here We Are.

I feel that’s important to tell you. Because this book does two things: a) It provides a kind of floor plan to living on earth, and b) It creates a sense of intimacy between the earth and its peoples, and among the people on the earth, and between the book and the reader… Basically, it’s a linking book. And we can use more links.

I can hear you now: “But… is it preachy?”

The answer is no. It is not remotely preachy. This is Oliver Jeffers, and he always manages to convey something valuable without talking down to the reader. In this book, written for his son, Harland, he speaks directly to his son (or the reader) without speaking down to him. And the warmth and humour of it keep the book upbeat; in that, I’m reminded of Joan Aiken, and I think she’d be happy with the comparison.

Since Jeffers’s son is a proxy for the reader, Oliver Jeffers speaks with warmth, humour, and love. It’s as though someone took a love letter and published it, but, you know, with consent. It’s not creepy! Is it educational? Sure! Who wouldn’t want to teach humanity and compassion to their child? But is it preachy? Not at all.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been plowing through books about science (directly educational) and humanity (ranging from preachy to just educational) and pure kids’ lit (literary). My mum came to visit and read a Robert Munsch book to my daughter’s class, and we all remarked on how good it was, what pure fun for the kids, who all adored it– but simultaneously entertaining to the adults in the room.

In this case, I’d say Oliver Jeffers is really talking to kids, not adults. But because he treats kids as humans with good understanding, any adult who listens with an open mind can learn something, too. Compassion. Respect. Gentleness. How to tread a little more lightly on this planet we call our home.

And that, in the words of the last page, “You’re never alone on Earth.”

There’s a growing range of books out there about tolerance and respect. About being fiercely compassionate and standing up for yourself and others. Some, like A Friend for Henry, provide a much-needed perspective in a sensitive, open fashion. Others are, to be blunt, lacking in sensitivity, nuance, or, simply, in artistry, and I can’t see how a child would connect with them.

But I am universally glad these books are finally being written. They’ve definitely been lacking, and more voices is a good thing. Compassion is good. Diverse books are good. STEM and art books are good. They won’t all be good books, they won’t all last, but I thank publishers for bringing them out, and we’ll see which ones rise to the top.

I would lay a wager that one of the books which will last is Here We Are. Its message is strong, stronger than just one generation, and therefore I’m certain it will resonate for years. Its voice, likewise, is strong, and resonates with my daughter and I’m sure with other children.

Basically, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. The art and message are beautiful, and it will help your child feel wanted and love, and, therefore, will help them love the earth and others. What more do we look for, as parents and teachers?

So give it a try, and then tell me what you think! I think I’m going to see if the Changeling wants to read it again tonight. I have a feeling she’ll say yes.