There was a discussion last year about how some of us are “book champions” and others are “book critics.” The implied conceit is that somehow, these two roles or temperaments are mutually exclusive. A great summary with her views and links was published on Monica Edinger’s “Educating Alice” blog: The Championship Season.
After much self-examination, I know that, I too, would like to maintain both traits – not as if they’re the two ends on a continuum: if I move toward one end, I’m leaving the other end behind. I’d rather imagine them as baking ingredients which must work together well with just the right amount of each. I hold that it is imperative to examine all aspects of any book I encounter and critically evaluate them: pointing out what works really well and what has perhaps fallen short when engaging in discussion of a book: whether in person with a friend, online on a blog, in print for a magazine, or as a member of an award selection committee. However, it is equally important to have a lot of passion and love and express such support vocally and often, especially when working with the target readership. I often joke with my students that I’m just a paid book pusher: starry-eyed and eager when recommending titles. I will never shy away from praising a good book and champion for great themes, outstanding literary styles, convincing world-building, and layered character development.
That’s why I point out inaccurate racial representations; that’s why I discuss whether the use of certain narrative devices supports the plot or the theme; that’s why I talk and write about books I’m crazy in love with but also about books that raise questions and concerns. I’m not going to choose between the two:
I consider myself a Critical Book Champion!
Walking down Seattle night streets, I came upon these trees adorned with Christmas lights. My aesthetic mind created an instant division: I loved the moving lights up in the branches and had next to no emotional reaction to the static lights on the tree trunks. What made the moving lights so much more appealing?
Could it be that each absence of light makes the presence of it more vibrant, more intense.
Could this same revelation be applied to my reading aesthetics?
Is this why I find books filled with figurative language page after page less appealing than books that only feature effective and well developed figurative language when absolutely necessary?
Like the static lights on the tree trunks, the too frequent presence of metaphors, similes, and analogies reduces my appreciation of an author’s artistry. I need the appropriate absence of figurative speeches to fully feel the impact of their presence.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones
Definitely a breezy read with some fun bits and pieces. I really like Kelly Jones’ portrayal of Sophie, level-headed, with plenty of normal kid concerns and normal kid courage. Jones included some not-too-heavy-handed tidbits about how others perceive Sophie, being half Mexican American, being viewed as poor, being “presumed” in not-so-flattering ways.
Since my taste runs more toward more saturated kind of fantasy, I wanted the chickens’ powers (and they are amazing powers) to manifest more, stronger, and add more tension to the story. However, I can also see how this can be quite attractive to those who just want their magic to be more like everyday happenings — not too many world-altering encounters.
My narrative device-detector antenna was definitely alert for this one and wish that the letter-writing device had worked all the way through. The really really long, as-it-happens, climatic sections did not work all that well for me: not sure when/where Sophie would have been writing to Agnes in the middle of rescuing the chickens and participating in the Poultry Show (and it is apparent that those letters weren’t written after all the excitement as a report, since Agnes would have known all that had happened and wouldn’t have needed such narration of events.)
Four young readers from Shanghai (ages 13-15) and I spent two weeks together enjoying and analyzing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery winning title The Graveyard Book. The lessons were all conducted in English. We had a lot of fun and here are some of the observations that we made about the book:
(silly names we gave ourselves/each other)
- The author makes it so that the supposedly bad people (the graveyard dead, a witch, a vampire, and a werewolf) turned out to be super nice and caring. It made us reconsider our assumptions to the people around us.
- The author effectively uses verbs and action phrases for inanimate objects to create vivid and poetic imageries: tendrils of fog could insinuate themselves into the hall, the graveyard could keep secrets, and the burnt sun could gaze into the world below.
- We had lots of fun figuring out what Gaiman implies in his text. Silas’ true being is, of course, the most fun to guess: so many clues about what he is without the word* EVER being present in the book. But there are many other things that the readers need to figure out: the characters’ moods, interior thoughts and motivations, etc. In other words, this is a great book for inferences.
- Paradox is another literary device used often by the author. We bookended the course with this paradoxical phrase: “Glorious Tragedy” that Gaiman used to describe what it’s like to be a parent and how The Graveyard Book can be read as a book about the bittersweetness of successful parenting. This phrase could be used especially to frame much of the last part of the book when Nobody Owens grows too old to be contained within the safety of the Graveyard. Isn’t “growing up” also a kind of glorious tragedy? I asked the four young readers to contemplate in what ways that “growing up” is a glorious tragedy.
- Each student wrote me a quick feedback on their individual experience with the book. All were positive and had strong emotional reaction to the events and characters in the book.
- One wrote how they appreciated the many new vocabulary words (Gaiman definitely did NOT shy away from using precise, perfect, but not easy words.)
- They all enjoyed the “guess” work whenever I asked them to infer a particular subtly presented idea.
- One student who never read a single English language book before this class vowed to continue reading books in English!
I had a blast! The students were diligent and after the first couple of days, were lively and contributed a lot. It’s especially rewarding to closely re-read The Graveyard Book and confirm how finely crafted this book truly is, in every aspect!
* SPOILER ALERT — Silas’ identity is revealed after the cover image (for those who have yet to read the book.)
Silas is a vampire.
Today, I’m thinking about narrative voice choices again. Employing a particular device is like handling fire… Especially when it is an unusual and potent one such as an ignorant, concealing, and unreliable first person narrator. When it is done right, it adds brilliance and life to the tale; but when it is fanned and carelessly left unattended, it will scorch and burn, metaphorically, the pages. The book I am about to finish suffers from just such unskilled fire keeper and, in this reader’s opinion, has been badly and unjustly incinerated. The idea of the tale is a solid and interesting one, but the book is definitely made inferior by the unwise choice of such a narrative device as beyond the talent of the author.
This is about book 20. It’s a major disappointment. It came from a reputable publisher, by a very well known author, with beautiful book making… but the book is NOT charming, NOT funny (at least not to most children, I would imagine,) NOT really clever, NOT thrilling, NOT moving, and NOT able to keep me from putting down the book time and time again — indeed a major let down.
And, it has one of my all time pet peeve: a “device” that the author failed to carry out consistently or logically. In this one, there is no way that the narrator would have put certain things down the way they appear in words on the paper. There is a drastic disconnect between what the “proposed” and the actual narrative voice. Instead of being ingenuous and clever, this device became a totally gimmick — a trick that looks funny on the cover but fails to satisfy its promise. *sigh* I know the next book is going to make me happier!
I’ve been listening to The Golden Compass (audio book) and are reminded of one of the many reasons why I adored this trilogy: the brilliantly placed and worded paradoxes by Pullman. As a quick example: (paraphrased here): “She’s afraid of him… and the thing she fears most is his kindness.” (Lyra and John Farr). One of my students (now 17) wrote me upon reading my thought on this topic:
Let’s face it, that trilogy is in a very small league of “stories of the century.” Having not read them in years (I think I’d cry again if I did), I will venture to say that such paradox is what makes the three so arresting and breathtaking – a stunning universe that is both new and our own, with religious elements that are both familiar and yet twisted, and in the middle a people just like us but with souls on the outside. So his paradoxical writing is something of a window, a…what’s the word…lens, tunnel, mirror…(it’s late to be thinking)…through which the paradoxes shine even more brightly. And, since conflict is what readers read for, people absolutely love it, because the very writing is in conflict with itself and what it portrays.