“One Crazy Summer” and The Birth of Consciousness

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In just about every Diana Wynne Jones novel, there is a moment in which a child looks at an adult and realizes that behind that face is another person. A flawed person, a person with their own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. A complex person who is capable of anything.

It’s a moment of consciousness, and in “One Crazy Summer,” the growth of her consciousness is the subject of the entire novel. Her consciousness of herself as a young black woman, her consciousness of the historical moment she lives in–but most of all, her consciousness of her mother.

Abandonment is never an easy thing for a child to deal with. Abandonment by a mother, which is so unusual that it means constant reminders of the child’s strangeness, is perhaps even harder to deal with than a father’s abandonment. But to hold onto hate and resentment is poisonous, and it takes all summer for her to finally release her pent up frustration at her mother, to shout her blame.

That’s when she finally learns her mother’s story. That’s when she finally sees the person under “mother.” When she understands that to be a woman is not always an easy thing, and that sometimes adults have to choose between betraying themselves and betraying those who love them.

The question of names is a recurring theme in “One Crazy Summer.” Black Panthers choose new names and call each other “brother” and “sister.” Her mother has chosen a new name, and writes her poetry under it. And her mother refuses to use her youngest daughter’s name, because it was not the name she chose for her.

But her mother has to change too, and everyone must choose their own names. She makes the choice to tell her little sister what her first name was. She gives her little sister ownership of that name. And it doesn’t disempower her mother–instead, it makes them closer.

We are all who we choose to be. Those choices define us. And every kid has to learn that the adults in their lives have made choices. And to grow up is to understand why those choices were made. Why those names were chosen.

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The Tale of Despereaux and the Narrative Voice

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The fourth wall is what stands between the audience and the story. The fourth wall is itself the narrator in most books, and it often comments on the story before it. The narrator mediates the world of the story to us, but it does not speak to us.

Except when it does. In “The Tale of Despereaux ,” the fourth wall is as friendly to the audience as it is to the characters in the story. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is not just to get the joy of a delightful story, to watch the rise of an underdog, the rescue of a princess, the creation of a perfect villain. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is to make a friend. The narrator is telling you the story, and the narrator is kind to you. The narrator is your friend, and thus the story is more real and true.

On Diana Wynne Jones and Good Villains

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Every Diana Wynne Jones novel has a villain. Jones herself was of the opinion that there are truly toxic people in the world, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. So the villains of her stories are utterly, squirmingly real. You know them, or you’ve heard about them from someone, and you recognize the truth of their existence on some deep level.

I think that the central feature of a Jones villain is that they believe the world should be a certain way, and they will not countenance a world any different. If everyone should be well-behaved, they will make everyone well-behaved. If this or that should belong to them, they will take this or that and be baffled and hostile to any suggestion that it isn’t their due.

Somehow, Jones is practically always able to balance a fascinating cognitive dissonance in her villains.  None of them consciously acknowledge that the world is, in fact, not exactly as they imagine it. Thus, it makes no sense for them to struggle to form the world in their image. Yet, they constantly have to adapt and adjust to force the world into that image–the same one they will not admit is not what they imagine it to be.

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It’s an incredible piece of characterization every time Jones tries it. Her villains want everything from a place to stay to a town to rule. Sometimes magic helps them, and sometimes magic defeats them–but no matter how much magic goes into the story, the painful reallness of the villain gives the whole thing a grounding in truth.

Because of Winn-Dixie and the Non-Normative Family

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I live in China, and here the majority of families are two-parent. Not only that, but there is an assumption that the majority of families in America are also two-parent.

But the truth is that a very, very large minority of families in America are now one-parent. That’s not something that has ever existed in human history before. No one is quite sure how to deal with it. Political reactions range from trumpeting the value of the single parent to putting in place every possible incentive to keep parents together. And a huge source of anxiety for American society in the last few decades has been “how do we explain this to our kids?”

“Because of Winn-Dixie” isn’t explaining to kids how to deal with having one parent abandon them. It’s the story of how one girl came to terms with her mother leaving her. The idea of “family” was broken, and it feels as if it can never be repaired. Most kids can barely process the idea that their parents don’t know everything, and now they have to process the idea that their parents can not only do wrong, but can commit sin.

Her family broken, she has to find a new family. And because of Winn-Dixie, she does.

Five Children and It: Stepping outside the Self

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Children, according to JM Barrie, are fundamentally selfish and heartless. He’s not exactly wrong: children in general are selfish, careless of the future, impulsive, and lacking in self-awareness.

So what would happen if you gave four selfish, careless, impulsive, and un-self-aware children one wish each day? That’s the premise of “Five Children and It,” and the results are brilliant. Of course, first the children wish for beauty. But to be beautiful is to no longer be themselves, and they can’t even go home because they’re not recognized. Luckily, the wishes go away at sunset. Then they wish for wealth, but no one believes they didn’t steal it. They figure they should have wished for specific denominations of cash, but never get around to doing it.

Then they make the mistake of wishing that they can make a wish anywhere, instead of talking directly to their grumpy genie creature. This is when the impulsiveness gets really bad, and they make assorted inadvertent wishes and have all sorts of trouble dealing with the consequences.

Only when one of the children can finally step out of herself enough to wonder what It’s feelings are that the shenanigans stop. She asks It how It feels, and what It wants. By doing this, she is able to at last befriend It, and to undo the bad consequences of their wishes once and for all.

It’s a masterful story, a perfect example of how some of the true masters of Story can say things without actually having to say them.

“The Wizard in the Tree”: When the Lessons Feel a Little Too Clunky

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Lloyd Alexander is not famous for subtle narratives. His style is to address fear, selfhood, and growing up in very plain language. Taran wanders through the world in search of a pool of water to show him his fate, and instead finds a plain pool of water showing his reflection. A cloth is woven by the fates but chosen by the ones who live their lives. To return home is to find that one has changed.

Sometimes this works, and when it works it works. The Chronicles of Prydain are incredible novels, classics of children’s literature. But sometimes this doesn’t work, as in “The Wizard in the Tree.”

Maybe it’s just that Alexander doesn’t earn his anvils, the way he earns them in “Prydain.” The characters aren’t as strong and interesting, the world isn’t compelling, the narrative possibilities are textbook-perfect but fall flat. A trope is nicely subverted, as a sleeping wizard proves to be complaining and useless. But when the quotes work best out of context, instead of in context, you know there’s a problem:

“Nothing ends as it does in fairy tales. I did love them so, and I did believe them. I’m sorry they aren’t true.”

“Not true?” cried Arbican. “Of course they’re true! As true as you’ll ever find.”

“But you told me–”

“I never said such a thing! How could you have misunderstood me? Those tales of yours–yes, you people amde them up. They aren’t tales about us, though you may pretend they are. They’re tales about yourselves, or at least the best parts of yourselves. They’re not true in the outside world, mine or any other. But in the inside, yes, indeed.”

 

If Arbican weren’t largely defined by his uselessness, and Mallory by her helplessness, then this all may have hit home a lot better.

“Wizard’s Hall” Not Quite Together

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Jane Yolen is a very good and very successful writer. But anyone who’s written more than one hundred books is bound to have a few not-so-great-ones in there. “Wizard’s Hall” is among them.

In fairness, her basic aim seems to have been “write a narrative where the hero is just someone who tries.” And she achieved that. But the narrative itself feels haphazard, the characters dull, the plot rushed. The adult characters are useless, magic itself is pointless, and the ending includes sudden and shocking violence that is completely out of tone from the rest of the book.

But Yolen is still a great writer, and there are little touches where her strength shines through. The star map on the ceiling of every student’s room. The great witch, shrunk to parrot size and kept in a cage, unable to speak except to a blind man. A beast made of quilt patches that used to be people.

These little things are great, and I think that with some more time and revision the whole thing would have fit together. But as it is, the book is intensely underwhelming.