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.

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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.

Holes: A Perfect Symphony

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Any one plot from this novel could be a story itself.

There’s the boy sent to a “camp” for juvenile delinquents in the desert.

There’s the interracial couple in the 19th century.

There’s the young man in Eastern Europe who breaks a promise to a gypsy woman.

There’s the woman whose entire life revolved around digging holes.

Each one could be a story, and each one is a good story. But Sachar didn’t settle for one story. He knitted them together, and he did it brilliantly. Remove one story, and the whole thing falls apart. But each man and woman’s life intersects in delicate, perfect ways, making for a perfect symphony of story.

The Grey King: Breaking the Rules

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There are lots of books that make you go “how is this a children’s book?” But usually the reason for that is the heavy subject matter, or the level of scariness. It’s not embedded in the fabric of the book itself.

“The Grey King” should not be able to get away with the level of language it uses. Take this passage:

“The other arm he raised  before him, with fingers stiff outstretched in a gesture of command, and he  called out three words in the Old Speech.  And before him, the rock parted like a great gate, to a faint, very faint sound of delicate music that was achingly familiar and yet strange, gone as  soon as it was heard.”
Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous–but the theory goes that children’s books should have much simpler language than adult books. Yet, the language in all of Susan Cooper’s books is often poetic and mysterious.
So why are these so successful? They broke the rule of “how to talk to children” into little tiny pieces, and yet they are some of the most influential and long-lasting books yet written for children.
Part of it is probably that the entire book is not written like that. There are passages when the language changes, to show that Will is acting not in his capacity as a child, but as an old one. Thus that narrator mirrors the story, and the reader is in a way drawn deeper into the world.
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Part of it is that children are simply capable of understanding far more than they are sometimes given credit for. I have a friend who likes to refer to kids as “lesser sentient creatures,” but it’s not really true, is it? Children are capable of a surprising level of understanding and analysis–or else the books that survive would not be the Susan Cooper novels; they would be pieces of total crap.

Kira-Kira And Perception

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The world is what we see. It has an objective existence (probably), but it is filtered through our eyes, our ears, our memories. Our love.

“Kira-Kira” is about that fluidness of perception. Things have their objective existence, and the characters apply their own meanings. The sound of grasshoppers. A sun setting on the day of a death. A bear trap. A cheap watch. A Japanese man.

It may be a little, deceptively simple book. But it’s not about the objective reality. It’s all about what you see.

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Doll Bones

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“We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my stroy with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you’re supposed to do and I can’t. I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.”

The mad halfway place between childhood and adolescence. The arrival of a new, deep kind of shame. The discovery of new things about people who seemed so simple. That’s what Doll Bones is about. Also: creepy-awesome doll.

I love short little books like this that just have so much depth to them. This is a book full of important truths, a uniquely modern book, and a damn fine ghost story.

Growing up–not hitting adulthood, just hitting adolescence–involves so many truths being unveiled. The selfish “heartlessness” of children gives way to the realization that everyone else is as much a complicated person as you are. Including your parents. It’s such a big and scary truth that it’s no wonder so many teenagers sink into depression and hatred. These kids are still ahead of the true teenage years, but instead they are wandering around the weird gray area between childhood and adolescence. They still remember and love so much of their childhoods, but development is starting to get uneven. Zach, the protagonist, can’t figure out why girls seem so mysterious now as opposed to six months ago.

And, hovering over all this, is the idea of “normal.” All weird kids (and maybe we were all weird kids, really) know what it is to have their parents worry about whether they’re normal. Are the kids hitting the developmental markers? Are they doing something that will make their lives harder? What can the grown-ups do to fix them?

The thing about growing up for the kids in this novel is that you realize the world is a much bigger, scarier, and more fantastic place than you every realized before. Everyone is real, and maybe everything in the world is real. “Maybe all stories were true ones.”

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“It’s Like This, Cat” and Old School Children’s Literature

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This book won the Newbery medal in 1964, the year after “A Wrinkle in Time” won.

It isn’t very good.

It’s decent enough, I’ll say. The story of a boy moving into adolescence in New York–making new friends, his first girlfriend, coming to terms with his father. It reads smooth and easy.

But it’s just not very good. There’s no beauty in the story, just simplicity. There’s no magic, just everyday details. I can’t believe this was the best book published in America in 1964

I’ve been reading Newbery winners lately, and the winners this decade are brimming with literary magic. They are achingly beautiful, deceptively complex, and all around amazing. But back in the ’50s and early ’60s, there just wasn’t the same brilliance happening (at least, not that the Newbery award was honoring). Children’s literature now deals with serious things, with the heartbreak of growing up rather than the mundanity, with the truth of life. In the ’60s, it wasn’t really literature yet. It was just books.