Thursday, February 25, 2010
By Dave Wolverton
The Dark Rival (1999)
By Jude Watson
The Hidden Past (1999)
By Jude Watson
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's titles are from yet another long-running series of chapter books for grade-schoolers, the kind of franchise where an endless amount of 30,000-word volumes are cranked out once a month by a series of essentially anonymous authors; and this is actually one of the types of employment I'm hoping to find in the industry myself, which is why I'm reading so many of these types of books these days, to understand more about how exactly they're written.
And indeed, after expecting these to be only middling titles that rely mostly on the strength of the "Star Wars" brand for their commercial success, the three volumes of the "Jedi Apprentice" series I read (volumes 1, 2 and 3) were instead some of the better chapter books I've so far come across this year, with challenging vocabularies and nicely complex moral lessons that have more in common with Zen Buddhism than the Babysitters Club. (But then again, this series is put out by the always excellent Scholastic, so I guess I should've known better.) Although these will only appeal almost exclusively to boys in the 10-to-12 range, they're excellent for what they are, and get the classic "rules" of writing for this age group almost perfect -- for example, they include plenty of periil but very little real-world danger (helped immensely by their fantastical setting), feature plenty of action but a stripped-down non-confusing plot, and also do a nice job for sci-fi novels at exploring both school environments and inter-gender relationships at that age in depth. They're on the large side of such books, a full 30,000 to 35,000 words apiece, and despite their subject matter are not recommended for so-called "reluctant readers."
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking / Penguin
A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. Today's title is my third of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2007 outing by Laurie Halse Anderson, who's actually put out a whole string of award-nominated bestsellers and passionate teen favorites over the years. It's essentially a character drama about a formerly nerdy teenage boy, who decides at the end of his junior year to commit a major piece of vandalism as a way of acting out, which then earns him a summer of manual-labor community service after getting busted; this then turns him into a chiseled hardbody just in time for his senior year, which when added to his new "bad boy" status suddenly makes him the talk of the school, including an aggressive courtship by the empty-headed future sorority girl that he's had a crush on for years.
But things eventually turn disastrous, through a series of events that are best left a secret; the important point is that they trigger a whole series of very dark emotions in our hero Tyler, who then wrestles throughout the second half of the manuscript with his suddenly strong desires to commit suicide, blow up his school, beat the crap out of his high-strung domineering father, and a lot more. Yeah, not exactly a lighthearted romp, this one is, which in fact is a complaint I see from a lot of parents online, that YA fiction in general since 9/11 has turned much too dark for their tastes; but then that begs the age-old question of whether it's our times that influence what types of books are getting published, or if it's the books getting published that influence our times.
In any case, Anderson skirts a very fine line here with her own novel, legitimately earning it the classification of "edgy;" and to her credit she pulls it off with quite a bit of finesse, eventually pulling back at the end to give us if not exactly a happy ending, at least the avoidance of a tragedy. Although I don't really plan on getting this dark in my own work, I admire Anderson for successfully doing so herself, and would recommend this to any brainy alternative-leaning high-schooler wrestling with feelings of alienation and helplessness. It's absolutely not for younger readers or those suffering from legitimate mental problems, but is for sure a great choice for teens who are simply confused by the glee they sometimes feel from picturing dark fantasies come to life. All this should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.