Monday, 26 March 2012
The Most Important Y.A. Novel of 2012: Lyndon on John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
A few weeks ago I received a package from America. I was rightly ecstatic, because it came from an independent bookstore in North Carolina, and it contained - amongst other things - two books: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (a man who occasionally masquerades as the unparalleled Lemony Snicket) and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Both had been signed in a recent author visit.
Let's leave Why We Broke Up for today, which, for the record, remains a worthy and wonderful addition to Handler's canon, and is gorgeously illustrated by Maira Kalman, who he collaborated with previously on 13 Words. Let's get back to the other book. Because I have a confession to make. Not only was this not my first copy of The Fault in Our Stars, it wasn't even my first signed copy. If you count the audiobook, which I purchased as an author-read limited edition box set (they only made a thousand copies of that one), I now had three copies of Green's latest.
So why TFiOS? (Yep, the acronym is out. Let's get heavy.)
Well, I think John Green is the best writer of Young Adult fiction alive today. When I first read Looking For Alaska I was - once the tears dried - nearly driven mad by its eloquence. John can achieve that - so often impossible - feat; he can write teen literature with intelligent characters that don't sound like adults pretending to be children. Too often Y.A. writers leave their characters lifeless and vapid in an attempt to make them sound 'street', and they become an idiotic stream of text-speak and pop-culture gags. It's a cut above but no small crime too, to go the other way, and leave your teens speaking in bizarre adult voices, like children dressing up in their parents clothes and playing their own farcical version of adulthood.
Green gets it. His characters in this novel are brutally intelligent without being ridiculous. On top of that, he's hit a killer plot as well. TFiOS is your average boy-meets-girl love story, with a crucial twist: both its main characters, the narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster and her love interest Augustus Waters, meet in a cancer survivor support group. They live on borrowed time. It takes everything you know and love about Y.A. and turns the intensity up to eleven.
There is also no denying that John's a great guy. Dismayed by the amount signed copies of his books went to desperate buyers for on the internet, he signed every single copy of the initial print run of TFiOS to even the odds - a mere 150,000 scribbles. His philanthropic work with his brother Hank as the YouTube duo VlogBrothers and the founders of 'The Foundation to Decrease WorldSuck' also leave plenty to be admired. I may come back to those on here another day.
In this book though; this remarkable, funny, heartbreaking, existentially fraught, wonderful, emotional and intelligent book, there is everything that could be hoped for from Green, or indeed any other author. I have a habit (I would suggest knack, but truthfully a habit) of announcing that a book is the next big thing, and waiting and watching as the movie rights get sold, the hype builds, the film gets made, and the book explodes into something more than words on a page in the hearts and minds of its captivated audience.
I'm calling it, folks. The Fault in Our Stars is the next big thing. Read it, borrow it, or steal it, but make sure you get a copy.
I might even get another one myself.
- Lyndon Riggall
Saturday, 24 March 2012
Traition isn’t what it used to be.
In our household, when we greet a new baby, the gifts always includes a copy of Aesop’s Fables. My husband believes that, in this secular age, children have to learn their moral code from Aesop and other traditional tales.
Over the last 15 years I have noticed that while grandparents might look for traditional stories such as Gingerbread Boy or Little Red Riding Hood, parents are deliberately choosing not to introduce their children to these “scary stories”. It appears that for the parents of the bubble-wrap generation, Goldilocks is all about stealing; Rapunzel focuses too much on kidnapping and Little Red Riding Hood is deemed unsuitable by parents who worry about the grandmother has been eaten by a wolf.
Is this a concern? I believe so. Children who have not been has introduced to traditional stories miss much of the richness of our language and will find literary allusions impossible to understand. An “ugly duckling“ is just that not beauty in disguise; and who cares why boys cry wolf or emperors have new clothes”?
How can anyone understand the pun in Emily’s Rapunzel hair? Will Leon Stumble’s ridiculous stories about Jack and the Branstalk, Snow White and the Seventy Dwarfs and the Gingerbread Mane be as funny if you haven’t read the original? And my current favourite title by Michael Rosen and Nick Sharratt Dear Fairy Godmother, an agony aunt style book where characters such as the little bear asks Fairy Godmother for advice about how to stop a naughty girl stealing his porridge, will make no sense.
Tuesday, 13 March 2012
I have read some very contrasting stories over the past few weeks, all but one sourced from my local library. How lucky we are to have such a resource. Now that I am no longer working, I’m finding that I am reading a very eclectic mix: adult, picture books as well as young adult.
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, (thanks to Allen&Unwin 2012for the review copy) builds on the tradition of selkies. It is the story of Misskaella who discovers she has powers over and with the seals which are part of Rollrock Island. She is able to conjure wives for the local men out of the seals. The men are bewitched, she becomes wealthy but though the island appears superficially happy there are undertones of distress everywhere. Lanagan’s writing is beautifully crafted: the story is told through multiple points of view, the language is poetic and the reader builds great empathy for the characters. It’s being marketed as young adult, but many adults are sure to be captivated too.
I followed this with Unwind, by Neal Shusterman (Simon and Schuster, 2007). This is science fiction (set in a future where iPods are sold in antique stores) with a twist, but with very strong ethical issues raised. Society stopped receiving enough organ donations and so had to find ways to prolong lives. The solution is to ‘unwind’ children: they don’t really die but all their parts are transferred to another person’s body. Life is sacred until 13 and again after 18, but those 5 years in between are difficult and dangerous for those at risk: teenagers who challenge parents and/or school, who appear unskilled or inept in any way, or just someone who has annoyed their parent/guardian. The decision-makers justify their choices for many reasons, not all valid from the reader’s point of view. I found it a wonderful and thought-provoking story as we follow several young people who are threatened with being unwound.
Pink by Lili Wilkinson (Allen&Unwin, 2009) is definitely a young adult story, but one I didn’t want to put down till I finished. I’m not sure that I really liked many of the characters but I certainly empathised with them. The reader follows part of Ava’s school year, after she won a scholarship to a selective high school where she can be academically challenged. At the same time she decides to reinvent her image. All she wants is to fit in and be ‘normal’. Through her journey she questions her lesbian relationship with feisty Chloe, yearns for a heterosexual relationship with Ethan, is attracted to Sam and finds herself a part of the Screws during the school’s musical production. Pink represents the analogy of freedom of choice and how Ava expresses her changing perceptions. This is a thought-provoking story, for me as a mature-aged reader, but also is sure to raise many discussion points for young adult readers.
The final book which I want to mention is Three Summers by Judith Clarke (Allen&Unwin 2012). I loved this one. Ruth’s life has been moulded by the death of her mother when she was an infant, the unconditional love of her grandmother who then raised her, the power of the local Catholic church, the strength of her friendship with Fee and the elusive Tam Finn who has enthralled her. The story begins in a small rural NSW community in 1959: the first summer when Ruth and Fee wait for their school results. The second summer is while Ruth is in London and Fee questions her life decisions. The final one, nearly forty years later, is when Ruth fosters a highly emotionally-damaged child who brings much heartache as well as joy. Clarke’s writing is fluid and passionate, creating such a realistic world that the reader feels they are a part of it. There are many readers, especially girls, who will enjoy this gentle story though I feel that it perhaps should be marketed at adults rather than the YA audience.
So what have you read recently that’s got inside you?
Monday, 5 March 2012
Who could ever forget Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross Station? Disappearing through a wall might seem like a weird way to board a train but when the train is the Hogwarts Express and it’s taking Harry Potter into a world of witchcraft and wizardry, then it all seems perfectly normal. Harry’s world is very different from our own. At Hogwarts the students learn how to cast spells and make magical potions; owls carry the mail and Quidditch, which is played whilst racing through the air on a broomstick, is the school sport. J K Rowling created an extraordinary world for Harry Potter, a world filled with unusual creatures and unique characters who bore the most amazing names. And we love them all, don’t we? But she wasn’t the first author to create a unique world; nor the first to invent a curious way of getting into it.
Lewis Carroll, in 1865, wrote a story about a little girl named Alice. One day Alice was sitting with her sister on the bank of a river, feeling bored and restless, when a white rabbit with pink eyes dashed past her. Alice didn’t think this in the least unusual until she heard the rabbit exclaim, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ Not only that, but she realised the rabbit was wearing a waistcoat and a pocket watch. Alice then followed the white rabbit down a large rabbit-hole and found herself in a beautiful, strange and magical world. And in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland she came across very interesting characters: the dormouse, the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon and the Cheshire cat, all of whom could carry on a reasonable conversation. And then there was the tea party starring the Mad Hatter, and Alice’s experiences with the Queen of Hearts and a bunch of playing cards.
C S Lewis wrote my all time favourite children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it too had a unique entry to a fantastic world. Lucy, who is visiting the home of an old professor in the country with her sister and brothers, finds a wardrobe in one of the rooms and steps inside to investigate. As she wanders through the big fur coats she finds herself walking on snow, in the middle of a forest. And the first creature she meets is a faun who looks startled and says, “Goodness gracious me!” In Narnia, unicorns and centaurs roam, and Aslan the great lion seeks Lucy’s help in defeating the wicked White Witch.
another wonderful ‘other world’ book by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams entitled Tunnels. Fourteen-year-old Will Burrows goes digging with his dad, an archaeologist, but he uncovers a lot more than just ancient artefacts: he discovers a world beneath his own, one that is both fascinating and dangerous. Great story.
All of these books share common themes: they’re all wonderful adventure tales; they all feature incredibly interesting characters and they’re all written by very talented storytellers. But most significantly they take us, the readers, into exciting and sometimes dangerous worlds where we can lose ourselves and pretend to be one of those characters, just for a while.