Monday, March 18, 2013

Strong Young Women Part 4: Sassy Thompkins and Emma-Jean Lazarus

I haven’t read a lot of middle-grade or YA fiction since 2007, the year of my near-fatal kidlit overdose. That was the year I served as a judge for the National Book Awards in the Young People’s Literature category. There were, as I recall, about 240 books submitted—and five months to read them. All in all, it was a gratifying experience. I loved working with the other judges, and a I read a lot of good books I would have otherwise overlooked, but by the time it was over I had ODed. It was months before I could look at a YA or middle-grade book without a shudder. 

Now, thinking back over that experience in the context of “strong young women,” I would like to sing the praises of two short middle-grade novels that hit me hard and didn’t go away. These didn’t make it onto the finalist list (there were a lot of strong contenders that year*) but these two stayed with me.

First up, Helen Hemphill’s Runaround. This is the story of Sassy Thompkins, an eleven-year-old girl growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s. Runaround is funny, poignant, and heartbreaking in equal measures. Sassy is dealing with her first serious crush, and dealing with it badly—with no reliable sources of information, she goes to 60s romance magazines for advice. She is tough, irritating, foolish, smart, relentless, and altogether human as she plunges into the self-absorbed morass of early adolescence. I loved this book. I loved it for its humor, its realism, and its grit.

Reviews of Runaround were mixed—most were positive, but I remember vividly the outrage I felt when I read the School Library Journal review, a self-righteous, sanctimonious screed that included the line “…deleterious to readers of any age.” I’m still angry about that review—and I’ll bet Helen Hemphill is too! 

Runaround is a rare gem; it deserved better.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell out of a Tree, Lauren Tarshis’s first novel, fared somewhat better, with a starred review from SLJ. This was my pick for the best middle-grade novel of 2007. Emma-Jean is a smart, awkward, curious, highly analytical seventh-grader. (I interpreted her as being a high-functioning autistic, but it is never so stated.) She is befriended by an overly sensitive, desperately approval-seeking classmate named Colleen. I fell hard for Emma-Jean, and to a somewhat lesser degree, for Colleen.

Normally I shy away from interpreting an author’s intent, but in this case I venture to say that the characters represent the two faces of adolescence: the surge of brain power that arrives in late childhood colliding with a flood of hormonal stimuli. It's a tough time to be a girl (or a boy, or, presumably, a wombat). Emma-Jean is a funny book, but with a serious understructure. It requires some minor suspension-of-disbelief, as do most MG novels, but this is in no sense a negative. Read it as a ten-year-old would, and be happy.**

I read Emma Jean around the time I was developing the character Lah Lia in an early draft of The Cydonian Pyramid. I think there may have been some literary leakage there, although it was not conscious.

* The finalists in 2007 were Kathleen Duey, Skin Hunger, M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow, Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Sara Zarr, Story of a Girl, and the eventual winner, Sherman Alexie, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As much as I loved Runaround and Emma-Jean, I stand by our choices.

** Tarshis has written a sequel: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love. If I ever read another middle-grade novel, it will be high on my list.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Part 3: Stronger and Badder: Gone with the Wind and Vanity Fair

I know my choices for “strong young women” are a bit quirky. Where is Jane Eyre? Where is Elizabeth Bennet? What about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Nancy Drew, and Lisbeth Salander? Sorry. My choices are based on the characters who, once upon a time, for reasons not always sensible or clear, made a permanent impression on me. Today, I’m writing about a couple of self-absorbed, prideful, duplicitous, not-altogether-admirable characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp. 

Most of us know Vivian Leigh’s version of Scarlett O’Hara from the film version of “Gone with the Wind.” It is a pretty good movie if you can overlook the politics, and remarkably watchable for a film that is nearly eighty years old. (I have not read the book.) We meet Scarlett at age sixteen, and four hours later we take our leave of her at age twenty-eight. The pacing is briskly modern—there are no dead spots. It’s much better in that respect than, say, “The Hobbit.” (Hobbit fans: It’s just my opinion. Don’t hurt me.)

As the story opens, Scarlett comes across as all Vs: vacuous, vain, vivacious, vampish, and venal, and she never really redeems herself, although we come to care about her a great deal. The other main character, Rhett Butler, is a gambling, whoring, hard-drinking rogue. We like him better, but care about him less. We easily forgive Rhett his excesses because he loves Scarlett. But we are in awe of Scarlett.

When I first saw GWTW at age twelve, I was mesmerized by the spectacle and the grandness of the story. Rhett was a charming ne’er-do-well, and I wanted to be him. Scarlett was a force of nature—as beautiful and dangerous as a Bengal tiger. I think that dynamic stuck in my head; I still find echoes of it in my books.

Before Scarlett O’Hara, there was Becky Sharp, the anti-hero of William Makepeace Thackerey’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp, after graduating from Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, becomes a thief, a cheat, a bigamist, and eventually a murderess. Her sociopathic personality makes Scarlett look like a slacker. But again, we like her a whole lot better than we do the novel’s heroine, Amelia Sedley, Becky’s best friend—and victim.

I’m not sure why these characters have such appeal, or even why I’m discussing them along with Pippi Longstocking and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Certainly, neither Rebecca nor Pippi could grow up to become a Becky Sharp—they lack the bitterness and narcissism. The commonality of all these characters resides in their determination, optimism, and intelligence. Maybe that’s what appeals to me.

Speaking of strong young women (Commercial Message Alert!), the first three chapters of The Cydonian Pyramid are available as a free download for your ebook. Here are links for Sony, Kindle and Nook. I can’t find it it on iBooks or Smashwords.

Next up: Some Younger, 21st Century Women

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Strong Young Women Part 2: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

My copy of REBECCA

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s 1903 novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was an odd choice for a boy of seventeen. I stumbled across a copy in a used book store, picked it up as a campy lark, and was hooked from the first page. I expected a cloying, moralistic tale about an irritatingly good little girl. To some extent that was what I got, but Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm offers a great deal more. There is good reason why both Jack London and Mark Twain publicly admired the book.

In many ways, Rebecca Randall is the opposite of Pippi Longstocking. Rebecca is generally obedient, decidedly nonviolent, and always pays for her sins. But the two characters share a fearlessness, a boundless optimism, and irrepressible self-confidence. They get things done. I like that.

Such fearless, optimistic, confident adolescents formed the backbone of children’s literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Horatio Alger, Jr. made a career of it, as did Edward Stratemeyer, the man behind Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. I read my share of such books, most of which featured male protagonists, but the ones that stuck with me were the ones about tough, spunky girls. I think it’s because the boy characters were expected to misbehave and resort to extreme solutions to overcome their challenges, whereas the girls sometimes shattered my preconceptions about what a girl should, could, and would do. In other words, they challenged my sexist presumptions in a very satisfying way.

By today’s standards, Rebecca is not a rebellious child. But Wiggin’s book quickly places the reader in that very different world of the early 1900s, and her small acts of kindness, courage, and hopefulness—her refusal to accept the status quo—loom large. She is a strong-willed child of ten when the book opens, and an even stronger young woman of seventeen when the book reaches its bittersweet end.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much better known and more widely read Anne of Green Gables was published five years after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It is in many ways a better book, but I wonder if Montgomery could have written it without the ground work laid by Kate Douglas Wiggin. The similarities in plot, story, and character are striking. Even the endings are nearly identical.

I’m not suggesting that Montgomery stole from Wiggin—their books are both classic coming-of-age tales about a strong-willed girl in a rural environment during the first decade of a new century. There are probably hundreds of examples of the same, most of which have been forgotten, and all of which draw from the same cultural well. I love them both. In fact, I think the last time I wept at anything on television is was near the end of the 1980s “Anne of Green Gables” adaptation (you know which part I’m talking about).

Next up: Gone with the Wind and Vanity Fair

Monday, March 11, 2013

Intermezzo: Why I’m Writing About Pippi and Her Ilk.

Mostly, I just wanted to use the work “ilk” again. The other reason is that I’ve finished writing the “Klaatu Diskos” trilogy, and I’ve been thinking about its literary antecedents. In other words, who I stole from, what I took, and why.

The list is prodigious. I grabbed everything that wasn’t nailed down, and used a pry bar to free the rest. One day soon in a burst of hubris and idiocy, I’ll post the full monty. But for now, I’m thinking just about the character Lah Lia, or Lahlia, who dominates the action in Book 2, The Cydonian Pyramid.
Lah Lia is a small, tough, unstoppable young woman who has been cast loose in time, and woe to those who dare stand in her way. As I was writing the book I kept thinking about what she has in common with my other teen girl characters, and the ways she is different, and why such characters hold such power for me.

A lot of it, I decided, has to do with books (and movies and TV shows) I enjoyed as a child, a disproportionate number of which featured Ass-Kicking Girls. This week I’m going to write about a few of those books, and about some other iconic AKGs.

Yes, we will eventually arrive at Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But first, I’ll be going back in time to Sunnybrook Farm. Stay tuned.

Strong Young Women Part 1: Pippi Longstocking

It started for me back in the third grade, with Astrid Lindgren’s 1950 novel, Pippi Longstocking: I love spunky, tough, resourceful young women. 

That’s one of the reasons I loved The Hunger Games. But I have to say, Pippi could kick Katniss from District 13 to Villa Villekulla and back again. Could Katniss lift a horse? No. But Pippi could do it with one hand.

We writer/librarian/teacher/reader types pride ourselves in our literary broadmindedness. With tens of thousands (give or take) of new titles being published every year, we like to think that we are living in a golden age of Anything Goes. That is partly true…and partly not. Would Pippi Longstocking be published today? I mean, other than as a self-published ebook?

Pippi owns a number of handguns, which she fires into the ceiling for fun and gives them freely to her friends. She uses the kitchen floor to roll out cookie dough, and eats raw eggs. She is impudent and disrespectful to adults, and has no respect for any rules or laws. She physically attacks policemen, and suffers no consequences for her actions. She has no math skills. She is functionally illiterate, and has no interest in reading. She is a heavy coffee drinker, and lives on (mostly) cookies and caramels.

Send a manuscript like that to Random House, and see how fast they reject it.

Of course, many of today’s kids’ books contain elements that would have made them unpublishable fifty years ago. LGBT characters, references to certain body parts, and anti-government sentiments, for example. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back for our “open-mindedness” just yet. The only reason Pippi Longstocking is still in print is because she has been grandmothered in as a “classic.”

Today, we require certain approved behaviors in our heroines. Some of my own female characters have been criticized for being bitchy (Sweetblood and The Big Crunch), unrepentant and unpunished (How to Steal a Car), physically violent (What Boys Really Want), and dishonest (all of the above). It is true, and I hold Pippi Longstocking and her ilk to blame.

Next up: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Friday, March 1, 2013

Spring is Coming

I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been finishing up some writing projects that have been a long time cooking. Specifically, in the past six weeks, I’ve completed and polished the Klaatu Diskos trilogy, a project I began back in 2001. I also finished my “Montana cult story,” a book I started back in 2002, and a middle-grade “robot comedy,” begun in 2006. More on the latter two when they are properly placed and titled.

The other reason I haven’t been posting much is that every time I found myself with something to say, it is of the cranky, bitchy, curmudgeonly variety, and I am not ready (yet) to enter full-blown curmudgeonhood. Curmudgeons (Andy Rooney serving as a paragon) can be amusing for a time, but they soon become tiresome. Maurice Sendak did it well, but that was because he waited until his last few years to unleash the full force of his curmudgeonality, and he did it brilliantly. Therefore, I plan to defer membership in the Curmudgeon Guild for another ten years, minimum.

Speaking of George R. R. Martin, one-third of the way through A Dance with Dragons I stopped reading. I no longer cared that winter was coming, or who might die next, or whether GRRM would live long enough to bring the series to a close. I threw the book away, and it felt great.  

And so, for today, let me note that it is March, and spring is coming, and I am preparing to roast a leg of lamb, and the dog is curled up in his bed, and coffee is good, and in six weeks I’ll be picking wild leeks, and in eight weeks I’ll be crawling through coulees searching for morels, and in ten weeks The Cydonian Pyramid will be published.
So there.