children’s literature

Nevermoor | Jessica Townsend

34219873Nevermoor has been getting a lot of praise everywhere and I was really excited to read it. I got both the book and audiobook and I was prepared to dive into the newest great children’s book. I’m a huge collector and reader of children’s literature and I approached this book with an open mind, hoping to be transported and have all the good feelings that accompany the reading children’s books. The first 100 pages were great! We get introduced to Morrigan Crow who is from this family of “Crows.” Her father (Corvus) is the mayor, an influential politician, and kind of distanced from her as she is cursed. Everywhere she goes something bad happens. The world she is in “now” is not too developed or explained, we just get a sense that every once in a while a child is cursed and when they hit age 12 they die. Morrigan lives with the knowledge that she will die by 12. Knowing this, I kind of thought that maybe her family was distancing themselves from her so that they don’t get attached because they know she will die. The suspense of it all is quite different than other books and I respect that there was more showing than explaining, and kind of action-packed. On the eve of her 11th birthday Morrigan finds that this was actually the day she’s supposed to die, but gets approached by a man who purchases her at auction, named Jupiter North. He calls her Mog and saves her from her fate, takes her to Nevermoor, and enrolls her into a race/contest for children for her to earn the rights to stay in Nevermoor. Up until this point I can see many comparisons, as many have already mentioned, that Morrigan Crow is basically Harry Potter. She’s mistreated in her previous life, she’s a cursed/chosen one, and she enters a new magical realm with a guide/mentor. Once in Nevermoor the book turns into a hybrid of The Hunger Games, and The Goblet of Fire, where there are just countless contests where the children must “prove” themselves worthy of joining the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor. For Morrigan it’s even more important because she’s an ‘illegal’ and by winning she can get to stay in Nevermoor. I’m not going to say much more plot-wise. This is the general premise. It definitely has its strengths and its own spins. I enjoyed the diversity  in this work. From the names one can tell that some characters come from different backgrounds. The language is elevated and certainly respects children’s literacy skills, perhaps even presenting some challenges. I particularly enjoyed was finding out that Jupiter’s “powers” are seeing things as they are …truly. He is sort of a magical version of Sherlock Holmes where he can look at something, observe it and truly know everything about it, and most importantly see its potential. Jupiter says:

“It’s not a memory like yours or mine. It’s more like…how shall I put this? There are…events and moments in the past that attach themselves to people and things, and cling to them through time simply because they have nowhere else to go. Maybe they eventually fade or get torn away or just die. But somethings never die—the especially good memories or the especially bad ones can hang around forever.”

This concept was very creative and I really enjoyed it. However, I felt like on many levels it was extremely unfocused. It jumped from place to place, from character to character, from sequence to sequence, without allowing the reader to get acquainted with a place, or attached to a character. No concept, location, or character is fully developed and it made the story feel very wobbly. I felt like the author kept changing direction and pointing to something else every few sentences. It was as if the author tried to squeeze Harry Potter 1-5 in one book, told by Dr. Seuss, and then made a list of everything that sounded sort of cool and just threw them in fast without any time to process. The chandelier grows out in the shape of a ship like a tooth would, there’s a vampire-dwarf, or dwarf-vampire and there’s a difference, the concept of Morrigan being an ‘illegal,’ the random side characters thrown in, the umbrellas, the contest, what the actual Wundrous society is and what does it do, the children’s auction, before she’s about to die her step-mom mentioning she’s pregnant like in a soap opera. Everything happened so fast that it felt rushed, and nothing is fully developed. The characters hardly had any depth. The ‘bad’ girl was just ‘bad’ and annoying. One Goodreads reviewer said that Townsend must have put all these fun facts or fun ideas in a hat and just pulled them out at random, and that it resembles Hotel Transylvania…and that’s how I kind of felt reading this. There’s no foundation, the place doesn’t seem real or like it truly has a history. Jupiter North (despite the cool name) is a mash-up of Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). He’s even described to look a lot like Gene Wilder in the Willy Wonka role. I felt the presence of the author the whole time and it was very transparent what she was trying to do, and what previously existing stories she was trying to mesh together.

Saying all that, and how transparent it was to me as a long-time reader, and superfan of children’s books…I don’t know if a child would be able to see through that, or if they would thoroughly enjoy it. I don’t believe children should be treated like they are not smart, or have short attention span, but if someone can’t see through every plot incident and every character and be able to point out exactly what it reminds you of, maybe this could be really enjoyable….that said, I can’t help but think of the C.S. Lewis line:

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Again, this novel was a mix and it had some pros and… it had some cons. I’d recommend trying it out because a MAJORITY of people seem to enjoy it, so clearly there’s something to this book, even if I’m not capable of seeing it.

Peter Pan in Toronto

Today I went for a walk in the rain and on a quest! I wanted to find the “Peter Pan Statue hiding in plain sight” at Avenue and St. Clair. I read an article about it in the Torontoist and decided to made a day of it. The truth is, I’ve passed by that intersection SO MANY TIMES but not once did I think that in the little cove that is Glen Park–which is also part of a residential building’s ‘backyard’ is a lovely statue of Pan.  What I loved most about it were the details like the little mice carved in, the rabbits, the fairies talking to the squirrel, and Peter himself of course. At times I get so used to Pan as portrayed in Hollywood films, or even Disney, or Once Upon a Time versions. While I love all the interpretations, I seem to forget that Peter as depicted by Barrie is a child who is possibly 4 or 5, especially in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (and he doesn’t grow up so…). Seeing his statue reminded me what that would really look like. I took some photos for you to look at if you cannot make it there yourself.

The plaque beneath it reads: “To the spirit of Children at Play erected by the College Heights Association, September 1929.” (Making this statue 88 years old).

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The Emerald Circus | Book Review

34218720The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.

Yolen explains:

“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”

Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:

“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”

Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:

“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”

The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.

This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.