I’ve been working my way through Colin Meloy’s book Wildwood, recently, and it’s given me a lot of thought about self-awareness in circular fantasy, because it hedges the line at times. I wrote my Masters thesis on the topic of children’s circular fantasy fiction, which is fiction that begins in the “real” world, ventures out into a fantasy world, and returns – and it’s sort of a staple of children’s fiction. There’s a lot to be said about it, including topics of imagination, dreamlands, and escapism, and it’s often banished strictly to the realm of children and young adult fiction (unless your name is Neil Gaiman, in which case carry on). Of course, this post isn’t really about Meloy – I haven’t finished his novel, so I’m disinclined to discuss what I see so far, but about another self-aware circular fantasy of recent relative popularity.

But I suppose to begin with, I want to define what I mean by self-awareness in children’s literature: this isn’t an awareness of the main character, who may be genre savvy for whatever reason (they read a lot, they listen to their elders, they have heard tales of this place before – so on, so forth) but self-awareness in terms of the author to create a work that refers to itself in metafiction terms. Catherynne Valente, who wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, for instance, seems to be incredibly self-aware. There is an entire speech in the novel from a character who describes not only circular fantasy in great detail, but also outlines the inherent problematic nature that not only the genre, but the self-same book possesses.

This level of self-awareness is already didactic and difficult to swallow in adult works – in children’s work it becomes borderline unreadable. To be fair to Valente, whose novel is well-paced and whose plot is not actually bad in the least, I don’t think that being didactic was her intention. There are problems with novels like The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan that are inherent in their structure as well. But those problems cannot be examined from within the confines of another story about fairyland.

It becomes unsettling because of the conversations of adults (and this of course ties back to the notion that adults appropriate children’s work), such the discussion in her first novel of fairyland being tamed by children, which can be seen as a direct commentary on adult fairy tales being bowdlerized for children. That fairyland is, in it’s pristine and unchanged nature, a wild place distinctly unsuitable for children. This meta, which comes from the characters (and therefore makes this novel self-aware) is actually a bit offensive to me, because it implies that children’s fiction – all children’s fiction – is an infantilized mirror of a richer, more complex work, and that work will become apparent as children grow into adult literature.

That’s like saying that children consume safe media, which is patently untrue. There are monsters in children’s fiction that are much scarier than anything in adult fiction, and they are necessary, according to Bettelheim, for children to grow psychologically into healthy adults. I defy any adult novel to be as satisfyingly scary as Coraline, and still be as well-written and inherently dangerous. The danger in fairyland is not tamed for children’s work. It is there, lurking, and every child who reads these books don’t only see the danger, but understand the ways to defeat it.

What purpose does self-awareness in children’s work serve? Why put it in there at all? To satisfy the adult audience, whom Valente seems to actually aim her novels at (the language being relatively “cool,” if you’ll pardon my jargon) or to moralize to her child audience, who is getting talked down to by an adult author speaking through her characters? Why not cut the moments of self-awareness out and leave a satisfying story in it’s place?

I can’t answer these questions in a single blog entry: this may be the work of a 4,000 word paper. But it gets me thinking, and it makes me want to glance at other works, to find the elements of meta that don’t fit.

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There has been a question, recently, if children’s literature is minority fiction. What defines minority fiction is not always who the fiction is about, but the perceived audience who will read it. Therefore, literary fiction can be about African-Americans without being considered “urban” fiction (a minority fiction category that is aimed at African-American populations) by simple virtue of the audience. This may be a publisher or editorial decision, or a decision made by the author in creation.

Like any genre, minority fiction suffers from a certain level of stigma when held up against the glowing bastion of literary fiction, which is generally considered more intellectual and better written (whether this is or isn’t the case is beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s an interesting question to consider). But what minority fiction doesn’t suffer from, and in fact one of the interesting categorical definitions of in includes is the concept of appropriation – for instance, where science fiction and fantasy can be adapted by anyone into film or transformed into other media by any person willing to receive the rights, when it comes to minority fiction there is always an element that makes it uncomfortable when in the hands of someone outside of that minority.

Now adaptation of children’s work, if we consider children’s work minority fiction (and it certainly bears the hallmarks – written, published and marketed en masse, without consideration for individual genre, for one specific subset of individuals) would be impossible by children. There is a great deal of children’s work that is successfully adapted and translated into other media and is aimed at children.

But my contention is that the appropriation of children’s work by adults does not take place when this work is adapted by adults, but rather when it is adapted for adults, even if it’s unintentional. An example of this would be Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the immortal picture book by Maurice Sendak. Where the book is a classic and beloved by children, the movie adaptation, perhaps butting against the challenge of making a picture book into a full-length feature film, injects issues that should be universal, but don’t seem to hold any appeal for children. It’s a thoroughly adult movie. I would make the same argument in regards to Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where his usual style of filmmaking and quirky script put this film more in the leagues of his other work and less in the leagues of James and the Giant Peach, another stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl work.

There is, to me, something inherently uncomfortable about the tonal switch in appropriated children’s work, because it suggests that children’s media is only valuable in its consumption by adults. This extends beyond these films, into adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and reinterpretations of work like the Wizard of Oz (Wicked remains unquestionably adult) that delve into “the darker side” of children’s work, as if these works are invalid without “an adult side”.

This may be from the propensity to demand that after childhood is an inevitable adulthood, but I question why nostalgia has to be expressed through this kind of appropriation and the purpose it serves the storyteller, other than possibly discuss unresolved emotional responses to children’s work.

It’s a question that I want to explore more.

 

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently, where I posited that George R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, had irrevocably changed Fantasy fiction forever by bringing to light the inherent problematic aspects of a fantasy world and examining those issues without pulling his punches. He asked me if I thought that his change was reflected in young adult fantasy, too, and I had to think about it. 

Arguably, children’s fiction is historically entrenched in fantasy. John Goldthwaite examines this in detail in his book The Natural History of Make-Believe, which looks at the history of children’s fantasy fiction from Perrault forward, and I would recommend this book to anyone studying children’s literature (despite his disdain for Narnia). If we talk about the history of children’s books, we’re talking about books like Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, Peter and Wendy and even books like The Chronicles of Narnia, despite the fact that these books are probably in the minority of the genre that comprise children’s literature as a whole. But if we examine just the history of fantasy novels, there’s a clear progression from the didactic lectures of The Water-Babies to The Chronicles of Narnia, but after the 70s and 80s, things begin to get a little murky – possibly because of Dianna Wynne Jones, whose excellent Chrestomanci and Howl (or maybe, more accurately, Sophie Hatter) books began to change the perception of children’s fantasy by poking holes in tropes, or because of the inception of American children’s fantasy with authors like Tamora Pierce.

It’s Tamora Pierce who holds a particularly interesting place in young adult fantasy. Her first novels were not originally intended for a child audience, but were then edited down from adult to young adult fiction, which was probably to her benefit. Alanna is an excellent young female protagonist (although admittedly, with purple eyes, magic, divine intervention and two handsome and well-placed love interests, the definition of a Mary-Sue) because she is brave, assertive, stubborn, and in a genre where brave, assertive and stubborn girls often need to be rescued in a strange kind of inversion of feminism, she does a majority of the saving. 

But the Lioness quartet was fairly standard fantasy fare, where war and violence was kept relatively at arms length – Alanna may have engaged in violence, but it was the kind of violence that didn’t examine violence for the sake of the examination (which is, arguably, what Martin has tried to shift the fantasy genre towards). Instead it has violence as an aspect of being a knight, and is more focused on topics like destructive patriarchy and misogyny as an inherent feature of fantasy world. In fact, Pierce has been pretty consistent in trying to deliver female protagonists in her Tortall books whose mission is to dismantle the notions of male superiority, and she’s been relatively good at doing it.

But it’s the evolution of her work – from the misadventures of a lady knight who spent her first 8 years as a knight-in-training disguised as a boy to her most current works, which are aware of, and examine issues like cultural misogyny even in kingdoms ruled by women (The Will of the Empress) to the inception of PTSD from war and atrocities (Battle Magic) that begin to demonstrate the real evolution of fantasy from the relatively innocent world of Narnia and Neverland into something more sophisticated an adult. It would have been impossible for for work like Battle Magic to exist without Alanna, but I suspect that it’s not Martin’s world (which, incidentally, was being released around the same time as the Pierce’s early work) but more due to Harry Potter and the observation made by editors that children were in fact capable of not only reading but processing what were previously adult themes.

I hesitate to bring Harry Potter into this post because the analysis of Harry Potter and the impact that Rowling has on the publishing of children’s fiction is a post on its own. But I do think, thinking on this as a whole, adult fiction does inform children’s work, as any majority influences a minority. 

More on children’s fiction as minority fiction in my next post.

Many people have heard of Laurie Halse Anderson – her book Speak was one of the most influential young adult novels of its time, and she’s been fairly consistent in constructing believable young protagonists, particularly girls, in slightly impossible but altogether completely real situations. While I would argue that her protagonists, outside of Speak’s Melinda, blend together in a tangle of smart-but-troubled-young-women and have the same sardonic, cynical approach to the world outside their immediate needs, she nevertheless gives voice to young women in satisfyingly complete ways.

Her latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, deals with trauma and memory, and the intersection of the two particularly when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the protagonist’s father suffers from and arguably, the protagonist herself also has to deal with in her own recollection and memory. It’s a very cleverly structured novel, and worth the read (particularly by young adults who have military families, as the military aspects are dealt with a great deal of respect).

But what I found interesting was the heavy-handed meta aspects and the parallels that she drew. While no one would accuse Anderson of subtlety (Melinda’s inability to speak reflecting silence for rape victims, or Lia’s anorexia as a statement on vanishing) when it comes to the issues she addresses, The Impossible Knife of Memory seems to push meta to an extreme, to the point where in a scene in a book with an unreliable narrator, a character repeatedly demands to know what is an unreliable narrator is. However, it’s the revelation of the main character’s unreliable memory, and her attempt to literally save her father during a childhood incident where she nearly drowns, that seems to have the least subtle implications of all: Hayley spends the entire novel drowning in her attempts to save her father.

While it’s an admirable examination of the dynamic between children of PTSD sufferers and their parents, a critical eye has to be drawn to the heavy-handed meta that Halse employs. Hayley’s attempts to save her father are more than enough, and it begs the question as to why the drowning incident features, other than to drive the message home. This also brings up the question of meta in realism, and it’s place in these kinds of work. I’m not saying that this sort of writing is unacceptable, and that metaphor should be reserved for sci-fi or young adult dystopia (where it is often used with an even heavier hand, in most cases) I would argue that in realism, it should be done with a more deft hand to prevent forcing the reader and emotionally manipulating the novel. Further, the coincidence of it is suspect and convenient for the story (but doesn’t serve the characters): her father suffering from a seizure in a pool, and his daughter diving in to save him, paralleled with her father’s mental and emotional breakdown, accompanied by his daughter’s continual attempts to prop him up without help. Is it necessary for the narrative to be complete?

It’s brings up a good question in young adult novels: how heavy do authors really need to make the meta, for it to be understood? In a world where students read The Scarlet Letter and are then introduced to Hawthorne’s clever symbolism (a connection Halse herself makes in Speak) is less more, and is more just impossibly overburdening the camel until that proverbial (and metaphorical) straw breaks it’s back?

This past weekend was the Tucson Festival of Books, which is the 4th largest book festival in the country. This year there was a particularly great group of young adult and children’s writers, including Lois Lowry, R.L. Stine, Cornelia Funke and Nancy Farmer. Nancy Farmer is the writer of The Eye, The Ear, and The Arm and A Girl Named Disaster, both of which are set in Africa (where she lived in her youth) as well as House of the Scorpion and the recently published sequel The Lord of Opium. Both are set in the fictional dystopian country of Opium, which lies between Aztlan, the future Mexico and the United States, precisely in what is currently considered the drug corridor in the Southwest. 

While in line to get my copy of The Lord of Opium signed, I overheard her speaking to the person in front of me who happened to be a librarian for the juvenile prison system. She told this librarian that for The House of the Scorpion her best audience were young Latino criminals, and I had to think about that for a second.

There’s mounting evidence in education theory that children and young adults benefit from representation that is accurate and human and not stereotyped. Exposure to accurate representation seems to be more important than positive representation, which arguably gives way to the sainted token minority. Matt, the main character of both books is a complex individual. He’s “born” (this is arguable, as he’s a clone, which is already a loaded idea because it infers the inevitable copying of not only DNA but also the copying of lifestyle of the original, who was a ruthless and cruel druglord) into a crime empire – literally as El Patron, the original Matt, rules the country of Opium to the point that his DNA is the key that can both lock and unlock the country. Matt yearns to be normal, but what is normal when surrounded by fields of poppy that is supplying the world’s demand for opium? Matt is a criminal by birth.

And in that Farmer creates the most genius protagonist to relate to young Latino men. In the United States, young Latino men are often not given many choices. This is more due to lack of opportunity, lack of knowledge, and like Matt, pressure from external forces to conform to a life of crime. Currently in the United States Latinos of all races make up about 17% of the population, but make up 34% of all incarcerated individuals, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

If we think that young adults respond best to representations of the self, then it only goes to figure that these young men are reacting to Matt because he is, in a way, a representation of themselves. While Jacqueline Rose posits that we cannot understand audience, we can gauge demand and response. The House of the Scorpion has been and continues to be one of the most popular books in the juvenile prison systems in states like California, which have high rates of young Latino men who are engaged in crime as much by choice as by birth.

But considering the positive aspects of Matt – his choices to be more than a drug lord, his decisions to move away from being a criminal, we consider, too, the positive impact of literature. By structuring a protagonist who is not just a criminal, but a young Latino male who has been given no other option, Farmer constructs a reality that can be separated from the dystopia and presented in contemporary atmospheres without flattening him to the role of the martyr.

Latinos need more representation, more clever and fulfilled representation that rounds out people instead of simply stereotypes. Farmer accomplishes that by not shying away from the difficult topics that face the southwest, including drug trade, immigration, and even human trafficking, and by making the reader perceive it through a character as sharply defined as her protagonist, Matt.

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