Wednesday, November 09, 2016

More "children's" books

I started reading "Over Sea, Under Stone" (the first book in Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising Sequence") last night. This is a series that blends a good-vs.-evil fight with a lot of Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend.

I've read "The Dark is Rising" before (it was, in fact, my first exposure to Cooper's writing, and a good one - it opens with a young man's birthday close to Christmas).

"Over Sea, Under Stone" is a different set of children - three siblings: Simon, Jane, and Barney (Barnabas, apparently, is his full name). They are on their way to Cornwall with their parents for summer holidays in an old house rented from a ship's captain. And also, there is the mysterious Great-Uncle Merry - Merriman Lyon, which, if you contract his name a bit, you get Merlin. (He is not an actual relative, but a friend of the family - I think he was a friend of the mother's father?)

(I KNOW I read this a while back but my memories of it are dim, so re-reading it is good).

The books contain puzzles/mysteries for the reader to solve along with the protagonists. And as I said, the references to old mythology and also some even to history (stealth learning: all the best books have it).

They also have the three things that Joan Aiken mentioned in *her* book on writing for children (referred to in the introduction to "Wolves of Willoughby Chase" - the book should have "love, and peril, and good food."

Really, what more would you want out of a story?

"Wolves of..." had all three - the love of Bonnie for her new-found "sister" (actually cousin, but whatever) Sylvia, and her love of her parents. And I suppose you could also say love of justice or fairness given how she fought against the ill-treatment they received at the hands of Slighcarp and company.

And peril - well, nearly the entire first half of the book is peril, and there's some towards the end. But like all my favorite stories, there's a happy ending for the good people, and the bad people see a punishment somehow. (And even the good but not-very-active people, like old Aunt Jane, are rewarded: simply because they are good and kind even though they were unable to participate in taking down the bad)

And there's food - the little chestnut-flour cakes Simon makes, and the lovely porridge at the good blacksmith's house (with brown sugar "from a big blue bag" and thick yellow milk from his Jersey cows). And there's also the odd, perhaps anti-pleasure of hearing about the awful food at the orphan's home, and how little of it there is, and how Bonnie, in desperation, stole eggs from the henhouse and fed them, raw, to Sylvia, who was sick and weak and wasn't being fed.

(I do think some of the pleasures of some books are "negative pleasures" - reading things like "The Thirty-Nine Steps" is more fun when you're tucked  up safe and warm in bed instead of out running in a storm from some unknown evil. There is a bit of a schadenfreude there to it - you can have the slight shiver of experiencing the peril second-hand, without actually being in danger yourself).

And "Moonfleet" more or less follows that formula. Food is less emphasized in the book - in fact, I don't remember any particularly appealing meals - but there is certainly love (what John feels for his adoptive father Elzevir, and later, John's growing feelings for Grace). And definitely peril - the flight after Maskew is shot by a posse of soldiers but it looks like Elzever did it. And then their captivity when they are defrauded by a crooked diamond merchant*

(*And yes, one slightly uncomfortable, though probably typical-for-its-time thing, the merchant is described very stereotypically, and it is made clear he is of the Jewish faith, or at least heritage - perhaps being dishonest precludes him from being particularly devout)

And the Susan Cooper books - there is peril, again: the children run up against evil, usually in the form of adults who are either made selfish by greed or the temptation of power. There is love: mostly, the children for their families (and perhaps one reason I like children's books is that I have much more experience with, and therefore familiarity with, family-love rather than romantic love) but also for Great-Uncle Merry and even individuals like Rufus the dog. And there's food - in the early chapters of this book the Welsh cook working at the summer house provides them a "picnic" for while they explore the house consisting of scones, saffron cake, and another bready item I forget (I admit, as an adult obsessed with 'getting enough vitamins,' I read it and shuddered a bit at how it was all bread and cake, though later it is noted the children have apples and lemonade to drink)

There's also adventure-without-peril: the children exploring the big old house, in The Dark is Rising, Will Stanton going out into a winter dusk to walk.

I also wonder if these books also work because they have older children/young adults as the protagonists (Will Stanton turns 11 as his book opens). I do think in that age range, kids become particularly observant of good and bad, right and wrong (I remember becoming really obsessed with things like fair play when I was that age), and the idea that there's a clear moral arc and that there is evil that can and will be defeated - and of course, the books also appeal in that an apparently ordinary kid can defeat that evil. (The appeal I think is somewhat similar to the appeal of superhero movies: the idea of doing a big good thing with your life. Most of us are stuck with doing small things, and things that may be good but don't always seem to have much of an impact, and I think a lot of us do long for the chance to do something big and clearly important and good, and most of us don't really get the chance....)

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