One thing that surprised me the most about children’s literature is how Balkanized the field is. After picture books, you have your chapter books, which are short affairs with shorter chapters and big type. Then, as the kids grow older, they are put onto middle-grade readers, which are longer, but still very episodic in nature. After that, they are firmly into teen territory, where the only difference from full adult literature is that the protagonists have to be teenagers.
It is common for authors to switch between these subgenres, switching their style from book to book as they go, but it is rare for book series to jump these fences. This is one thing that kept The Unwritten Girl off the shelf for at least a couple of years. Orca Book Publishers initially expressed an interest in seeing the rest of Rosemary and Time, and seriously considered publishing it, but ultimately refused saying that the book had elements of both middle-grade fiction (episodic nature; a simpler writing style) and teen novel (a romantic interest) and they didn’t know how to market such a book.
I know of only two authors whose characters leap these fences. One is Madeleine L’Engle. You will find 13-year-old Meg Murry in the timeless middle-grade classic A Wrinkle in Time, and you will find her 16-year-old daughter Polly in the very adult A House Like a Lotus. But Madeleine simply reuses characters within standalone stories. Other than readers seeking out L’Engle’s name, there is very little crossover between the readership of A Wrinkle in Time and A House Like a Lotus.
The other author I know is J.K. Rowling, and her Harry Potter series is remarkable because she isn’t leaping across the genre fences so much as steamrollering them, pulling her whole audience with her.
Consider what it’s like to be an eleven-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. What are your aspirations? What are your goals? What do you strive for? What do you hunger for? The story of a transformation of an eleven-year-old child into a seventeen-year-old young adult is fascinating and complicated, and almost never done in children’s literature, so far as I know. For one thing, a typical eleven-year-old isn’t very sexually aware, whereas a seventeen-year-old is. You would object to a fair amount of sexual content in a book intended for eleven-year-olds, whereas it’s no big thing in a seventeen-year-old novel.
So, while in my wildest moments I fantasize about being able to take on J.K. Rowling (yeah, right), I stand in awe of her, here. The series of seven books is coming together as one story, and the principle characters are growing up, in all that that implies. In this alone, Rowling is treading a path few have taken before.
I think of this as I watch the latest Harry Potter movie, The Goblet of Fire. One of the earliest trailers for this movie simply showed flashes of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in each of the movies, showing how much these actors have grown up. Saturday Night Live sent this up further with a sketch focusing on the various characters’ reactions to Hermione’s developing figure and her transformation into a babe. But the Goblet of Fire movie, in keeping with the new director’s trick of staying true to the style, if not the letter of the movie, maintains the story’s focus on the transformations of adolescence and the new joys and terrors it brings. The story is certainly more mature than what we’ve seen so far, deserving its more restrictive rating. I believe Goblet of Fire marks the first time a swear word has been used in the Harry Potter movie series. The word isn’t even in the book. Witness also the sexual tension, including incidents of innuendo from Hermione, and the funny-if-slightly-squicky scene involving Harry, Moaning Myrtle, a large bathtub and bubbles.
The Prisoner of Azkaban remains my favourite movie, as the director there inserted a frantic pace that made the magical world twisted and crazy. The Goblet of Fire’s universe is somewhat less bizarre, more in keeping with the rather pedestrian feel of the first two films, but director Mike Newell gets points for judiciously condensing one of the longest books in the series. The story moves along well and provides some genuine frights. The tasks are well depicted and kept me on the edge of my seat. Mike Newell is helped along by the three principle actors who are really coming into their own. The various tiffs between Harry and Ron and then Ron and Hermione are very well played and not overdone. The supporting cast continues its usual bang-up job, with special mention going to David Tennant (the new Doctor) playing a villainous role with considerable verve that’s disturbingly Doctor-ish. Ralph Fiennes does an excellent job as Lord Voldemort, and I’m a little worried by how much he is clearly enjoying the role.
The Goblet of Fire novel is a turning point for the series, with the resurrection of Voldemort and the return of the Death Eaters, and the movie feels the same. Harry Potter the movie series is through the troubled years of puberty and is taking on a very adult world. There is a sense that nothing is ever going to be the same. Hard to believe that, three or four years down the line, we may be watching a seventh movie that shares little in common with the first, other than the fact that it shares almost everything with the first — the characters, their battles, their transformations.
J.K. Rowling seems sincere in her promise to end the Harry Potter series with the seventh book, and all indications are that everything that needs to be said will have been said by that time, but I suspect I’ll still be saddened by the boy wizard’s departure. Whether Harry Potter lives or not, he will be a boy wizard no longer. He will have left his childhood behind and entered the adult world. It will be a kind of death.
Because there are some fences you don’t cross, no matter how much you want to. All stories give us a glimpse of a life, nothing more. We have been privileged to see Harry Potter’s transformation on screen, but eventually the story has to end, and we will be forced to look away.
Other Fence Jumping
Erin reminds me about Laura Ingles Wilder, whose Little House on the Prairie series shows Laura herself growing up from a very young child to a wife and mother. However, Wilder wrote before the fences went up. The subgenres I described above seem to be marketing conveniences raised in the last couple of decades. Also, the final book, The First Four Years, detailing the first four years of Wilder’s marriage, reads more like an outline than a book. I come away with a sense that Laura Wilder wasn’t keen on describing her relationship with Manny.
There is also the various series of Tamora Pierce, whose characters age from 11 to 17 in the course of four books. However, as Erin says, Tamora’s 11-year-olds are very similar to her 17-year-olds, except that her 17-year-olds kiss a lot more.