Fairy Tales in Secret

Happy American Thanksgiving to my American readers. I hope Black Friday goes okay for you, or that you’ve been sensible enough to do your Christmas shopping beforehand.

My in-laws, mother-in-law Rosemarie and her husband Michael, father-in-law Wendell an his wife Judy, are both here today to help Erin, Vivian and I celebrate the holiday, so today seems like a good time to use some material I’ve published before.

Below you shall find an article I was fortunate enough to have printed in the 98th issue of The New Quarterly, about my love for children and young adults’ literature. It was a fun piece to write as I got to interview author Kenneth Oppel. The interview will run tomorrow.

Fairy Tales in Secret

“When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. “
—C. S. Lewis

I once heard an author say that she wrote children’s literature in the same tone of voice that one uses to announce that one’s an alcoholic. She went on to talk about some of the misconceptions amongst the general public about authors who wrote for children and young adults: a lingering sense of immaturity, a schoolmarmish appearance, the impression that we didn’t have a real job. The rise of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter hasn’t helped, except to add a further misconception, one about just how much money one makes as a children’s author these days.

My name is James Bow, and I write (and read!) children’s literature.

It’s not that I don’t read or enjoy “adult” literature. I’ve enjoyed Amy Tan and Howard Engel, and I’ve appreciated Robertson Davies even as Fifth Business was forced upon me during high school. Despite this, I keep on coming back to stories with teenage protagonists, slimmer page counts and, often, fantastical settings or elements. At parties with my literate friends, I smile and nod and hope that nobody discovers that I’ve never read Margaret Atwood. Serious literature discussions, it would appear, do not include the latest Harry Potter, the works of Terry Pratchett, or Kenneth Oppel’s award-winning Airborn and Skybreaker, or even the works of (virtually unknown in Canada) Australian fantasy author Patricia Wrightson. So I read my fairy tales in secret, even as I sometimes roll my eyes and wish that hard-working authors, both adult and young-adult alike, could get half the attention J. K. Rowling receives.

While touring the Maritimes with my wife, Erin Noteboom, I was put on the spot when one of the people attending her readings, who had heard that I write young adult fiction, asked me what it was I liked most about that genre. The answer I came up with was that I liked the clarity. I liked the strong, pared-down plots, the characters that had a bit of innocence about them. The thicker books of Alistair MacLeod were all well and good, but it was in children’s literature that I got a stronger sense of a beginning, middle, and end.

A strong plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end doesn’t mean a simple plot or one without depth. Often the best books are children’s books where the adult author has managed to slip in ideas or concepts that adults often debate. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence is a lengthy trilogy that attacks organized religion and kills God. Although its agenda eats most of the third book, it’s still a fascinating, challenging read suitable for young readers. My own introduction to religious concepts came not through the Bible, but through C. S. Lewis’ Narnia sequence.

In general, there is nothing an adult book can do that a children’s book can’t. Death? Look to C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle which kills most of the protagonists in a train accident and is essentially the Book of Revelation for children. Scares? Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is likely to spook parents, if not their kids. Love? There are oodles of stories of romance out there, some storybook and some real and messy. Myths and folklore? Many of the fairy tales of old were based on old European legends and weren’t intended for children alone (before they were bowlderized). For a change of pace, I recommend reading Patricia Wrightson’s novels which mine the depths of Australian aboriginal folklore for a unique set of fairytales. There can even be nudity and sex in books for older young readers, if you know where to look.

In the best adult literature, nothing is superfluous. The same is true in children’s literature, but more so. In the good books, everything is there to tell the story. You ditch most of the preamble and a number of the subplots, and you get on with it.

Publishers tend to define children’s literature as books containing protagonists who are children or young adults. The age of the heroes tends to be close to the age of the people expected to read the book. Books are also grouped by reading experience, increasing in length and complexity as young readers graduate from picture books to first books, first books to chapter books, then to middle grade, and finally young adult (teen). Crossing these boundaries these days is almost unheard of, although Harry Potter is doing it.

But what attracts me most to children’s literature, what makes it children’s literature in my mind, is a sense of magic and transformation.

Consider how much bigger the world is to children than to adults. For children, every day is a day of discovery, coming to terms with the delights and frights around them, learning about themselves, their bodies and their world. This is the age of wonder, of transformation and of coming of age, of becoming an adult and, sadly, losing some of the wonder of childhood.

For me, reading has never really left the bedroom, where a good book well read was the gateway to the dreams of slumberland. My mother, also a writer, read me to sleep into my early teens, and the memory of these times hasn’t left me.

Indeed, two days before Erin and I moved into our first apartment, eight years before the birth of my daughter, I started the tradition of reading her to sleep. It has only grown from there. My favourite books to read are the ones where I get to perform. I give voices to my characters. The narrators speak like myself, and the heroes share my voice, with the girls pitched slightly higher, if I can manage it. But bigger characters have different voices. Aslan speaks with a deep, back-of-the-throat rumble, a voice shared with only minor modifications by Gandalf and Dumbledore. Trickster characters like the Sammayad in Edith Nesbitt’s Five Children and It get a sardonic, rapscallion voice, like a bad imitation of a New York cabbie, and the Phoenix of The Phoenix and the Carpet gets a deep unctuous voice like all the pompous blowhards that sometimes show up to hamper our heroes.

Thanks to Terry Pratchet’s phonetic dialogue, I can also do a passable Scots accent for the Nac Mac Feegle of Wee Free Men, though I’m sure plenty of real Scots would disagree with me.

Childish? Maybe. I prefer young at heart.

This element of performance, of magic and fantasy, is easy to find in children’s literature. The fantasy element tends to bleed my interest into fantasy and science fiction, although “hard” sci-fi tends to be too dry for my taste. I want to believe that anything can happen.

J. K. Rowling’s success has turned children’s literature into a growth industry, but she hasn’t made it wholly respectable. Adult readers of the Harry Potter books have their own editions with “adult” covers to hide the fact that they’re reading the most popular kids’ book in history. You will often see adults perusing the kids section in bookstores, but they tend to make the excuse that they are buying books for children they know. The better books, like the better “family” movies, know how to write material that is enjoyed on different levels by adults and children, but it is rare to see an adult reading a young adult book, or going to a G-rated movie, alone.

Those that defy the taboo, in my opinion, haven’t forgotten their sense of childhood wonder, and are more than happy to go back to the time when anything could happen.

Which brings me to Kenneth Oppel.

Oppel was born in Port Alberni and grew up in Victoria, BC and Halifax, NS. His biography says he decided to become a writer at the age of twelve, and spent his teenage years writing sci-fi epics (a la Star Wars), sword and sorcery tales (a la Dungeons and Dragons) before he turned his attention to a humorous story about a boy addicted to video games (not coincidentally during a time when Oppel was never far from a video game player). The story, which came to be entitled Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, proved to be his first big break, as a mutual friend of Roald Dahl convinced Oppel to send a copy of the story to the famous author. Dahl liked it so much, he sent it to his literary agent, which got the book published in 1985 with editions in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Oppel majored in cinema studies and English at the University of Toronto and published his second children’s novel, The Live Forever Machine, as part of a creative writing course in his final year. The book is still in print. He went on to publish twenty other novels, including one adult novel, The Devil’s Cure, and has received considerable recognition and won a number of awards. He topped them all last year when his adventure Airborn won the Governor General’s Award for Best Children’s Literature (English) in 2004.

By 2004, Oppel was already famous for his anthropomorphic Silverwing series, which told the tale of an exceptional colony of bats, but Airborn caught my attention because of the deft manner in which Oppel creates the fantasy world the story is set in: an alternate version of the 1930s where airships are the primary means of travel, and sky pirates still haunt portions of the Pacificus. I was particularly drawn by the characterizations of his hero, 15-year-old Matt Cruse, and the romantic interest, young headstrong Kate de Vries. This book and its sequel, Skybreaker are wonderful escapes, but there is also a depth here. The characters all have strong motivations. The heroes have flaws and they sometimes make stupid mistakes. The villains (most of them, anyway), have some redeeming qualities.

Skybreaker focuses on the discovery of a legendary lost airship named the Hyperion and the various attempts to bring it to ground and salvage the treasures within. Adrift and almost inaccessible at 20, 000 feet, the ship can only be caught by specialized airships that can “break the sky. ” However, Skybreaker is really about breaking down the barriers of race, class, sex, about breaking the glass ceiling as much as about breaking the sky.

Oppel’s alternate Earth has all of the class structures of Edwardian England. Matt is a cabin boy from a poor background, and only the unwanted celebrity of his heroic actions during Airborn has allowed him to pursue his relationship with rich socialite Kate. He is constantly feeling the great gulf between himself and Kate in terms of money and expectations, and when it appears like she may be pursued by another suitor, jealousy leads him to unwisely seek the Hyperion and (he hopes) return a rich man.

Despite being rich enough to lead a comfortable life, Kate is also obsessed with recovering the Hyperion. She is rebellingagainst her parents’ expectations that she lead a lady-like existence and marry the first person they deem suitable. She wants to be a scientist, but her findings are poohpoohed by the male establishment. Items on the Hyperion may supply her with the proof she needs to win her the credibility she wants.

To reinforce Matt and Kate’s selfish and all-too-human motivations that will soon bring them to earth, they are joined by Nadira, a poor gypsy girl with a connection to the Hyperion, whose motivations are a fusion of the two. She is fleeing an arranged marriage and is sneered at for her gypsy heritage by the”respectable”people of Europe. For her, claiming the Hyperion means money enough to do whatever she wants. She also forms part of an interesting romantic triangle with Matt and Kate.

Of course, finding the Hyperion is easier said than done and, in the end, can money or mere objects gain for Matt, Kate and Nadira what they really want? Add in majestic airships and strange, undiscovered creatures of the sky, and you’ve got yourself quite a tale to rip through before bed.

Oppel’s deft, almost effortless, storytelling and his mix of strong characterizations and fantastical plots, leave me jealous. As I was reading the books, and investing heavily in Matt and Kate’s developing relationship, I kept on asking myself: how does he do it? Finally, after screwing up my courage to talk to him at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, I persuaded him that young adult literature had to be brought to the attention of The New Quarterly’s literate readers, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed.

(Continued here)

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