Back in 2011, I penned the first in this occasional series with an attempt at rating and relating the fantasy titles I’ve read aloud to my boys, then aged seven and eleven. They’re now two years older and two years larger, if not wiser (though they are sometimes that as well).
Sadly, older child Corey no longer cottons to a bedtime story.
Evan, however, is not only game, he’s adamant that he receive his daily dose of out-loud fiction. The question as always is what to read? What’s appropriate? And what does “appropriate” even mean?
Right now, Evan’s big wish is to see Catching Fire in the theaters. He was too young for The Hunger Games, but he’s now read all the books (on his own, like most of his fourth grade classmates), and seems quite keen to revel in the filmic gore of Panem bloodletting. We’ll see.
While that debate simmers, the fare of late has included L. Frank Baum’s The Magic Of Oz, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, Mollie Hunter’s The Walking Stones, and Avi’s Crispin: The Cross Of Lead. Plus a short, Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon.” Evan chose the Oz title, and I chose the other four.
Let’s begin with Grahame, since “The Reluctant Dragon” is what I read most recently. Grahame’s got a proper British bounce to his prose, and even though the story is now over a century old (it’s from 1898), it’s accessible and fresh, no trouble for a curious child to grasp and a treat to read aloud. The dragon is delightfully effete, and his human friend (“Boy,” never identified by name) is practical, mature, and brave. The absence of proper nouns is all part of Grahame’s design; it helps to reassure readers that this is a Tale, and all will work out in the end.
True, when St. George shows up to fight the dragon, he gets a name, but it’s really more of an iconic label: he can hardly help being St. George.
Not that I mentioned this to Evan, who at nine won’t care or follow, but here’s what A.A. Milne said about Grahame, although he was referring specifically to the author’s other enduring work, The Wind In the Willows:
One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don’t know, but it is you who are on trial.
Evan failed the test. At the end of “The Reluctant Dragon,” I asked him what he thought of the story. “Good,” he said, and then he paused and added, in a considering voice that’s entirely atypical, “I’d give it three out of five stars.”
Can you hear Milne turning in his grave?
As pleasurable as “Dragon” was to tackle aloud (the voices practically cry out for differentiation), Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is another kettle of fish. Most know Colin Meloy as the leader, songwriter, and general impresario of The Decemberists, one of the brightest lights gracing contemporary popular (folk-rock?) music. As a musician, Meloy serves up smart music for smart people. Consider the opening lines of the song “The Infanta”:
Here she comes in her palanquin
On the back of an elephant
On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk…
Or later, in the same song, where Meloy deploys the words “folderol,” “chaparral,” and “coronal” in three successive lines. No one will ever accuse the man of failing to stuff the turkey, but he has soul, too; much of the Decemberists’ output is heart-stirring stuff. Long stretches of The Hazards Of Love are as good as popular music gets. Unfortunately, the very skills that make Meloy a witty and unpredictable lyricist serve as lead weights when he turns to prose.
At its core, Wildwood is a simple quest in which tween Pru struggles through jungles both arboreal and social to rescue her kidnapped baby brother, the streamlining required of song lyrics would have helped. My paperback edition swells to 541 pages, and contains many sentences along these lines:
“A chorus of birdsong was being taken up, and the air grew clamorously melodic.”
“He was afforded a quick backward glance: the tall, thin silhouette of the Governess, backlit by the torches of the room, darkened the entry to the room, a witness to his rough removal.”
Even aside from the passive construction, sentences like these turn to mush when read aloud. (It’s my belief that prose of all stripes is best tested aloud; if it doesn’t work when spoken, then it needs to be re-written. (The Westing Game may, however, be one exception.)) Meloy’s vocabulary is laudably wide-ranging –– yes, I had to stop to look up “circumvallated” –– but it often trips him. It’s not that books for young audiences shouldn’t stretch their targets’ abilities, for of course they should. No, my complaint centers more on what Twain insisted on, that the right word and only the right word should be employed in any given instance. It’s the difference, Twain opined, between the lightning and the lightning bug. At least to this humble reader, Wildwood strays over the lightning bug line with regularity.
That said, Evan enjoyed Wildwood. He likes to assemble Lego while I read, and in the main, he did so quietly throughout the long trip through Wildwood. (Generally, the more Lego noise I hear, the less engaged my child.) If to an adult reader the book came off as mostly plot, it was certainly active plot, with plenty of battles, escapades and escapes. Perhaps it’s best read on one’s own, instead of serving as a meeting point between adult and child, as all read-aloud experiences must be?
The Walking Stones, Mollie Hunter’s 1970 outing, has been largely forgotten. Pity. My sister and I both read and re-read this title when we were in late elementary and middle school. Set in Scotland, the story concerns young Donald Campbell’s relationship with the aged Bodach, an ancient Scot gifted with second sight. When the Bodach has a vision of death coming to the glen, more people than you might expect give the old man credence, but what exactly is this death, and who, or what, will it come for?
Stonehenge aside, stone circles are fairly common in the British Isles, and Hunter’s tale revolves around a small one, local to the Bodach and one that might, if given the chance, rise to walk one more time. The central question of The Walking Stones is, will the Bodach live to see this miracle?
Without treading heavily into spoiler territory, I can say that the book has many pleasures, not least of which is its unhurried pace. Hunter tells her story clearly, trusting in her characters to provide. A lesser title (or one written after 1980) might have become an easy pro-environment polemic (and let me clear, I’m as green as they come, but I don’t need my fiction to be message-heavy), but Hunter steers deftly clear of “good” versus “evil” in the ever-devoloping vales of misty Scotland. The old ways must and will learn to live hand-in-hand with hydroelectric power and in-home refrigerators; there’s no other course available.
For Evan, the highlight comes when Donald, through the mentorship of the Bodach, learns to summon a double of himself, and uses this “Bocca” to bamboozle a ribbon-cutting’s worth of dignitaries and construction workers. It may not read as high comedy to a grown-up, but Evan was in stitches. In a generally very sober adventure, these late-middle chapters are a clear highlight.
Meanwhile: Oz. The Magic Of Oz is book number thirteen in Baum’s original fourteen Oz tomes, and whatever inspiration originally drove Baum had by then worn thin. The story feels unthought, unfounded, and at times almost beside the point. Most Oz books end with a sort of family reunion banquet in which all the true-hearted characters from previous books reappear: Dorothy Gale, Professor Woggle Bug, the glass cat, everybody. In The Magic Of Oz, with Ozma’s birthday impending, this seems to be perhaps the only point, and the pair of invading spellcasters who threaten to transform all our heroes into lambs and whatnot feels like veneer. There’s certainly no threat, not with the Wizard at hand and Glinda backing him up. Still, lazy as the book is, it does conjure its share of Emerald City magic, and if Evan banged his Lego blocks with perhaps more abandon than usual, he did stick with it, and never suggested we change books (or horses) mid-stream.
The book’s greatest conceit, and its most appealing entry point for young listeners, is the notion that if you (yes, you) can correctly pronounce the word “Pyrzqxgl,” you will have the power to transform yourself or anything else into whatever you wish.
Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.
While we’re all waiting, let me admit that I’m an Oz fan, despite my harsh review of Magic. Most of them deserve to be read, and read again, with the best being The Emerald City Of Oz, Tik-Tok Of Oz, Rinkitink In Oz, and Dorothy and the Wizard In Oz, along with pretty much any title involving the ever tricksy gnomes.
Meanwhile, award-winner Avi (real name Edward Irving Wortis) provided Evan and me with a proper medieval sword-slinging adventure in the form of Crispin: The Cross Of Lead. Overall, this was the best novel Evan and I have tackled in quite some while (fantasy or otherwise), and unlike many of the titles I share with my boys, it was new to me. Of course, when reading aloud, dealing with an unfamiliar text can put the actual reader at a disadvantage, especially for those who, like me, are prone to acting out the various voices a book provides. If you “get it wrong” early, it can be difficult to course correct later on. Fortunately, Avi is very spry with dialogue. The voice of Asta’s Son, our leading lad, is clear as a bell, and better still is the giant of a juggler called Bear, with whom Asta’s Son crosses paths.
Unfortunately, Cross Of Lead suffers from a major case of convenience and contrivance. At every turn, Asta’s Son encounters the very person he doesn’t want to meet, a wicked steward, no matter how unlikely the circumstance. The great trick of story-telling is surely to meld the plot and characters so that a story ends in both a surprising and an inevitable way, but the final chapters of Cross are strenuously mechanical. The author’s hand is too clearly visible, especially when it comes time to (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT) send Aycliffe the wicked steward off to hell, where he belongs. Here’s how it’s done: Bear picks the steward up and hurls him toward a row of sword-brandishing soldiers. Avi writes:
“It happened so quickly the soldiers had no time to react. Aycliffe was impaled on the soldier’s swords, run through by several points.”
Really? The soldiers were Aycliffe’s. To kill him in this way would surely require that these men drop to their knees and, with great intentionality, brace for all they’re worth in order to keep their blades steady enough for a flung human form to be mortally pierced, much less run through. I admit to letting out a laugh when I read this most important moment, and of course Evan then said, “What, what?” I was forced to prevaricate, and I believe what I said was, “That must have been quite a throw.” I didn’t see the point in saying, “That’s pure balderdash––but never mind, on we go.”
Ah, the hazards of reading aloud!
Of course, white rabbits with pocket-watches who mutter “It’s too, too late” are also balderdash, but it’s all a matter of the rules of the road. Mr. Carroll makes quite sure that in his world, late white rabbits bearing watches are allowable. In Cross Of Lead, a historical adventure but in no way a fantasy, we expect (especially on the penultimate pages) for explicable physical laws to hold true. That standard should hold for all levels of literature, from board books on up to Tolstoy, Sheldon, Achebe, and Munro. World-building, in or out of the fantasy genre, is all about consistency.
For additional titles I would recommend (or steer you far clear of), do check out Fantasy Out Loud and Fantasy Out Loud III, both of which are still lodged right here on the digital (dust free!) shelves of Black Gate. So, for that matter, is Fantasy Out Loud II, but my intention there was to delve into the music of the fantastic, a sideline I really must remember to revisit.
Heave, ho, away we go – and onward!
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of ”The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear” and Check-Out Time, forthcoming in 2014.