Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 3

Continuing with gorgeous kids’ books!

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold_and_the_Purple_Crayon_(book)

This is one of those extremely special books that seem to have a lot of fond memories attached. I think many of us grew up with this story and felt kind of inspired by it. It’s about a little boy who uses art to create an adventure for himself. How awesome is that?

harolds-purple-crayon

The illustrations are fantastic, and extremely dynamic since the character is actually drawing them as the story progresses. They encourage kids to see art in a variety of different ways and to express themselves creatively. Drawing just seems so exciting and even a little dangerous and thrilling.

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It’s a smart, creative story that seems to inspire kids with each generation. And, it’s also just a cool book. It’s one of those kids’ books that you find tattooed on adults, turned into theatrical productions, and given Dr. Who parodies (all of which you can find with a quick google search).

Age level: pre-k and up, and available as board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=harold+and+the+purple+crayon&class=

Franklin Stein by Ellen Raskin

franklin
This is a wonderful, little-known book from the Newberry Award winning author of The Westing Game. It’s about an eccentric little boy who makes a giant monster sculpture. People really dislike his work, at first, and Franklin has to prove that his art is actually beautiful.

As a former art major, this might have struck home a little…

But, anyway, stories about kids learning how to express their creative voices, even if people don’t really “get” them, are always on my radar as good reads. This book, with Raskin’s witty, award-winning writing style and quirky, retro illustrations, is also just a really entertaining story.
And, again, the illustrations are wonderful. They’re very retro, “groovy” even, with fun character designs and fantastic details.

beautiful

And, again, it’s about creative arts –strange, monstrous creative arts!

fred

I think it’s really moving that Franklin just wants everyone to see his art, the monster Fred, as beautiful, and how he sticks to his belief that Fred is beautiful. That’s pretty inspirational, right there.

Age level: reading about K and up, but I think younger children would listen to the story and like the pictures.

Available for purchase: Out of print, but here’s a link to used copies. http://www.alibris.com/Franklin-Stein-Ellen-Raskin/book/2443301

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

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Blueberries for Sal was always a favorite in my house. It’s just the kind of book that really works well with kids. It has a charming setting (blueberry picking with mom), a little danger (someone else loves blueberries, too!), and a great repeated refrain of berry-picking sounds that kids love to repeat! Kerplink, kerplink, kerplunk! Who doesn’t like shouting that?
I really like kids’ books that have a sort of gentle quality and leave out trying to be hip and snarky. I like it when kids’ books let kids just be… kids. It’s a special time when blueberry picking with mom is a huge adventure, and we have all of adulthood to be hip and snarky. We need more blueberry picking days.

blueberries for sal2

I also like how there’s *spoilers?* two sets of moms and babies. You see, that someone else who likes blueberries is a bear cub! (I may have a thing for bears. I looked at my list of kids’s books and I was like, wow, bears, everywhere!) It’s a really great message because while there’s still a strong sense that bears are wild creatures, you also can really see the similarities between Sal’s adventure and the baby bear’s adventure. They’re both in search of the same things in the story, and that’s actually kind of a profound message.

blueberries for sal3

Also, the illustrations are amazing! The characters are charming and friendly, the scenery beautiful. I love the simple line drawings and the texture. They’re just delightful pictures, and, like Where Is My Hat?, I would hang prints on my wall!

Age level: Pre-k and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780670175918-0

Ghosts In the House by Kazuno Kohara

ghosts

It’s no secret among those who know me that I love scary things. Even as a little kid, I loved scary stories. However, I also love really gentle, sweet kids’ books. So, when the two are combined, I get very happy. That’s the case in this book.

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It’s about a little witch who discovers her house is infested with ghosts, like one might have an infestation of moths. So, since ghosts in this story are literally animated sheets, she washes them and puts them to use in her house. Which is absurdly hilarious.

The story about facing fears is very similar to There’s Something In My Attic, and as a kid who regularly gave herself nightmares by watching scary movies, I really appreciate this kind of moral. Now, I’ve heard some complaints about how the book supposedly is about exploiting others, like the ghosts are her slaves or something. To that I say, please! You’re taking it too seriously. It is literally and truly about ghosts, and the only moral here has to do with not being afraid. I mean, the ghosts are sheets with faces and she washes them, that’s not meant to be any colonolial symbolism or subliminal message about exploitation. Why can’t a ghost just be a ghost? And also a bed sheet?

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I love the illustrations. They’re bold, extremely cute, and really creative, and I love the simple, bold designs. And the little witch and her cat are just adorable characters. Even the ghosts are pretty cute, with their simple, little smiles and dot eyes. That’s just adorable!

Age level: pre-K and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312608866-1

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

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It may be obvious by now that my tastes in illustrations are kind of minimalist. I like the balance of figures on uncluttered backgrounds, and the drama of few lines. But, just as I like the sketchy pen work in There’s Something In My Attic and Owl Babies, I cannot resist this book. I mean, it’s illustrated in the style of the Italian Renaissance. How can this not be amazing? I used to love showing this to kids at the library and blowing their minds.

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Talk about taking children’s books seriously! These illustrations are mind-blowing, steeped in a strong understanding of both art history and just masterful technique. I’m really glad he went for this style instead of some hokey photorealism, which usually looks creepy, in my opinion. Instead, the images are dream-like and magical –like fairytales themselves!

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The story isn’t dumbed down, either. Kids don’t usually pick it up, but, yeah, Rapunzel gets pregnant in the original fairytale. That’s how she gets discovered by the witch. I’m not kidding. I remember the first time I realized that was a plot point, and it’s not one you’ll see in Tangled, that’s for sure. And, that’s pretty much what happens in this version, although Rapunzel and the Prince are secretly married at this point. Plus, there’s thorn-blinding, kidnapping, wandering in the wilderness… It’s epic, heavy stuff for kids.

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But, that just seems fitting, considering the epic, heavy illustrations. And, I have yet to see a kid who wasn’t enchanted and inspired by the story.

Don Bluth, the man behind Land Before Time and other classic kids’ films, once said that you can show a child anything as long as there’s a happy ending. Classic fairytales seem to do just that, what with their high body counts, dark subject matter, and struggles for the protagonists. But, the payoff, that happy ending, just makes it so worth it!

Age Level: It’s difficult to say. The language seems like grade school and up, but the pictures are so beautiful that I’ve seen non-reading kids entranced by the story.

Available to purchase:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780142301937-2

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So, you read The Hunger Games…

hunger games
Suzanne Collins’ series about children killing each other has been surprisingly mainstream and popular. This is even more remarkable when you realize her much less controversial series, Gregor the Overlander, did not achieve this kind of following.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.


Not only does The Hunger Games have a movie franchise, but major directors want to work on it, an Oscar-winning actress leads the cast, and hip bands seem to willingly offer their music (as opposed to begrudgingly offering it, as in the case of the Twilight movies).
So, how did an American knockoff of Battle Royale become so successful? Why is dystopia the go-to genre of choice for, of all things, escapist literature? What does this say about our culture?

Honestly, that’s really up for its own discussion.

What we can do, however, is bring you the best of Pushy Librarians and coerce you into the world of highbrow literature! And thank goodness this is a dystopian series and not, say, another paranormal romance, because there’s a whole lot of literati-goodness to choose from!

battle royale
1. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
While it’s not a great classic, we would be sorely remiss to leave off the book that Collins owes the greatest debt. If you read The Hunger Games, then you already know what Battle Royale is basically about. There’s a futuristic world where a corrupt government (this time focusing on a pan-Asian dictatorship) keeps control of the populace by forcing groups of children to battle to the death on live television. Like The Hunger Games, it is both a straight dystopia about the evils of tyranny and government coercion, and also a satire of voyeuristic TV culture. But after the basic plot, that’s where the similarities end. In the world of Battle Royale, there is no segregated society of haves and have-nots. Instead, the class conflicts are much more like those of today. Also, no one is really immune to the battles. There are no tributes selected from labor camps. Instead, groups of middle school children are simply drugged and taken to the fight zone. There, they fight on a marked location where their territory gets smaller and smaller due to rigged explosives, until even hidden children must be forced to encounter one another. What makes Battle Royale so intense is that all of the children are from the same school, and so you see the harrowing decisions they make concerning whether or not they have to kill their friends and peers. Unlike The Hunger Games, the book is told from a variety of perspectives, so that even seemingly evil characters get full back stories and development. This makes for an intense, harrowing, and profoundly disturbing read, and one that most fans will thoroughly appreciate.

lord of the flies
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
If The Hunger Games discusses the violence present in the state (“Now we see the violence that’s inherent in the system!”), Lord of the Flies looks at the violence present from human nature left to its own devices. Like The Hunger Games, it’s a story of violence and brutality, and features children in the acting roles. But, unlike The Hunger Games, the children are the instigators and arbiters, as well as the victims. The story is about a group of schoolboys who end up on a deserted island, forced to govern themselves. While readers may or may not agree with the message that humans naturally gravitate toward brutality, the story does raise many important points about the nature of violence and human’s proclivity toward cruelty. And, in case you were wondering, this is another Nobel-prize-literary novel, so no docked points on the literati-o-meter!

WE
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This sci-fi dystopian novel is dated, often silly, and regularly dips into less-than-sensitive race relations. So, why read it? Well, aside from inspiring one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time (next number down, folks), it also has the distinction of being the most hated book of the Soviet Union. That’s ballsy stuff. What’s the story? Well, in the future everyone’s life and work is based on mathematical forms and utility. You are a series of mathematical functions, and your job is to work properly in a larger system that is far, far more important than you. Personal liberty, love, individuality, these are weaknesses and must be stamped out by the law. In many ways, the novel functions as a satire of the USSR’s interest in Taylorism (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taylorism), communist statism, and the constructivists’ idea that mathematical harmony leads to betterment.
For the record, this is constructivist art:

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko

"The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions.... The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life." 
-Vladimir Tatlin

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko
“The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions…. The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life.”
-Vladimir Tatlin

So, you can see, you’re already getting brainy just by learning these terms! But, on top of your adorable braininess, We is also a straight dystopian novel. It raises questions about the role of government, individual liberty, human rights, and how a society may be repressed and may accept its repression. And, if you like dystopia, you have to read the book that inspired the man who made dystopia what it is today…

1984
4. 1984 by George Orwell
I wanted to leave this off the list in the same way I left The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia off of the Harry Potter List. I’d like to think everyone’s already read 1984. But, my work as a real-life librarian has informed me that this is not even close to being true. Even though dystopia is a huge fad, so huge that Tyra Banks actually tried her hand at it (with appropriately hilarious results)…

Witness the true horror of... government pageants?

Witness the true horror of… government pageants?


…many people still haven’t read the book that basically made the genre what it is today. Orwell’s work set the stage for what people think of when they think about dystopia. Like Zamyatin, he writes about government control, individual liberty, and how a society may be repressed –along with plenty of references to the USSR. But, Orwell went further with his world-building than Zamyatin. While in We the characters talk and think in mathematical forms, roboticized as they were by Taylotistic models, Orwell focuses on more realistic reasons for how a society may be repressed. Orwell came up with the idea of New Speak, changing words and terms in order to weaken just what concepts the populace may even be able to grasp. He also wrote about random arrests for control, absolute loyalty to the state, invasion of privacy, and children being used as informants. Orwell’s journalistic abilities helped create a world that is both realistic and terrifying, despite its moment of datedness. If you want to be a true dystopian-reader, you have to read this book.

handmaids-tale
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Let’s talk about feminist literature and… hey, come back!
Yes, we live in a post-feminist society in many, many ways, and in quite a lot of circles the backlash has pretty well blacklisted the idea of feminism in public thought. This is unfortunate, because much of how we relate to one another in society and politics is based on gender norms and relations. If you’re in doubt, check out the stir concerning the recent rape trials and the politics involved. Regardless of your personal beliefs, feminist thoughts have had huge impacts on the discussion of gender in society and any good thinker would be remiss to dismiss them.
(I rhymed…)
In the school of feminist literature, there are certain eminent members, like Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir that all feminists must read. Atwood is pretty secure in her place on the list. From her pursuit of feminine literary norms, to her desire to elevate “chick lit” to an art, she’s definitely a feminist writer. However, just as Orwell and Zamyatin were not just political proselytizers against Stalinism, Atwood is far from the feminist strawman of a yowling man-hater whose politics go before her art. This is apparent in her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale.
The story is a science fiction tale about a right-wing theocratic military dictatorship that imposes strict roles on the populace, especially women. The main character is a concubine, and the conflict is her struggles for autonomy in a society that does not value her.
While the other dystopians I mentioned have to do with freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of work, this also includes freedom of bodily autonomy, freedom of relationships, and freedom of religion. It is an award-winning science fiction piece that has spurred enough debate and discussion to definitely warrant a literati stamp of approval!

fahrenheit451
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a veritable god among book-lovers. He produced some of the most engaging, entertaining, and intelligent stories in American history, and we will fight you on that. Not only that, but he was insanely prolific, and managed to address complex, intelligent subjects with great scope and depth in a way that was enjoyable and entertaining to read. So, what I’m saying is, Nobel Prize for Literature people, you totally missed a good one.
The story is set in the future, and concerns a world where books are illegal and firemen are employed to find contraband books and burn them. Many people say that the story is about censorship, and while that is the case Bradbury himself said that the main focus was not on how people take literature away from us but how WE relinquish our literature freely. The characters give up their freedom for the sake of technological convenience and nonstop entertainment programming. They don’t even realize that there is a war going on!
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Bradbury’s story hits eerily home with his insights about giving up our heritage of literature and great thought for a sense of security and entertainment, even if we’re not secure and are dying inside!
The plot focuses on a fireman who one day does the unthinkable and reads one of the books he is supposed to burn. His depressing, empty life is changed completely and he realizes that the crazy of the world may be the only sane people left.
Also, any book that encourages readers to abandon simplistic entertainment in favor of intellectual thought, or else face dire consequences, is definitely something we can get behind!

huxley0408
7. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fun fact, did you know the band The Doors was named after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which is about dropping acid. Just… saying.
Ah, A Brave New World. You know, a lot of people who feel stupid saying that we live in an Orwellian future like to say that we live in this book. Personally, I think the only book that sucks people in and forces them to live the events is The Neverending Story, but I digress.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!


The story sounds at first like a utopia. The world is peaceful. We have technology. No one is getting burned alive with their collection of Shakespeare… But, that’s just the surface. Huxley’s book shows that peace at all costs may not be such a great idea. The people are artificially created, and live a weak, anti-intellectual, passionless lifestyle. Families and romance are pornographic. Nothing matters. Humans are basically just there to blandly exist, consume, and die. The chillingly clinical look at human existence and the reasons for continuing at all is not only frightening but important in today’s “unexamined life” espousal. If there’s nothing to die for, is there anything to live for?
Or, as Huxley himself said: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

clockwork orange
8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If no other book on this list will give you an invite to the “cool readers” crowd, this will. What can you really say about A Clockwork Orange that hasn’t been said? Or, what can even be said that the trailer for the (amazing!!) Kubrick film didn’t say?
Witty, funny, satiric, musical, exciting, bizarre, witty, political, thrilling, frightening, metaphorical, comic, sardonic, exciting, metaphorical, Beethoven, metaphorical, frightening, sardonic, comic, bizarre, musical, witty, frightening, political, satiric, Beethoven, thrilling, funny, exciting, funny, comic, bizarre, satiric, metaphorical, sardonic, thrilling, exciting, political, musical, exciting, witty, Beethoven, frightening, comic.
Basically, Clockwork is one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. The story is set in the future, where crime and depravity have become extreme and government corruption is the norm. Our “hero” is Alex, a young hoodlum who basically typifies the “kids doing violence” archetype. He’s a murderer, a mugger, a rapist, an abuser, a household terror, a gangster, and he does it purely for the fun of it. He’s Shakespearian in his enjoyment of villainy, and not in a way that seems mustache-twirling or unrealistic. He has fun when he’s being a criminal, and that’s who he is.
Enter the law. Enter a new treatment by the law: The Ludovico Technique, which classically conditions Alex into being an unwilling law-abider and pacifist.
The novel asks you, what do you think of this? Can a person’s human integrity be violated, even someone as evil and rotten as Alex?
For a book filled with so much depravity, to the point that the movie received an X-rating and was blamed for copy-cat crimes, one might think that it’d be too difficult for the average reader. However, Burgess separates the reader from the action through a writing style done in an imaginary slang-speech that Alex uses throughout the book. The experimental style allows the readers to step back and consider the ideas without being repelled by the story. (To be fair, the movie does this, as well, through experimental film techniques.)
It’s frightful, fearsome, and so, so quotable, and you won’t be sorry you read it!

1Q84
9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of those divisive names in literature. On the one hand, he’s very popular and an excellent writer (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?). On the other hand, some people dislike him because they see him as being overrated among Western readers whose only introduction to Japanese literature is through his books. While I understand the need to branch out and read other Japanese writers, this doesn’t mean that Murakami is a bad author in his own right. In fact, he’s a damn good writer, and don’t you forget it! (Again, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?)

Read the damn thing already!

Read the damn thing already!


So, what is this nearly-thousand-page monstrocity about? Well, it’s 1984! But, it’s a bizarro 1984. It’s 1984, but with magical creatures, a martial arts technique made entirely out of testicle-punching, a massive publishing scam, and an alternative universe created by doing something so out of the Japanese norm that the fabric of space and time is actually ripped.
The story is about an assassin and championing ball-smasher (this is seriously a plot point –highbrow literature is weird), who climbs over a railing and creates the alternative 1984 (the Q is for question). It is also about a cult, an editor who is trying to pull off a literature scam, and his dyslexic prodigy who may not be writing fiction after all. In with all this weirdness is still the familiar Orwellian story about government, control, and the importance of language. Plus, you get to say you read a Murakami book.

infinite jest
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you really, really want to prove you’re not a literary newb, love for YA book series aside? Why not Wallace?
And, yes, let’s address the pink elephant in the room: this is a notoriously difficult novel. People make flow charts about this book. Yes. There are flow charts to help you understand what’s going on.
But, who am I kidding? You’re no pansy! You are dying to prove your literary chops, and, let me tell you, difficulty aside, this is not a book you’re going to regret reading. Satirical, poignant, funny, memorable, harrowing, and full of tennis, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll ever encounter.
So, what’s the plot of this notorious, difficult, smart, funny, awesome book of pure awesome? Well… Um… Okay, will a teaser do? It’s about a video that’s so entertaining that anyone who sees it will watch it on loop until they die. In a futuristic world of drug addicts, extreme tennis, support groups for the ugly, and wheel chair terrorists, the students of a prestigious tennis academy, the inmates of a drug rehab halfway house, and a variety of other characters eventually pursue the afore-mentioned Infinite Jest.
The book is hardly linear, and written in a series of snippets that reveal a lot of daily life for the characters in the story (complete with copious footnotes, so watch out!). This may feel daunting, but it’s actually very rewarding in that you get to experience a lot of Wallace’s insights. And, as one of the greatest intellectuals, if not the greatest intellectual of our time, Wallace’s insights are not to be missed.
Empathetic, gorgeously written, and dense enough for you to feel really good about yourself at the end, this is most assuredly a book you don’t want to skip!

So, you read Harry Potter…

harry
Okay, so maybe the young adult literature phenomenon/anti-drug of your choice wasn’t chock full of vampires. More power to you. If you’re like almost everyone on the planet, you have read Harry Potter. About 3/4s of you enjoyed it, too. And, most of you who enjoyed it enjoyed the living bajeezus out of it, enjoyed it with passion, preference, and pride, enjoyed it with every molecule of your body.
Again: more power to you.
But, all things must come to an end. Chimney sweepers coming to dust, lovers young… Oh, that Shakespearian rag, it’s so elegant… I’m mixing literature here and getting ahead of myself. The point is, Harry Potter had a nice, long run, and while most people won’t fault you for re-reading the entire series, most people will when you refuse to read anything else. Ah, but that’s why we have Pushy Librarians!
Pushy Librarians, once again here to make sure YOU are reading all your intellectually metaphorical fruits and vegetables! Yes, we’ll help you with all your literati needs, whether you want/like it or not! You WILL look like a grown-ass adult when we’re through… (feel free to begin the Mulan song, “Mister I’ll make a man out of YOU!”)
So, what would you want to read next after leaving Hogwarts? Well… here are some suggestions we’re aggressively forcing upon the populace!

the magicians
1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Ask any literati source what the grownup, literary equivalent of Harry Potter is, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll point at this book. And why not? It’s a reflective, philosophical, intellectual novel… about a boy who goes to wizarding school. It basically is THE Harry Potter-for-grown-ups. We could finish the list by just posting The Magicians ten times, and most people would be happy. But, Grossman’s novel is more than The Boy Who Lived, but totally not for kids… no… more. (That actually would be very, very sad.) This is its own entity, addressing the insecurities, yearnings, and, erm, existential crises of an older set of readers, searching for identity and purpose. It also addresses the idea of the wonders of magic as melded with the doldrums and angst of adulthood. Maybe that sounds less than appealing, but The Magicians has more than enough fantasy to satisfy the Potterhead crowd. And, admit it, getting on the end of HP, you related to those angsty, real-life, rough, dark scenes that filled the last part of the series. You did, didn’t you? And, you wouldn’t mind more of that, would you?

krabat
2. Krabat (Or The Satanic Mill, for you English readers) by Otfried Preussler
Okay, so this is also technically a kids’ book. But, The Satanic Mill is also an obscure kids’ book, and a smart, weird, trippy one at that. It’s the kid’s book that’s socially acceptable to read in public without being suspected of having a set of Gryffindor robes and a sorting hat in your lego-castle themed bedroom. So, what is this obscure kiddie book about? Well, do you remember all the panic about “satanic schools” concerning the Harry Potter books? This is probably what those people were imagining. This is the story of a young orphan boy who goes to a school of magic… black magic. Satanic, killing-people magic. This is basically what Voldemort wants Hogarts to be. And, you might be thinking, “Huh, that sounds really disturbing for a children’s book.”
I know, right?!

phantastes
3. Phantases by George MacDonald
In the world of literature, there are certain standards of epic… beards. And, by Lincoln, did MacDonald have one of the most epic! But, facial hair aside, MacDonald was a pioneering fantasy writer. He even inspired C.S. Lewis! This is a mythical story, part fantasy part romance, concerning a questing man named Anodos, who is seeking “The Marble Lady”, the ultimate beauty. But, since this is MacDonald, it’s not just a story about quests and magic, it’s also really abstract, symbolic, and, honestly, trippy as hell. Not many religious ministers can claim that. Plus, it was illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Does it get more magical than that? Possibly, but not without acid.

tom-browns-school-days-by-thomas-hughes
4. Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
This isn’t fantasy. That doesn’t stop Tom Brown from being the closest to Harry Potter in spirit, however! Rowling’s series is sort of genre-blending. On one hand, it’s a fantasy quest, complete with unlikely heroes and dark lords. On the other hand, it’s a kid’s fairytale-fable story, with whimsical moments that would be comfortable in the realm of Roald Dahl. And, on the third hand (just roll with it), it’s a schoolboy story, a coming-of-age tale with schooldays events and relationships. In that last respect, it’s a whole lot like Tom Brown. Even many of the dynamics are like Tom Brown. Just insert a lot of rugby, and there you go. What many people really love about HP are the characters and the way they interact. The “in real life” fanfiction people have come up with, aside from being terrible, is also proof that people really like the characters for themselves. Well, if you ever wanted that dynamic in a more real-life setting, this is the book you want!

neverwhere
5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Or… almost anything Gaiman. Hey, HP fans, want to look really cool, hip, and with-it, and yet still get your fantasy fix? Try Gaiman! Gaiman has been called the literary equivalent of a rock star, and that’s basically true. In fact, there have been only a handful of writers who have had this status, and only about two after the Romantics: Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman. And Gaiman hasn’t taken every drug known to man, but still managed to be as edgy and cool. What’s interesting about Gaiman is that, although he’s obviously very charismatic and his writing is very cool, he also could easily be that one librarian that is really awesome. He’s like the perfect blend of bookish and rocking and…
neilgaiman
We interrupt this session for a complete fangirlish breakdown.

Anyway…
Gaiman’s stories, like Harry Potter, are inventive, exciting, and full of memorable characters. But, Gaiman also writes fantasy for an older audience, and so is able to explore darker and more dangerous themes –truth, religion, beauty, the relationship humans have to myth and archetype. In Neverwhere, we have a story of an ordinary, even boring man, who ends up accidentally involved with the goings-on of a magical underworld. The story features eloquent assassins, dashing tricksters, brave hunters, warriors, rat-people, and Door, who is basically one of the coolest characters ever.

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6. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Addressing the elephant in the room: yes. Card is very political. And, of course, that leads some people to calling him a Nazi. I don’t mean this in the usual internet way, either. People actually do say that Card is an actual Nazi.
It’s a conspiracy, and he’s not actually a Nazi. But, he does have very, well, right-wing views.
Now, will this affect your reading of Card? For me, and I’ve read Sade, the author’s beliefs don’t necessarily have to affect the art. After all, Picasso was rather sexist, and yet we all love Picasso (anti-Picasso people are welcome to shut up).
The story is a science fiction tale of a young, intelligent boy in a bad family (not unlike Harry!), who gets sent to a special school, and who has a mission to save the world (because why not?). In this case, however, he saves the world by playing a lot of really cool video games… In many ways, the story can be overly simplistic, and has troubled readers concerning the apparent justification of a character basically due to ignorance. However, the “problematic” portions of the story can be beneficial, as well, can be open for questions and really make the reader think about the complexities of violence and war. And, considering that this is very literally a story about a boy who saves the world through video-game awesomeness, that’s kind of saying a lot.
It’s not necessarily one of the best books ever written, but Ender’s Game has been immensely influential, extremely popular, and promoted enough discourse and debate to well-warrant a literati stamp of approval!

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7. The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
I don’t think we can go much further in this fantasy discussion without talking about Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. According to many literary theorists, all literary criticism is a footnote to Socrates in that it all must address Socrates’ apparent dislike of fiction (yeah… that totally happened). In the world of fantasy, all fantasy has to deal in some way with Tolkien and Lewis. Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. All fantasy writers basically have the choice of either following in the footsteps of the genre’s most significant members, or breaking with that tradition. Rowling is not an iconoclast. Harry Potter is full of Narnian and Middle Earth influences, from the style of her monsters, to mirrors that tell secrets, to religious symbolism, to entering new worlds, to the world-building, to, well, a great deal. It’s not a flaw. She’s a part of a particular literary tradition.
But, chances are you’re already pretty darn familiar with these books. If you’re not, please go read them. We’re not talking about them here. What we are talking about, however, is a book that had impact in the development of Middle Earth: The Well at the World’s End.
This is a little-known fantasy novel by Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, because Pre-Raphaelites, man!
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It’s a fantasy quest, a romance of knights and valor, not something too out of place for the Medieval and Romantic PRB. But, it was more than just as Spenserian fanfic. It also has many of the trappings of what we now refer to as the fantasy genre. The story has its own world, and world-building is an important aspect. Its attention to the past, like in the works of Tolkien, is there to create a story for the present and an escape to the exotic and unusual realms of magic.
The plot follows a knight in search of a well that produces the water of eternal life. It’s a traditional questing story, with daring-deeds and unusual characters along the way. If you want to backtrack your way into the roots of the genre the bore HP, you could definitely do worse than Morris.

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8. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
Hey, HP fans, do you ever get tired of being referred to as second-class readers? Do you want to prove to your literary friends, they with their Moby-Dicks and their Things Fall Apart, that you’re just as intellectual as they are? But, does it bother you to read stories that are very realistic? Do you yearn for magic and fantasy when you’re reading your Steinbeck and Austen? Are you reading this now and going, “You think I’ve read any of those books? Heh…”? Fear not! Literature has just the genre for you: magic realism, where life, liberty, truth, and beauty come to you in a package of FREAKING magic!
Not only is 100 Years of Solitude a magic realist story complete with flying carpets, alchemical arts, levitation, and a rain of golden flowers, it’s also very, very literary. How literary? you may well ask. Try Nobel Prize in Literature literary. Oh, yeah. The man’s the dude.
So, what’s this about? Well, in a remote place in Columbia, an ambitious family sets up a town (the solitude from the title), and this is its history for one hundred years… No, come back! It may sound like a dull premise, but there is nothing but nothing that isn’t in this book! Every aspect of life, good, bad, happy, sad, romantic, disgusting, beautiful, imaginary, real, revolutionary, brutal, lecherous, perverse, and sublime is here. From rebels and firing squads to a plague of insomnia, it’s a veritable feast for the imagination and will keep you glued to the pages until you think that the book is about 1,000 words long and way too short. And that’s a sure sign of a good book!

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9. The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
Again, this is technically a kid’s book. But, like The Satanic Mill, probably no adult will slight you on reading it. In fact, more or at least as many adults read this book than children do. Why? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that the author is a Decemberist:
http://decemberists.com/
Yes, that’s the band The Decemberists, and as all good literati know… they write songs based on literature and so are awesome. (Seriously, Infinite Jest, The Tain, Shadow Country…)
But, now is not the time to gush fangirlishly… twice. (*cough* Buy ALL the albums *cough*)
The Wildwood Chronicles is not just popular because of its musical ties and Carson Ellis’s gorgeous illustrations. It’s also a really, really smart story. The story is a well-crafted, loving treatment of the world of fantasy. It is self-conscious of its roots, to the point that may seem a bit winking at first until you take into account how earnestly the creators love their sources. It’s a story about children going to a magical world and saving the day, and it doesn’t try to put some cleaver, ironic, postmodern spin on this. It just says, “Hey, we love this kind of adventure, and that’s what we’re going to write! And it’ll be awesome!” And it is.
Plus, it has epic battles, rollicking songs, talking animals, bandits, political intrigue, and a really smart message about politics, control, and liberty. It’s something you can suggest to your kids and younger siblings and the children on the street, and something you can comfortably read in public without incurring the snobbery of the readerly elite. Just don’t be surprised when grownup adults run up to you and start singing sea shanties.

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10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
You like books. You like magic. It only makes sense to put the two together! This is yet another magic-realist story written originally in Spanish, because Spanish-speaking people are cooler than cool. (This is an objective truth.)
The Shadow of the Wind has the distinction of being both literary and one of the bestselling books of all time, so if you were worried about it being some obscure, hipster thing, it’s not. (Of course, if you’re an adult worrying about being a hipster you might be a very sad person…) The Shadow of the Wind is a lush novel, full of dark shadows and bright lights, and a sense of deliciousness, a heady sense of smell and touch and delight… It’s like dark chocolate on a shady pavilion overlooking a sunny garden…and you’re drunk. So, basically, it’s the bomb.
The story concerns a young boy whose father is a caretaker of a book cemetery, which should already have you hooked. If that’s not enough, the boy picks a mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind, a book that may have secret, mysterious enemies. Reading never was so cool… since Bastian went into The Neverending Story (which isn’t listed here because, dammit, you should have read it already).

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The Angst of Being a Good Reader

There is a moment as a reader when you stop reading, sit back, and realize that not only are you not Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Melville, Faulkner, O’Connor, Shakespeare, Homer, Murakami, Fitzgerald and all the gang, but you that you never will be. And this is depressing because they seem like such a cool gang, and you really want to join. But, like the kid bringing a garbage can lid to the snowboarding slopes, you’re hopelessly out of your league, and skulk on home to watch cartoons and eat packages of orange cream push-ups and watermelon bubble gum, wondering what it might be that causes the difference between you and the Flying Tomato.

-C.

How to Lose Credibility Online (pt. 5)

Decide that anyone who disagrees with you, in any way, must be an idiot.

The intent: A purer conviction of beliefs.

The reality: Okay, if you can’t see why this is problematic, then there’s not much we can do. But, this happens all the time, and usually in regard to the lower-end “thinkers” involved in religious/anti-religious arguments. Here is where you get your sixteen-year-old atheist and your barely-internet-aware theist hashing it out in the comments section of a youtube video about cats. It’s embarrassing enough BEFORE  they start handing out idiot trophies –on one end to Aquinas, Augustine, O’Connor, every religious scientist ever, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis, and on the other side to Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Lucretius, and Stephen Hawking.
The fact is, we are small creatures on this planet, and the likelihood any of us will discover the fullness of truth in an infinite universe is fairly low. There are many different methodologies to use in the pursuit of truth, and guess what? You may not agree with all of them. In fact, you may be convinced that some are dead wrong. But, does that make the promoters idiots? Maybe, but maybe not. A better question is, could you even tell the difference?
Most people today have no critical reading skills at all, and cannot A.) meet a writer on his or her own terms and follow the writer’s paradigm in order to discuss the ideas posited in a rational way, or B.) even find a central argument at all.

And, let’s be honest, none of the internet evangelists/anti-evangelists has ever read any of the authors they are attacking (and probably few of those they promote). After all, reading is… hard. Meh, off to post 400,000 memes to “prove” how superior I am to the world!  Oh, and “like” some pages! That’s a surefire way to make me intelligent. Looks at meh brillantish brainzes, biotches.

Pure. Unadulterated. Outrage.

-C.

What makes it good? (pt. 1)

One of the first subjects that I had hoped to address when starting this blog is the idea of evaluation in general. Circuit B and I are both going to be doing a lot of this, critiquing and judging works of art, film, music, and, especially, literature. But, we would like this to be an act of deliberation. We want to really look at what we’re reviewing and spend time considering it. Even if we hate something, we would like to give it the respect of a decent, thorough examination. (Also, that’s just way more fun when bashing something truly unbearable.) But, before we do this, I had hoped to address some challenges to criticism and discussion, and also what we’re striving for. After all, this is the internet. And, what is the internet good for if not providing a soapbox for what we net-users do best, complaining?

With endless opportunity for complaints, we have a unique environment. On the one hand, we have the chance to hear many different opinions, offered by many different people. On the other hand, we’ve also legitimized everyone’s opinions. Everyone’s. Yours, mine, the dog’s, that guy from the library who researches conspiracy theories all day long and never bathes. Everyone. With all this opinion-making going around, it’s easy to get lost in a quagmire of sentiments without ever finding a standard for anything. This is why we have earnest, starry-eyed bloggers insisting that Twilight is, in fact, as good as Shakespeare, and Harlequin romance novels are legitimate forms of literary art.

I think one of the biggest problems people have with evaluating literature (and art, and cinema, and music, and everything else) is reconciling acclaimed works, personal taste, and valuable craftsmanship. Most people tend to struggle over this, and I know that I do. The trouble is discovering if your likes and dislikes are firmly grounded, or if you’re a little daft. I’m sure everyone has at least one great work that is hard to “get into” or understand. For me, I don’t become all giddy over Jane Austen’s novels, and I’ve never been able to hop on that lively bandwagon of Lord of the Rings fanaticism. I just can’t. Nevertheless, it is important –when discovering what is or is not of great quality in the arts– to evaluate how personal tastes play a part in the critical process.

From my experience, most people fall into these categories:

  1. I don’t like it, therefore it is bad –my personal preferences being my own, and therefore infallible.
  2. It was praised, therefore it is good, and I must be absolutely, farting mad if I dislike it. I’ll just pretend to like everything that has ever been critically acclaimed!
  3. I need to evaluate the craft, note what is good and bad. Then I’ll allow for whatever subjective tendencies I may have, while still remaining open to correcting/widening my personal views.

Obviously, the third category is the ideal one, but it is very difficult to get there. You see, these days it is very easy to get your hands on enough techno-jargon to make even the most half-baked opinions sound reasonable. I’ve heard many passionate arguments claiming that Wuthering Heights is one of the worst books ever written. One need only look to sites like goodreads.com to find darn near every great work in the literary canon listed as “the worst books of all time”. Now, some people might be listing Wuthering Heights or War and Peace because they were forced to read it for school, and this is their petty revenge. However, many of these people have reasons for their beliefs. What inquiring minds today must realize is that most people have reasons.

It’s just that many of these reasons are absolute drivel.

With enough jargon, one can make anything sound intellectual. Take this example of Dumbsy McGenius writing:

Fifty Shades of Gray, far from being a popular bit of erotic fanfiction, is, in fact, a revolutionary inspection of the dichotomous relationship between the impulse/animal and the civilized norms today. The scenes of transgressive sexuality are, in fact, subjugating bourgeois society’s mores to the anti-fascistic levity of what we will term an Open Soul Experience (OSE). The OSE, qua Experiential Moment In Sexual Impulsivity (EMISI), breaks down the cross-cultural barriers of man and woman through the unification, connection, and fusion of flesh and blood in a quazi-primitive union. In this way, the novel is one of experiential wisdom, promoting a nigh mythopoeic exploration of love as a devouring source.”

‘Round these parts, that’s what we call bullshit. [Oh, and I wrote that in a timed two minute period. But, similar content mysteriously appeared in many of my old college essays (note the sublimely deflective passive voice…), and I managed to ace many of them.] The point is, having a reason for what you believe does not necessarily mean you’re not spouting nonsense about OSEs of the EMISIs. All reasons, all arguments are not created equal.

So, in this section, we’ll be looking at reasons (mostly bad ones) for evaluating literature, and explaining our own standards. We’ll also be expressing significant levels of literary outrage, so stay calm and await the inevitable.

-C