Books for Children: a building post, and yet another that I must organize

Do people still read books like Ring Out Bow Bells and Cue for Treason? Or books by Nina Bawden? Rumer Godden? I’m just thinking of the books I read at that age that I can’t imagine not having read.

The George Macdonald books. All the Oz books — and L. Frank Baum was apparently an outspoken feminist.

“Only Ever Yours” by Louise O’Neill, which is creepy almost beyond belief. Actually, even though it’s about teenagers, it may not be for (young) teenagers. It’s a cross between “Mean Girls” and “A Handmaid’s Tale” if that makes sense. READ.

The Lost Conspiracy. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Very Own Making, and related titles.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart. Ursula LeGuin. Miyuki Miyabe, The Book of Heroes. Diana Wynne Jones. Diego’s Dragon. Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series.

Jeanne DuPrau’s EMBER series. I also loved loved loved THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, though it flunks the Bechdel test and bleeds its author’s self-closeted nightmares. But nobody handles fantasy world-building better than Terence Hansbury White.

I would recommend Frances Hardinge’s books, especially The Lost Conspiracy (a postcolonial political thriller featuring a young indigenous girl as the protagonist, I swear it is the most amazing) and the Fly By Night/Fly Trap series (featuring a young girl protagonist who loves words and foments revolutions everywhere she goes!). Also, check my nine year-old goddaughter’s brilliant book review blog, Monsoon Bookworm:

I find that the key thing that young readers get from GC is the assumption of Lyra’s point of view, through the scrim of their own experiences which may or may not overlap in various ways. Developmentally, this unarticulated practice of how we make meaning from multiple sources points to how & why the framing of text and context are such powerful constructivist tools. (And yes, it occurs to me how this may be one reason LS does not sit well with me; stories about white folks or boys or even snark aren’t the problem.)

I love the Abhorsen series. Each focuses on a teenaged female necromancer, so a bit dark but not racy (there might be a pretty chaste kiss between a couple of teens who end up getting married and becoming king and queen). It’s set in the Old Kingdom where magic still exists, but there’s a wall to the south with the modern world, where the first girl goes to boarding school. The third book has a magic talking dog named the Disreputable Dog that is one of my favorite characters ever. So unbelievably awesome. Made me laugh. Bright me to tears. There’s also surly and mischievous talking cat that guides the young Abhorsens. And a group of psychic women and their daughters who read the future in glaciers

I’ve had students tell me that they read His Dark Materials as 10,11,12 year olds and loved the books. ARMORED BEARS! WITCHES! etc. They might not get *all* the resonances of everything Pullman’s doing – and he is doing a LOT – but they’re getting something; revisiting the text then as an older/adult reader then gives them the pleasure of discovering all the layers they didn’t pick up on as kids. In the few grad classes I took on children’s lit, and in my general experience with other grad students in the field, there is still so much focus on white heteronormative texts. Nonwhite protagonists, queer protagonists, texts that really *radically* challenge mainstream norms – those end up as kind of token one-offs in people’s reading repertoire (though Virginia Hamilton seems to be getting a resurgence of attention, which is great). We have a lot – a LOT – of work to do, in the scholarly field (especially at the teaching level, I think) and in publishing to get more ‘diverse’ books, and to get more *attention* for them.

Brown Girl Dreaming; The Golden Compass.

Andromeda Klein, by Fred Portman. Books by Nnedi Okarafor. Madeleine L’Engle; Redwall; The Sisters Grimm; the Abhorsen series (Garth Nix). Anne Ursu, Susan Cooper, Mercedes Lacker’s Valdemar series.

(Likewise Melina Marchetta’s wonderful Finnikin of the Rock/Lumaterre series). Pullman’s trilogy likewise might get a bit complex for a younger reader, and a lot of the deeper, more complex meanings would probably pass her by. But I think His Dark Materials should be required reading for pretty much every human, at some point. Andromeda Klein is definitely much more YA; there’s a bit of “racy” stuff, but also it’s a very weird and disturbing book. I was disappointed by it, actually – i LOVE Portman’s *King Dork* (also for a somewhat older audience). Another rec: David Lubar’s *Hidden Talents* (which has at least one sequel).

If you gift Pullman’s His Dark Material’s trilogy, make sure to read it first, as it’s a series that enjoys discussion; in general, I never gift a book without reading first as I like to share what I like and didn’t and it’s the one of the best ways to have real conversations with young people. I also think Philiip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series are excellent—check out the site below (History Matters for Kids) for an excellent review. Also check the essay on the real-life “adventure” story, Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent by Thomas B. Allen; I’ve paired that with the 1964 Harriet the Spy by (southern lesbian) Louise Fitzhugh for an interesting series of conversations with my 10 year-old friends.

If she likes scary/creepy stories, Jonathan Auxier’s *The Night Gardener* gave ME the heebie-jeebies but has gotten lots of good press since its publication in the spring. Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series is great.

Rita Williams Garcia and Jackie Woodson are writing some of the best for and about tween and teen girls, especially on the tensions between experiences of school and home. The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis) is a book I gave my niece when it first came out and which—same copy—she has gifted her 10 year old daughter; a (family) road trip adventure set in 1963.

If she’s a reader, I would SO recommend Cathrynne M. Valente’s *Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.* It’s a very readerly text, though, so if she isn’t a big reader, it’s not the best. It’s the first of three (so far) *Fairyland* books, and it’s FANTASTIC. Narnia, of course, is a classic series. The Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander are high fantasy, based in part on Welsh mythology – I read them in sixth grade and loved them. On the realist fiction side: Phyllis Naylor’s *Alice* books follow the protagonist from elementary school up to end of high school, possibly beyond. There are a gazillion of them; I’ve only read a few, but they are good. There’s Harry Potter, of course. Diana Wynne Jones is amazing – not much in the way of series, but her books are so good that you want to read them all. *Charmed Life* is the first in the Chrestomanci ‘series’; Howl’s Moving Castle is a mostly a stand-alone, but it’s tremendously good. The Percy Jackson books are fun, too; not the highest of high literature, but clever, engaging, exciting – and all Greek mythology in the contemporary US. They are better written than a lot of the other series out there. All the Lemony Snicket books are great, as well – again, especially if she’s a reader. His new series is All the Wrong Questions – two of them are out already, and of course they are amazing, odd and clever and intriguing. Sheila Turnage’s mystery *Three Times Lucky* is great, as is Ingrid Law’s *Savvy* (which has a second book in the series that I have yet to read). *Three Times Lucky* is more in the realist vein; *Savvy* is most definitely fantasy/adventure. *A Wrinkle in Time* and its sequels; if she likes those, she may also like Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning *When You Reach Me.* Not series, and realist, but fantastic – everything by E.L. Konigsberg. *The View From Saturday* is terrific. Gail Carson Levine’s *Ella Enchanted* is good, as is Shannon Hale’s *Princess Academy* – both of these are playing with/disrupting the standard princess tropes/narrative. Hale’s is the first in a series, and I *think* Levine’s may have a sequel or two as well.

I strongly recommend the Feyland series by Anthea Sharp, with a female lead character who is a gamer; her dad develops a dangerous video game that the characters can actually enter, and she does. The story is actually based on the ballad of Tam Lin. It’s gotten good reviews, and it’s not too racy. There’s humor, some significant class diversity, set in a dystopian society of the future, and some racial diversity as well. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I also like American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang tha is a mash-up o f three stories, referencing the Monkey King folk tale and racial formation; I’ve used it a lot with young folks. My daughter enjoys Emily Windsnap, which is mermaid stuff. I highly recommend the Charlie Bone books. Two main characters are girls about 12.

In junior high, I loved Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. Plot is pretty typical (girl dresses up as a boy to become a knight), but it goes through many milestones and key stages of development a young woman is likely to encounter (getting her period, first boyfriend, first breakup, etc.) in a fairly feminist way. ETA: I’ll second Mercedes Lackey, the Arrows trilogy specifically. That’s about a young girl breaking away from a very conservative, fundamentalist background. Also, there are talking horses.

I’m not saying that Handler’s books should not be read, I’m just saying that in this moment, when there are so many other authors whose works can and should be recommended, that I have a hard time recommending Handler’s work. For example, that a specific request for books about the middle school experience for girls would lead to Lemony Snicket but not also Jackie Woodson is a good reminder of what Woodson—and middle school tweens— are up against. The Maizon trilogy, for example, follows a young girl from the summer she turns eleven through the experience of entering middle school from Maizon’s point of view not simply as part of the cast of characters. Woodson or Handler; hmmm.

Another key reason for not suggesting LS right now is that when I give a book to someone, I read it and I follow up on discussiong it with them. For school age folks, that also means talking about the process of writing and creating, when and where appropriate. I don’t think Handler’s series of remarks at a widely broadcast and reported on event is simply personal behavior but is instead a reflection of structural white supremacy. And his remarks reflect how (certain) authors AND their texts are rarely separated by the industry, their audiences, or by critics & scholars of literature for young people. So I’m not too rumpled by taking Handler to task in the same manner (although I am mostly content to just ignore his work and recommend things that I enjoy much more). Whether or not Lemony Snicket’s books espouse “racist ideology,” they are clearly raced and marked in ways that make clear how Handler’s “humor” is underwritten by an relatively unexamined understanding of race, gender, and class. IMO.

For these reasons, LS has never been high on my list so the fact that is even lower is simply because there are other books that I prefer, and better writers that I would like to encourage and be in conversation with (for several years I produced a children’s authors and illustrators broadcast series in MA). Nonetheless, I read his work so I can be in conversation with young folk who read them; it is sometimes quite a bit of work to do so. I was not impressed with his apology nor the amount of work that Jackie was forced to take on following his remarks, given that he was a “personal” friend; please imagine that this is not his first nor possibly his last transgression.

Regardless, as Lemony Snicket himself says: It is very difficult to make one’s way in this world without being wicked at one point or another, when the world’s way is so wicked to begin with.…/philip-pullman-as…/

This entry was posted in Feminism, What Is A Scholar?, Working. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s