Stirring the High Fantasy Stock Pot

Date: 16 February 2013

Books Completed: 32     

Books Left: 168

In my quest to read all the Newbery books, I recently read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King. Generally, I don’t care for high fantasy (Narnia and Harry Potter being the two exceptions) so I was unprepared to enjoy the final installment of the Prydain series as much as I did. Even during the midst of my enjoyment, however, I couldn’t help but having a bit of a laugh, not at the book, but its genre.

A few years ago I read the first Prydain book, The Book of Three, so I could have some high fantasy titles to book-talk to my students. I skipped the middle books, but as I read The High King, some things just seemed oddly familiar. I thought, at first, it was just recalling characters and situations from the first book. But as I read on, I realized that wasn’t it. I was being reminded, and quite forcefully so, of another high fantasy series—Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never read the Rings books. I have seen the movies though, (and let’s be honest, that was because Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen are appealing eye-candy), and the parallels between the two series, with a little Harry Potter thrown in were astonishing.

To wit:

Frodo-Aragorn/Taran=humble hero on a quest to destroy/seek item that is pivotal in the to-the-death fight between good and evil

Arwen-Eowyn/Eilonwy=high spirited girl-empowered princess and true love of the hero

Samwise Gamgee/Gurgi/Dobby=non-human creature incredibly loyal to hero

Gimli/Doli=complaining warrior dwarf

Gandalf/Dallben=wise magical being aiding the hero; surrogate father figure

Sauron/Arawn/Voldemort=embodiment of evil to be destroyed

Orcs/Cauldron-Born=invincible soldiers crafted from the earth to fight for evil

I could go on (and on), but you get the point.  And these are just the characters. The events are strikingly similar as well: the battle for Helm’s Deep/Caer Dathyl, the destruction of the ring/disempowerment of Dyrnwyn, etc., etc.

There are particular genres that I enjoy. While the stories within these genres can have comparable structures and comparable characters they have never seemed interchangeable to me, unlike the tales of Middle Earth and Prydain. I mean, even the letters and sounds in the names of the parallel characters are similar. Not to mention that in both the struggle between good and evil takes place in some vague medieval-ish, hygiene-deficient time of horses, armor, capes, and flowing dresses and tresses.  Are they actually two stories or simply a tale retold?

I know these are only two examples, but they seem to be fairly representative of the genre. I know high fantasy has its passionate devotees who would likely pick apart my arguments. And I now know why this genre with its stock settings, stock characters, stock problems, events, solutions, and stock themes holds no stock with me.


Date: 9 February 2013

Books Completed: 27     

Books Left: 173

Let’s face it, most of us have a thing for celebrities. And while I swoon over George Clooney and marvel at the genius of Meryl Streep, my biggest kicks come from author experiences. I sat next to Katherine Paterson once, attended a great lecture by Gail Carson Levine, and met Mo Willems and his daughter Trixie. Heady experiences, all, but they pale next to an event I attended last Sunday—and no, I don’t mean the Super Bowl.

Some fifth grade girls at my school have formed a mother-daughter book club, inspired by the series of the same name by Heather Vogel Frederick.  One of these enterprising young ladies emailed the author, seeing as the first book in the series was the one they were reading for their club, and asked if she would come. Ms. Frederick graciously responded that she could not come in person, but she could Skype the meeting. In the course of telling me about the upcoming event, another one of the girls invited me to join. I jumped at the opportunity.

I’m not sure who was more excited as the day drew nearer—the girls or myself. Sometimes the delights of anticipation outweigh the joys of the actual event, but not in this case for me. The great day arrived, we got our questions ready, and we fired up the tablet. When we connected with Ms. Frederick, she seemed genuinely interested in the girls, and let them choose the format for the session. They wanted to let her start off talking and she did.

Not surprisingly, she was a great storyteller. She told a little bit about her childhood as it related to becoming an author, as well as about her college years and beyond. She talked about rejection letters, working with editors, and where the idea for the series came from. As she talked, she included the girls every now and then so it didn’t seem like a lecture. Then the girls (and I) asked our questions. When it was my turn, I found that the answer to one question led me to think of and ask some others.  I think I ended up spending the most time actually chatting with her, but the girls didn’t seem to mind. After a few minutes I said I didn’t want to be a hog and turned it back over to the girls for an additional question or two. Then we all thanked each other and signed off.

Heather Vogel Frederick was warm, friendly, at ease talking with the girls, and altogether delightful. She gave us her time and her experiences—for free! What authors do that in this day and age? I was an admirer of her books before, and now I can admire her as a person as well.

I stayed and chatted with the moms for a bit after and we all seemed to have the same impressions of the experience. It wasn’t until I had almost reached home (a good 40 minutes or so after we signed off) that I realized my face hurt—from the smile I’d been wearing for over an hour. That face-ache was a great, though fleeting, souvenir of a truly awesome experience.

Thanks again to HD for having the imagination and confidence for thinking this up and following through with the idea, to JM for inviting me (and introducing me to the books in the first place), and to all the mothers and daughters of the Luxmanor Mother-Daughter Book Club for making me feel so welcome. I will treasure the experience always!

Heigh Ho the Bery O

Date: 2 February 2013

Books Completed: 23     

Books Left: 177

Earlier this week, the ALA announced its winner for this year’s Newbery award. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan for it to be one of my 200 this year. Considering the event, and the fact that I finished reading 2 previous Newbery winners this week (it is my goal to eventually read them all), I thought I’d share some Newbery thoughts.

As I look over my running list of Newberys I own and have read, I notice an intriguing trend. The ones from the past 30 years or so I either quite enjoyed or was kind of “eh” about, with two notable exceptions (couldn’t stand Desperaux and Jacob Have I Loved).  The same can be said of the ones I’ve read from the 1950s and earlier. The winners from the 60s and 70s however, produce some wildly bi-polar responses from me. I loved It’s Like This, Cat and A Wrinkle in Time. The latter surprised me as sci-fi is so not my genre. To this day Terabithia is an all-time favorite, even though I pretty much weep like a baby every time I read it. But Sounder? The Slave Dancer? Worst of all, Shadow of a Bull? These are truly among the worst books I’ve ever read. And while, obviously, others will disagree with my assessments, those who love the books I despise will likely despise the books I love.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the winners of these two particular decades can inspire such oppositional emotions. The 60s in particular were years of tremendous upheaval and challenging all that came before them. While the books that I loathe are not reflective of the turbulence as far as content goes, I believe the moods they evoke are. More importantly, the collections of winners as a whole during this time mirror the struggle our nation was undergoing—counterculture versus the establishment, questioning versus blind acceptance of authority, change versus the status quo. In other words, the spirits of the books, rather than the actual content, are making a commentary of their times.

Makes me wonder—what will some children’s book lover 40 years from now make of a collection that includes The Giver, A Year Down Yonder, and The Graveyard Book?