Monday, August 16, 2010

YA Authors and their Wisdom

I have been reading a slew of YA books recently, because I felt like it. And while I may have said disparaging things about YA authors in previous posts, I sometimes find them extremely wise. I think there is a certain wisdom gained by authors in any genre, who are privileged to spend a large part of their adult lives as authors; this may be particularly true of YA authors, at least of good ones, for they are writing at a level of childhood, a level where first and often lasting and affecting impressions are formed--they are writing to the people who will influence the people of tomorrow, who will become those people. Witness Susan Cooper, reflecting on her privilege in the afterword to her book Victory:

Sam Robbins's encounters with Admiral Nelson are not historical; they came out of my imagination, and I loved writing them. Perhaps I wrote this whole book only for a chance of meeting one of my greatest heroes, just as I was lucky enough to meet Shakespeare in a book called King of Shadows and Merlin, long ago, in a sequence called The Dark is Rising. Writers are fortunate people.

Another thing I notice in Cooper here is her humility. The Dark is Rising is perhaps one of the most famous of YA book series to come out in the last forty or so years, and Cooper would be justified in assuming that the type of people reading her Author's Note would be familiar with it. However, it is not famous enough to warrant the assumption of universal familiarity and her reference to "a sequence called The Dark is Rising" therefore does not come across as condescending.

Also, while I have read and loved The Dark is Rising, that note made me rather want to read King of Shadows.

Another author in whom I have noticed the latter-day presence of both wisdom and humility is Avi. This fellow has written a veritable slew of "YA" and "Teen" books over the past three or so decades. Some I have found worth my time; others I have thrown, justly or unjustly, by the wayside. But always he seems to be writing what he wants to write, and not what others want him to write, and for this I respect him.

Recently I read his The End of the Beginning and A Beginning, a Muddle and an End (2004 and 2008, respectively), which are both about a snail and an ant who have philosophical and epistemological discussions, often to arrive at counterintuitive conclusions. The books are somewhat in the tradition of Winnie the Pooh, and I found them great fun. A note at the beginning of the second book goes like this:

Some time ago one of my young readers wrote to me about writing. Among the many wise things he said was that a good story consists of "a beginning, a muddle, and an end." It was the smartest description of a story I've ever read. I wish I knew his name. Perhaps he'll read this book. If so, I thank him for giving me a title.

Besides the fact that Avi is right, this is quite a remarkable little note in a few ways. Notice the experienced writer deferring to the child who wrote to him; notice him calling the child "wise." I can think of no other living writer who would be likely to do this. Neil Gaiman, maybe. Maybe. Of fully "adult" fiction writers that I know anything about, I can picture none saying something like this. Could it be that our childrens' writers know something the rest of us are missing?

Finally we come to Kate DiCamillo. I read her books The Tale of Desperaux and The Remarkable Journey of Edward Tulane a while ago, both of which became favorites in their own way. It was not until recently that I got to reading her first couple books, Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising. I don't know that either will become out-and-out favorites the way Desperaux and Edward did; but both are masterfully crafted, grace-filled stories.

In The Tiger Rising, a withdrawn young boy meets an angry young girl, and against all apparent odds the two become friends. There is a lot of grace in the book, especially in their burgeoning relationship. One of my favorite passages was this:

"Oh," said Sistine. And Rob realized then why he liked Sistine so much. He liked her because when she saw something beautiful, the sound of her voice changed. All the words she uttered had an oof sound to them, as if she was getting punched in the stomach... Her words sounded... as if the world, the real world, had been punched through, so that he could see something wonderful and dazzling on the other side of it.

Honestly, I don't know if this is wisdom, or folly, or simple conceit. But I love this passage. I love it because this is how I feel when I encounter overwhelming beauty. I feel as if I've been punched in the stomach; when I'm talking about it, sometimes I feel exactly as if my words have that oof sound. I don't know if this is noticeable to anybody else.

The whole of Winn-Dixie, which somewhat incredibly is the author's first novel, is littered with wisdom. It is harder to pin down than the works quoted above. One bit of wisdom is made concrete here:

"Come here, child," Gloria Dump said. She reached for me and pulled me close to her and whispered in my ear, "There ain't no way you can hold on to something that wants to go, you understand? You can only love what you got while you got it."

Recently on facebook I saw a friend of a friend of a friend (I saw this because I find facebook-stalking a good way to kill boredom) comment on someone's status. The status was of the genre of status in which the poster wishes to 'be a kid again' in one way or another; the response was something along the lines of "Childhood should be remembered well, but maturity and growing up valued more highly." This sounded like a certain genre of post comment I have encountered, that of the Thinking Christian, and the implication of every comment in this genre is that every Thinking Christian should agree. And I sort of did at the time, though something rankled me about it. And then I realized that at least one of the reasons for this rankling lay in Matthew 18; and while this as a response to the post I am referring to may be out-of-context and therefore not be fair, this all works as an illustration summing up what (if anything) I had to say in this post:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.