Monday, March 26, 2007

reading ease of YA novels

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing—Traitor to the Nation, by M. T. Anderson is a challenging read on many accounts. To start reading without benefit of literary reviews, it takes many pages to get grounded in the story. Is it a futuristic, or fantasy novel? People who are members of a curious enterprise called The Novanglian College of Lucidity, ‘devoted to divining the secrets of the universe,’ and called only by digital representations, 03-01, 07-04—that give some measure of a person’s social standing and his profession—what’s going on here? What period of time are we in?

A first clue, or not, is that the language seems a sort of archaic English. Gradually the reader learns the setting is Colonial times, near Boston. At the beginning of the story, the main character is an African boy, named Octavian Nothing. The college purchased him and his mother, an African Princess, in the slave market, to be studied for the characteristics of their race. Can they learn Western music? How much of what they eat is converted to energy, to waste? These and other seemingly banal quests for knowledge leave the reader questioning the mental capacity of the college’s intellects.

Gradually, possible story themes emerge, of how unenlightened the social, philosophical, and scientific thought might have been in some circles of Revolutionary-era America, and particularly how unenlightened it was toward African slaves. It might not have been as harsh as in the more agrarian South, but seemed just as degrading.

The complete story of Octavian Nothing will be published in at least two volumes, reportedly, and this volume carries us up to Octavian’s participation in some early Revolutionary War clashes, where slaves were “loaned” by their owners to the Patriots for some of the heavy work of war, and to ‘excuse’ their own lack of participation.

Anderson has set in motion an ambitious story, which is not an easy read, but seems to have all the hallmarks of intensive research—from the language of the times, to the previously little known attitude of Colonial New England toward slavery. Apparently it has received favorable attention from young readers, and that renews confidence in youth’s abilities to wrestle with a difficult literary work, if it encompasses a good story.

To point out what is meant by difficult reading, a sample was taken at random, p.54, and analyzed with WORD’s grammar check, to find the following interesting statistics:

Words per sentence—40
Flesch Reading Ease—55 %
Flesch Kincaid Reading Level—11th Grade

As noted in earlier blogs, the scores for some bestselling authors and a Pulitzer Prize winner in a study have typically shown vocabularies suitable up to Grade 6, and Reading Ease up to 80 Percent. Perhaps Octavian’s reception is welcome news for writers of young people’s literature who might like to use more difficult but expressive language, and intricate plot development, but were held back by assumptions about youths.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

more on graphic novels

Graphic novels have been increasing in popularity and rather than being any threat to prose novels they may reinforce reading habits for some. I think graphic novels invite far more introspection than a completely passive diversion, like TV, and they invite art appreciation right along with story participation. Good graphic novels have a clean-cut similarity to attractive block prints of modern art . The coupling of art forms and expressions to the story in progress can be intriguing.

One of the best I’ve read is “Blankets,” by Craig Thompson. It’s an engrossing memoir of a young man who has been raised in a severely strict, fundamentalist Christian family, and who meets an attractive young woman, Raina, in a Christian summer camp. Raina is a warm, beautiful, liberal-minded individual who is very popular among her similar-minded friends. She intrigues Thompson, and invites him to spend a couple weeks of his winter break visiting at her home in another town. Her family has some internal disconnects, but Thompson falls in love there with Raina, and although it becomes clear it can’t last beyond this visit, he grows and matures in ways he couldn’t have imagined before. The artwork is great, and the graphic unfolding of the story is wonderfully done.

More recently I enjoyed American Born Chinese, by Gene Luan Yang. This is a handsomely done graphic novel about a young boy of Chinese immigrant parents growing up in America, mostly centered around his life and friendships in school. Episodes from the Chinese Monkey King fables are interspersed in the story, and they seem very much to belong. Jin Wang is so intent on being "American" that for a part of the book he's drawn as Western-looking boy named Danny, though we don't quite know what's going on yet. Danny's visiting cousin from China, a crude stereotype, mystifies us, and is an embarrassment to Danny in front of the all-American girl he idolizes. The threads come together when the Monkey King comes to visit Jin and convinces Jin he'll be a happier person if he'd just be himself. Besides the great graphics, it's a well structured story.

I’ll have to mention just one more, Amelia Rules-The whole world’s crazy,” by Jimmy Gownley. It’s a MG graphic novel, kids playing at being superheroes, and coping with life at school and at home. Story is, of course, a lot less sophisticated than the older books discussed, but the graphics are neat and appealing.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

voices and alternatives

Voice is such a difficult quality to establish for any main character, and is usually the first task a writer considers in making his story come alive on the page—and be marketable. Some writers might seize on direct qualities, like regional dialect, or notable class distinction in the character’s diction, to create a unique and interesting voice. Others might use introverted or extroverted modes of expressing their character’s speech—hesitant, thoughtful, fearful; or blustering, assertive, combative.

Still others may bag the whole exercise of creating a compelling voice, and instead give their character some challenging condition that will create interest in them as a character. This may be more hazardous to the writer’s success than finding a distinctive voice, since the writing must now also avoid any unearned praise, or blame, for the character solely because of their given condition. The writer must be very good to succeed at this type of story, and some have been. Two YA books that come to mind include:

Stoner & Spaz, by Ron Koertge
A H.S. boy with Multiple Sclerosis falls in love with a girl who uses and deals drugs. It’s an epiphany for the boy, and he also becomes interested in filmmaking. The romance ends, the girl goes back to drugs, but the boy is a better person for the experience.

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, by Mark Haddon
An autistic teenager decides to find the murderer of a neighbor’s dog and discovers his father killed it and it leads to the uncovering of the mystery of why his mother left home. The author inserts lots of graphics and scientific puzzles to dramatize the teenager’s inner world and interests.

But the challenging condition might be made a lot less severe than in those cases, as in the following YA book I’ve just read:

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
The main character is a HS senior who’d grown up as a child prodigy. He doesn’t have much of a voice, and his introverted, nerdy condition is definitely an added challenge. Some nineteen girls have dumped him through the years, and all were named Katherine. He goes on a summer road trip with his best friend (he’s half-Jewish, the friend is Arab), and through much of the story he works on developing a theorem, shown in mathematical curves, that will predict whether the partner in any relationship will be the dumper, or dumpee. During his road trip he meets an opposite temperament—extroverted—Tennessee girl in a backwater setting, and redemption is at hand.

Voices and Alternatives—both equally challenging.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

fictional truth

An essay by Frederick Reiken in The Writer’s Chronicle, Mar./Apr. 2007, titled “What is True?—Thoughts on Fictional 'Truth,' Unconscious Metaphor, and Celery” had so many good parts to it, and I want to try and capture a couple of them here.

One of the ideas is that a ‘fictional truth’ needs to rise above the ordinary, factual, black-and-white happenings of real life if we want it to support a literary work. We’ve often heard, in workshops and such, ‘just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.’ Reiken’s essay used an excerpt from a short piece titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” included in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam fiction work, The Things They Carried, as follows.

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on the grenade and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

You’d feel cheated if it never happened.

Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true war story that never happened.

That provides such a great illustration of literary, fictional truth. Another idea I valued in the essay touched on a fiction writer’s use of story ambiguity. Quoting work by author John Berger, Reiken says “Authentic writing depends primarily on a writer’s willingness to stay faithful to the fundamental ambiguity of experience.” Also, “a writer who attempts to close too many ambiguities at once without opening others will run into a problem…” The idea of keeping ambiguities afloat during a fictional work seems so important to me, to extend the suspense of events, and to keep the reader turning the pages. One of my favorite creative writing teachers, John Gardner, also gets some play in Reiken’s essay, on topics from Gardner’s book entitled, “On Moral Fiction,” and dealing a lot with the ‘metaphors’ of the essay title. In sum, this is an essay I’m going to have to read over a couple of times—good stuff.
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