middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

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what I’m reading

This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that.  Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).

  1. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.  I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories.  It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century.  I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book.  Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others.  In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize.  I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life.  Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe.  In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor.  I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice.  But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking.  These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway.  Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
  2. And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight.  He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything.  I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!”  The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
  3. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle.  I’ll probably finish this one tonight.  I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older.  It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people.  This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie).  The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic.  It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty.  But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001.  In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.

Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books.  Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.

the war that launched a million stories

The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.”  Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2.  (Really?  I didn’t know that.)  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini.  Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List.  So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.

This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2.  One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt.  It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over).  It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.

The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world wara sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected.  So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported.  To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book.  American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure.  Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe.  A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time.  Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.

These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage.  Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times.  But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

children’s lit roundup

Last week I told you about my new resolution to read one children’s book every weekend.  Well, my resolution-keeping streak lasted exactly one weekend.  Although I contemplated reading the shortest children’s book on my bookcase (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman) this past weekend, I decided I had too much other stuff to do, like making a pot of pasta e fagioli soup.  (So I did continue my Italian cooking streak.)

However, I did buy a children’s book on Saturday.  At a local store with the perfectly explanatory name Estates and Consignments (where I also found a nice drop-leaf table that I’m thinking of buying if it’s still there next time I go), I found a copy of 1971 Newbery Winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  It looks like an early edition, and if it is indeed a 45-year-old paperback, it’s in really good shape.  So that’s got to count for something.

And although I didn’t read an entire children’s book over the weekend, I did make progress on a children’s book I’ve been working on for a little over a week: Inkdeath, the final book in the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke.  I’ve been disappointed with these books because I really wanted to love them, especially after witnessing the enthusiasm of one of my students who claims them as her favorite books and who is doing a major project on them this semester.  Although the story has kept me enough engaged that persevering through these three massive volumes hasn’t been a complete drag, I can’t say I’ll be sad to finish the series.  I find the translation from German clunky, with isn’t Funke’s fault, but I don’t think the translation can be blamed for the unlikeable (in some cases) and forgettable (in most others) characters.  There are a few minor characters with interesting psychologies, but I still don’t really care if they live or die.  The quasi-medieval Inkworld is by turns beautiful and gritty (which is why I think the second and third books, which are set in it, have been better the first one, which is set in our own world), but I kind of wish I could get rid of all the existing characters (except maybe Dustfinger; he’s okay) and create my own story set in the Inkworld.  Which I guess makes me no better than the villain of this third book, who’s basically trying to do just that.  All right; I’ll just own it.  I’m a bad guy.

I am also listening to a children’s book, the recent Newbery Honor book The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz.  Here’s the premise of this bizarre (and, like Inkdeath, extremely long) story: In medieval France, three kids with superpowers (though nobody actually uses that word), accompanied by a greyhound who’s been resurrected from the dead, are trying to get to a far-away monastery and escape the corrupt knights who are hunting them.  Actually, right now they’re just trying to get to an inn where one of the boys left his donkey, which he calls his ass, which led to some Chaucer-esque broad humor that I have to admit made me LOL.  The structure of the novel is also Chaucer-esque: The “inquisitor” of the title is a writer (voiced in the audiobook by Gidwitz himself) who keeps asking questions while drinking in an inn, and the story gets pieced together by a colorful cast of adult characters who seem to be in awe of the plucky trio–and who are just as interesting as the kids themselves.  I’m enjoying this book for several reasons: It’s funny but it also has a real sense of danger (a balance that many good children’s books strike); the characters are likeable, except the ones we aren’t supposed to like; and the most of the readers are good, which, as I’ve noticed since I started listening to audiobooks recently, can make a huge difference in my appreciation of a book (which, I suppose, isn’t entirely fair to the author).

Well, that’s about all the children’s lit I can handle in one week.  Let me know if you’ve read any of these books or if you have any suggestions for ones I should read next!

The Witches and Italian nachos

This past weekend I set myself a new goal: to read one children’s book every weekend.  This will not only make a dent in the growing pile of books that, until yesterday, was on the floor of my home office (yesterday I bought and assembled a cheap but serviceable Target bookcase), but also, more importantly, it will help build my expertise in the ever-growing field of children’s literature, which I claim to know enough about to teach.

On Saturday and Sunday, I read The Witches by Roald Dahl.  This is only the third Roald Dahl book I’ve ever read, which I realize makes me a total children’s lit poser (a lot of things make me a children’s lit poser, but I’m working on that).  I am, however, familiar with the plots and themes of many of his other books, in some cases through movies (like Steven Spielberg’s recent The BFG).  The Witches is different from many of the books because it’s written in first person, and although nobody would mistake this for a realistic novel, I think Dahl draws a bit from his own upbringing as a person of Norwegian ancestry growing up in the UK.  I hope Grandmamma, a delightful character, is based on one of his real grandmothers.  Like many of Dahl’s books, this one makes you laugh at things that should probably terrify you (though some of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which are usually just wacky, are genuinely frightening in this book), and it also contains elements of the classic morality tale–e.g., the boy who tortures small animals and gets turned into a mouse himself (though the kind protagonist also gets turned into a mouse, of course).  I think what struck me most about this book is how much it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I read recently.  Gaiman’s work in general is often Dahl-esque, but I really see a resemblance between these two books.  Though The Witches  is sillier, both mingle humor and terror, both have curious and seemingly dauntless children as protagonists (well, that’s true of 75% of children’s literature), and both include female antagonists who seem sweet and polite on the surface but quickly reveal themselves to be malevolent, specifically to children.  There’s probably something psychoanalytic here–I’ll leave that to someone else to explore.

I briefly toyed with the idea of turning this into a themed blog and writing each week about the children’s book I had read the previous weekend.  I know that themed blogs tend to be more successful because readers know what to expect.  But I also know that I would miss writing those wonderful gut-spilling confessional pieces I like to post every few months, as well as writing about movies, events, academia, and Christian life.  So I’m not going to fundamentally change the nature of this blog, but I probably will include a short update most weeks about the children’s book I’ve read most recently.

Another regular feature I’d like to include is a brief spot about some food I’ve prepared recently, whether from a recipe or from my own invention–usually the former, since I’m not a particularly imaginative cook.  But I did come up with this one all by myself: Italian nachos.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to have invented something similar, but it was a new idea to me.  The story is this: I had some Tostitos and nothing to dip them in.  So I started dragging things out of my refrigerator and pantry.  My nachos ended up with the following toppings: shredded mozzarella, crumbled goat cheese, a spice blend left over from a recipe (it was actually more Indian, but Italian nachos are, by definition, multicultural anyway), oregano, cilantro, parsley, lime juice (this was a nod to traditional nachos; I could have used lemon juice to be more thematic), olive bruschetta, and sliced cherry tomatoes.  I microwaved it all for a minute, and the result was delicious.  Obviously, there are endless possible variations depending on what you have on hand, but I have one piece of advice: if you don’t have olive bruschetta, use a little bit of olive oil.  You need some oil to bind everything together.

So there you have it.  I recommend getting a copy of The Witches and making yourself some Italian nachos immediately.  I would not recommend enjoying both at once, however.  The Witches is a little gross.  (It’s Roald Dahl; what did you expect?)