More than Kids’ Stuff

Children and Young Adult literature (which has its own Library of Congress acronym!) has come a long way since I was a kid.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the books I read as a young person, but there are many more choices that use a lot more imagination these days.  I’ve been reading Robert Repino’s books since Mort(e) appeared in 2015.  Spark and the League of Ursus is his latest and it continues his trademark use of animals (and stand-ins) to get at very human situations.  Spark is a carefully crafted story based on the idea that teddy bears do more than provide cuddles at night.  They are, in fact, a force for good, protecting human children from monsters.

As usual when I discuss books, I won’t give too much away.  I’m one of those guys who doesn’t even like to read back-cover blurbs because I’m afraid they’ll spoil the story.  Instead, I’m going to applaud the use of imagination in a world that seems stuck on a limited number of plot points.  Books like this, which stretch the imagination of the young without talking down to them—why does it cost us so much effort to admit that kids are smart?—are a great addition to CYA literature.  I was exploring this concept with another friend who writes when I read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  A story’s intended audience is often signaled by the age bracket of the protagonists.  I’d suppose ‘tweens might be about the age here, based on that metric.  (Green was more like New Adult, a category that lasts until about age 30.)

Reading material written for younger readers makes me feel younger myself.  I read Ransom Riggs first three Miss Peregrine novels (also published by Quirk, the house that publishes Spark).  You see, I’m really encouraged by this growth in younger readers’ material.  If we can get kids into books with such engaging stories I suspect there’ll be less chance that they become unimaginative, straight-laced adults who want to keep things just like they were when they were kids.  Imagination has that kind of liberating ability.  Besides, who doesn’t want their teddy bear to come to their rescue once in a while?  It’s not just children that can take a lesson from imaginative story-telling.  Repino’s War with No Name series was intended for adult readers but it is good preparation for getting a sense of the possibilities for readers who might, in all hope, never have to face wars at all.

Holy Hollow

HollowCityEveryone wants to belong, to fit in. Growing up, I seldom felt I managed it. When you’re very young you don’t know enough to notice that you are more melancholy than other kids, or that you can’t afford the nice things they can. As you reach your teenage years, however, and you know that you come from the kinds of families that other parents warn their kids about (fairly poor, very religious, and just a bit peculiar). No wonder I find Ransom Riggs’ books so engaging. Yes, they’re written for young adults, but just about anything that Quirk Press publishes is worth the read. As an adult, if I’m honest with myself, I’m still waiting to feel like I fit in. The kids in Hollow City, the peculiars, know that they can never fit in. They have special, impossible talents that make them the targets of monsters called hollowgasts, or hollows, who try to gobble down as many as possible. Monsters, outsiders, and very human relationships—it’s a winning combination.

Quite apart from the spellbinding pace Riggs spins out (he’s a master of building tension), there are some quasi-religious elements in the books as well. I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a couple years back, and Hollow City develops the mythology a bit more. The real enemies are the wights—mean-spirited malcontents who rule the monsters. They learn that they can become demigods if they extract what makes a peculiar peculiar. That’s a religious concept: the essence that materialists tell us isn’t really there at all that makes us what we are. The children are self-sacrificial toward their mistresses, birdlike and godlike at the same time.

Peculiars have two souls, although most of us don’t know what to do with even one. The soul has, of course, come under great suspicion over the last century or so. There seems to be something that makes us what we are, and it isn’t just cells and DNA. Some call it consciousness, others personality. There are those with élan and others with spirit. We can’t call it “soul” because that smacks of superstition and yesteryear. So we read of children with two souls and none to spare. Even Philip Pullman had souls for his children in His Dark Materials. The soul, in both these book series, leaves a person completely dehumanized when it is excised. Of course, materialism will do that for free. Yes, I know it’s fiction—young adult fiction at that—but my money’s on Ransom here. Let’s hear it for those who have a surfeit of souls!