Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hangin' with Mr. Shakespeare: book review

After perusing The Ultimate Book Guide, I brought home a couple of newer books from the library: a book by Anne Fine, and Susan Cooper's King of Shadows. I read King of Shadows, and my teenage Apprentice read the Anne Fine novel (in one evening).

These are recommended for the 8 to 12 age group? (the focus of The Ultimate Book Guide)

I'll back up a bit. I read Susan Cooper's whole Dark is Rising sequence years ago. Several times. I loved them so much that I even read them to Mr. Fixit. I think I read them to the Apprentice. I may or may not read them to the younger Squirrelings...for the same reasons that I may or may not read them the Wrinkle in Time books. Some Christians I know (conservative AND well-read) don't like the views they put forth on good, evil, God and the universe. But I still love them for their story, their originality (even though they draw on many other legends), and the magical quality of the writing...
The room was at once a cosy cave of yellow light, and he lay back in shame, feeling stupid. Frightened of the dark, he thought: how awful. Just like a baby. Stephen would never have been frightened of the dark, up here. Look, there's the bookcase and the table, the two chairs and the window seat; look, there are the six little square-riggers of the mobile hanging from the ceiling, and their shadows sailing over there on the wall. Everything's ordinary. Go to sleep.

He switched off the light again, and instantly everything was even worse than before. The fear jumped at him for the third time like a great animal that had been waiting to spring. Will lay terrified, shaking, feeling himself shake, and yet unable to move. He felt he must be going mad. Outside, the wind moaned, paused, rose into a sudden howl, and there was a noise, a muffled scraping thump, against the skylight in the ceiling of his room. And then in a dreadful furious moment, horror seized him like a nightmare made real; there came a wrenching crash, with the howling of the wind suddenly much louder and closer, and a great blast of cold; and the Feeling came hurtling against him with such force of dread that it flung him cowering away.

Will shrieked. He only knew it afterwards; he was far too deep in fear to hear the sound of his own voice. For an appalling pitch-black moment he lay scarcely conscious, lost somewhere out of the world, out in black space. And then there were quick footsteps up the stairs outside his door, and a voice calling in concern, and blessed light warming the room and bringing him back into life again.
Jump to twenty-plus years later, and we have:
We had one other thing in common, too. Most of us were pretty weird. When you think about it, a normal kid wants to watch TV or movies, videos or computer games: there's something odd about him if instead he's more interested in the stage. And we were all crazy about it; crazy, and confident that we had talent. Arby had made sure of that when he first interviewed each of us, last winter.
I'm not sure if I'm reading E.L. Konigsburg or what...but it doesn't sound like Susan Cooper. Or at least it doesn't sound like The Dark is Rising.

Later on I think Cooper gets past some of the initial awkwardness, especially when she does the scenes between Nat, the main character, and his new friend William Shakespeare. (I think I see a bit of TDIR's Will and Merriman in this.) The slanginess and monotone of the first scenes are replaced by more enthusiasm and something real that made me at least interested enough to see it through to the end.
As for Will Shakespeare, he was King of Fairyland of the whole world, as far as I was concerned. He wasn't a great actor; he didn't have that indescribable special gift that Richard Burbage had, that could in an instant fill a theater with roars of laughter, or with prickling cold silence. But as Oberon he had an eerie authority that made me, as Puck, totally his devoted servant. When he sent me offstage to look for the magic herb that he would squeeze on Titiania's eyes, it was my own delight--me, Nat Field--that put spring into my cartwheeling exit.
Parts of King of Shadows remind me of other books: Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes (another somewhat disturbing timeshift book that was a bit ahead of its time), and Geoffrey Trease's Cue for Treason, which isn't a timetravel book at all but has a lot of the same plot elements: a young boy who's part of a theatre company with William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, the detail of boys playing all the female parts, performing something for Queen Elizabeth, and a backdrop of political intrigue, spies, treason and so on.

When I thought some more about Cue for Treason (which some people would consider dull and old-fashioned--I doubt it's even in most public libraries now), I recognized one big difference between these two books about hanging out with Shakespeare, and why I would read my 10-year-old Trease's book but not King of Shadows. Cue for Treason is an adventure story. Stuff happens, and more stuff happens, and people even get shot at, but overall it's just kind of a ripping yarn. King of Shadows is way more psychological than any 10-year-old I know would be able to handle. It's about grief, unhappiness...it's about a beautiful friendship and the fascination of acting...it's got all kinds of details in it about the Elizabethan theater and A Midsummer Night's Dream...but it's also about bearbaiting, suicide, maimed beggars, and birds pecking at severed skulls. It also has a few instances (in the present-day scenes) of what I'd consider unacceptable language in a book for this age group.

My 10-year-old is just coming off of a several-month trip with me through the Borrowers' series. She's just come beyond the Magic Treehouse books (not my own idea of awesome, but something she enjoyed reading to herself), and is starting to look for something a little more. I was thinking of starting a couple of Ellen Raskin's mysteries with her, which also have the occasional dark side but have enough humor to balance things out. And that's the other thing I think I'm not liking much about this odyssey into 10-to-12-ish fiction of the last several years: these books seem to take themselves oh so seriously, and the world oh so sadly. There's not enough delight in them. In The Dark is Rising there's evil and scariness, but it's defeated, full tilt. (And Will's life isn't all that bad to start with--he's summoned to help fight The Dark, but otherwise he's just sort of a normal boy.) In Cue for Treason the bad guys are caught and the worst of them are sent to the Tower (to await their turn with the birds, no doubt, but Peter (the boy) isn't there to see it). In King of Shadows there is some closure for Nat's emotional wounds, and it even turns out that there was a purpose for his timeshifting adventure, but it doesn't seem like enough to set things straight. In a way one wishes that Susan Cooper, and Anne Fine, and their ilk, weren't such good writers, because when they choose to do raw emotions, they do it too well for this age group. It's a throwback to what somebody called "the gray books" of the 1970's young-adult genre: a too-adult, too-depressing world that Ponytails, for one, isn't ready for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. My Sea Star is 11, and I feel the same way about disturbing themes in kids' books.

Sadly, a lot of the Battle of the Books titles have themes that are, at best, depressing. [We're reading Crispin at the Edge of the World for the Battle right now.]

Our library DIDN'T have Cue for Treason, but they had 2 others by Geoffrey Trease.

Also, I can recommend the Henry Reed, Homer Price, and Beezus books for this age group.

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