I’ve been reading several young adult books the past couple months and have found them to be at different degrees of enjoyable. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally all three narrators are boys. All three have problems with point of view. I’ll talk about each book and discuss how point of view plays such an essential part of a reader’s experience.
Dragonhaven (2007) by Robin McKinley is suggested for ages 7 and up. This is what the book jacket said: Jake Mendoza lives at the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. Smokehill is home to about two hundred of the few remaining draco australiensis, which are extinct in the wild. Keeping a preserve for dragons is controversial: detractors say dragons are extremely dangerous and unjustifiably expensive to keep and should be destroyed. Environmentalists and friends say there are no records of them eating humans and they are a unique example of specialist evolution and must be protected. But they are up to eighty feet long and breathe fire. On his first overnight solo trek, Jake finds a dragona dragon dying next to the human she killed. Jake realizes this news could destroy Smokehill even though the dead man is clearly a poacher who had attacked the dragon first, that fact will be lost in the outcry against dragons. But then Jake is struck by something more urgent — he sees that the dragon has just given birth, and one of the babies is still alive. What he decides to do will determine not only their futures, but the future of Smokehill itself.
Rot and Ruin (2010) by Jonathan Maberry is the first in the Benny Imura series and is suggested for ages 8 and up. This is what Jonathan Maberry’s website had to say of the book: In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn’t want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash—but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human. As Benny’s worldview is challenged again and again by the lessons he learns from Tom, he is forced to confront another horrifying reality: sometimes, the most terrible monsters are the human ones. Acclaimed horror author Jonathan Maberry makes his young adult debut with this detail-rich depiction of a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has fallen, the dead have risen, and danger is always imminent.
Suggested for ages 10 and up, this is what publicity on Amazon said: Gary D. Schmidt offers an unforgettable antihero in The Wednesday Wars (2007) – a wonderfully witty and compelling novel about a teenage boy’s mishaps and adventures over the course of the 1967-68 school year. Meet Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High, who must spend Wednesday afternoons with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, while the rest of the class has religious instruction. Mrs. Baker doesnt like Holling – he’s sure of it. Why else would she make him read the plays of William Shakespeare outside class? But everyone has bigger things to worry about, like Vietnam. His father wants Holling and his sister to be on their best behavior: the success of his business depends on it. But how can Holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with? A bully demanding cream puffs; angry rats; and a baseball hero signing autographs the very same night Holling has to appear in a play in yellow tights! As fate sneaks up on him again and again, Holling finds Motivation-the Big M-in the most unexpected places and musters up the courage to embrace his destiny, in spite of himself.
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
Dragons! A baby dragon to boot. While I haven’t read everything or even the most popular stories with dragons I do tend to grab up anything where a human finds a baby dragon and raises it. The actual day to day interactions and the fun things the character does to take care of that baby creature are some of the best moments in this kind of book. And McKinley doesn’t disappoint with her dragon lore. The writer also utilized an idea I planned for my own world.
Zombies! Okay, like I’ve said in the past not here nor there to me. I went to the library and wanted to get The Walking Dead comic series but didn’t realize how impossible that would be. The Librarian suggested this book to me and I checked it out on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised at the plot! This is some of the best plot I’ve ever read. Period. It was handled so expertly I plan on checking out more from Jonathan Maberry, but this time in the adult section.
Okay…another Book Club selection for 2012. It had a lot of buzz because it holds a Newbery Honor from the 2008 selection. It also involves Shakespeare, who makes my stomach roll, but whom most everyone else on the planet and in the good old US of A, adores beyond reason. I do find the difficulties this child finds himself in to be particularly funny once you get into the story. If you can get into the story, which I eventually was able to due to a timely comment by a friend.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
The cover graphic scared me a little. Not refined enough for an adult book, it didn’t say young adult to me either. I’ve read books in the past that start out with a child-age protagonist and they were very well done and adult. With the political undertone in the jacket description I have to say I felt myself safe. Expectations for a book play such a huge part in how satisfied we are at the end of the story. Let’s just say the graphics really muddled mine and left me with the serious possibility of being disappointed.
The only real saving grace is the fact I picked this up at half-price books. Okay I should have opened it to the first page and read a bit. In my defense it’s about dragons! It’s called Dragonhaven! How can that be bad?
Well at it’s core it’s not all bad. The basic premise really works actually. Dragons were found in Australia, killed to extinction in the wild, there are now only a few places on earth where they are maintained. Smokehill where Jake lives is one of them. No one actually gets to see dragons at the preserve though. Not Jake, not his dad who is head of the Institute and not the rangers. No one. Kind of makes sense people are basically over the fact dragons exist. Americans especially are a “see it to believe it” type of people. That’s an over generalization, of course, but you get the idea.
This is only the start of the contrivance of this book. There is also this over generalized view of everything from tourists, to scientists, to investigators, to doctors. Basically everything in Smokehill is in an uphill battle with the outside world. To an extent I understand and sympathize with this outlook. And in it’s defense the entire book is written from a single character’s point of view. It’s any character’s prerogative to believe whatever they want as long as it’s in line with the character, which it is in this case.
I’m sure you saw the common thread though…over generalized. Maybe a real kid over generalizes but with a character and especially a narrator we need specifics. We need to feel and experience why they think the way they do. To this end many a writing book will tell you don’t tell everything, show. Now you do have to tell some things otherwise a book would never end but to relate to a character we have to experience the way the character experienced.
A major problem in the book is we don’t get to experience anything. Not a single thing. We are told everything from how we should feel and what we should believe to all the rambling thoughts one might have when thinking about what you feel and what you believe. This allows you as the reader no thoughts, feelings or beliefs of your own. They get crowded out by Jake to the point you wish Jake would just butt out…of the entire book!
Rarely can I stomach a book where I dislike the character. (Not that Jake is a hateful person, just a hateful narrator.) But character aside if the plot of the book had really shone through, especially about dragons, the story might still have been saved. That said, there were only three main events in the book. First was Jake finding the dying mother and the newborn dragonlet. Second was Jake and Lois being whisked away from a helicopter by Gulp, a grown up dragon. Third was Gulp having babies of her own and Jake being a godparent to her youngest. That’s it. The rest was a gobbly gook of streaming thoughts by Jake mixed with him telling you after the fact stuff that happened. You feel so distant from these events and you are told so long after with no threat attached to it that you couldn’t care less.
The potential of the ideas in the story were wasted. A total shame too. Dragons being found hiding among us – cool back history! A preserve where dragons live but haven’t been seen – great start! A baby needing to grow up curled around it’s mother’s belly and being really hot to the point of burning – awesome drawbacks! Using the fire-breathing and the massive size from traditional dragons – inspired! The cool dragony caves and different way of communicating – unusual! Dragons having an eggless birth as marsupials instead – the best (my writing partner and I had already developed this when we created our dragons).
Unfortunately the point of view was so out of whack these ideas were drowned in thoughts I didn’t give a whit about. Dragonhaven is like a graveyard where dragon ideas go to die instead of flourishing and being released out into the wild. I’m heartbroken I can’t even suggest you read it and resell it to a discount book store. I’m not a particular fan of Robin McKinley but I do not wish any harm to her reputation. I remember reading The Hero and the Crown in school and enjoying it. In my opinion the publishers should have sent her back to rework the entire book from the framework of her ideas.
My expectations aside (of a child raising a dragon in a political, adult world), the point of view really ruined the story for me. A narrative so fraught with duplicated pointless thoughts is bad. Using a technique where the narrator, who is also the protagonist, tells the reader what is going on in the story after the fact is worse. Such a shame. I wouldn’t recommend letting a child read Dragonhaven as it would probably put them off reading…for good.
It’s funny but what should have warned me about Dragonhaven – the lack of money invested in the cover art – is probably why I decided to check this out of the library. I adore the cover graphics of Rot & Ruin and I think any kid would want to read it for that reason alone!
Right at the start, I thought Benny’s thoughts about his brother, Tom, a little obvious in their total wrongness and a tad contrived as they were based on an experience as a baby. I cock a brow at any human being insane enough to brag that they remember gurgling as they poop and rolling around on the floor while their proud parents beam down on them. (I’ve had this bragged at me several times so I can attest people really believe they remember!)
To balance out this extreme wrong-headedness the writer created this wonderful, bigger than life role model older brother who could mentor and teach his brother (as soon as he got over his wrong-headedness) the right way to be in a bad, bad world. Don’t get me wrong I love Tom, he’s the best character to my mind. Just a little one dimensional. All good and no play… As it is we are expected to believe Tom spent 14 years with Benny but never sought to influence his brother in any way until his fifteenth birthday?!? I don’t know. I get it if Benny never allowed himself to change his opinion but to never try seems extreme patience to me. Perhaps his negative trait? Hmm…so this is where I have to assume Benny somehow hide from his – police trained – older brother that he HATED Tom’s guts. Never, not once, did Benny scream invectives at his guardian? In a whole decade? He never spoke of cowards or yellow bellies or anything? Tom never had to react to said accusations?
For example, if Benny spent a lot of time with Nix and her mom while his brother was out on jobs and he only sees the softer side of his brother when Tom came home and spent time with all of them then you can start to build a reason why Benny’s wrong-headed thinking has been maintained over such a long period of time; (jealousy and a fear his conclusions are correct). We also see then (and are not told) that Tom’s negative trait is not being capable of showing softer emotions when he feels responsible. Geeze, the book acts like Benny’s life just started at age 15 with the only previous back history being Tom’s experiences as a zom Bounty Hunter and the two brothers running away from their mother about to be eaten by their father (when Benny was a year old). Okay, okay I’m beating a dead horse. So the premise of the character is shaky. Perhaps this is due to the writer transitioning from an adult character to a child. Whatever the reason the reader is left on shaky ground until the plot gets moving…
And now for the good stuff! The plot. I couldn’t stop reading the book. It started off slow setting up Benny and how he doesn’t want to go into the family business as a zom hunter and his attempts to get out of it. When push comes to shove though he reluctantly gives in and finds a terribly real world out there, more real than the town he’s lived in his entire life. He does react to that experience (if a tad overboard in my opinion) and the writer uses it as a jumping board for the rest of the plot. He contrasted the town one more time and set the audience up for the next level of the story. I found this expertly done. I wouldn’t question a one of his plot choices or transitions. It’s not contrived at all how the writer moved the characters through the plot to major action points. We are lead believably to the point where the reader assumes the two brothers will part ways but it’s a faint for when they really part, again believably and climatically, a chapter or two later. I really enjoyed the slow build of the story. The plot was built solid and it was built right. One event relied on the one before but not in a contrived or overly stereotypical way.
Any plot problems came directly from the lack of development character wise on Benny’s part. For example, Tom, Benny’s older brother, decided when they would visit their parents and put them down…in the epilogue. Benny didn’t ask to do so or even make any suggestion that he desired to know what really happened with them. If you are going to start a story out with this insane idea that an infant remembers the real facts of an important event then you, by golly, better climax on the idea as well. I’ve read statistics that found a lot of readers won’t even read an epilogue! They don’t consider it part of the story. Benny getting together with Nix as compared to the Lost Girl is a great side plot but it didn’t feed into Benny’s character arc. It acted more as emotional filler to help bridge the gap between the setup and beginning of the story and the epilogue. The ending really proves my point though about properly developing a character – good plot might keep us reading – but emotionally motivated, character arcing plot will leave us feeling satisfied and rabid for more.
The story did have this preachy feel, taking on the heavy subject of zombie rights and the rights of those loved ones with zombie family members. At first this really bummed me out and I wanted to roll my eyes. It definitely is an interesting take, I thought. Upon thinking about it as I read I grew to accept that for this world it was a huge concern. It became part of the rot and ruin mythos if you will. For a child’s book you could do with a worse philosophical discussion and the writer did well to talk about it using such a popular subject as zombies.
I did feel the struggle the writer had to maintain the young adult point of view. For the most part Benny felt like a kid when he spoke and interacted with his friends and other adults but then at critical thinking points in the narrative he came off like a 30 to 35 year old man. As if the writer didn’t know what a teenager would think about that specific idea and just needed him to conclude what he did to move on with the story. I think this is a factor of that simple is better kid’s idea. I’d have preferred him to leave some things a little more murky so as to give parents something to discuss and the kid’s something to decide. In the end it didn’t kill the book for me by any means. The plot far outweighed the characters and took the reader on a fun jaunt through the rot and ruin.
My expectations, while not totally satisfied, were met story wise. Because of writing factors I was able to put aside the character flaws and enjoy the premise and action. For the most part this is a good read, with a little more work character wise it would have been one for the bookshelf. As it were I would recommend letting any child read Rot & Ruin.
←This is what the cover I got looked like for The Wednesday Wars. Needless to say I had not a clue what the book was about from the cover graphics. I figured it’d be pretty dreary whatever the subject. As it was with the disappointment of the previous book club selection under my belt I was really iffy about this one. I chose the other cover (to the right) for this review because of the simple fact you know right away it’s about a kid in school and some obvious adventures he has, rats included. When I finally realized the book mixes Shakespeare into the equation the left cover finally started to make sense…and I liked it even less.
The story is divided into months, the months our protagonist, Holling, spends in the 7th grade. After reading the first month I wanted to throw the book against the wall, stomp over and tear the cover from the book and burn it so no child would be forced to read the thing ever again…at least not that copy. A little overboard you protest…it’s just a kid’s book you rationalize…exactly I say, exactly! It’s a book a child will read, the minds most susceptible to wrong-headedness and bad examples. And in my opinion, the book is so badly written. I kid you not, a Newbery Honor book badly written! See it’s the run on sentences. When one sentence takes half a page it’s too long. Every once in a while, in any book, you get a sentence like this and you think ‘wow, that’s really long’ but you move on and don’t encounter the like again. When you find yourself reading pages and pages of this kind of sentence you get terribly frustrated. Then there is the duplication.
Now I get duplicating things in dialogue and every once in a while in a narrative to emphasize something really important. I even get using it in the case of this narrator, obviously Holling thinks many things are important. Great…but not when you also talk in long, long run on sentences. I don’t care if you think this is how a kid thinks. The one thing I can say in the writer’s defense is that I read the book out loud. My writing partner is also in the book club and to keep it from messing with our voice it helps to read out loud. So imagine reading a whole page in one long breath. Yeah, tantamount to impossible. Even when there are periods the narrative flow doesn’t often change pace so you have this huge mouthful of words that overwhelm the reader. On top of that a “chapter” is really a whole month, so there are few breaks in the action that allow for the ebb and flow of life. This bothers me less as I think this technique goes a long way to showing the child narrator. A kid would summarize the high and low points, generalize the everyday. The writer did so though in a very specific way with specific events. I think this was a stroke of genius when it comes to child narration…we just didn’t need so much of the other techniques.
The truth is I really love Holling Hoodhood. I care about the kid and want him to succeed in everything he does. After that first chapter a friend in book club who’d already finished, chided me for complaining about the run on sentences. (I get it…kids are simple creatures who with a captured audience never shut up…or so I’m expected to believe. Sorry, the run on sentences really bug me.) After that though I really adjusted my attitude toward the character. It’s not Holling’s fault that the writer of his 7th grade biography captured his thoughts straight from his head with no editing. I really focused on the plot and tried to experience what Holling experienced.
To this end the book became more successful and not so much. It became successful because with my change in attitude I began to care. I thought it really cute how Holling applied Shakespeare to his life and how he bonded with Mrs. Baker, his teacher, through his own change in attitude toward the playwright. I really enjoyed how the author used events that might happen in the seventh grade to embroil Holling in and show his growth. By weaving these events over the whole school year each month built upon the one previous and yet didn’t feel a duplicate of another month. I loved the sudden introduction of the track team, the unexpected year end camping trip and the development of his sister’s story arc. The closer I got to the end of the book the less utilized the writing techniques above were used. I believe this was deliberate to show Holling growing up. You’d think this would mean I felt less annoyed at the run on sentences, the duplication and the pacing. I wasn’t though. Instead I felt more and more like the book was a gimmick, these techniques when used a jarring reminder of how Holling had initially been presented.
I say a gimmick because it felt increasingly like the book was written for an adult to read. The audience was supposed to be a seventh grader, 12 to 14 years old or as suggested at least 10 years of age. There seemed to be a huge advancement of Holling in the way he spoke, thought and believed all over the space of ten months. Increasingly his thoughts and conclusions seemed like ones a college age person comes to as they leave home and begin to see how the real world works. Sure certain set up elements made Holling seem to be a 13 year old, seventh grader but after that it all unwove to me. That said for many this will not be a problem in any way. A book is supposed to be a simulation of life not a duplication. I don’t disagree. I believe the writer chose 7th grade because it is at a cusp of life where all the elements he wanted to include could conceivably be believed with a modicum of suspension of disbelief.
Mrs. Baker really did wonders for the entire narrative. Where Tom weakened the plot at places in Rot & Ruin, Mrs. Baker made the story shine. She’s just the best example for any teacher to pattern herself after. She felt fully fleshed out and developed to me and the best plot had her at the center of it. The best moments of the book were when you found out her husband was missing and when you found out her husband had miraculously been found alive. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was in the character of Holling’s dad. I’d have really appreciated the writer fleshing out his dad with one moment when the man wasn’t all bad. To those ends I believe the writer saw the parents as a single character. The mother providing the one moment of good when she gives Holling the money he needs to get him and his sister back home on the train. I don’t particular love this kind of thing. People are people and at heart individuals. Still I understand the reasons why a writer would do this – he wanted Holling to see his dad one way and only see redemption in his mother.
In the end Holling really grew on me. It didn’t do anything for my dislike of Shakespeare or his works but it wasn’t a wasted effort either. Perhaps a child’s more rumor driven dislike of Shakespeare would falter more under Holling’s example. Overall a bigger suspension of disbelief is needed than a normal story and these details become especially annoying to those who recognize these points. To me the best books, however reluctantly, make us ponder our opinions and adjust them when we’ve judged too harshly.
I can say honestly that I was wrong – the book ought not to be torn up and burned. My expectations were very low to begin with and so the book rose many notches in my estimation. While I wouldn’t point out The Wednesday Wars for a child to read, I wouldn’t dismiss the book either; a lover of Shakespeare would find it essential for their bookshelf.
As you can see, I didn’t enjoy Dragonhaven much at all, I liked Rot & Ruin for the most part and The Wednesday Wars grew on me the more I read. It’s funny I didn’t realize the common factor between the three until after I realized something about each of them annoyed me and it had to do with the point of view character. In all three, a boy.
A character and a reader are in a symbiosis relationship with one another, especially with a narrator protagonist. To me the hardest of these are children characters because the writer tends to not be a child anymore and typically hasn’t been one for a while but wants their character to feel as real as possible. I’ve graded each book on some common child point of view mishaps. These mishaps played a major part in my enjoying, or being disappointed in each book.
Mishap #1 – Character narrators tell everything, especially child narrators.
In reality, all narratives, no matter the point of view, should balance between showing and telling.
An adult can relate the cause and effect of events and motivations where a child needs more help seeing the relationship. So I agree that a children’s book will have a lot more telling than showing out of simple necessity. That doesn’t mean a running stream of consciousness makes a good narrator. Nor should showing be shunted aside, for it is essential to making events feel they really happened. Yet making conclusions and establishing the point of the action is important for younger readers. By allowing the reader to feel the events as well as understand them the book is a richer experience, especially for the child audience.
F. I feel like Dragonhaven wasn’t edited – at all. Who cares if Jake’s dad had to nag him to write the book? Why start there? It totally diluted the fact his MOTHER JUST DIED. It made the dog feel even more inconsequential. I mean start out… I’m writing this as a tribute to my mother who died so Lois may live. Now then maybe I might believe this overly emotional teenage boy spouting so many of his touchy feely emotions and thoughts at me. This isn’t the only place in the story with useless information included that should have been edited. The story is heavy with it. The three main events are sandwiched among it. If you are going to repeat feelings or thoughts they better be building to something and change subtly as a result. The problem with Jake is he never went into much detail event wise. He gave you a general run down – like an outline – and then started thinking/feeling at you. There never was a point to all the thinking/feeling either except to quickly summarize plot to get to the next major event. Jake talked several times of stuff he left out. Well not enough I say. As a reader we don’t want all the trash thoughts, this isn’t a real life diary where useless stuff slips in sometimes. This was presented as a retelling of the story after the fact, by an adult, with the overtly personal bits left out on purpose because they were none of our business. This is ironic with the over abundance of Jake’s thoughts. Just because your character thinks it doesn’t mean the publishers should include it in a book they are planning to sell to consumers. Any reader wants a character that feels real, not one that literally tells us each and every thought that might pertain to the story they have to tell.
C. The Wednesday Wars narrative troubles are not so apparent as Jake’s extreme stream of consciousness style. I think that’s kind of ironic as it’s a case of stream of conscious run on sentences. The thing is it’s not so apparent because what Holling has to say is really relevant to the story, in fact it is the story. The entire book is told to us. In fact, I struggled to put myself, even a kid self, into the events surrounding Holling. A lot of that had to do with the techniques used to make Holling feel like a kid: run on sentences, duplication, summarization, and the heightened pacing. Too many techniques and the narrative becomes heavy handed. The reader, whether adult or child, has to be able to relate to the protagonist in some way. There is so much characterization through technique there is no room for the reader’s self. The pacing is a major problem. Period. That said the other three techniques are rather masterful if used more sparingly. If the writer had made room in his narrative to employ some showing in his style then even if the reader doesn’t cleave to Holling so much they can relate to the events in the story. My expectations, after reading some thoughts on the book, were to fall in love with Shakespeare, or at least be inspired to soften toward his works. It didn’t engender anything like that in me. It could have with a little showing. Holling changed in self due to his connection with Shakespeare, and I wanted that too. Any reader wants a character to be who they are, just not so overbearing that they can’t share in the experiences of the narrator.
A. Rot & Ruin really stood out because of plot. Benny Imura reacted to said plot in a fairly believable way, and even with his problems as a character, read well. Basically Benny made the story a fun ride. A lot of the enjoyment in the plot comes from the fact it was written in third person narrative style with character voice. This means events are told with a single focus character in mind but with he/she instead of I/me. This facilitates the connection between reader and character yet it’s still rather reminiscent to the feel of the first person narrative style (which many writers employ to garner an immediate connection). So we get the best of both worlds. It’s not necessary to use this style to relate to a character, that’s not what I’m saying at all. The fact is Benny Imura as a protagonist has a rather stunted back history and limited character arc. This doesn’t play into the enjoyment of the plot though because of this particular point of view narrative style. The reader still feels they are reading about Benny’s point of view but we also get to put ourselves into the story and events. Why he thought what he did might not have made sense and he might have come to a conclusion too easily but he got the reader from point A to point B inside the action. In the end you liked Benny, came to see he was a good kid and wanted to be like his older brother, through his actions and responses to the events around him. Any reader wants to feel like they’ve experienced the same as the protagonist, even if they wouldn’t have reacted in the same way, it overcomes many flaws.
Failure in point of view smashes a book rich in ideas like Dragonhaven, which is so sad. While The Wednesday Wars isn’t a failure narration wise, it risks alienating readers due to it’s heavy handed techniques. In the end, Rot & Ruin wins this match up because the reader’s enjoyment was considered in the development of the point of view.
Mishap #2 – Children need little to relate to a child character.
In reality, every protagonist needs a richly developed back history and status quo from which to advance a story.
An adult relates to another adult due to many different factors of background, history, and circumstance. A child is no less complex, in this way, than an adult. While I agree that simple black and white works well in a children’s book a depthful background and history starts the story from a strong point. It doesn’t mean a child character needs to be unduly complex but that they should feel like, however old they are, there is time behind them. In this way we feel like there is a status quo from which change can happen, much like real life. By shaping a richly developed back history for the reader to start from the character comes alive as a fully realized person in which to relate.
F. Divided into four sections, Rot & Ruin is set in a strong world with a protagonist central to the plot points in each of those sections. Unfortunately, Benny does not grow over each part, in fact he’s pretty much done “changing” by the middle of the second section. This is a major symptom of Benny not being properly developed as a character. In fact, it felt like Benny had beamed down from a space ship come to take earth back from the zombies, not a boy who grew up in said world. He starts life with a wrong-headed belief, contrived to create conflict with his older brother. Tom has raised Benny for the last 14+ years. Benny’s gotten to eat, be clothed and protected – all by this “evil, cowardly” brother but formed no other opinion except what he thinks he remembers from a time back when he was eighteen months old. Doesn’t make sense. Benny is angry at Tom, anyone can relate to that but he has to have a reason. If he believes A because of B, fine, but support that belief due to something from the last decade please. Tom knows Benny is coming on 15 and must have a job. If Tom doesn’t want to talk about zoms or killing them fine, but why? He wants his brother to come be a part of the family business. Why not raise Benny with the right thinking from the get go? It’s circumstance that allows certain beliefs to linger even though they make absolutely no sense. Develop those. The point of back history is so we have a status quo from which to proceed through the story. Benny’s character and central concerns should proceed from and be cemented in his back history. The entire story is going to work from that character and those central concerns. As it is, the last half of the book is spent plotting what is, for all intents and purposes, the climax. With a better defined character we could interpret the climatic events in the second half of the story in a more emotionally developing way. The character arc for Benny needed to be woven consistently and smoothly through the plot points of the story. This would have made for a very believable change in heart toward Tom and a desire to resolve his ideas about his dead parents. Any reader loves excellent plot, but ultimately the character has to have an integral emotional relationship with said plot for the book to work as a whole.
C. The Wednesday Wars started with a really basic protagonist – a boy entering the seventh grade. That’s it. That’s what I had to relate to character wise. As a child I’d NEVER have read this book. There has to be a hook. Something special happening right now that starts off the story. Many times it is an event that rises naturally from the character’s background or is an event that challenges the status quo. Entering the 7th grade could be construed as such an event, sure, but does it really hook you? But, but, it rises naturally from his background and it does challenge his status quo, you say. Okay I concede that point. One of the best aspects of the book is the historical background to the story. Along with Shakespeare it plays a huge part in the plot. I feel like the writer did an excellent job referencing Shakespeare’s works so that you didn’t need an intimate knowledge to at least understand what he was relating to in the plays. Not true for Holling’s world. It’s the 60s, the Vietnam war was in full swing and a whole revolution rose up changing the way people think. Now as an adult I know and understand the times. Another seventh grader (like Holling) does not have the same frame of reference and they don’t really have a point from the present with which to reference the period. Because of this the book feels like it was written for an adult. In fact, because of the contrast, Holling takes on this adult feeling as he describes the change in seasons and the relation between Shakespeare and his own life. It’s like the lack of reference on the time period pulls all the other points in the story out of frame. A simple fix would be using a current event assignment in class every month. Getting Holling’s view on these would really help a young reader to understand the actual events and not just the ramifications of said unseen events. Any reader enjoys a character who grows and learns from the events around them, but their must be an understanding of those events on the part of the reader to similarly effect them.
A. The whole beginning of Dragonhaven puzzled me for a long time. That’s because Jake goes to a lot of effort telling the reader about his mother’s death and the devastation when his dog dies soon after. It’s actually developed really well and it’s the one time when the stream of conscious narration really works. Don’t get me wrong it’s presented really rough amidst a whole host of useless bits of feelings but the raw, real emotions of losing a mother and then losing the one relationship who could help you get over that kind of loss are there. Many of the things that I believe are not relatable to about Jake are the very things that could have worked really well if the mother/dog angle would have been used to start the narrative as well as finish the narrative. He could have talked more about his mother and the things she did for him that he now understands because he does them for Lois. In this way we see how he’s become a mother, something his sex normally doesn’t fully get to be part of. Because of the unknown nature of his mother’s death I feel like this should have been something he could have used as a better motivator. The writer hints at it but I feel like it should have been more fully explored by Jake’s thoughts instead of his rambling. Something like, even though he’ll never really know how his mother died, he feels like he understands that it’s worth it if in the service of those you love. Leaving this kind of rich, emotional history to take a back seat to book publishers and procrastination is heartbreaking. Naturally arising back history with strong emotional connections makes the best background for any character and is key to a depthful feeling, whether child or no.
A failure to start the character off with a strong back history and a properly developed arc made Rot & Ruin a throwaway, read and release book. Lacking a period background, how is the intended audience of ten year olds supposed to understand the historical nature of The Wednesday Wars? In the end, Dragonhaven’s potential back history wins heads above the other two books, too bad it’s squandered.
Mishap #3 – Boy and girl characters only differ on specifics.
In reality, sex matters.
Adults raise their children with natural stereotypes in mind and as they age these stereotypes tend to blur with reality. Boys love trucks and girls love dolls. There is a reason they are stereotypes even though not true for every boy and girl. With a children’s book there is a place to use natural stereotypes and a place for challenging them. By developing a character’s point of view with shades of their sex we are free to show readers that testing boundaries is part of growing up and living life.
F. Reading some of the comments by other readers about Dragonhaven there seemed to be a consensus that Jake read like a teenage boy and that his feelings of motherhood sucked them in. I agree and disagree. The sad thing for me is Jake is so emotionally relatable. Here is this kid, who just lost his own mother and his dog. He takes on this huge responsibility because it’s the right thing to do. As a teenager he complains that it’s hard. As a new mom he talks to great effect about the struggle of raising a child for the first time. The winded disbelief of a newborn, deprived of sleep, your body one big ache as you stumble about taking care of her needs, then the toddler phase with the cute babble, the poop and the excitement of new things. Then later the anxiety and love of letting go of your baby. All these things came straight from a mother’s experience. The problem here is the facts don’t add up. No teenage boy would go into such detail about their thoughts and feelings to their mother let alone to a total stranger. They aren’t even in contact with their feelings enough to know exactly what they feel. I found it highly improbable that he would use a stream of consciousness type of first person narrative. I found it made a lot more sense if he presented to us what happened and let us make up our own minds. That’s a very real male point of view, especially one raised as Jake was in an isolated situation away from mainstream society. I definitely thought all the talk about publishers and such just a thought process from Robin McKinley herself, not Jake. What does he care about publishers? Unfortunately the mother feelings were the same for me – an extension of Robin that wasn’t pulled through Jake. Now if Eleanor was the protagonist I would totally have believed in this stream of consciousness type of narration and the overtly opinionated thoughts and feelings. Just because something a character feels is relatable doesn’t mean it feels like it’s coming from the character. Then it becomes a toss up whether any reader will believe the point of view and why risk that?
C. There is nothing wrong with Benny’s point of view sex wise. There also isn’t much inspired about it either. He’s a boy and he’s expected to join the family business and kill zombies. Nothing heart palpitating about a boy killing anything. Actually though there is nothing more done than a girl killing zombie either. There is the brother conflict and if the conflict was developed from a naturally arising place it really would have made a strong argument for Benny being a guy. So what am I trying to do – prove the opposite of my point? No. There is a legitimate reason why Benny should be a boy over a girl. Benny starts out safe in a fenced town. He’s been raised there and isn’t much interested in the world outside the gate. As a boy it’s natural to want to buck that settled down male role of taking care of family, putting on hold dreams and desires for the basics of survival. It’s a legitimate (and stronger) reason to not want to fall for Nix. It’s also a legitimate (and reasonable) reason to be pissed at his brother. Once he becomes exposed to the Rot & Ruin he could desire even more an escape from the restraints of town. Through these desires he comes to see Tom with more respect and through the villains, Charlie Pink-eye and Hammer, he comes to see the danger of those desires. You see the basis for good back history was there and all to do with Benny’s sex. To further increase the perspective of the point of view narration I would suggest adding the Lost Girl, Lilah, as a duel narrator. So basically half from Benny and half from Lilah. As a girl living on her own in the rot and ruin, knowing first hand the evil of the villains, doing her own killing – she gives the reader the opposite view of Benny. She doesn’t desire to return to town, but is super lonely. She is fascinated by all the knowledge a town could provide (through books) and is drawn to the people she could meet. She’s drawn to Benny but Nix as well and the difficulties she presents to the couple’s relationship and her own uncertainty would add such dimension to the book. I really desired more than anything to see the inside of this character. The very fact her words don’t match her intellect drew you in. Lilah was instrumental in the plot as well so makes a perfect point of view character. I can see the entire story coming to a head in her point of view then we end with Benny desiring to put his parents down with Tom. By taking into account sex when developing character background a book’s theme can be strengthened. Then any reader will be entranced by the ways in which boundaries are tested and why not build upon that?
A. Holling was the best part of The Wednesday Wars. (Funny because it’s the mechanics of his point of view that didn’t work.) The fact is that Holling being male played a pivotal role in why this book worked as a whole. Sure there’s the embarrassment at being a fairy in a production of Shakespeare, the love of America’s passion – baseball and the bullying by the older members of the Varsity track team that work because Holling is a boy. I can see where you can fudge these facts to fit a girl perhaps. His sex becomes so essential though to the Shakespeare connection. A girl tends to understand Shakespeare easier and can draw emotional connections faster to the drama rife in the plays. So a boy makes the best protagonist for a book about understanding life through Shakespeare. His distinct male perspective instilled in the reader a connection to Holling that made us care. I may not have been able to relate but I was able to fall in love. In determining how a character will relate to events in a story, sex plays a huge part. By getting the details right it can overcome other failings for the reader, doesn’t that make the effort worth it?
By changing the sex of the character or the tone of the narrative Dragonhaven could have been the best of the three books, what a waste. A duel point of view would have made Rot & Ruin pop in the best way, at the least it would have helped develop Benny’s back history. The Wednesday Wars became a Newbery Honor Book because Holling Hoodhood, the boy, endeared himself to the reader (even if just the adult ones).
Point of view is so important in a book. If point of view doesn’t fit the character or the character doesn’t fit the point of view then great, ground breaking ideas can be wasted. As writers we are looking to mimic real life and as readers we are looking to read as if it is. The key here is “as if.” There is a delicate balance that it’s the duty of the writer to maintain. This is never truer than with a child protagonist.
With every book I try to find other art in connection to the story to include with my review. I rarely find any. The same can not be said for these books, intriguingly enough. I was really moved by the power in which these fans believed in their associated books.
With Dragonhaven I’m sad to say I only found one and it’s not so much fan art as inspired by the book.
The original art can be found by Sarelipom here. She said: “Inspiration came from the book “DragonHaven” by Robin McKinley. The dragon isn’t supposed to be Lois, it’s just a random baby dragon I drew after reading the book. I shoulda made the eyes more detailed. >.<” A great rendition of Lois or any baby dragon I say!
With regards to Rot & Ruin I found these two cute pictures of Tom, included was the reaction the artist had when Tom returned. Talk about the power of plot!
The original art can be found by ~ChaosLIVES here. She said with this one: “ლಠ益ಠლ I HAVE NEVER DRAWN A HORSE BEFORE IN MY LIFE. I…..I AM SO UNHAPPY. *dies in a corner* But yeahh…Here’s Tom! Spoiler for chapter 58—HE RETURNS! I screamed with joy. XD”
Under this one she said: “I. AM. IN. LOVE. WITH. HIM. WHEEEEEEEEEEEE~!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t see how Benny can’t LOVE him! He’s like this totally awesome zombie hunter and shiz and it just makes me squeal I’m so special.”
A ringing endorsement if I ever heard one. I mean where she really identified with the book was in what happened to a secondary character! This is also where I tend to identify with a book – some secondary character. I have to say I’m tied between Tom and the Lost Girl, Lilah, as my favorite.
The original art can be found by ~TenshiKKi here. She said: “The mysterious is always attractive… “
I have to agree with the sentiment. I thought her take on Tom fascinatingly anima/manga in style. I loved it! I can see that this kind of love can really inspire a writer.
The Wednesday Wars ”fan art” was more intriguing as I found a play adaption of the book. Calvin College produced the play to great review.
The website of the college said: “Kelly, a freelance writer and director living in New York, got the idea to convert the young adult novel, a 2008 Newbery Honor Book, into a play when she noticed that many Michigan libraries were featuring it as a recommended read for summer. “I read it and loved it and immediately saw how it could be a play and how it could open up Shakespeare to young students in a really fun way,” she said.”
Fascinating all the fans here were women… In any case the different ways in which these three books inspired the artists who read them in turn really inspired me. No matter the flaws in my own work I hope I can have even a tenth of the effect Dragonhaven, Rot & Ruin and The Wednesday Wars have had on their own fans.
It pains me, really pains me, to rate anything with dragons this low but Dragonhaven gives dragons a bad name. Good ideas can only go so far to save bad writing, especially writing cluttered with unimportant, random thoughts and feelings. Robin McKinley is a good author who didn’t get the editing advice she needed to make the book work.
Character is very important to me. That said Benny had a lot of problems. Lucky for him he wasn’t the draw to the story character wise. Pair that with a writer who knows how to plot and the flaws are overcome. How much better would Rot & Ruin have been with a fully fleshed protagonist and back history that made sense?
I loved Holling Hoodhood. I wasn’t so much interested in his world. Decently fun 7th grade plot melds with a very adult character arc that wasn’t believable for me. As a Newbery Honor book many will find the Shakespeare and/or Vietnam slant enthralling and moving. Oh how I love a character doesn’t equal a perfect book.
What do you think about the teenage point of view? Are you a gushy male that would have no trouble telling the world your every thought? Does this seem rather female to you? Would you read a book with duel female and male point of views? Does a character point of view need to stay within bounds of age?
Are you a fan of dragons? How about zombies? Did reading about 7th grade ever interest you? Thanks for commenting…