Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Possible Crossover Book

You know, lots of times I'll hear some book has won an award. I go ahead and read it and am left thinking, Gee, was nothing else published that year? That's not the case with the truly terrific The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, which won the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award in 2007. Anything that could have beaten it would have had to be incredible.

Imagine a noncriminal Artemis Fowl in a book with an intellectually vigorous style similar to that of Octavian Nothing that is set in an English village that you might find in one of Dame Agatha's 1950's era novels. And then imagine that that the book you're talking about is very well-written on top of all that.

You're beginning to get the picture.

The Sweetness at the Bottome of the Pie is an adult mystery novel with an eleven-year-old main character, Flavia de Luce. She is one serious piece of work, the youngest child of what seems to be a depressed, country gentleman/stamp collector and his late, lamented wife who disappeared in the mountains years before. She has two older sisters, Ophelia, who plays the piano (classical music, of course) and Daphne who reads Dickens, with whom she is at constant war. They all live in a house the family has inhabited for generations, and Flavia has taken over an ancestor's personal laboratory. She is seriously into chemistry. She is extremely witty in a dark, brittle sort of way. And, yet, she is also innocent.

A body turns up in the cucumber patch. You can take it from there.

Setting this book in 1950 was a stroke of genius. Flavia is a bit over-the-top. Oh, hell, she's a lot of over-the-top, which is what makes her so marvelous. But no one could begin to believe she could exist in the twenty-first century. Her extensive knowledge of...all kinds of things...could only be acquired in a world without TV, malls, dance lessons, sports, and, it would seem, traditional schooling. (School is never mentioned.) And, for me, a big stumbling block with child mysteries is the fact that kids can't get around places on their own. But Flavia's always jumping on her old bike and pedaling off all over the place. It's believable in a pre-suburban world. I have ridden my bike to the library and even a church tag sale, but it's a huge undertaking, taking a big chunk out of my day. Traffic being what it is, I'm taking my life in my hands every time I do it. But in Flavia's world, it works.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the beginning of series. While I'd be delighted to spend more time with Flavia, I've often been disappointed with follow-up mysteries. She may be able to pull this off, though.

This series could definitely have crossover potential for sophisticated teen readers who enjoy literary humor.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Point Of View, Voice, And Distance

The kidlit publishing world loves, them, their first-person narrators. They're all over the place in children's and YA books. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a first-person point of view is a quick and dirty way of creating a strong voice, something that's also liked in kidlit. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Who doesn't enjoy reading a book with a strong voice, whatever your age? In kidlit, first-person narrators sometimes sound a lot alike, though. You've got your smart girls, your wise-ass boys, your angst-ridden teens, your smart, wise-ass girls, your wise-ass, angst-ridden teens, your precocious smart, angst-ridden kids of either gender.

To be fair, it's hard to come up with anyone who hasn't been done before--a lot.

Related to point of view and voice, at least in my mind, is distance. One of the defining elements of a children's or YA book (to my knowledge, anyway) is that the action is taking place now. Those first-person narrators are living their experiences as they are relating them to us. Adult characters recalling their childhoods usually appear in adult books because there is an adult sensibility at work. These adults are now distant from their childhood selves. The adult narrator has knowledge of what happened after the events in the story, which child narrators living in the moment do not.

All of this relates to the adult books I'm talking about this week. They both use a first-person narrator with a strong voice. Their narrators are quite different in terms of their distance from the events they're relating to us, though.

The Dead Father's Club's eleven-year-old first-person narrator, Philip, uses a very strong voice that speaks to us in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner. We're not talking Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse stream-of-consciousness here. But Philip doesn't waste any effort on quotation marks for dialogue or apostrophes for contractions, and his mind does tend to jump from one thing to another. This appeared to me to be an attempt to duplicate the thinking of a child. I'm not sure how successful the author was with this, because I can't recall how eleven-year-olds think. Does this narrator sound like a child or does he sound the way adults think children sound? Don't know.

Philip is, though, both funny and tragic. It seems to me that he could serve as a gateway narrator, a child leading teenage readers, particularly students of Hamlet, into the world of adult mainstream fiction.

Mary Russell of The Beekeeper's Apprentice also has a very powerful, first-person voice. She is very distant from the World War I era story she tells, though, since in an "Author's Note" she indicates that she is now in her nineties. She makes it clear that she is dealing with memories. The very first words of the first real chapter--"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes"--indicate that this story is not happening now. And her knowledge of what is going to happen definitely has an impact on what she tells us, as when she says when introducing a case she and Holmes take on, "...had Holmes...not allowed me to participate, God alone knows what we would have done when December's cold hit us, unprepared and unsupported." Russell knows what's coming, and it's bad.

Mary Russell, whether the elderly story teller or the teenage protege of Sherlock Holmes, is an extremely intelligent and highly educated individual who speaks in the elegant, sophisticated manner of another age. She is no Georgia Nicholson or Holden Caulfield wannabe, that's for sure. Why would the book she narrates be of interest to young readers?

Because point of view, voice, and distance are not the only things that attract readers to books. You also have to consider theme. And tomorrow we will.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: What's With Mysteries?

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, one of the two books I'm stuck on this week, is as much a character study as it is a mystery. But it most defintely is classified as a mystery. It is spun off from the Sherlock Holmes mystery classics, after all. While my second book, The Dead Father's Club, is main stream fiction (its original material is Hamlet, remember), for me it developed a mysterious element. While I accepted the truth of what dead dad had to say at the beginning of the story, I began to wonder if he was all that reliable. Did Uncle Alan really do him in? Is he really a bad guy?

Child readers are notorious mystery lovers, and adult mysteries are often bridge books into adult reading, as Jen Robinson has said. (I kind of like the expression "gateway books," myself.)

Why the attraction to mysteries?

I think kids find mysteries comforting. At the beginning of very traditional mystery novels, the social order has been disrupted. A body has been found in the library. Jewels have been stolen. Someone has disappeared. At the end, the social order has been restored. The perp has been tracked down. Justice has been done. Things go back to the way they are supposed to be. What a relief.

Kids are instructed to stay in line. To be fair. To follow the rules. They have been taught to maintain order. They're comfortable with order. This may be a factor in tattling. What, exactly, is wrong with tattling? Why do we dislike it so much? All the tale bearers are trying to do is restore the order we've taught them to maintain.

With a mystery novel, kids can safely explore a disordered world because it's not the world they actually live in. The detective restoring order at the end of the story provides a satisfying conclusion. The world goes back to the way kids have been taught it should be.

An adult mystery that follows that pattern provides young readers with familiarity--the pattern itself. It also gives them the impression that the adult world is orderly like theirs. Grown-ups aren't supposed to do certain things, just as children aren't supposed to do certain things. If adults do them, justice will be done, and the adult world will go back to the way it's supposed to be.

A lie, of course, but that's beside the point.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Looking For Adult Books For Younger Readers

I am frequently attracted to adult books with child and YA protagonists. I'm very interested in how books with those kinds of leads end up being published as adult lit versus kidlit or vice versa. I'm also interested in whether or not those adult books could be of interest to nonadult readers. I think it was at Read Roger that I once read that one of a YA librarian's responsibilities is to lead adolescent readers to adult books. I'm certainly not a YA librarian, but I do like the idea of books that will lead kids into the grown-up world. (Because the adult world is such a terrific place and everyone should want to be here, right?)

I recently read two fine adult books with child-ish characters. Oddly enough, they're both books that jump off from older works. (This isn't all that odd, because I like those kinds of books. It's a little bit odd that I happened to read one right after the other.)

In the first, The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig, poor eleven-year-old Philip Noble is haunted by his dead dad who insists that Uncle Alan did him in because he wanted the pub and Philip's mum. In order to save dad from an afterlife with something called the Terrors, Philip needs to avenge his death by killing Uncle Alan. Very good book that I would have enjoyed much, much more if I knew more about Hamlet, upon which it is based. I'm not even sure I've ever read the original source material, though I did realize that Philip's fish being named Gertrude is a joke.

The second book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King, was recommended just a couple of weeks ago by Jen Robinson. The beekeeper of the title is Sherlock Holmes. His apprentice is Mary Russell, a young woman in her late teens with whom he develops an intense father/child relationship.

Both these books could be of interest to YAs, though maybe to older, more sophisticated readers--and not because young Philip is always going on about mum getting sex from Uncle Alan and the questions that are raised in The Beekeeper's Apprentice about Holmes' willingness to disguise himself in women's evening gowns and the content of the photograph of him at a Turkish bath. Voice, theme, point of view, and some other stuff I'm interested in discussing with a captive audience as well as some subjects I may not have thought of yet, should all be considered when determining which audience is most likely to go for a particular title.

So over the next few days, Gail is going to make like Mary Russell at Oxford and do a little study of these two books and how they could engage teen readers. You have been warned.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

A High Class Mystery

I like a British YA voice. I think it's because of the novelty of hearing someone talk about a "bloke fancying my mum" and "tenners." So I was taken with Me, the Missing, and the Dead by Jenny Valentine right away. I did wonder if there is a first-person British YA voice that sounds similar in many British YA books the way there's a first-person YA voice over here that most definitely makes a lot of YA books sound alike. But I decided I didn't care.

Lucas, our first-person British YA voice in Me, the Missing, and the Dead, could easily have ended up as the protagonist in a traditional problem novel. Dad is missing. Mum is depressed. Older sister is behaving badly. Younger, fatherless brother never knew Dad, having been born after he disappeared. Grandpa has dementia. Grandma's a corker but falls and breaks something so you know how that's going to go. Family friend is an alcoholic. Girlfriend's mother has cancer.

I mean, seriously, this is the kind of book I usually find laughable because of the problem pile on. Let's not miss anything.

But Lucas has that great voice, and he has a mystery to solve. The problem-ridden characters are just that--characters and not set-ups for some kind of coming-of-age learning experience. The adult characters, in fact, are so incredibly multi-layered that Me, the Missing, and the Dead could easily serve as a crossover book, a great title for an adult/teen reading group.

Right off the bat Lucas stumbles upon an urn of ashes that has been abandoned in a taxi company's office. Feeling for the neglected occupant, he manages to get custody and becomes obsessed with it. And, slowly, he realizes that the ashes that were once an elderly woman have a connection to his own father's disappearance.

There's a little twist of what might be called magical realism in this otherwise dark, deep mystery told with attitude. And Lucas could be said to have evolved as a result of his experience solving the puzzle of the urn. But the mystery is the point here, not some story of a child learning to live with a sorry state of affairs.
Jenny Valentine has another book coming out next month, Broken Soup.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vacation Reading: Book One, An Adult Mystery With YA Appeal

I took a sabbatic from reading kids' books while I was on vacation. And, yet, three of the books I finished have a kid connection of one sort or another.

For instance, On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith has what I would call a thematic connection to YA. On the Wrong Track is the second in the Holmes on the Range series, Western mysteries set in the 1890s. Our narrator is twenty-year-old Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, a cowboy who wanders with his twenty-seven-year-old brother Gustav "Old Red."

Seems pretty remote from twenty-first century YA readers, doesn't it? Well, the thing is, Gustav wants to be more than an illiterate cowpoke of few words. He wants to be a deducifier like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. And his little (though physically quite enormous) brother, Otto, wants to write up their adventures and publish them like Dr. Watson did Holmes'.

Though these two red-headed brothers are twenty-somethings, they seem younger (to the extent that people who are handy with guns and foul language can seem young) because they're trying to determine who and what they're going to be. In this book, they run into a burned out, dime novel hero who is not what he once was and maybe never was. They have to deal, each in his own way, with a young, very intertriguing, woman. They are confronted with disappointment and all kinds of road blocks in pursuing their goals.

I'm not saying that On the Wrong Track is a YA book, but it deals with issues that are common in YA novels and that should have appeal for YA readers.

I also think that On the Wrong Track is a good historical novel. Many historical novels for younger readers are what I'd describe as unbalanced. A lot of attention has been given to the historical setting but characters are often underdeveloped or cliched and plots are weak. My own guess is that children's and YA historical fiction is viewed as being educational. Such books are supposed to teach something about the period and are given a pass on other elements.

The Holmes on the Range books, however, provide a strong setting, terrific characters who are at home in that setting, and real plots. Okay, a lot of those terrific characters use realisitic, coarse language, so you might not want to be the adult who hands off one of these things to a delicate twelve year old. But mid-teens will have heard it all before, and a good historical mystery could open their minds to the opportunities historical novels offer.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Possession For Kids?

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett is the first in a series called The Sherlock Files because the two main characters, Xena and Xander Holmes, learn they are descendants of Sherlock Holmes and set to work solving one of his unsolved cases.

I found the Sherlock Holmes connection problematic. Anyone familiar with Sherlock Holmes will doubt he had any descendants because, 1. he was fictional, and 2. in the stories he doesn't come close to having any kind of relationship that would produce offspring. (That includes Irene Adler.) So for the basic premise of The Sherlock Files to work, some kind of alternative history needs to be provided in which Sherlock Holmes is real and did, indeed, produce heirs. Nothing like that appears in the first volume. There are references to some Holmes' stories--a pub is named The Dancing Men, for instance, (The Adventure of the Dancing Men ) and Dr. Watson's young descendant has red hair (The Red-Headed League), but beyond that, I didn't see any what you'd call world building.

Now, an argument could be made that young readers won't be familiar with Sherlock Holmes, anyway, so they won't have any problems with the lack of logic behind the story. But if they aren't familiar with Sherlock Holmes, why does the whole Holmes' business need to be there?

Putting the Holmes' set-up aside, I actually liked the art history mystery in The 100-Year-Old Secret. The kids hunt for a portrait missing for a hundred years. The art talk is interesting. And the minor, nonrecurring characters who provide information about the long-dead artist are far more realistic and able to hold this reader's attention than the members of the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives, who I suspect are going to turn up in later adventures. A story about contemporary characters solving a mystery about a historical arty figure--with kids--has real potential, I think.

I picked up The 100-Year-Old Secret because I thought it looked like a mystery for younger readers. Though Amazon describes it as being for 9 to 12 year olds, I think kids on the younger end of that range will appreciate it best.

The second book in the series will be published next May.

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