Posts Tagged ‘author and reader relationships’

This article from NPR bugged me, and it took me a little bit to figure out exactly why. I actually agree with a lot of it: Reading begets reading. We need more classics in the classroom. I agree that general school standards have dropped, and that Americans are not as literate as we were in the past. (When reading Destiny of the Republic, I couldn’t stop marveling how eloquent the excerpts of documents and speeches from the 1800s were).  Going by the comments, the article annoyed a lot of my colleagues as well. Just reading through the piece made me not want to read, and I had just a minute before been contemplating putting together a personal Summer Reading list.

One of my problems is the standards over which people are clutching their pearls. “Vocabulary and sentence complexity,” which Accelerated Reader uses to rank books, are not the only factors in making a novel complex. According to Accelerated Reader, Hank the Cowdog has a book level of 4.5. Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets has a 4.7. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has a level of 4.4. Length is also a factor for Accelerated Reader, and just as superficial.

The value of a book is not just in its vocabulary, but the content, the characters, and the way it’s structured, all of which are harder to create metrics for. What character resonates with a particular child cannot be measured, but will certainly impact that child more than a book forced on them with a higher reading level, or a longer book. I can think of a long list of books that I love dearly – classic and modern – that when I’ve extolled their virtues to someone else, I’ve heard “Ugh, I hated that!” in reply. It doesn’t matter how well the books were written, what arching, wonderful themes they had, how inspiring their characters were and how they felt like real people – if the person didn’t like the book, those values didn’t land. Or at least not as strongly.

Which leads me to my next nitpick: I also disagree that out of school reading should be contrary to someone’s taste. Why shouldn’t students read science fiction or fantasy for fun, if that’s what they like? Just recently, I was listening to a podcast with new author Justin Lee, in which he talked about rediscovering as an adult that he was a reader. For him, “reading” became connected to “forced to read,” especially forced to things that he didn’t care for. Most students leave school with this lingering distaste for reading: even I had it, and I read widely for pleasure all through school and college. The school reading experience also transfers for some people to a feeling the “have” to finish a book once they’ve started, even if they hate it. That mentality adds to the disinclination to pick up a book in the first place.

While a solid knowledge of classical literature and concepts is essential to a rounded education, and I think children should be required to read complex and challenging books, I also think more teachers should have self-guided reading lists and stress the option of moving to another book if you don’t care for the one you are reading. Allowing students the autonomy to choose things that appeal to them will help create readers over the long-term.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore. Some books might be, but reading is fun, absorbing, thought-provoking and healthy. If more children find  that out, we’ll have more readers.

I recently finished reading Ash by Madlina Lo. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, considering it had many elements I usually find grating in novels: A fairy tale retelling (usually poorly done), dreamy atmospheric descriptions (usually too dreamy and uninteresting), a mysterious fairy world (usually nebulous and difficult to picture).

As it was, none of these elements put me off from the book, and I enjoyed Lo’s writing and the character of Ash. I finished it all in nearly one sitting and was sad enough to see it done that I’ll be picking up the prequel Huntress. It was more of a book that invited you to wallow in the atmosphere than one that clipped along with action, and I enjoyed it on that level. Some of Lo’s descriptions were striking (“The quiet afternoon opened up between them like a woman stretching her limbs”), and while there were many descriptions of walking into the woods, I wasn’t overly bored with them.

I did have a couple of complaints with the novel. The romance with the huntress did feel a little anemic, but that may have been the point. Considered in contrast with the Disney-fied or Maguire-fied retellings, original fairytales romances are very anemic. They were not about the characters or their relationships as much as they were about The Point. In fact, when the first made up fairytale in Ash’s world regarding the farmer Thom appeared, I stopped and thought, “Wait, do they tend to name characters in fairytales?” Rumpelstiltskin, naturally, is Christened; as are Hansel, Gretel, Rapunzel, and a handful of others (particularly in the Grimms tales), but they are in the minority. In fact, one of the reasons I find it hard to enjoy Grimms or Christian Anderson stories is due to their faceless nature. Names generally related to their function in the story or to some distinguishing feature (Goose Girl, Tom Thumb, The Little Mermaid, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ella in the Cinders, and so on).

The characters in Lo’s fairytales are each given a proper name, distancing them from their brethren in folklore, but grounding them in this particular world.

My other detraction is that I found the ending a little too easy. Ash didn’t have to work to settle her debt (though admittedly she did more than her predecessor who lost a shoe and allowed it to be refitted to her foot.)

I had another, larger issue that came up post-reading that started me thinking, however. I was skimming through reviews on Goodreads and I instantly noticed a surprisingly high number of them saying “But Cinderella isn’t a lesbian!”

This is hardly a new debate, and one that will remained unsolved because it deals with the way readers respond to a story and a character and how they connect to both on a personal level. Having someone come in and change things in a story dear to you feels like a violation.

What Lo did with the story of Cinderella is hardly new, and hardly the first time someone has complained about reimagining a character. In Elementary, Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame was turned into a Chinese-American woman (the woman part seems to be what threw people the most.) Starbuck also underwent a sex change in Battlestar Galactica. Daniel Craig’s casting led to a flurry of disapproval over the blond Bond. The world of fairytales has repeatedly been plundered for ideas to be updated and morphed into something new for audiences.

At the same time, the appeal of a story is its ability to connect to us because of our humanity, and the values we hold dear as people. Regardless of culture, race, orientation, or gender, the constant qualities we value remain the same. This is why we love stories: We relate to them so intensely it seems unthinkable they can be anything other than how we imagine. At the same, we relate to them so intensely we desire to recast them in images of ourselves. Cinderella can be a lesbian and rise above her station. Cinderella can get the girl, or the guy, because that is not the precise point. The Point is that Cinderella takes a journey we all take in some form or another.

Recommendation?: Yes, for lovers of fairytales or LGBT books.