children, fantasy, influences, writing

Influences: Edward Eager & E Nesbit

I put these two writers together because of how inextricably their writing styles are connected in my mind. That, and because I only discovered E Nesbit through Edward Eager’s books.

I’m not sure how old I was when Mom helped me find this great-looking book in our local library – green and white hardcover, with a front figure who was half girl, half knight (and a very smug cat in the background). It looked terrific, so we brought it home to read.

That book was Half Magic, by Edward Eager, and not just me, but my mother and sister fell in love with the four siblings, who squabbled and worked together and had fun and were thoroughly human. The magic was perfect, too – not only was it not magic that just came easily to them, they didn’t even understand its rules. As Eager himself put it, first it thwarted them, then they had to learn how to thwart it, and in the end, when they had finally learned how to work it well, they gave it up for something better.

When we went back to the library the next week, we promptly checked out all the rest of Eager’s books, and loved almost all of them just as much. I’ve never been quite as fond of Magic or Not? or The Well-Wishers, but even those I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older. Knight’s Castle led me to read Ivanhoe at age twelve (no easy task, but well worth the effort), and I remember building Lego castles to imitate Torquilstone for months after.

In each of his books, Eager’s children reference reading E Nesbit’s books. This, naturally, led me to search for some of her works, as well. Mom was familiar with the Bastable books, but not the others. I think the first one I read (also borrowed from the local library) was Wet Magic, a solid red hardcover with no dustjacket, looking alluringly thick and mysterious. From there I discovered The Phoenix and the Carpet, and all the rest of her wonderful works.

Confession: I actually prefer Eager to Nesbit. I know she was a pioneer, and I admire her tremendously, but sometimes I feel there’s almost too much of a hard edge to her stories. Eager’s are a bit more light-hearted, and I enjoy that – though that’s a matter of personal taste, and I can certainly see why someone else might prefer Nesbit for that very reason.

My favorite Nesbit book, as it was for the children of Half Magic, is The Enchanted Castle, and when my parents got me the hardcover with Paul O Zelinsky’s stunning illustrations for a birthday present one year, I was thrilled (I think it might have been one of the first hardcovers I ever owned – if not the first, then one of the very earliest). I still have that book, displayed prominently on my shelves.

Through Eager and Nesbit, I learned the fun in reading – and writing – real people, as opposed to caricatures. I learned that reading about children arguing and teasing each other, and making up, and being loyal to each other through it all, just like my sister and my cousins and me, was delightful. I learned that one didn’t have to fall through a rabbit hole, walk through a wardrobe, or travel by tornado to find magic – it just might be lurking around the next corner. One should always keep ones eyes open, because one never knew when magic might happen.

And really, what better way to live than in that kind of delightful anticipation? I might never have found actual magic (by the way, what a great title for a book – Actual Magic), but I certainly found the world a very magical place all on its own, just by keeping my eyes open to its possibilities.

I’ve always found it very sad that there was no successor to Eager, as he was successor to Nesbit. Others have imitated, but nobody else has come close to matching their style, their wit, and their fun.

I’ve always had a sneaking hope that maybe, someday, I might be able to take up that mantle. After all, if I benefited so much from reading them, oughtn’t I help point the way back to them for future generations of readers, as well?

Are you familiar with Edward Eager and/or E Nesbit? If so, which author did you find first, and which do you prefer? Do you remember what books that meant a great deal to you as a child looked like? What were some of your earliest favorites, and how did they shape your perception of the world?
characters, humor, influences, world-building

Influences: L Frank Baum

One of the stories my parents like to tell about me is how I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz all the way through, all by myself, when I was in kindergarten. That may not seem so impressive now, but back then, most kids went into kindergarten not even knowing how to read. So I was definitely an anomaly.

It can be hard, when you have a kid who reads so fluently so early, to find books that hold their interest writing-style, and yet don’t tackle subjects that are beyond their comprehension. Baum’s books were perfect in this regard – the writing was sophisticated, yet the stories were simple enough that even an over-sensitive six-year-old like myself could read them without being scared or confused, or even simply overwhelmed with concepts beyond my ability to understand.

Baum has been criticized considerably for “sugar-coating” Oz too much, turning it into a place where nothing truly bad could ever happen, and while I understand that criticism, there was (and still is, really) always something very comforting about taking a trip to Oz.

(Never mind the fact that as it was HIS creation to begin with, he could do anything he wanted with it, and people still wouldn’t have had the right to complain. After all, if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t act as though the author is somehow presenting a false impression of a real place when it was all from his head to begin with. Ahem. Small rant over.)

One of the other great things about Oz was that there was enough humor for small people, but the puns and plays on words are sheer adult amusement. I rarely, even to this day, get through an Oz book without a surprised and delighted snort at something that went completely over my head as a kid.

I have heard the theory that Oz was meant to be a metaphor on communism or capitalism or something political. Maybe it was. But I know that it can be read without any kind of political background, and enjoyed as sheer good story-telling, and that is how I prefer it. I would much rather not see a possible political background to a good story than misread a grand yarn as a thinly-disguised treatise on capitalism.

So, how had Baum inspired me? Well, aside from being, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, one of the very earliest writers I ever read alone, and quite possibly responsible for my lifelong love for fantasy, from Baum I learned the sheer joy of world-building, of creating a place that exists quite independently from the characters, and has its own history and inhabitants and can quite happily sustain any number of stories, just as this world can.

From Baum, too, I have learned the fun of playing with words, of subtle humor, of inside jokes between the writer and reader, at the characters’ expense. I tend to be more of an invisible narrator, telling my stories solely through the eyes of my characters, but I always enjoy taking a break from that role once in a while and trying that omniscient narrator bit that Baum does so well.

And, of course, Baum was a master at creating realistic children, spunky heroines and heroes who frequently found themselves in scrapes, but by using ingenuity and courage always worked their way out. Dorothy is beloved by so many, I believe, not just for her staunch loyalty to Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, but for her wit and spirit, and for the fact that even after she came to Oz permanently and became closest companion to the ruler of Oz, she still maintained her independence and practical outlook on life. In some ways, she was wasted in such a happy land as Oz. She would have made a wonderful explorer and adventurer in this world, as well as a great righter of wrongs. Alas! She is safe in Fairyland, and it is up to we other writers to create our own characters to right those wrongs, and have those adventures.

Perhaps, if we are very fortunate, one or two of them might in time be as well-loved as brave little Dorothy Gale.

Are you a frequenter of the land of Oz? Do you enjoy it, or do you find Baum’s stories too safe for your taste? Who is your favorite “spunky girl heroine” in children’s and/or YA literature? And what was the first chapter book you can remember (or others remember about you) reading on your own?


Farewell, Brian Jacques

I just barely saw the news – not five minutes ago – that Brian Jacques died after a heart attack this weekend.

I am crying and still don’t quite believe it. The man who created Martin, Mariel, Gonff, and all the rest, gone? It seems impossible. He should be immortal.

And in a way, he is. He lives on through his books, his beloved characters. His stories about tiny little creatures fighting for justice, freedom, and love against larger, more ferocious adversaries will ring true in the hearts of all who love such ideals, for as long as books endure. His legacy is a great one, indeed.

Less well known than Redwall, but just as good (in my opinion) was his Flying Dutchman series, featuring a boy named Ben and his faithful dog Ned, traveling the world as immortal creatures, righting wrongs and comforting those without hope wherever and whenever they went.

I will miss, terribly, anticipating a new book from him every year. Yet I am so thankful for all the books that he did write, that we are left with. There have been many writers who have tried to imitate his style, but none can match him. The world is a sadder place with this Weaver of Tales gone, but thankfully the tales themselves live on.

May your adventures in the next world be as grand as they were here, sir. And I know that wherever you journey through the Dark Forest, you will be accompanied by a grand troupe of mice, moles, hedgehogs, badgers, hares, squirrels, and otters, all laughing, valiant, and hungry.

You will be missed.

ETA: Mossflower was the first Jacques book I ever read, and it’s the one I recommend to everyone to begin with. It’s not first chronologically or in published order, but in my opinion, it sets the stage beautifully for the rest of the series. Plus, it features Martin, Gonff, and Dinny – who could ask for anything more?

fiction, influences, writing

Influences: Lloyd Alexander

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of posts on authors/books/series that have influenced my writing the most over the years … those are the sorts of series I always enjoy reading from other people, seeing what has gone into forming their writing style. And sometimes it helps me discover authors or books I otherwise might never have known!

So, to begin: I considered doing, for this first post, something on the first writer who influenced me, but instead I decided to look at the writer who has been the biggest influence on me, my writing and my life. That writer is …

Lloyd Alexander.

I can’t remember, exactly, which of Alexander’s books I read first. It was either a Vesper Holly or The Wizard in the Tree. Whichever it was, I was immediately hooked. I read voraciously through all of his works in our local library. The Westmark trilogy, though I know many people don’t care for it, was the one that affected me the most, however. The very fact that there was no magic in it, that though a fantasy it was very real, and very grim, brought it much closer. Theo’s struggles with morality, especially in Kestrel; Mickle’s journey to finding herself and her place; Sparrow and Weasel and Keller … I don’t think I’d ever read something that touched me quite so deeply. (Oddly enough, I found myself mostly unaffected by Florian and his children.)

Alexander is best known for his Prydain Chronicles. I only started reading those after I’d already read most of his other books. Not by design – simply because our library didn’t have all of them, and I hate only reading partial series. It wasn’t until I started visiting a different library, which had the entire series, that I read them and fell in love with the Assistant Pig-Keeper and opinionated Princess Eilonwy.

For my own writing, Alexander’s use of humor, and his ability to tell a full and rich story with only a few well-chosen details, have been what I have studied the most closely, and tried to incorporate into my own works.

As a human being, the ideas he portrays about heroism, sacrifice, love, and life have been what I have tried to incorporate into my daily living. The very best writer does not just present a good story, but through his story inspires you to be a better person, and that is what Alexander has always done for me.

His final book, finished right before his death in 2007, is The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio. I usually prefer to buy books in paperback, but I pre-ordered that one, in hardcover, to come as soon as it was published. As with all his others, it blended humor and truth in perfect proportions, and never came close to preaching. It was a fitting epitaph to his life.

Every time I go into a bookstore these days, I find myself drifting hopefully over to the “A” section of both children’s and YA, wistfully thinking that perhaps they will have discovered some previously unpublished works among Alexander’s papers, and be able to offer us just one more story from him. Alas, I think we are destined to only be able to re-read the books already published, but at least they are well worth the journey. There are very few writers of whom I can say this, but every time I read one of his books I find something new in it.

From all I understand, Alexander exhibited those traits in his life he showed so well through his writing – humility, humor, kindness, practicality, and a keen zest for the adventure of life.

He has been a tremendous influence on me, both as a writer and human being, and I can only hope that someday I might be able to carry on his legacy in my own writings.

Are you familiar with Lloyd Alexander? If so, which is your favorite book, and why? (I think The Arkadians just barely tops my list, but I love them all too much to choose just one favorite!) What was the first book you read of his, and what do you remember most about it?