Influences: Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper has been one of my favorite writers for oh, close to twenty years now, so I was delighted yesterday when looking over the list of ALA winners this year to see that she has been awarded the 2012 Edwards Award for The Dark Is Rising series. (Former winners include Gary Paulsen, Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Lowry, Orson Scott Card, and last year, Terry Pratchett.)

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when one of my older friends recommended Cooper to me, but I know I was young enough that Dad read through the books first, just to make sure there wasn’t going to be anything in them that would give me nightmares, and also so that he could talk with me about anything that might scare me in them (and why it was Dad who did that with these books, instead of Mom, I’m not exactly sure, because usually Mom was the one who did nightmare-screening for me – but it might have been when she was working, and didn’t have as much time, or it might simply have been that Dad thought they looked interesting). Dad liked the first one so much he read the rest of the series for his own enjoyment, not because he was worried for me. I think it’s the first series (but certainly not the last) that Dad and I both loved, instead of Mom and I. We also both loved the Arthurian connection – we’re kinda both geeks when it comes to King Arthur!

The curious thing, for a nightmare-prone kid like me, is that even though they were eerie and intense, they weren’t outright scary. I was certainly creeped out a few times during the reading of them (I think Greenwitch was the creepiest, for me), but not enough to trouble my dreams. I think because good, no matter how beleaguered or desperate, always triumphed in the end, even (and often especially) through the frailty and love of flawed human beings.

And Will. Short, stocky, serious Will, with the enormous loving family and the heavy burden he shouldered so ably. His friendships with Merriman, with Bran, with the Drew children, and within his own family all so different, and drawn so finely.

Merriman himself was my first introduction to a character who was both good and hard, who could be ruthless in his pursuit of the Light. The Light that burns, sometimes, that doesn’t have room for softness – now, of course, that idea is commonplace, but at the time, I’d never read anything that showed that goodness doesn’t always look good and can, in fact, sometimes look cruel, that looking at the big picture can sometimes mean the details get blurred.

Cooper is another of those writers whose books shaped not just my own writing, but my life. I really can’t think of what sort of a writer I would be today were it not for the richness and depth of her stories. She has written many books besides The Dark is Rising series, of course (I bought Victory! for my dad for his birthday a few years ago – another one that we both loved), and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them, but tDiR has a special place in my heart.

Not to mention, of course, that I hold her and Lloyd Alexander between them directly responsible for my love affair with Wales, that land of magic and mystery and heroism. Which makes me think – maybe this is the year for me to pull out my Welsh language materials that I’ve had for an embarrassingly long time and get to work teaching myself the language. Maybe I should teach it to Joy and Grace at the same time, we three can learn together!

Or not.

Influences: Elizabeth Enright

Another one of the few non-fantasy authors who have been an enormous influence on my writing and my life, Elizabeth Enright doesn’t get anywhere near the appreciation she deserves, in my opinion. Which sounds odd, considering she won a Newbery Medal for Thimble Summer. It’s been my experience, however, that most people get a blank look on their faces when you mention Enright’s name, and then only vague recognition comes with the mention of Thimble Summer.

I thoroughly enjoy Thimble Summer, but it can’t hold a candle to my favorites of hers – the Gone-Away books. Whether it is the close relationship between a boy cousin and a girl cousin, reminding me so happily of the friendship between my cousin Zach and me, or the idea of a hidden, old-fashioned community, or (in the second book) all the fun of renovating an old house (which, having lived through, is Not Really Fun At All, but Enright made it seem fun), and moving to the country after having lived in the city … whatever it was, the books were a delight. I especially like that, unlike so many YA and MG books, the adults are present and involved, while the children still have freedom to explore and be brave and get themselves in and out of trouble. We need to see more of that in books for young people!

Then there’s the Melendy Quartet. I’ve written in my favorites posts about this family – Randy and Rush and the family overall. I love them. I want them to be my next-door neighbors. I want to have had Randy and Rush to adventure with as a kid, and I want them all to be my kids’ friends. They are real, and delightful, and funny, and brave (and occasionally not), and ambitious, and loyal and loving.

I think what I like best about Enright’s books, and her characters, is that perfect blend of realism and idealism. While the Melendy gang have marvelous adventures and impossible luck, they also feel like real people, people you could meet any day walking down the road. Same with Portia and Julian and the rest of the Gone-Away crew. As for Garnet of the wheat-colored braids, despite living in the hardest of times in American recollection, the Great Depression (a farmer’s daughter, no less), there is no grimness in her; she still exudes the natural joy of childhood, mixed with a very real worry for her parents’ livelihood.

Another factor that has always personally influenced my delight in Enright is the friendship that exists between boys and girls, without any romance or foolishness, just very easy and natural. Garnet and Jay and Rush and Randy are, true, brother and sister, and Portia and Julian cousins, so romance would be quite ick┬áin their cases, but so many writers only seem to capture the squabbling side of boy-girl family relationships, or the exasperation each feels for the other. There is some of that in Enright’s books, as there is in life, but there is also the deep and meaningful friendship that only comes when boys and girls are friends with each other, instead of boys only being friends with boys, and girls only being friends with girls. I love that Enright shows those sorts of friendships are possible, instead of assuming there must always be this unfathomable chasm between the two. Ugh! No wonder we have such problems with gender discrimination; it is so ubiquitous, even in children’s literature!

Whenever I want to capture some of the sense of my childhood, I re-read an Enright book. And in my writing, I try to keep in mind how natural and fun her characters all are, regardless of the book’s setting. When children who were created sixty, seventy, eighty years ago feel more real than children written about today, you know something has been done right!

Are you familiar with Elizabeth Enright? If so, which is your favorite book? What are some books you can think of that feature really excellent boy-girl friendships, without any hints of romance?