The Importance of Story

Heroes, heroism, and what all that entails, is a fairly common theme on this blog. It wasn’t until I read through Diana Wynne Jones’ essay collection, followed by The Wand in the Word, that I started to understand some of my impulses that drive me to contemplate such ideas, and to search for ways to bring them into my stories without even realizing it.
We as a society, especially here in America, are in desperate need of heroes. Not even real-life heroes, though those are (obviously) important, but heroes of mythical stature, for us to look up to and emulate without even knowing it. America is a funny land: we have absorbed so many cultures to make up this beautiful, multi-facted nation, and yet we haven’t embraced any of their myths – nor do most of us embrace the mythos of the Native Americans, which is beautiful and rich and deep.
Instead of myths and legends reaching back into a shadowy past, showing us heroes and heroines and quests and striving for a goal more noble, we have generations of Americans raised on Disney princesses and Power Rangers as children, vampires and dystopias as teenagers, gossip magazines and reality television as young adults. Not all of those things are bad – but they aren’t anything close to enough.
We have no King Arthur, no rich carpet of legend rolling out beneath our feet, for us to tread upon and absorb without even knowing it. The closest thing we have in this country to a cultural mythos are comic book heroes, and while those have their own value, they don’t have the weight of age behind them.
That’s not something I can change. I don’t have a TARDIS, I can’t pop back in time to create another Beowulf.
But I, personally, have a strong sense of the importance of heroes. As a kid, I fought imaginary dragons in my back yard. I believed in standing up for the underdog, even in my kindergarten class, wearing a pretty dress with my hair in two long braids, not letting anyone bully Thomas because he didn’t fit in. How did that happen (aside from my parents’ teaching)?
The books I read, the Stories I learned. What books did I grow up reading? Books by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Brian Jacques, Edward Eager, E Nesbit, L Frank Baum …
People say fantasy doesn’t matter? That fantasy books aren’t Real Books?
It is fantasy, myth, legend, the hero seeking to save others, the beauty of the quest through danger to achieve salvation, that will rescue this world from falling into utter darkness.
In the end, fantasy books are the most Real Books out there. They just might be the most important books you will ever read.
They are certainly the most important books I will ever write.
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To Parent or Not

It’s one of the most common topic of discussion for YA and MG fantasy – what to do about the parents?

The orphaned hero is become so cliched that people do tend to roll their eyes automatically when they see it, but writers seem to be left with little choice – either create some elaborate scheme to have the parents out of the picture, or just kill them off, because if the parents are around, much of the tension for the young protagonist is removed.

Oddly enough, I’m not a huge fan of that whole “remove the parents” idea, though. I know that it’s mostly because I am a parent now. But it’s also because while it makes it trickier for the protagonist to be the one driving the story, it also adds another level of tension – how does one go about having magical adventures when one’s mother is right there reminding one to keep safe and be smart? And what does a mother (or father) do when adventure finds one’s child – go with the natural instinct to protect one’s kid, or stay in the background and allow the kid to learn through experience?

These are the sorts of themes I really do enjoy seeing played out in books.

DSC_0009Edward Eager and E. Nesbit both handle parental presence well in their books. Usually, the parents are completely unaware of magic, and that unawareness becomes in itself another obstacle – the mother in Half Magic thinks she’s going mad because of all the magic she’s witnessing; Anthea has to go to extreme measures to hide from her mother that the magic carpet took the baby away in The Phoenix and the Carpet; Granny gets her hands on the magic book in Seven-Day Magic and leads the children on a madcap adventure they can’t escape until they get the book back, because she thinks she’s just dreaming … and so on and so forth. My favorite Eager parents, though, are Martha and Katharine, both of whom had magical adventures when they were children, and aren’t afraid to set their children straight when it comes to magic. And in The Time Garden, when the children travel back in time and end up in one of their parents’ magical adventures, and have to rescue them, it gets thoroughly delightful (side note: I wonder at what point in time did Martha, Katharine, Jane and Mark look at each other and realize, “OH! Those strange children from our desert island adventure that time – those were OUR KIDS”?) and mayhem-y.

I read a duology recently where the daughter was kidnapped to a magical realm to help free her father from a spell there, and the mother went back voluntarily to rescue the daughter. I thought the concept was fabulous, except in execution, the mother spent most of her time as a prisoner in the palace, dithering about what was best to do, while the daughter escaped her kidnappers and had wild piratical adventures while on her way to rescue her father. It was a bit of a disappointment, because I really, really wanted to see a YA book that had an equally strong mother and daughter – in the same place but separated, both having awesome adventures.

I guess maybe someday I’ll just have to write that story myself.

What are some good example you can think of for parental inclusion in YA or MG adventures? Do you prefer to read stories where the children have to work with or around the parents, or where the parents just aren’t there at all? Would you want to read a story that features both kids AND adults being awesome?

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?