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Children’s and YA Books, Part 2

As I get ready for the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, March 12-15, 2015, I’m thinking about children’s and YA books. Here’s my second blog post about some of my favorites.

Children’s books by British authors are often about time. I suppose it’s because writers in England can’t go out of their houses – or around inside their houses – without stumbling over the past. It lies in wait around corners, under paving stones and gravel paths. It lurks in mirrors, wells, and mazes; behind hedges, over fences, beyond doorways and gates.

Penelope Lively calls time a palimpsest in her memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites. In her children’s books, she layers decades and centuries over one another, and characters in one layer can catch echoes from an earlier one. Maria, in A Stitch in Time, hears a dog barking and a swing creaking from a generation before her time, while Clare in The House in Norham Gardens hears drums from New Guinea, half a world and two centuries away. In Thomas Kemp’s Ghost, a twentieth-century boy finds himself the unwilling apprentice of a sixteenth-century alchemist who can’t stop trying to control people and events, unwilling to face the truth that he and his magic are sadly out of date.

In Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, part ghost stories and part time travel narratives, a little boy meets the children in a painting from the seventeenth century. One century layers over another as characters move between them.

However, recent contemporary American children’s and YA books unroll in an urban present unmitigated by the past or places that might be different. Jay Asher’s characters in The Future of Us experience present and future as essentially the same, only differing in the details, even as their Facebook pages show them varying futures that change every day. In Thirteen Reasons Why, a teenage girl commits suicide, and her classmates and friends try to figure out why based on clues she leaves them on cassette tapes, tapes that open their eyes to her secret, despairing life in a modern high school. Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar also explores the anguish of teens stuck in their private traumas. Teen anguish has been the subject of fiction for a long time, but am I imagining that it seems more isolated, frightening, and despairing now than in earlier times? Or are writers just more willing to probe and reveal?

Lev Grossman’s Magician series, books that attract adult readers as well as teens and young adults, follow the adventures of Quentin Coldwater, a nervous, brilliant insecure New York teen, self-absorbed and self-doubting, who feels equally uneasy in his real world and the fantasy worlds he visits. Admitted into a Harry-Potter-like college for magicians, he finds a way into a world he always believed existed only in a series of children’s books he had loved. The two magical worlds are equally unnerving. Quentin, in entering his favorite childhood literary fantasy, finds that he cannot recover the sense of wonder and certainty about good and evil that he had when he read those books as a child, for they now present adult dilemmas with no moral certainty.

Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly, differs from many American YA books in that it shows a young girl who does have strong connections to the past: the more recent past of 1960s rock-and-roll and the music of the eighteenth century. A talented musician herself, she loves both and tries to hear links between them. Music is her escape and her salvation. Her time-travel experience – if that is what it is – brings her to reconciliation to her own present. Such an awareness of the past is atypical of American YA books.

Yet maybe I’m speaking too quickly. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman takes on American Southern history with its tangle of race, sex, and family secrets. A young girl in the twenty-first century enters a grown-over maze on her family’s plantation, meets a magical creature, and goes back in time to slavery days, only to find herself on the wrong side of the race equation. It’s as though Octavia Butler and E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Railway Children) decided to collaborate.

One of my recent British favorites, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, does show connections to the past, as well as to myth and folkways. Not for very young readers, it is true Gaiman: scary and magical, modern yet timeless. Like Susan Cooper, Charles Kingsley, C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman stands in the tradition of great British fantasy writers who peel back to the bones of story, where the familiar opens out onto the uncanny, magical, and timeless.

What are some of the YA and children’s books that have moved you most? Does a sense of the past or of other worlds move you, or do you prefer contemporary settings and stories?

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