"Where You Least Expected It"

    Reviews by Cooper Renner

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Much of the best American fiction of the past few decades has flown too low for radar. Conventionally this lame metaphor means that our organs of review and award are too busy with John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates to pay attention to Paul Metcalf, Guy Davenport or Gary Lutz. (Not that such a situation should especially surprise anyone: The Sun Also Rises did not win the Pulitzer in 1927.) But I mean to pursue something else with this criticism-- the almost total neglect, by adults, of literature for children and teenagers. Most adults, to be sure, would acknowledge the artistry of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, its not so fantastic step-child Winnie the Pooh, and its even more realistic descendant Charlotte's Web-- even if they have not read any of these books. But how many adults know that the popular Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie Sarah, Plain and Tall is based on a touching, funny, and finely crafted Newbery-winning novel for elementary students? Alice and Winnie are sui generis, and the apprentice writer cannot "learn" anything from them to apply to her own craft, except maybe the importance of careful attention to language. But Charlotte's Web and Sarah are utterly more "traditional" works, and any student of writing who cannot benefit from reading them is in the wrong field. Both books are classical in their devotion to simplicity, "direct treatment of the thing," and emotional honesty, and both will almost certainly survive almost every adult work of fiction published since World War II.

Charlotte's Web and Sarah, Plain and Tall are "traditional" works, and any student of writing who cannot benefit from reading them is in the wrong field.

It would be impossible, I think, to establish why children's fiction should be so much better than its adult counterpart, but I will dare to make a few suggestions. For one thing, children are not afraid of quality. Many children actively seek out books with the "gold seal" of the Newbery and Caldecott awards on their covers, even as their parents dodge critically acclaimed works for the latest Tom Clancy. For this reason, children's librarians-- who are the primary purchasers of hardcover fiction for children-- can buy the award-winning books year in and out with a fair degree of confidence that they will be checked out and read. And since most hardcovers for children are not sold in bookstores but rather by book jobbers to libraries, books which are well-reviewed are much more likely to sell than books which are poorly reviewed. That is to say, the reviews actually matter. Publishers run less risk with "literary" fiction for children than they do with such fiction for adults. I don't mean to suggest that children do not read genre fiction-- the phenomenal success a few years ago of the Goosebumps series as well as the past successes of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books prove otherwise. But children are far more likely than adults to move back and forth between genre and "quality" fiction. Furthermore children's genre fiction is also very often literary fiction, as such Newbery-winning titles as A Wrinkle in Time, The Grey King, and The White Stag demonstrate. Such books occupy something of the place in children's fiction that The Lord of the Rings occupies for many adults-- genre, yes, but of a remarkably high quality. (One difference being, undoubtedly, that no respectable critic would consider a work like The Lord of the Rings for a major adult literary prize.)

But these considerations deal with the publication and distribution of children's fiction. Is there any reason why quality fiction for children should be "easier" to write? I think perhaps there is, and not because children are "simpler" than adults. To begin with, a writer for children generally accepts from the outset a set of rather stringent limitations on her production, just as does a poet sitting down to write a sonnet. And just as the restrictions of writing a sonnet forced Milton to produce a far more "perfect" poem with "On His Blindness" than with the vastly overlong Paradise Lost, so too it may be that writers who labor over a book for children find the restrictions of conceptual difficulty, emotional appropriateness, and attention span lead them to produce leaner, more tightly woven, and less self-indulgent novels. Writers are also aware that literary fiction for children is not dead in the marketplace and thus do not feel so compelled to target their writing to a presumed (and actual) editorial bias. It's also true that, even though there are successful "experimental" novels for children, most children's fiction qualifies as "traditional narrative," in which writers are concerned to focus on character development, plot structure, setting-- the old-fashioned virtues. Of course these virtues are not old-fashioned to 8-, 10-, or 15-year-olds who are still employing fiction to help them form an understanding of how the universe (and human beings) work, and how cause and effect are related, or not. Surely part of what this means, even unconsciously, to a writer is that she need not bow in her writing to abstracted or theoretical trends in academia. Homer, one might say, is more hip than Foucault.

One writer who moves between traditional and experimental fiction, and between books for older children and teenagers, is Chris Lynch, whose first novel Shadow Boxer was published only 8 years ago. Shadow Boxer is a fine debut, the tale of the relationship between two brothers whose father died of boxing injuries and the younger of whom is determined to follow in his father's career. Lynch's structure is loose, making Shadow Boxer almost a linked series of stories rather than a novel, but the impelling nature of the narrative voice and the older brother's love create a page-turning intensity more common to genre fiction than to "literature." Later novels like Slot Machine-- a comic tour-de-force for teenagers-- and Gold Dust-- which deals with baseball and race relations-- prove that Lynch's talent is real and continuing, even if some of his books are more bluster than art.

What this means, even unconsciously, to a writer is that she need not bow in her writing to abstracted or theoretical trends in academia. Homer, one might say, is more hip than Foucault.

Chris Crutcher, a psychologist, works much more slowly than Lynch and thus sustains a much higher level of overall quality. His almost brutally honest depictions of American teenagers make his books controversial as well as essential for high school libraries. Various sports twine through his novels as tightly as they do in many teenagers' lives, but there is no sense in which one would label his books "sports stories." So fine are they all that it is difficult to recommend a starting point, although I will especially note Staying Fat for Sarah Byrne, even as I point out that one cannot go wrong by simply reading them in order of publication.

Tangerine, the first novel by Edward Bloor, is likewise a compelling look at adolescent psychology with a sports angle. Written as a journal, Tangerine covers several months in the life of seventh-grader Paul Fisher after his family moves from suburban Texas to semi-suburban/quasi-rural north Florida. Bloor uses genre elements-- incomplete memories, threatening or even criminal activity witnessed by the narrator and no one (or almost no one) else-- to heighten the sense of foreboding reflected by the perpetual muck fires and persistent thunderstorms of Paul's neighborhood. He also nimbly negotiates the minefields of race and class relations through the experiences of an upper class white kid who finds his true niche in Florida with mostly Hispanic kids of the working class. Bloor's secondary characters are vivid and authentic, both as individuals and as members of their social or family groups. One of the high points of the story, for Paul as well as for the reader, occurs when a Hispanic boy calls Paul brother, and not least of Bloor's achievements is his ability to make the citrus industry fascinating.

In closing, let me recommend also the Billy Baggs novels of Will Weaver, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Young Unicorns and The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle, Crash by Jerry Spinelli (which introduces young readers to the unreliable narrator), The Tortilla Cat by Nancy Willard, and virtually anything-- but especially The Midnight Fox, the Bingo Brown comedies, and the Newbery-winning The Summer of the Swans-- by Betsy Byars. Many of us despair when faced with thousands of adult novels in superstores, none of which appeals to us. We could do far worse than simply to pass them all by and head for the children's department.

Recommended reading :

Bloor, Edward Tangerine
Byars, Betsy The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown
   Bingo Brown and the Language of Love
   The Midnight Fox
Cooper, Susan The Dark Is Rising
   Dawn of Fear
Crutcher, Chris Athletic Shorts (stories)
   The Crazy Horse Electric Game
   Staying Fat for Sarah Byrne
L'Engle, Madeleine The Arm of the Starfish
   The Young Unicorns
Lynch, Chris Gold Dust
   Shadow Boxer
   Slot Machine
Spinelli, Jerry Crash
   Space Station Seventh Grade
Weaver, Will Farm Team
   Hard Ball
   Striking Out
White, E.B. Charlotte's Web
Willard, Nancy The Tortilla Cat

and the trilogy His Dark Materials by British writer Philip Pullman, which dares to take on Milton and create a sort of sequel to Paradise Lost : The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Mail to Cooper Renner

About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.