Saturday, September 29, 2012

On Aging Out of Series

30. The Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville

31. Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville

32. The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville

Do books, or should books, have age limits? While there are no hard or fast rules, I think most readers can agree that your average adult doesn't need to be reading The Babysitters' Club books or Animorphs (exception granted if you're reading to a child).

This question is more complicated these days for two reasons: 1) The proliferation of book series and 2) More widespread acceptance (or at least practice) of adults reading YA fiction (See Harry Potter and Twilight).

How do book series affect my query? Well, generally, books in a series do not all come out at once. The Harry Potter series, for example, was released over a period of ten years, from 1997 to 2007, during which time I emerged from elementary school, tackled the rigors of middle and high school, and entered college. Now, Harry Potter is a series that aged remarkably well or rather, grew up with me. In each new book, Harry was a year older and often happened to be my exact age or thereabouts. The obstacles that he encountered grew far more sophisticated and the stakes, themes, and implications much greater with each new book, so that I would not recommend the final Harry Potter book to anyone under the age of eleven. But that experience, I think, was more unusual than not and is one of the reasons that Harry Potter became so popular among adults and iconic among my own generation*. The far more likely scenario, if an author keeps writing and writing and writing a particular series, is that kids of the right age will read the first couple books, but by the time the last books are out, they're in high school or college and no longer interested (See Goosebumps, Magic Treehouse, Junie B. Jones, Ramona Quimby and any other series that were popular when I was a kid and appear to be still within the right age set).

I decided to test the theory of whether a book series that one began reading as a kid was worth finishing as an adult with Bruce Coville's The Unicorn Chronicles. I read the first book, Into the Land of the Unicorns, in fourth grade, a couple years after it was originally published in 1995 (Sidenote: Yes, I'm dating myself like crazy). While searching at my local library for quality children's books to use in the class I taught over the summer, I came across a book that had a very familiar premise-and recognized it as the sequel to the book I had read in fourth grade.

Curious as to whether it would live up to the imprint it had made on my mind (I recalled Cara's jump from a belltower into Luster, land of the unicorns, a chattering monkey-like creature called the Squijum, and the terrible revelation that Beloved, the unicorns' greatest enemy, was a many-great grandmother of Cara's), I began Song of the Wanderer, first published in 1999. At that point, I would still have been what I consider the book's target audience, but alas, I never discovered it, despite the first book having ended with a gnarly cliffhanger. For some reason though, I had in my head the idea that Cara's grandmother (her mother's actual mother) was a unicorn who had somehow turned into a human, and this idea was miraculously (or not) vindicated in the sequel.

Song of the Wanderer was undoubtedly a kids' book. The sort of kids' book I'd argue that adults have no business reading. It featured a not-really-catchy song, a really-transparently-see-through-quest, and kinda-cool sidekicks that didn't really make up for the simplistic plot and home-is-where-the-heart-is theme. There were just way too many convenient coincidences and suspicious changes-of-heart that any eight-year-old could probably swallow in a tale about unicorns, but a (twentysomething) could not.

I'd already checked out Dark Whispers, the third book, from the library though, so I gave it a whirl anyway. This one was first published in 2008, when I was already a bona fide adult and starting a little book blog known as Space Station Mir. Why the nine year gap? You'll have to ask Coville. He is also the author of quite a number of other childrens' books, so perhaps he got distracted.

After Wanderer, I did not have high hopes for Whispers. But an amazing thing happened.

In the first two books, the viewpoint is third person limited from Cara's perspective. Cara is supposed to be twelve throughout the series, though she seems younger in the first two books and older in the final two. In the third book, SUDDENLY WE HAVE MULTIPLE THIRD PERSON LIMITED PERSPECTIVES. Seriously, it is as if in one of the later HP books, J.K. Rowling started having chapters from Ron's and Hermione's, and Mrs. Weasley's, and Dobby's POV.

It's awesome. It changes the tone and theme of the book(s), bringing in adult and otherworldly perspectives. One of the new POV characters is Rocky, a member of the underground-dwelling delver race with an unexplained (but oh it will be explained) vendetta against the unicorns. It's the bringing together of these diverse perspectives, and a much more sophisticated and higher-stakes plotline, not to mention more legends that add layers and layers of depth, that turns this series into at least that caliber of YA that can be a guilty pleasure read for adults.

After the third book, (which also ended with a steep cliffhanger that would be unbearable if all the books weren't out), I sought out The Last Hunt. The final book, at least, was only a two year wait from the one before it and came out in 2010. Still, that is FIFTEEN YEARS after the release of the first book. If the target age group was eight-year-olds (and let's be real, it was probably twelve-year-olds), they'd be 23 by the time the final book was published. Besides being cruel, that just doesn't seem like a smart marketing ploy. But onto the book itself...

The Last Hunt was a welcome continuation of Dark Whispers. The multiple perspectives persevered and even more (only slightly obvious) legends came to light, aspiring to Tolkien-esque creation myths. No, it's not nearly on a Tolkien level, but the attempt is appreciated, especially becomes Coville does bring several new twists in the form of engaging mythological creatures that are either completely new or not much explored in modern fantasy. Coville gives these creatures a chance, not only the starring unicorns, but a gryphon, a dragon (okay, dragons do get more attention),centaurs, some angels, the delvers, and creatures known as the Squijum and the Dimblethum get plenty of page time. In the last book, Coville even pulls a few tricks out of J.K. Rowling's books (and Joseph Campbell's heroic journey) and makes some sacrifices that will genuinely upset readers. If it's worth having, it's worth losing. And that is a mark of truly successful modern fantasy, I think.

On the topic of today's more widespread acceptance of adults reading children's books, I have a Unicorn Chronicles related anecdote. I happened to be reading The Last Hunt, which features a flying dragon on the colorful cover, when I went in for some tests. I was more than a little embarrassed about it, and even more so when the technician mentioned, "I noticed you're reading a fantasy book..."

I was mollified a bit that he even said "fantasy," rather than out-and-out children's book. But I reflected that, these days, it's difficult to tell and maybe the lines are all but completely blurred. All fantasy used to be children's books, now all fantasy can be...anyone's guess. I appreciate that fantasy has become so accepted in the national consciousness that it can be assumed you're reading a book for adults (or that you've joined a growing movement of adults reading kids' books). But I want to draw some sort of line, because I don't want you mixing children's books up with my SFF Lit**.

So, did I age out of The Unicorn Chronicles?

Despite my respect for the later books, yes. These are children's fantasy books and I'd buy them for my young cousins, but wouldn't recommend them to adults.

And after all this work, I'm just asking another question: Where do you draw the line between children's and adult fantasy?

* In talking about Harry Potter, I feel obligated to acknowledge that J.K. Rowling's new book (I'm sure you've heard of it) came out this week. I have no immediate plans to read it as it sounds far removed from what I love about the HP universe.

** Disclaimer: I am not saying that children's books can't be literature. They can. But they can be either children's literature or literature that really shouldn't have been children's books in the first place (i.e. LOTR) and just got pigeonholed into it. The Unicorn Chronicles is not any kind of literature, IMO.

1 comment:

Biblibio said...

In answer to your last question, I just don't know. Children's fantasy and adult fantasy end up having a lot of titles in common, but there are a few books I would hands-down define as kids as opposed to a few that are clearly adult. Sometimes it's because of the nature of the plot (A Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind), but sometimes I think it's a little more subtle than that. Watership Down may be about animals and child-friendly, but I read it in my teens and would never dissuade adults from reading it. It felt like an adult fantasy, to a certain degree. So like I said... I just don't know how to distinguish between the two. Maybe it has to be on a case-by-case basis?