Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dashner, James. The Maze Runner. Random House Children’s Books, 2009. 374 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-38573794-4. This book is appropriate for grades 6 and up, or ages 11 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I was lucky enough to take a linguistics course while still in high school, so I have long appreciated authors who take chances with language, even if they do not always work. Some of my favorite works as an undergraduate English major—Ulysses, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Waste Land—all featured experiments in the structure, nature, and power of language. Therefore, when an author starts playing with language, I pay attention. Of course, to authors like M. T. Anderson and Cynthia Kadohata, beautiful, provocative language comes naturally, but some need to work at it, and I am guessing that James Dashner belongs to the latter group. Mr. Dashner creates a mini-slang vocabulary a la Battlestar Galactica (frak it!) for his new novel The Maze Runner, and I like it, even if it gets a bit stale after a while. It does manage to hide some weak dialogue, a result of the novel’s excessive length. However, more importantly, the story moves well albeit a bit slowly, and although there are many hints to the ending, it is both reasonable and well-planned. A dystopian series is clearly planned, and if the author can maintain the tension and excitement, it is welcomed as well.

Like all of the other boys before him for two years, Thomas wakes up one day in a metal box with all specific memories of his past wiped clean. Outside of the box is the Glade, home for the 60 or so boys who live there, the place inside the maze. None of the boys know why or how they are in the maze, why they cannot remember more, or the purpose of the obviously artificial environment in which they are trapped: “He remembered lots of little things about life—eating, clothes, studying, playing, general images of the makeup of the world. But any detail that would fill in the picture to create a true and complete memory had been erased somehow. It was like looking at an image through muddy water” (33). However, Thomas feels different somehow, as if he may have knowledge or experience trapped underneath the corners of his brain. He vaguely recognizes this simulation, and he somehow feels responsible for it. Thomas wants to become a Runner, a person who goes out into the maze to map it and search for an exit (the walls shift nightly and the four entrances lock each night), but the other members of the group are unsettled by the newcomer. The tension between Thomas and leaders Alby, Newt, Minho, and Gally is obvious, but if the “Gladers” are to ever get out and find the Creators to learn the secret of their enslavement, they will need each other more than they can imagine.

Suzanne Collins recently succeeded in combining science fiction sub-genres with the Hunger Games series, and James Dashner walks down a similar path. I like the way Mr. Dashner incorporates the sub-genres of post-apocalypse dystopia, the enslavement of Man by his own technology, and the boogeyman-gonna-get-ya adventure/thriller. In this case, the boogeymen are Grievers, half-man/half-machine monstrosities that live in the maze and hunt anything that moves. It is a good effort that I believe my students will like, but I fear they may agree with my overall assessment that it is too long (and they may subsequently lose interest). If the novel was 100 pages shorter, I would have felt more comfortable with the language and the Lord of the Flies mentality, but at 374 pages, it got old, like that moment you realize a movie is too long and you start wondering when you can use the bathroom instead of how the protagonist will solve his problem. But the themes of isolation, feeling lost in a confusing world, and not being able to control one’s environment will resonate in students’ brains, and I admit that I am already looking forward to the sequel and making my own guesses about the next installment, the standard mark of a successful series starter.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Adoff, Arnold, and Kacy Cook (Eds.). Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, & Conversations. Blue Sky Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-439-27193-6. This book is for grades 6 and up, or ages 11 and above, depending on reading level. This book is also appropriate for high school and adult reading (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

Virginia Hamilton holds a unique, lofty place in young adult literature as an African-American author who features African-American protagonists in her works: no other modern author can claim her longevity, relevance, and vision as they relate to young adult literature. There are many great authors who may compete someday, such as Christopher Paul Curtis and Sharon M. Draper, but Ms. Hamilton and her body of works have already made it. She is almost the Langston Hughes of her time, producing books in multiple genres (never far away from poetry because of her husband, Arnold Adoff) and representing a new type of Black literature, grounded in history but poised for immortality. Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, & Conversations highlights her background, philosophy, and approach to writing in her own words, and just as Ms. Hamilton’s fiction and non-fiction are well worth reading, her speeches and essays are too.

Similar themes in this collection emerge about Ms. Hamilton and her place in literature. Ms, Hamilton speaks about the creative process, and more specifically, her creative process, a great deal. She admires writers who can move others: “The linguistic stylist may be a demagogue, a crook, a saint, a hero; whoever he is, he possesses the power to persuade” (24). Ms. Hamilton asserts that she has worked to support nonwhite literature, or literature from what she calls “parallel cultures,” partly because of a stunning concept pertaining to Americans: “All of this has its basis in the proposition that American children have the right to books that reflect their cultural and racial heritage” (38). Ms. Hamilton has filled the emptiness of nonwhite literature with an impressive list of protagonists and stories, and she feels it is no less important because it belongs to a parallel culture: “I believe in what I write for young people, that its call is important—the call being the essence of the people’s lives it depicts—and the depiction is necessary, as well as art” (104). If certain elements of life are not present in fiction, they can be ignored or passed over: “Our young adult literature tends to remove from the young adults themselves. The slim presence of parallel culture literature would give the impression that such large parallel cultures have no presence and do not exist in America” (168).

Another theme prominent in this collection is the idea that American readers want and deserve to be challenged in their imaginations and in their lives, but they have no frame of reference for reading cultural fiction with depth : “They are often lazy readers. What I attempt is not too hard and not too difficult for them. But it may be true that they must first familiarize themselves with the degree of difficulty that results in our comprehending one another when our society allows the separation of its groups culturally and socially from one another” (129). Ms. Hamilton does not believe unduly in her own self-importance, but she does understand the power and range of her message: “Good Lord, children don’t need my books . . . The fact that you come to believe it and see it as real simply reveals how similar is the spiritual struggle of one group to that of another” (41). Children are people to Ms, Hamilton, and they deserve the same respect in reading as do adults.

The last prominent theme in this book is Ms. Hamilton’s desire to pass on what she knows of Black culture and history to a generation who may or may not know that heritage: “My fictions for children, young people, descend directly from the progress of black adults and their children across the American hopescape” (104). It is important to pass on the myths, folklore, language, and traditions of a people for no other reason than it is sometimes all they have of their past. Ms. Hamilton, like her hero Langston Hughes, claims both cultural and family heritages: “Echoes of long past times serve to feed my imagination. They may sound of African dreams or my own family truths” (105). Fortunately, Ms. Hamilton had a rich family tradition with long-lived ancestors who could share stories of their past with her.

Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, & Conversations should definitely be on every library’s shelf, but do not expect it to fly out of the building. Its message is as complex and deep as the author, and at times somewhat inaccessible to inexperienced readers and writers. Teachers and older students may get more out of it, but I would offer it to middlers just as quickly; we do not, as Ms. Hamilton warns, want to underestimate their ability to comprehend and internalize complex material. I was a bit surprised by a couple of things in this collection: Ms, Hamilton gives an overly flattering (in my opinion) assessment of the state of young adult literature and of politics in the old Soviet Union, and after displaying such a gentle soul for the entire book, she writes a scathing review at the end of her life against an article in Horn Book magazine. Despite those brief, but human lapses, however, this collection is filled with the gentle wisdom and experience of a woman who achieved her life’s goal and wanted to share it with the world. Fortunately for us, she succeeded on both counts.

Labels: , , , , , ,