I didn’t intend to start reading in some type of theme but for some reason I ended up reading three YA/children’s books, so I thought I’d combine them into one posting.
My reading habits as a child and teenager were very different. Even as a pre-teen I was fascinated with science fiction and was already a fan of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, so that didn’t change. But most of the books I received as gifts were non-fiction books. Actually, it was a pretty weird collection now that I think about it. One aunt had let me hang out with her at an astrology reading and knew I was interested in odd occult topics, so I also had a collection of books on things like astrology, numerology, and I Ching that she was sure I’d enjoy. My other aunt, the college graduate, bought me things on science and space and history for children (Genghis Khan cutting parts off of the conquered) with a smattering of traditional children’s books like Dr. Seuss. The Scholastic Books program was also a thing so I’d bike home at least once a year with a basket of books that I got to choose myself.
In my early teens I was introduced to The Hobbit, which altered my tastes quite a bit, and also developed a taste for some poets like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.
I managed to miss a lot of traditional books that I’ve caught up with as an adult like Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pinnochio, and similar books. This is probably because I am pretty sure my mother stopped reading to me at age 3-4 when she found out I could read for myself, so I depended on what was given and personal interests.
Since then YA Lit has been a nice break from other books. Series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Emergent have drawn me in.
Jackaby is the one new book on the list.Written in 2015 it’s the first in a series of books with the same main character. Set in the late 1800s in New England, Jackaby is a detective with supernatural abilities. He can see supernatural beings that are invisible to almost everyone else. If I were pitching a movie he would be “Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. Who”. His Watson is Abigail Rook, a woman in her late teens to left England (absconded with her education funds) to seek out a life of adventure. Landing in New Fiddlesham she runs into Jackaby who eventually hires her as his assistant.
There are pluses and minuses to both lead characters. Jackaby is sort of fun but could be more fun. He’s quirky but stiff. Along with Holmes and The Doctor there’s a touch of Spock in his character that reduces his charm. Abigail is spunky and, as Lou Grant famously told Mary Richards, “I hate spunk.”
I have to say that the version I read was on sale at Audible and narrated by an English woman that was pretty wretched with American accents (they all sounded the same, unlike the British and Irish characters) and made Jackaby sound as stiff and unlikeable as a person possibly could.
I can’t see a teen or younger falling in love with the books but there are banshees and unusual creatures, and a mystery that worked in this first book. The book itself received a lot of reviewer attention, hitting several top ten lists for the year. I may try another but it will be a day when I’m really short on better choices.
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
I have been a Robin Hood fan my entire life. I was glued to the 50s series with Richard Greene (also a Zorro fan at the same time) and still watch the Erroll Flynn movie with awe every few years. Pyle’s book, written in 1883, synthesized a lot of the older Hood stories and ballads and was one of the sources for the Flynn film among others.
The stories themselves have some charm but it’s definitely a dated book in several ways. Most notable is that Robin and his band do a damn lot of making merry, which mostly seems to consist of loafing in the forest, making sport in which they split up to have concurrent merry-making adventures, stealing from the rich (anyone they decide deserves robbing) and splitting the take into thirds where the poor and the merry men get a take and the owner gets to keep a third of the original. There is a lot of forcing people to exchange clothes at sword-point and other felonious behavior. The book is less clear on the evils of those being opposed and Hood originally goes into hiding in Sherwood Forest after killing a man who refuses to pay off on a bet. (Sure, the man shoots at Robin first, but he also is drunk and misses.) Pyle toned this down from the original ballad in which Robin kills 14 people.
The language is also a barrier to any modern reader. The “olde English” is stilted and, worse for me, innacurate. You/ye was used in formal settings, thee/thy/thou for informal, much like Usted/tu in Spanish. It was the Quakers who spoiled this for everyone by calling everyone from the king to the town knacker as thou. To differentiate themselves everyone else relied on you and it became standard. Hyde also uses the word yeoman frequently and indiscriminately. A yeoman was a land owner who farmed his own land. Everybody is a yeoman (usually a stout or right lusty one) in this book unless they are fair maids. The history is also way off.
Those flaws aside, it might be a fun book to read aloud or for someone charmed by, say, White’s The Once and Future King to take a stab at solo. I’m not sure I could have put aside my adolescent disdain for almost everything to get through the book until I was older.
I wasn’t a great fan of the Disney version or the musical but was curious about the book. And there are parts of this book that live up to its reputation as being cringe-worthy racist and just downright painful to read from a modern perspective.
Those things aside, the book offers a lot of lovely things, Wendy’s eccentric parents, Nana’s view of her job of protecting the chlidren, and an ending that made me weepy. I’m not even sure what there was about Peter staying the same age and coming back to an aging Wendy and then her children and grandchildren. Partly their sense of loss as Peter forgets them but also just the empty life of an eternal child. People are meant to age. It’s part of the human experience and Peter’s decision to never age robs him of that somehow.
I would share this book with any interested young person after some talk about words like redskin and pickaninny and how times have changed for the better. I am not the kind who thinks books should be kept from others because of their faults or dangerous ideas. These are moments in which we learn to think critically. What does the N-word mean in Huckleberry Finn? What does the word mean today? What does it say about the time in the book and the people who used it, or who still use it? If your children don’t do things in a vacuum … books, television, or video games … it offers an opportunity to talk values.