Friday, March 09, 2007

Bedtime Reading: Two Books for Children Reviewed

"Daddyyyyy."

Oh, crap.

"Daddy, can I use the computer?"

"Not right now, sweetie. You need to do your homework. And I'm using it right this minute anyway."

"Daddy?"

"Homework."

"Daddy, did you write your book report on The Wee Free Men yet?

"Well..."

"You said that you write a book report on every book you read."

Me and my big mouth.

"So did you write the report for The Wee Free Men? Daddy?"

"Um, yeah, about that. I was waiting until we finish the other one, then I thought I'd review them together. And don't you have homework to do?"

"Ohhhh Kayyyy...."

"Crivens, my wee hag?"

"Crivens!"

I dodged the bullet, but only temporarily. Now that Westley's within a page of his miracle cure, I can feel the pressure coming on again. I guess there's nothing for it but to keep my promises.

Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men is almost perfectly designed to read to my little girl. Granted, she's not quite the introspective misfit that is the main character, nor is she quite so practical-minded, nor so cool and logical in the face of adversity, but she still finds a lot of herself in a book about a brainy nine-year-old witch out to rescue her pesky younger sibling from nasty fairies. (Technically, I am reading these to both of my girls, but the little one draws and sings and scampers and chatters incessantly as I try to do so. Anything but listen.)

Tiffany, the young witch, has stumbled into a clan of Nac Mac Feegle, monstrously strong little blue men who drink and fight and steal and otherwise run around like a crew of deranged smurfs. With Scottish accents. Oh man, is it ever fun to read hollerin' and (PG-rated) cursin' and carryin' on in a Scottish accent. These little creatures are pictsies--emphatically not pixies--a characteristically ridiculous Pratchett-esque pun (and not one the kids got). Tiffany's still a bit young for it, but she needs to establish her role as the local wisdom, and guardian of the little blue psychos.

Terry Pratchett reads well as a children's author, probably better than he reads as a writer for adults. If you've come across anything by this guy, then you've already got a good handle on the motif. Dumb puns extended to the point of meaning something. Serious (and occasionally profound) thoughts stashed amid the rampant (and occasionally humorous) silliness. At a grown up level, it doesn't really succeed enough at either humor or gravity, and it gets old quick (best in small doses), but it's great for young people. The plot ain't much to speak of: while coursing through fairyland to find her brother, Tiffany must uncover her inner strengths. The fairy business was, for kids, a little confusing in parts, consisting of a number of intentional dream sequences and fakeouts and goofy existentialism. Pratchett's general Discworld mileu is represented too, and with little significance or introduction to the new reader, it's not much of a boon (but probably working fine as a gateway drug--my daughter can't wait to read the next one).

Also, Pratchett does a good job of drawing a main character whose independent thought processes are just beginning to take off. Tiffany must choose love and choose to accept the burdens of character--the author is honest about showing the doubts that would rattle about the head of a girl with responsibility. It was a pleasure to see my daughter's reaction to these crises of confidence, and to see the satisfaction of their resolution in her expressive little face. In addition to personal and community responisbility, Pratchett throws some thoughts around on the relationships between governance and authority, compassion and defiance, that are honest and realistically complex. It's healthy stuff for young minds to begin considering.

In order to get that kind of stuff from William Goldman's The Princess Bride, you have to already understand satire. Or else you must bother to read the frame story. When I first read this book, oh, ten or fifteen years ago, I remember noting that, although it was quite possibly the most faithful movie adaptation ever made (except for that thing with Inigo, but still), it indulged a totally different vehicle to tell it. What I'd forgotten was that the background story was the entertaining part. It was a lot more amusing and interesting than even the abridged "Morgenstern" version of the story itself. I started reading the text as Goldman wrote it:

"Daddy, this is boring. Where's the princess?"

"Aw, c'mon sweetie, it's the author talking to us. See? He's talking about his teacher here."

"Daddy, it's boring."

"Okay, fine, have it your way. You know what he's saying in all these sections? He's saying it's fine to go ahead and read only the good parts. He's saying we can skip this stuff."

"Yay!"

Kids.

Even though she didn't get into the meta story, my daughter did get a kick out of the humor, appreciating (to my approval) all of the running gags pretty well. She bought the love between Westley and Buttercup (missing Goldman's occasional sarcasm on the matter), caught the deviousness of the villains, and liked Inigo and Fezzik well enough. When Westley got caught and strapped into the machine, she whined for him in wide-eyed horror, but even at nine, she's been around the block enough to realize that The Princess Bride is basically an amusing theme park ride of a story, with the resolution never in doubt. It's one for which it's appropriate to pretend to be scared and enjoy the ups and down, but lacking any real sense of irony (and there's no hurry for that, frankly) then she's not getting much else out of it but a smile.

I enjoyed this one more than she did.


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5 comments:

sydbristow said...

aha!

I just remembered something. (And when I say remember, my youngest [of 4] is 23!) I used to make the kids do book reports as punishment(!) Wow, I mean that just goes against every grain, doesn't it. [Like, way to make them hate books, dave.] But in my defense, I was a softy, like saying, think I managed to make it sorta fun (like okay, forget a report just scribble down something, like give us each an face-saving out).

Good work, and a fave of mine in there too (of course).

Keifus said...

No man, that stuff is always absolved in the name of character-building. You did good (and if it was a non-punishment sort of punishment, then you did awesome.)

twiffer said...

books that are supposed to appeal to both kids and adults can be a hit or miss. i picked up a book called the dead fathers club. supposed to be a riff on hamlet, told through the narration of an 11 year-old. also supposed to appeal to kids and adults alike, as well as be funny. i must have missed the humor. also, the author decided that, since the narrator is 11, any sort of punctuation is right out. including things like parentheses. frankly, i'm too annoyed with the gimmickry to get any sort of enjoyment out of the text.

what possesses people to do things like this? other than a lack of skill?

Keifus said...

Just so long as they capitalize, then I'm cool with it. (Just kidding.) I'm still working on an opinion on children's books. A cheap enough observation: it seems like the best ones are good books before anything else. ...which is the same for adult books too now that I think about it.

(Hamlet for kids? Are you shitting me?)

hipparchia said...

hamlet for kids? sure!

my parents introduced me to shakespeare at about 10 or 11, and hamlet was among the first. macbeth was my favorite, though. still is.


yeah dave, way to make them hate books! i have to agree with keifus, sounds like you made it mostly a non-punishment punishment.