Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Meh

I'll admit it, I've got a few reading weaknesses.  We all resolve to read a wide variety of authors and genres, and then we secretly just read what we like, over and over again.  Dickens novels.  Picture books.  And kids fantasy books.  Those are my big weaknesses.

I like to think I'm well-versed in kids fantasy books, but recently I've come to realize I've just hit the tip of the iceberg.  If this genre was the Beast's library, I'd only have read one shelf.  So, I set myself the goal of reading some more of this genre this summer.  I've got The Lightning Thief, Inkheart, The Bartimeus Trilogy, and Septimus Heap (Magyck) all lined up for this summer.  And I thought I'd start with The Lightning Thief.

Unfortunately, not everything was roses and peaches.

I was distinctly whelmed.  I wasn't overhwlemed.  But I wasn't underwhelmed.  I was just plain whelmed.  (Side note, using that word should be a thing.  Rather than meh.  Anyhow.)

There was plenty I enjoyed about Percy Jackson and his merry band of followers.  Every now and again, I found something to chuckle at.  Good example: the sign for DOA Recordings is "No Soliciting, No Loitering, No Living."  I'll admit, I got a giggle out of that.  Percy sticks to his guns pretty well.  But come to think of it, that's kind of annoying, too.  There's no major struggle with him.  Aside from the fact that he doesn't like being the plaything of the gods, his moral compass never really wavers.  He's never swayed or tempted.  For someone who has a lot to be resentful about, he sure doesn't seem to bothered by it.

Really, though, I found more things about this book that I didn't like than I did.  It was hard to let go of the teacher in me when it came to Percy as a student.  My (mostly) internal dialogue kept saying things like, "stop using your disabilities as a crutch to do poorly in school!"  And it made me feel less sympathetic.  What kind of lousy hero doesn't even try to succeed in regular life?  I didn't really like his friends.  Okay, I didn't really like Grover.  He vacillated between being on the verge of tears and raging at someone or something for not treating the earth right.  Annabeth was okay.  She was at least a tad conflicted.  But pretty quick to give up on years of prejudice and in-bred teachings.

But I'm not here to rag on Percy today.  (Look for my review on Goodreads, if you want a nice long rag.)  I'm blogging about this because reading The Lightning Thief has made me realize why I like the kids fantasy books I do.


A tad morbid, yes.  But death is possibly the most serious thing in life and the thing a majority of humans fear the most.  It's the thing we've struggled mightly with for our whole existence.  It's why we find comfort in ideas of an afterlife, because then death really doesn't matter.  It's why we're worried there is no afterlife.  Because then we do have to think about death.  And maybe we'll be scared.

And a major reason of why so many of us like literature is because it gives us tools with which to grasp the ideas of dying and death.  To know that someone else has these same fears is quite a relief and a comfort.  And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that death should be given some respect.  It should not be treated so lightly.  I've realized that all my favorite fantasy books do just this -- they take a long, hard look at death, and try and come to terms with it.  In a relatively serious manner.  I think the trigger for this realization was Percy Jackson.  Death is treated with such levity in this first book.  There's never a true, threatening sense of death, no genuine fear.  Yes, they go down to the Underworld and yes, it's pretty scary, but those scenes seem to lack conviction.  Hell, I wasn't scared.  I wasn't even vaguely upset.  It was kind of ho-hum.  And anytime Percy's kind of teetering towards death or at least serious illness/injury?  A deus ex machina saves him at the last minute.  Again, very ho-hum.

Is it just me, or do I expect more out of my reading, even if it's for kids?  One of the reasons I love teaching the grade I do is because kids will do amazing things when you treat them like people.  When you stop talking down to them and start treating them like grown-ups and give them grown-up expectations, they will actually rise to the challenge.  And so I don't want the books my students' read to talk down to them, to treat them like kids, and to fail to challenge them in new ways.  Oh, sure, there's no harm in a popcorn read from time to time, something fun and fluffy, but why can't something be fun and stretch the borders of your mind?  Harry Potter certainly did that.  What was the point of raising the bar that high if no one is willing to emulate it?  I almost feel like I've been set up for disappointment.  Because of Harry Potter, I've come to expect a certain level of writing out of my kids fantasy books.  And when I don't get it, I'm crushed.  And I write vicious reviews (I admit it).

But I feel strongly.  And you know what?  There are plenty of kids fantasy books out there that do something very similar to what Rowling did: they interweave the fun and entertaining with the serious and the challenging.

Guess this means I've just got to keep reading.  Oh bummer.  On to the next!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Harry Potter Challenge

Summer is here.

And when summer comes, I redouble my reading efforts.  Not too long ago, I got a hankering to watch The Sorcerer's Stone again.  Then I felt like watching Chamber of Secrets.  And you can't just stop there, you have to watch Prisoner of Azkaban.  And then it turned into a full-fledged movie marathon, with my husband and myself watching the whole series.

Upon rewatching the whole series, I noticed a couple of things.  Firstly, I hadn't seen Order, Half-Blood, or Hallows 1 and 2 since theaters.  My criticisms of them came mostly from a single viewing, when I was still raw and upset.  I particularly remember being upset at Order.  Giving it some time (and a little leniency), I found that most of the movies were much better than I ever remembered or gave credit for.  I enjoyed rewatching them immensely.  And it made me think I should reread the series.  So I set myself the challenge of reading all 7 Harry Potter book the first week of summer vacation.  I lingered a bit on Book 7, but I did it.  Woo!

I tried to read Harry Potter several times in the beginning.  It just couldn't seem to stick.  I have this sticky problem where if too many people are praising something or trying to get me to enjoy it too, I tend to dig in my heels and refuse.  The list of things I waited entirely too long to read/watch/listen to because of this is long (Sherlock, Firefly, and quite a few things I'm still not into), and Harry Potter tops that list.  So many people were going crazy over it and trying to get me to read it.  So many people.  Now, I'm still a snob, but at least I'm up-front about it these days.  Back in elementary school, when Potter was getting big, I was reading The Lord of the Rings and I thought Harry Potter was childish and a fantasy rip-off.  There are lots of things I have been wrong about.  There are fewer things I have been spectacularly wrong about, but this is one of them.

Finally, I saw the first movie.  It came out the winter of my 7th grade year, the same winter as The Fellowship of the Ring.  I enjoyed the movie a lot.  And not for the first time or the last, I decided I should give the book another try, based on how well I liked the movie.  From then on, there was no turning back.  By the time I saw the last movie, Harry Potter, for me and countless like me, was no longer just a fantasy series, but a key part of childhood.  And when it ended, I felt like the last vestiges of my childhood were truly gone.  I cried a lot at the end of Deathly Hallows, Part 2, half because of the tragic circumstances but half because it was that final moment, that close of a door which cannot be reopened, nor really should be.  (Don't even get me started on the book.  I cried for the last 100 pages, at least.)

Rereading the books has affirmed how much I like this series.  This was the first time I read them all in order, one after the other, and the first time I had read some of them since Deathly Hallows came out (sad to say).  Here are some of the things I noticed:

1.  I know we all say that Rowling is a master of plot, but it's kind of incredible how well-plotted these books are.  EVERYTHING TIES TOGETHER.  Everything.  Rereading them, I noticed just how many references she makes, or things she mentions, to key points or important details looooong before they occur.  She mentions things in the first or second book that are to become major details later, or if not major details, just more pieces of the world which ring true and stay together wonderfully.  Plus, how great is it that the series matures with Harry?  Best decision ever.

2.  Neville grows up a lot.  I had forgotten.  He's so strong and brave at the end of the series that I had forgot he cries almost constantly for the first two books.  Your heart just aches and aches for him.  He's never good enough for his Gran, his parents have been essentially murdered but are still there to cause him pain, he sucks at basically every subject, and he has hardly any friends.  You just pity him until Book 5 when he really gains confidence through the D.A.

3.  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is such a good book.  The first time I read it, she broke from her formula and it made me upset, so I had a hard time reading it.  I went back and reread it a couple years later and found it not only good, but very funny.  Now, coming back to it a third time, I found it the best, objectively, of the series.  I know, I know, the last one's super good, but there's just something about number 6.  As a cohesive whole, it's just the best.

4.  The Order of the Phoenix is still my sentimental favorite.

5.  I realized just how attached I am to this series.  When I was in middle and high school, LOTR was my series.  I cried through the whole first viewing of Return of the King.  But now, I don't know.  I kind of feel like I have more of a liking for the movies than I do the books.  I haven't been tempted to pick them up in a really long time.  I don't think I've read the last one more than once.  I know that LOTR has more literary acclaim.  I know that it has a universe just as complex and detailed, if not more (Tolkien did write several languages for the books).  But thinking about it now, at this point in my life, if I had to choose one. . .I would choose Harry Potter.  It's funny how serious this feels.  Just sitting here, writing that, I feel a bit like I've betrayed a close friend.  But it doesn't matter that much.  It's odd how attached you can be to fictional characters and stories.  When I read these books, it's like meeting up with old friends.  I also think Rowling actually did a better job at portraying evil and the fight against it.
     In Tolkien's world, there are a few internal struggles, but the majority of bad people are bad and the majority of good people are good.  At least, if there are shades of gray, they are not immediately apparent.  The only characters who ever have any kind of real moral struggle are Frodo and Boromir (although one could make an argument for Aragorn).  And Frodo doesn't even have a moral struggle.  He's just constantly fighting the influence of the ring.  In a way, none of them are truly struggling because it's only the ring that's giving them these feelings, or at least bringing them out.  Would they have acted that way one their own?  Whereas in Harry Potter, every character of note has a major moral struggle, between the good and the bad in themselves (Harry, Hermione, Ron, Sirius, Lupin, Dumbledore, and even minor characters like Seamus and Percy).  There's a lot of questioning and searching for the truth.  It is always arrived upon (basically) but the search is ongoing and is arrived at differently and challenged in different ways for different characters.  I like that.  It's very natural and organic.  The other thing that really bothers me about Tolkien is what happens to his bad characters at the end.  Without a major baddie, they just kind of run around stupidly into one another.  There's no penalty and no lasting consequences for anyone or anything.  Saruman is murdered by his right-hand man, who is then murdered by over-eager hobbits.  No need to go to a trial or discuss ideas like "what if he wasn't all bad?  what then?".  One of my favorite sets of characters in Harry Potter is the Malfoys.  The Malfoys are hungry for power and to retain their status and crush others beneath them.  However, as the 7th book draws to a close, they start to realize that all that has been taken from them anyways, despite the fact that they are on the winning side (at the time), and that the only real thing they have left is each other.  At the end of the book, Narcissa betrays the Dark Lord in one of the most important moments in the whole series because she no longer cares about helping him; she just wants to get her son back.  Draco is a wonderfully created character, full of conflict and moments of goodness intermingled with the incredible ability to cause harm and hatred.  There is so much complexity to him.  I don't see this moral complexity from Tolkien.  Maybe I need to reread it, but to me, the story is more about the actual struggle of overcoming bad than the moral struggle of first ascertaining what is good.  Maybe I'm just reading way too much into all this.  (Plus, I would so much rather be able to do magic than be a hobbit. I'm basically a hobbit already, just a bit tall.  A wand, on the other hand, would be so cool.)

All in all, this has been a positive experience for me.  I cried some more, I noticed things I hadn't, and I spent my first week of summer vacation reading almost non-stop.  I have a new list for the summer, now that these are done, but I think I'll take a bit of a break first.  Haha, who am I kidding, I'm already chomping at the bit to keep reading.

Happy summer!