Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Holes and other non-juvenilia

UK readers may have watched an interesting Disney film, Holes, screened on Sunday 27th. If you didn't, get it out on video: it's an unusual storyline, set in a US youth correction facility in the desert whose inmates are forced to dig holes as a character-building exercise (a gritty setting showing that Disney has broken well away from its anodyne past, and with casting as good as it gets - e.g. Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Patricia Arquette alongside the then largely unknown juvenile leads). Alternatively (or in addition) find a copy of Louis Sachar's 1998 novel of the same name, of which the film is a largely faithful adaptation.

Holes won Sachar a National Book Award and Newbery Medal and a string of other awards, and well deserves them. It has a highly topical and controversial setting, a tense mix of the comic and deeply dark, and a complex magic-realistic interweaving of many recurring and ultimately interlocking motifs such as peaches, onions, poisonous lizards, bad feet, family folklore, false accusation, and a tragic historical backstory of forbidden inter-racial love. What I've deliberately missed out, for ultimate effect, is that this is a book for the juvenile market.

When books are this good, for whatever readership, is such categorisation even meaningful? This is explored by my friend and writing colleague Felix Grant (who gave me the book originally) at a current post, Juvenilia, feminism, love, and other labels, at his weblog, The Growlery (named after John Jarndyce's refuge in Dicken's Bleak House, chapter 8). This is altogether interesting, but it has a Books category if you want to home in on that, where Felix has an ongoing thread about Jeanne DuPrau's Ember series (which I've yet to read). The first two books The City of Ember and The People of Sparks are post-apocalyptic, followed by a prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood, that looks at the preceding breakdown of civilisation - all this being the setting for examination of conflicts such as personal responsibility vs obedience to authority. This is strong stuff, yet again written for readers of middle school age. Worth thinking on for anyone even considering writing for children: as any number of children's writers advise, the besetting sin of "would-be"s in this territory is underestimating the sophistication of the readership.
- Ray

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