More than ever, young readers can choose from an array of sophisticated books
Some 200 children and adults are restlessly awaiting author Lemony Snicket when a man leaps up from the back of the audience. “Mr. Snicket cannot come, I’m afraid,” he calls out, making his way to the stage at Toronto’s Young Peoples Theatre. “It’s actually a sad thing that has happened, very sad indeed. He went on a picnic and he was bitten by a bug. Now he’s paralyzed. I’ve come in his place.” Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket—one of the hottest sensations in children’s literature—is in his element, keeping his audience off balance and laughing helplessly for an hour. Or perhaps it’s best to say one of his elements: the 30-year-old American with the hangdog face is a unique phenomenon—a superb comic writer with the soul of a ham actor. “It’s a new thing,” says Phyllis Simon, co-owner of Vancouver’s Kids books, “to have an author who can deliver the goods not just on the page but in person.”
In the great Harry Potter-less void that will last another year, the tens of thousands of nine to 13-year-olds brought to reading by J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard still have books greater in number and sophistication than ever before to choose from. They include Handler-Snicket’s hilariously macabre Series of Unfortunate Events, which, with the recent publication of The Austere Academy (Harper Trophy, $13.50), has now reached five alliterative titles, and British writer Philip Pullman’s masterpiece, The Amber Spyglass (Knopf, $29.95). Exceptional Canadian novels include those by CBC veteran Bill Richardson, Newfoundland author Janet McNaughton and Governor General’s Award winner Deborah Ellis.
Handler is a prime example of children’s literature’s growing cross-generational appeal.
His novels about the misfortunes of the three Baudelaire children—orphaned by their parents’ death in a fire, shunted from one incompetent or nasty relative to another, relentlessly pursued for their inheritance by their distant kinsman, the evil Count Olaf—have brought him an audience of university students as well as children. “I just had my first interview with a goth magazine,” he told Maclean's with mock pride in a recent interview. “The reporter’s name was Supervixen.” The author, who has also published adult novels, uses the same approach for different age groups. “I don’t write down to kids,” says Handler, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Lisa Brown, a designer and illustrator. “They get most of my jokes, they know non sequiturs are funny. They even recognize the names, eventually.”
The novels’ literary references, from the French poet who lent his surname to the orphans to Snicket’s Dante-esque lost love, Beatrice, are part of the appeal for adults. (There are less high-minded tributes as well—Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire take their names from the principals in the lurid von Bulow attempted murder case of the 1980s.) Adults and children alike love the absurdist humour. When baby Sunny, described as “charming and well toothed,” has a fight with an armed adult, teeth versus blade, the struggle reminds narrator Snicket “of a sword fight I was forced to have with a television repairman not long ago.”
Kids on the cusp of puberty also find it "side-splittingly funny," says Toronto book seller Jessy Kahn, "to read about someone having a harder life than they are." They can also revel in a world of utter adult fatuity. The grown-ups come in two varieties: well-meaning but ineffectual, or evil and slightly more capable. Handler, who has the kid-lit author’s gift of seemingly perfect recall of how he felt as a child, bases his adult characters on his own memories. “I remember learning to swim very young and the teacher saying ‘swim to me, swim to me.’ When I did I could see her step back. Most kids have experience of someone lying to them.”
Handler says he enjoys Canada, and not only because in Vancouver and Toronto he has drawn his biggest crowds anywhere. There is just something about the country that strikes a deep chord in the wintry soul of his alter ego. “Speaking as an outside observer,” he says, visibly morphing into the acerbic Snicket, “my books seem to me quintessentially Canadian in their portrayal of a chilly and hopeless world that is indifferent as to whether you’re going to be happy or not.” Perhaps his Canadian fans recognize a kindred spirit.
At an entirely opposite pole from Lemony Snicket’s oeuvre, but enjoyed by many of the same fans, is Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, now brought to a triumphant conclusion by The Amber Spyglass. From its beginning in The Golden Compass (1996), set in a world of humans whose souls exist outside their bodies in the shape of animals, the series has been endlessly inventive and philosophically ambitious. The 54-year-old British authors aim is nothing less than a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, this time from the side of the rebel angels, those trying to overthrow the Authority, known to most people as God. “All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity,” one rebel says.
“We have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.”
Pullman is adamantly opposed not just to organized religion, but to any claim there is something better than our present existence. Earthly life is all there is, to use for good or evil. Even angels envy humans their bodies. “I use the flesh-and-blood metaphor to reverse the traditional rankings that have bedevilled Western thought for 2,000 years,” Pullman told Maclean's, “that above our bodies there is some higher realm of pure spirit. I want to remind people that our bodies are the source of all wonder, pleasure and experience.”
Even the dead are better off truly dead, not trapped in the endless limbo in which the Authority imprisons them until they are freed by Pullman’s two child protagonists, Will and Lyra. More audacious yet is the moment when Will and Lyra similarly free-—or, in some readers’ minds, kill—the Authority himself. “That scene has been widely misinterpreted,” rejoins an angry Pullman. “What is happening there is that the idea of God as a benevolent despot, which has been kept alive long past its due date by those who benefit from it, is given a natural release.”
Whatever the higher symbolism of the novels, the powerful story and memorable characters mean they are read by children as young as 11. “A child can read it, completely enjoy it, without realizing it would help to read Milton,” says bookseller Kahn. And whatever readers might make of Pullman’s religious views, there is no missing the forceful expression of his own moral vision, which provides the animating spirit for what is arguably the finest children’s fantasy ever written.
Even the Baudelaire orphans might hesitate to switch places with Khyber, the 11 -year-old narrator of Deborah Ellis’s Governor General’s Award-winning Looking for X (Groundwood, $7.95). Khyber lives with her single mother, a former stripper, and her five-year-old twin autistic brothers in a public-housing complex in downtown Toronto. It may sound like a recipe for a dreary exercise in consciousness-raising. But Ellis, a first-time novelist and Toronto mental health counsellor, has made a slender story come alive with the incandescent character of Khyber.
A highly intelligent, somewhat naïve and fiercely loyal child, Khyber was stuck with a birth name “so unspeakably horrible that I shall never speak it, not even under torture.” So she calls herself after the Afghani mountain pass she plans to visit one day. Khyber knows perfectly well that a chronic lack of money rules her life, but she more than makes do with her loving mother and powerful imagination. And with friends like X, the silent homeless woman, clearly mentally ill, who frequents a nearby park bench. When X disappears, Khyber sets out on a dangerous all-night search for her friend along Yonge Street. Looking for X has its flaws, notably an ending that seems too happy, but its young protagonist will linger in readers’ minds.
Far from the mean streets of present-day Toronto, CBC broadcaster Bill Richardson goes to the heart of timeless fairy tales with AfterHamelin (Annick, $9.95). The story is begun by 101-year-old Penelope, who suddenly went deaf 90 years earlier. That was just in time to avoid the fate of all the other children of Hamelin village, serenaded away from their homes and families by the Pied Piper. Local wise man Cuthbert tells the child that she can save the others with her gift of Deep Dreaming—an ability to travel in her dreams. Penelope enters into the unearthly realm where the Piper dwells, enlisting the aid of a talking cat, a three-legged dog, a skipping dragon and a singing Trolavian (a kind of giant hedgehog with wings).
Richardson has skilfully crafted two very different voices for his narration, one belonging to 11-year-old Penelope, who tells the story of the rescue, the other for her elderly self, who speaks of current events. The quest for the lost children is exciting but dreamlike, a tale of bravery, loyalty and sacrifice that seems slightly unreal. But the astringent commentary of 101-year-old Penelope is a clear-eyed marvel, full of hard-won wisdom and bittersweet memories. Unlike the child, the woman knows that pain, sorrow and loss are human constants, and it’s her story that makes After Hamelin so remarkable.
In The Secret Under My Skin (HarperCollins, $14.95), St. John’s author Janet McNaughton has written a superb novel set in 2368, in the wake of large-scale environmental and social breakdown. Captured by the repressive authorities, street child Blay Raytee begins the story in a labour camp. It’s a fate luckier than that met by many abandoned children, summarily dispatched by death squads. By chance she is picked to be an aide to the local bio-indicator, whose sensitivity to toxins makes her the human equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. Blay’s new job brings the teenager for the first time into a world of possibilities—of learning, resistance and even love.
Novels of ecological dystopias are far from uncommon, but there are real surprises here. For one, the environment is actually recovering by this point, and it is the ruling anti-technology Commissioners, who have a vested interest in not acknowledging the improvement, who are the forces of darkness. And there is the author’s exceptionally subtle prose, powered by McNaughton’s deep anger, which comes through all the more effectively for being kept under tight rein. The sexual and physical abuse Blay experienced on the street is merely hinted at, and the work of the death squads—much of it done to harvest organs—is never openly described. Dark, complex and sophisticated indeed, The Secret Under My Skin is one of the year’s finest children’s novels. EÛ3
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