Saturday, July 14, 2007

You Know, For Kids

The last Harry Potter book is nearly upon us, which is as good a time as any to contemplate the twin publishing phenomena spawned by the series's success--adults reading books marketed for children, and authors of adult novels crossing over into children's fiction. The A.S. Byatts of the world would have us believe that the former is one of the signs of the coming apocalypse, or at the very least an indication that the adult in question has something wrong with them, but the issue is probably a little more complicated. There must be something that children's books do and adult books don't for so many adult readers to gravitate to the former (perhaps the answer is as simple as there being so few adult novels with adolescent protagonists--of the top of my head I can only come up with Donna Tartt's The Little Friend). With that question in mind, it's interesting to examine the ways in which authors of adult fiction tailor their themes and narrative voices in their attempts to appeal to a juvenile audience.

I had my doubts about reading China Miéville's recent novel for children, Un Lun Dun, mostly because the last time an author of adult fiction whose skill set seemed to me to be ideally suited for the transition into children's fiction actually made that leap, the result was thoroughly disappointing. Like Miéville, Michael Chabon has a gift for vivid description and tight plotting, as well as a good sense of humor, and yet his 2002 novel for children, Summerland, was sodden and anemic, condescending to both its readers and protagonists. In the interim, however, two other authors whose novels for adults I've enjoyed have made successful forays into children's fiction: Neil Gaiman with his almost-universally lauded Coraline, and Terry Pratchett, who recovered from a rocky start with The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents to create the spectacular Tiffany Aching series, and while it's true that Pratchett and Gaiman started out a little closer to the YA mentality than Chabon or Miéville--if only for their length and complexity, I'd hesitate before recommending The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Perdido Street Station to just any young reader, but most of the hardcore Pratchett and Gaiman fans I know started reading these authors in their early teens--the combination of their success and some truly exceptional reviews for Un Lun Dun convinced to give the book a try.

I should have followed my instincts. Un Lun Dun is definitely cut from the same cloth as Summerland. It's not a bad novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn't trying very hard to be a good one either. Rather, it expends most of its energies trying to be pleasant, which is not a word I ever envisioned using to describe anything by China Miéville. The novel's protagonists are two young Londoners, Zanna and Deeba (the book never spells out their ages, but 10-12 seems like a fair estimate to me), who, to borrow Terry Pratchett's phrase "[end] up in some idiot world with goblins and talking animals". Zanna turns out to be the Chosen One for the abcity of UnLondon (only one out of large number of un-cities--Parisn't, No York, Baghdidn't), where the sun has a circular hole in its center, buses fly or walk around on reptilian legs, and city hall is a moving bridge. Zanna's task is to defeat a sentient smog hellbent on burning and absorbing everything and everyone in the city, but when things go a little awry for her--which is to say, not according to prophecy--Deeba convinces the city's rulers to rely on a non-mythical solution concocted by one of their chief scientists, and to send her and Zanna home. With Zanna suffering from the after-effects of their journey, and following the discovery that UnLondon's savior may not be who he claims to be, Deeba decides to head back to the abcity, and ends up taking on Zanna's role.

China Miéville's reputation as one of the most important names in modern fantasy rests on two innovations (or, perhaps more accurately, quasi-innovations, as Miéville is mostly credited with having taken these approaches to their logical conclusions), both of which are present in Un Lun Dun, but in a faint and watered-down form. Miéville's adult novels toy with and subvert the conventions of fantasy narratives and fairy tales--the prince in disguise, the outlaws with hearts of gold who band together to save their city from a deadly menace, the mysterious stranger unjustly accused of a terrible crime who bears his punishment with dignity. There are hints of this attitude in Un Lun Dun--the novel's heroine is, after all, not the Chosen One but the Chosen One's best friend, and there's an amusing twist towards the end of the novel when Deeba, having learned from the prophecy that Zanna was supposed to undergo seven quests in order to acquire a weapon powerful enough to defeat the Smog, laboriously completes the first one and then decides to skip straight to number seven.

For the most part, however, the novel hews rather closely to the standard fantasy adventure format--upon their arrival in UnLondon, Zanna and Deeba go off to see the wizard who will tell them what to do. In her quest to save Zanna and UnLondon, Deeba acquires an entourage of friendly locals who guard and guide her, including an initially caustic ghost boy named Hemi who first demands payment for his services but soon becomes Deeba's friend. When one considers that this story is coming from the same man who, in his first novel, used the prince in disguise framework to tell a story about a young man posthumously repairing his relationship with his adoptive father and rejecting the notion of monarchic rule, and who, in Perdido Street Station, has the protagonist practically sell himself into slavery in order to secure the services of a local mobster, Un Lun Dun seems downright conservative in its adherence to fantasy tropes, which hobbles the novel's emotional effect. We know that Zanna and Deeba have to make it to the moving bridge, and the hundred pages of not-particularly-difficult obstacles Miéville places in their way are mostly an annoyance. We know that Deeba can't fail in any of her quests, and end up begrudging the time spent on them, as well as on the other delays she runs into, such as being brought before UnLondon's telecommunications mogul for the crime of speaking out of turn. If Miéville had worked harder to make these episodic adventures thrilling--as he did in Perdido Street Station--the fact that their outcome, as well as the novel's, is a foregone conclusion wouldn't have been a problem, but with so little actual menace in the novel the reader has no way of escaping its predictability.

In this respect, Un Lun Dun reminds me of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, which is similarly undercut by the predictability of its fantasy elements and its blind adherence to fairy tale plot structures. The minute Ofelia is told that she has to complete three tasks, we know that there is no danger of her failing in the first two. The giant toad Ofelia has to overcome in her first task is far less frightening than the anticipation of her mother's rage at the discovery that the beautiful new dress she made Ofelia has been coated in mud and slime. The prohibition against eating any of the eyeless man's food is practically a guarantee that Ofelia will succumb to temptation. The faun's demand that Ofelia sacrifice her infant brother to gain entrance to her magical realm is clearly a test. Del Toro succeeds where Miéville fails because of the brutality of the film's real-world segments, to which the predictability of Ofelia's fantasy world is clearly a response, and because, unless they're adaptations, fantasy films are pretty thin on the ground. A fantasy reader, however, who comes to Pan's Labyrinth expecting the dark, surprising take on fantasy that so many mainstream reviewers lauded the film for might wonder what all the fuss was about, especially if they're familiar with the adult novels of China Miéville.

Miéville has also been celebrated for his elaborate, vividly described fantasy worlds, and most particularly for his emphasis on depicting their political and economic underpinnings. UnLondon's component parts are as imaginative as anything out of the Bas-Lag novels: a society of roof-dwellers whose feet never touch the ground, a ghost quarter, a jungle inside a house, and my personal favorite, the black windows--half-spider, half portal to another dimension (once again, Miéville does his best work with arachnids)
In some bizarre social interaction, windows pulled wide open, and in seemingly impossible motion, others would approach with furtive arachnid scurries and wriggle inside, the pane closing behind them. Others would open, and wooden forelegs would waver out from inside, and other windows would emerge and creep away.
Unlike New Crobuzon or Armada, however, there isn't a sense that these disparate parts come together into a whole. One of the effects of Miéville's commitment to economic realism in his adult novels was that none of the ethnic groups making up his cities could exist sealed off from the whole. The cactus people, bug people, bird people and water people might live in their own neighborhoods, but to survive and feed themselves some of them would have to venture outside and mingle with the general population, and a scant few--artists, scientists, free-thinkers and radicals--eventually formed their own groups, regardless of race and origins. The result felt like a city--a place where different people come together to create something original and unique.

That sensation is missing in Un Lun Dun, not only because the abcity's different neighborhoods, and Deeba's adventures within them, are almost hermetically sealed, but because UnLondon is perpetually overshadowed by the real thing. Much of what Deeba encounters in the abcity is a response, parody, or pun on real-world landmarks--the river Smeath, Webminster Abbey, the UnLondon-I. Neil Gaiman did something similar in Neverwhere (a novel whose influence Miéville specifically references in the acknowledgments page, and which was also clearly an influence on King Rat), but his London Below very quickly developed an independent personality, which UnLondon never does. There's a sense that London is so prevalent in Un Lun Dun because Deeba and Zanna's personalities are shaped and informed by being Londoners, and Miéville is to be lauded for creating modern, urban protagonists, girls who have no problem navigating the Underground or taking buses, who never leave home without their cell phones (one of my favorite scenes in Un Lun Dun comes fairly early in the novel, when Deeba sees a tree made out of fireworks and laments the loss of her cameraphone), but the bulk of the novel takes place not in the real city but in the imaginary one. It's UnLondon that Deeba falls in love with, and Miéville never managed to convincingly explain why.

Un Lun Dun steadily improves as it progresses, and once it finally sloughs off the last vestiges of conventional storytelling--just in time for Deeba's final confrontation with the Smog--it is actually quite exciting, to the extent that I was even a little intrigued by the blatant sequel-bait at the end. If, as the novel's ending suggests, Miéville has finally gotten his preconceptions about children's fiction out of his system, Deeba's further adventures in UnLondon might be worth a look. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Un Lun Dun is a mild, not particularly exciting, not particularly scary, not particularly funny novel, and performs at a level far below what Miéville is capable of. It is Miéville Lite.

Which brings me back to the question with which I began this essay: what should an author for adults change in their writing, and what should they leave unchanged, when attempting to address a juvenile audience? In the two successful works within this sub-subgenre I mentioned earlier--Gaiman's Coraline and Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series--the changes are structural. The books are shorter, the language is simpler, particularly in the descriptive passages, the protagonists are juvenile and the stories' prevailing themes are drawn from childhood and the process of growing up. The essentials of what makes Gaiman's writing Gaiman-ish, and Pratchett's writing Pratchett-ish, however, are unchanged. Coraline is a fantasy that borders on horror, in which reality intersect with and is invaded by its familiar, yet fundamentally alien, mirror image. The Tiffany Aching books are about the importance of free will, free and informed choice, self-control, and taking responsibility for one's choices, and sometimes also for the choices of others. At no point do Gaiman and Pratchett pull their punches in anticipation of their intended audience, whereas Summerland and Un Lun Dun lobotomize their authors' most cherished themes.

It's pointless for me to review Un Lun Dun as though I were a member of its target audience. I also don't have enough grounding in the field to say whether Miéville has produced a poor, mediocre, or stellar example of children's fiction (although even in my very limited forays I've come across books far better than this one). I am, however, a Miéville fan (and I can't help but feel that my existence was taken into account by Un Lun Dun's publishers, who were hoping that the novel would have a crossover appeal, or at least that people as clueless about kids as myself, when buying a present for a nephew or a goddaughter, would naturally gravitate towards a familiar and well-liked name), and in that capacity I can categorically state that with Un Lun Dun, he has dumbed himself down when the experience of other authors suggests that he didn't have to. I'd like to say that Miéville and Chabon talk down to kids, whereas Gaiman and Pratchett address them on their own level, but I don't know enough about children to know where that level is. As an adult who often enjoys children's fiction, then, I'll say that Miéville has produced a work that can only appeal to people who don't know him any better. In other words, Chabon and Miéville are Disney and Dreamworks, whereas Gaiman and Pratchett are Pixar.

[On a personal note, today is AtWQ's second anniversary, and I'd once again like to thank all the people who have visited, linked, commented, or just given this blog a moment of their attention.]

6 comments:

chance said...

You've pretty much confirmed that I really don't want to read Un Lun Dun for exactly the reasons I suspected (I also have a great and terrible hatred for Summerland while really enjoying Chabon's adult works.)

Maddyanne said...

Have you ever read Diana Wynne Jones? Try Howl's Moving Castle or Time of the Ghost.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle very much when I read it a few years ago. Wasn't so crazy about Castle in the Sky, though, and I haven't read anything else by Jones, though I keep thinking that's an oversight I should correct.

Mae Travels said...

In the 19th century there were more books with appeal for multiple levels of readers, like "Huck Finn" and "Alice in Wonderland." Some would say films, radio, and television destroyed family reading. I think there's more to it than that.

More recently: William Sleator's SF or fantasy books are classified YA but have some appeal to adults -- have you read any? (Ask Janet about him -- he went to our high school and wrote a YA autobio "Oddballs" which describes the experience, slightly disguised.)

jan said...

To be fair, Mae, shouldn't we say that all those "multi-level" books by Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, etc. were written for adults and only in the 20th century morphed into youth literature.

I didn't know Willian Sleator. But Mrs. Ferrer (spelling?) taught Tennessee Williams which, of course, explains why he hated St. Louis so much.

On a more positive note: anyone who's seen Back to the Future recognizes that Bob Gale is from U. City.

Terry Weyna said...

You mentioned how few books there are with juvenile protaganists. You might enjoy A GOOD AND HAPPY CHILD by Justin Evans, a fairly recent publication, in which the protagonist is an 11-year-old boy who either is or isn't possessed by the Devil. Unreliable narrator, good writing, interesting reading.

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