Kids love animals; ergo, there are lots of children’s books centered around animals. And many kids also love fantasy, ergo, there are lots of children’s books with animals sounding and acting like people.
So when are such books great? When are they not? And why?
Let’s take a brief gander at one I think is not great. Now, if it was eligible for Newbery this year, I’d have to do better than I’ve done to date. That is, I have tried several times to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall and always have given up a few chapters in. I find nothing at the sentence-level of the writing impressive enough to want to read more of it, the setting bores me (Camelot with rodents), the characters seem stock and simplistically developed (Cluny is BAD, Martin is GOOD), and the plot (as least in those first few chapters) is tedious (war! battles! swords!). Yet, these books are beloved by many children, go through waves of popularity, and are often well-reviewed.
I draw the distinction between great and good based on a work’s depth — the emotional and thematic/philosophical levels it strives for and succeeds in reaching. Tamora Pierce and Eoin Colfer are entertaining and good; Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.
I think this is a brilliant distinction and one I hope to keep in mind when thinking about potential Newbery contenders. For I’m not looking for a good book, but a great book.
But returning to my topic, if Redwall is arguably “entertaining and good” what is an animal fantasy that is “….not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.”?
Charlotte’s Web, anyone? Let’s see:
- “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” You want tension? You want to keep the pages turning? The more I read and reread this book the more I consider it the great American novel. I mean just look at this sentence — the whole theme of the book, life and death, is right there. That ax. That breakfast. Fern. A mother. Love. Absolute perfection.
- Character development. It is gorgeous. Wilbur’s growth from selfish baby pig to the wise pig of the barn for evermore. Or Fern’s growth from little girl looking into her small world of the barn that includes Wilbur to older girl looking into a bigger world that includes Henry Fussy. Or those at the other end of life, the sheep and, of course, most of all Charlotte. Remarkable, remarkable, remarkable.
- The plot. A quest. A journey. A comedy in the Greek sense. About the biggest questions of all — and all for children.
- Style. It is beauty itself. The exquisite language, descriptions of the seasons coming and going, of children at play, of animals doing what animals do, of Americana circa 1950, and on and on. The master of style is in his element here. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself:)
So, it didn’t get the Medal, but the Honor in 1952. Whatever. It is THE American animal fantasy in my most humble opinion.
So, now I’m done. What about all of you, dear readers? What do you think about animal fantasies? Is there one out this year that you think is particularly strong (or weak)? Have your say in the comments!