I know, I know. Style is one of those ephemeral things like voice, hard to pin down. But lately I’ve read a number of books that appear to be consciously written in the style of a bygone, but well-known adult author. Dickens, Chaucer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll have clearly influenced a number of recent books for children.
Writing “in the style of” a well-known and beloved writer seems tricky to me. I’m a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her works many times and have quite enjoyed some of the films based on them. However, I’ve yet to appreciate novels written in her style. For example, I tried and quickly tired of one of adult writer Stephanie Barron‘s Jane Austen mysteries. It seems I like too much Austen’s actual prose to appreciate someone else’s efforts to imitate it. While Austen’s sentences delight me, Barron’s did not.
I have a similar problem with those who pay homage to Lewis Carroll. Rarely, rarely, rarely do their works succeed for me. For example, I found the much-admired Un Lun Dun by China Miéville just okay. There was Carrolian-ish whimsy galore, but what I like best about Carroll is not the whimsy, but his wit, his language, his imaginative play. The one writer who does successfully capture Carroll’s style for me is Jon Scieszka, especially his parodies in Science Verse.
And then there is Charles Dickens. I first read him when I was in 6th grade. We were in a rented house for a year where there was a bookcase on a staircase landing full of the complete works of Dickens and the complete works of L. Frank Baum. Alternating between the two, I read them all that year. I returned to them when living in Africa and again recently — this time I’m listening to them. As a result I’m really noticing his style in a new way; this means I am sensitive to those attempting to emulate it in a new way too. One author might get the atmosphere, another the characters, and still another the plot. I have yet to read one that manages to do it all to my admittedly fussy satisfaction.
Two of this sort that did worked for me are Richard Reeve’s Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Outer Space and its sequel Starcross: A Stirring Adventure of Spies, Time Travel and Curious Hats. These seem to be both homages and parodies of a variety of Victorian novelists. Either because they don’t seem to point to any one writer strongly or because those that are being parodied are not familiar enough to me for me to notice any weaknesses, they worked for me. Further, Reeve takes on issues related to colonialism in very interesting ways.
So what does this have to do with Newbery? Well, how do I evaluate books like this? After all, the intended child reader is unlikely to have read Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, or Carroll. If I know them well I may be unduly sensitive to such efforts than for those works whose writers I don’t know so well. One thing is certain — it isn’t going to matter to the child reader. If it is a good story, well written, who am I to complain if it doesn’t seem to work as well as an homage to a particular writer? If it doesn’t seem successfully Dickensian or Carrollian or Austenian (is that a word?) or something else — what does it matter? For child readers? Probably not at all. For me? Probably too much.