Monday, December 04, 2006

THE ASTONISHING TALE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING (FICTION)

All right. I can no longer proscrastinate the reviewing of
FICTION
THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME I by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick)
After all, it has just recently won the National Book Award for "young people's literature". It is a compulsively readable book with a wholly original setting and premise, which I will preface by saying what I am about to say is a spoiler; it was an exquisite pleasure going into this book knowing nothing about it, and to have the situation reveal itself page by page, like a flower opening, and allowed me to revel in the extraordinary talent of the author whose impeccable pacing created the illusion that the plot was playing itself out in some alternate universe every time the binding was broken. So if you would rather just read it, please drop down to the next paragraph. But for those who prefer a synopsis: an African American boy has his identity as a slave revealed to him after years of being part of an elaborate experiment to see whether or not children with African roots have the same capacity to learn as Caucasian children. Once realizing his role in the community, it alters his ability to play that role, and when Octavian's mother is brutally sacrificed in the name of the experiment, his humanity forces him to flee though it jeopardizes the experiment, his own life, and the lives and perceptions of many others. Through Octavian's experiences, choices and actions, the reader explores the very nature of freedom and race. Set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, this narrative is newly potent in our modern time, when "freedom" is bandied about like some pop-psych buzzword. Based on real experiments and speculations carried on by the likes of the American Philosophical Society, the book bravely takes on the paradoxes of conflicts of interest, education, scientific inquiry, and the role of the almighty dollar, and the way our esoteric and philosophic notions manifest in real life, and more painfully, in the real lives of others. Reminiscent of Margarita Engle's THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA (Holt), this book pulls no punches. A major piece of literature, it is bound to be considered for many more prominent awards.

And now, for my hesitation in reviewing it here. A passage from page four:

"The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testment, the wet and twitching volume of a new-bord Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts."

Beautiful writing. Nathaniel Hawthorne would be mighty proud. And now, representative of "young people's literature." The thing is, the young people I work with apply the very un-scientific "five finger test" to most texts wider than two thumbs, meaning they open a book up to a random page and try to decode in order to determine whether the book is a pleasure read (zero to one finger up for every unfamiliar word), whether they will need support (a dictionary or an adult from two to three fingers) or whether they need to hang on a few more years to fully get the author's meaning and intent, and honestly, most middle school kids I work with would need to grow a sixth finger for this baby. This does not in any way negate the value and sheer beauty of Anderson's literary feat, but it did confound me midway through, apart from the fact that Octavian himself is a teenager, why is this considered part of the genre of children's literature at all? Would Octavian have gotten lost in the myriad of adult fiction titles, had it been marketed that way? But, is it fair that the measure of a good book for children should be that it is fit for grown-ups? I read OCTAVIAN largely by accident; I do not generally review young adult literature, but this one snuck past the gates armed with the key, that is, a ton of "buzz" that this was a great contribution to children's literature, and I know it is great and I know it is literature, and I know it will land on a lot of shelves that can be reached by kids and, therefore, in a lot of hands of children, middle grade children, especially in a climate in which many five year olds are being read Harry Potter and a great deal of pride is being taken in the achievement of reading books that are intended for older audiences. So I have to ask. Why is this a book for children? Or do we simply need to differentiate between "young people" and "children"?

I get confused, and so generally do not delve into "young adult" literature, because it frequently reads to me like adult literature with kids as protagonists. Classicly, then, is Jane Eyre young adult literature? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Lord of the Flies? These are frequently read in high school. Is "young adult literature" a creative invention, much like the 20th century invention of the idea of adolesence, which is so confounding in and of itself? Can't adolsecent children generally read at the level of adults to some varying degree, and if so, why do they have a separate literature? I ask this not as an accusation, but rather as a query that I myself have not been able to answer satisfactorily.

Naturally, I asked the woman considered to be a (if not the) foremost guru of young adult children's literature, whose writing, opinions and contributions I deeply respect, Cynthia Leitich Smith, "what is the difference between YA literature and adult literature?" to which she replied:

"I agree with author Laura Ruby when she says that the difference
between adult and YA is reminiscient versus immediacy, and with Flux
editor Andrew Karre when he says the difference is not in reading level,
but point of view. But I'll also go a step further... YA is adult-level
literature about teens and twenty-somethings that doesn't mask its
blemishes or sweat glands. It embraces coming of age for what it is
without pretension or self-congratulation or snide retrospect. No
apologies. Some regrets."

What I love about Cynthia Leitich Smith's answer is the acknowledgement of the adult level, and the criteria of coming-of-age, both of which suits OCTAVIAN NOTHING.

Then there is the POV of trusted reader Richie Partington, who dons an educator's hat and runs the fabulous resource Richie's Picks, where I go to find out the latest and the greatest in literature for older kids:

"It is difficult for me to formulate a strict list of rules that will differentiate young adult literature from adult literature. There are certainly going to be exceptions to every rule. But it is quite easy for me to read a book and characterize it as either a young adult book or an adult book. Why? A portion of this 'knowing it when you see it' has to do with my own adolescent sensibilities and the balance results from my having a whole lot of experience with what works for teens. When I read a book and think, 'Gosh, remember that quirky student in 2001 who was a really sophisticated American history nut? He would have loved this book!' then I know I'm dealing with an adult book. When I finish a book and want to immediately booktalk it to all my high school reading buddies (who still come back to the middle school to borrow from our stash) or to con my wife Shari into letting me read it aloud to her current eighth grade English students, then I know it's real YA literature.

It means the world to me that teen readers see me as someone who knows what books are 'cool' and who knows what he is talking about. I don't believe that I underestimate the sophistication of teens or their ability to be patient with a book when necessary. But I think there are light years between real YA literature and some of what is published as YA literature today but is full of adult sensibility and characters."

I guess I get a little grumpy when the small amount of recogniztion given to children's literature is given to works so clearly meant for people on the cusp of adulthood; I am appreciative of the Printz award for that reason, and I hope the National Book Award follows suit and gives "props" to book creators for both young adults and children. I still think young adult literature it is a genre apart from children's literature on the whole, a genre on its own. Though I personally enjoy some young adult literature (Laurie Halse Anderson, for example), what I miss in so much of it, I think, is the author's intent to give a gift to a child through the work...though I guess this could also be said increasingly of picture books, as they become graphic art books for adult appreciation instead of books that kids actually enjoy. When I read, I wonder, does the author, at any point, imagine the audience? In order to write great literature, I don't think you need to imagine the audience, you just need to tell a great story in the best language and most honest way you know how; this seems to be what goes on in both good YA and adult literature. But in order to write great children's literature, I do think it comes out better when the audience is considered. Not that literature should be dumbed down to one or two fingers (William Steig certainly didn't), but I do deeply appreciate and immediately recognize an excellent children's author's intent to share something with a particular audience: a child, to whom the world is newer, and to whom impressions press upon the senses like a kiss or a whisper, or bruise like a thumb against an apple skin. These books are not always clean or safe or perfect, but, well, how do I put it? Have you ever crossed a street while holding someone's hand? Have you ever crossed a street without holding someone's hand, just standing next to them? There you go.


Shortly after finishing OCTAVIAN NOTHING, I came across an old, out of print copy of WOLF STORY by William McCleery, in which a beleaguered father strives to entertain his son with stories made up off the top of his head. As I read it, I knew which lines would make the children laugh if I were to read it aloud. I knew the pleasure the children would have, looking at each other knowingly, sharing in the joke that the boy had over on his dad: the understanding of the quality that every story needed to be good, which the little boy in the story knew instinctually, and which the father needed to be constantly reminded.

I open it up to you...

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

7 comments:

Monica Edinger said...

Esme,

Worthy question indeed. OCTAVIAN NOTHING is an amazingly wonderful work. It seems to fit into the same niche as another remarkable book, THE BOOK THIEF, which was originally published for adults in Australia. Both seem to be true cross-over books and it frustrates me that they may not get the adult audience they should because they were published as YA. I wish there had been a way for them to be published for both audiences as happened with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, in the UK. But practically, that would have been easier to do with THE BOOK THIEF as its publisher, Random House, does adult books than OCTAVIAN NOTHING which is published by Candlewick which only does children/YA.

For an interesting discussion on this issue see Roger Sutton's blog post "My Heart Leaps Up" and the related comments at http://www.hbook.com/blog/2006/07/my-heart-leaps-up.html

Ann said...

Esme,

I love your analogy that writing for children is like holding someone's hand as you cross the street. This doesn't mean that children's literature must be happy and safe-- there are real dangers when you leave the sidewalk and step over the curb-- but at least the author is guiding the reader as they make their way across together.

Ann

cloudscome said...

I haven't read Octavian Nothing yet either, because my library doesn't include high school books. I keep hearing about it and thinking I should read it though.

I agree with you completely that great children's literature has to know the audience and be written for children. A lot of the wonderful picture books coming out are a pleasure for me but kids aren't that excited about them. You have your finger on a very good point here.

I don't think I could explain the difference between YA and adult literature. I also think many times teens are pushed into reading books beyond their experience or understanding and they think they get them. They often write the author off because it doesn't make sense to them... I don't see any reason to rush young people into reading beyond their years.

Sara Z. said...

I don't think YA lit should be under the umbrella of "children's literature" OR under the umbrella of adult lit. It is its own thing. (I mean really, try holding a teenager's hand while she crosses the street.) The whole notion of a teenager is only about 60 years old. A couple hundred years before that, 13 and 14 year olds were getting married and raising children. They aren't children. I'm not saying they're adults, but they aren't children. Culturally we've created this different category of human that didn't exist a century ago, and I think we're still figuring out and learning who they are and what they need.

Anyway, I'm kind of with Richie's "I know it when I see it," but I also concur with Cyn LS's def. Interesting discussion.

Little Willow said...

I could go on about this for days. Children's literature is my forte, including juvenile classics and contemporary releases, and especially contemporary teen fiction.

It is true that many adult lit stories use time and distance to create nostalgia and maturity. However, there are many teen and juvenile books that are about looking back and reflecting upon earlier days. Some give you that distance from page one. Stargirl comes immediately to mind, as does The Penderwicks.

There are plenty of books published in the teen section which could be placed in adult fiction/literature and vice versa. More examples: Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, and Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty, which is published in fic/lit but could be in YA; As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway, which is published in adult mystery but could be in YA; and many of Jodi Picoult's novels could be in YA. The list goes on and on.

One of the most critically acclaimed (and deserving, IMHO) titles of the year is THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak. In his native country, Australia, it is shelved in adult fiction; in the USA, it is shelved in teen fiction.

I'll be quiet now. :)

Brian said...

I recently unleashed fire and brimstone on my professor who, upon learning that I was working on what I was calling a YA novel, told me that I shouldn't take her novel writing class because we wouldn't be studying any YA novels and therefore I wouldn't have any models to work from.

Writing a novel is writing a novel. Craft is craft. I tend to fall in the "YA is a marketing term and nothing more" camp. It's something publishers use to reach a burgeoning market. LIFE OF PI, released as an adult book, was followed up by a YA edition. ENDER'S GAME, usually shelved in adult sci-fi, has a YA edition.

Teen protagonists don't define the genre; look at CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE YEAR OF ICE. Both with teen protagonists facing coming-of-age dilemmas, both shelved in adult fiction.

Maybe it's the smart publisher who offers editions in both adult and YA to try to capitalize on the disparate audiences. I don't know. I'd be interested to learn how the YA edition of LIFE OF PI has sold.

Anonymous said...

I just stared this book. i got it 4 christmas and i think thats it is great. but i am kinds confused on the number names in the book. and could any 1 tell me wat genre thas book is. i need 2 no. its 4 a book report

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails