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:
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:
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.
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