Incarceron

By Catherine Fisher

I found two out very interesting things when I worked at the bookstore.

1) The subject divide between “9-12″ and “teen” is huge and strict

2) Dystopian novels are huge

Now, allow me to explain. I worked at a fairly small bookstore, rather then one of those sprawling behemoths. Pros and cons to each, but it certainly highlighted to me the divide that exists between what is considered “9-12″ appropriate and teen. In the younger section, everything deals with fantasy and magic, the endings are happy and the covers are, in general, decorated in bright and pastel colours. Mostly blue-themed. Move over one more rack to the teen books and every cover, almost without fail is black, or grey. Not only that, but most deal with dystopian themes.

For those of you in the dark, dystopian novels deal with dark, depressing futures, whether some malevolent force is threatening our heroes. In most cases the government is the enemy, with rigorous totalitarian control. Sometimes there has been an apocalypse. Dystopians were first popularized in works like Orwell’s 1984, and more recently with the blockbuster Hunger Games. Since that became popular, publishers have been rushing to produce more and more dystopian-themed books, with titles like Marie Lu’s Legend and Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races populating the shelves.

Another book that benefited from the surge of dark-toned teen books was Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher. This book disturbed me. Not in a bad way. In fact, there’s probably more blood and gore in Twilight then there is in Incarceron. What makes this book disturbing entirely centers on how well it’s written.

The book is written from two different points of view. The first we’re introduced to is Finn, an amnesiac who lives inside Incarceron, a prison built to contain all the criminals in the world. The prison is dark and hellish, and people eke out livings knowing they could die at any moment. The original criminals have long since perished, and generations have descended without any way out.

The second main character is Claudia, the Warden’s daughter, who lives at court and dreams of entering Incarceron and seeing the perfect society inside. As the Warden’s daughter, she is part of an important family, and it often a focus of the Queen, whom Claudia distrusts.

Incarceron was built with the intention of taking criminals and, through example and teaching by the wise men, creating the perfect society. Somewhere along the line Incarceron itself became sentient, and the program went awry. As desperate as the people inside, Incarceron seeks a way out of itself.

Neither side views it’s situation as ideal. Claudia longs to escape the medieval world that has been forced over an advanced society, and Finn is desperate to escape a prison that he does not feel he belongs to. Complicating matters, Finn might be the lost prince of Claudia’s world.

What makes this book stand out is the tone. Fisher writes amazingly well, drawing you into this twisted world. As Claudia and Finn come together, the flight to escape Incarceron becomes more and more desperate, with death and discovery never far away. Woven into this are existential questions of self. Is Finn the lost prince Giles? Or perhaps is he a creation of Incarceron, who recycles it’s dead, sometimes incorporating two bodies?

For me, what made this book so emotional is that it was lifelike. The characters were not, perhaps, overly likable. Claudia is hard and cold, but deeply intrigued by Incarceron and Finn-Giles who was once her intended fiance. Finn’s journey to find a way out of Incarceron is also a journey of self, where he is forced to try and make something of himself, instead of being what everyone else sees him to be. And there may not be a resolution.

Certainly, there was no resolution in Incarceron. A sequel, Sapphique, exists, but I have not yet been able to detatch myself from the first enough to read the second of the series. Reviews have stated that it’s not as strong as the first, without the character growth one would hope to see. But Incarceron is a master work. While I didn’t enjoy it, it’s hard to deny the merits of a book that affects your mood for months afterwards.

Suggested age: teen

Giant Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat

By Robert Munsch

I was raised in a secular household, went to a Catholic high school, and studied religious studies in school. For all of that, I feel I fall on a balance; I don’t consider myself religious, but I have a lot of academic knowledge. But for all of that, sometimes obvious things go completely over my head.

Take Giant: Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat. I loved this book as a child. I have literally read it to pieces, but we still have it. It’s an oversized picture book, set in Ireland, where the giant McKeon is upset that St. Patrick is driving out all the elves, snakes, and giant and replacing them with church bells. In retaliation, McKeon throws every church bell he can find into the ocean. The fighting escalates, with St. Patrick telling McKeon to complain to God. God, of course, comes on the Thursday boat, so McKeon sits down to wait. The first boat that arrives is a small craft, manned by a little girl. McKeon decides she can’t be God, and she sits with him as he waits. Other ships come in, bearing much grander occupants, but none of them turn out to be God.

Sick of waiting, McKeon takes the little girl, leaping up into Heaven. The fighting between McKeon and St. Patrick continues, and they try to find God to set their issues to rest. It turns out the little girl is God, and inside her house there is more then enough room for giants, elves, snakes, saints, and church bells.

I did not know that this book was at all challenged until very recently. Heck, for years I don’t believe I ever caught on that the little girl was God. In no way does this take away from the message, though; in the end, Munsch creates a beautiful story of acceptance and forgiveness.

(As an aside, I do think McKeon got the lesser end of the deal, since, as the last giant in Ireland, his departure means that there are no more giants, elves, or snakes. Well played, God)

My silly thoughts aside, I love books like this, that encourage children to think, and play with their perceptions on the world. The downside comes, of course, when parents overreact and try to have a book yanked from the shelves. I’ve commented on this before, and won’t again; read the post instead. I’m afraid I’ve almost become jaded on how overprotective parents are at books that offer very little threat. So, while this controversy surprised me, I thought I understood. Of course parents might be offended about the depictions of religious figures in Munsch’s book.

But I was wrong.

The controversy was not, as I thought, about how God was portrayed. If you had asked me, parents would have complained that God was a child, or a girl, or black. But no, the controversy was because McKeon threatened to “pound God into applesauce”.

I can sympathize with parents, I really can. The world is scary, and you worry that anything can influence your children. Seeing what was written in the days before political correctness (like the use of blackface minstrels in Little House on the Prairie), I can’t say I blame them for sometimes overreacting. But sometimes the controversies make me laugh, or at the very least shake my head. On my part, I like to focus on the good things about Giant. For one thing, the artwork does a great job of making McKeon larger-then-life, while making the girl small. The artwork works well with the text, each balanced by the other. On a deeper level, I love how Munsch plays with how God appears, and her role as the last person you would expect to be God. We need more books like this, ones that challenge the parents as much as the still-malleable perceptions of children.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Dragonsong

By Anne McCaffrey

One of the great things about fantasy books is that it can make the transition into reading adult fare much easier on the young reader. In a lot of cases, authors who transition from YA fare to adult (or vice versa) aren’t changing much of their style – the only difference is the length. (I have a 600+ page YA novel on my floor that says young adults can read books over 300 pages, publishers!) Patricia Wrede falls into this category, and so does Anne McCaffery, who served as my indoctrination into the genre of fantasy.

Most times, children fall into books (possibly a series) in their early years and move into the adult books because they enjoy the author and have run out of “age appropriate” material to read. In my case, I went backwards; one of the librarians showed me Ms. McCaffery in the adult section and that was it. I tried to read every one, adult or not. Until very recently, I don’t believe I even realized Dragonsong was a YA book.

Dragonsong is McCaffery’s second series set on the Pern. The protagonist is a young woman named Menolly, who is a gifted musician and singer who is not valued by her fishermen parents. When her mentor dies and she cuts her hand, it looks like any dream she ever had of becoming a harper (musician) is lost. All this changes the day she runs away and discovers a clutch of fire-lizards, miniature dragons, who imprint on her and become her second family.

The primary antagonist of the Pern books is a vicious thing called Thread, a silvery, worm-like matter that falls from the sky and devours anything organic until there’s nothing left. Being caught outside during Threadfall is a death sentence, and this is exactly what happens to Menolly one day while foraging. Trying to out-run the Thread she is saved by a Dragonrider, who takes her to a Weyr (where the dragons and dragonriders live). From there, she is discovered as by the Masterharper himself, and it seems that her dream to become a Harper might become a reality.

This is, of course the first in the Harper Hall of Pern series; the first two books follow Menolly’s growth, and the last follows one of her friends in his maturity. Gender themes and coming-of-age abound in these books, but they strike the right balance. Menolly’s parents are believable, though you aren’t meant to like them, and for me that’s one of the most important parts. You don’t sit there and roll your eyes and feel like Menolly is a spoiled brat; you feel that she has been wronged and is right to get away. At the same time, you realize that her parents do love her, but they cannot understand her. To their too-practical eyes, her music is useless in a Hold where one needs all hands to deal with the catch.

McCaffery does well at keeping her characters real, and I love her depiction of Pern. I love a good world, and Pern is one of the best. Including the other series and standalones that center on the Dragonriders of Pern, McCaffery has created one of the best worlds I’ve ever seen, complete changes in the times, circumstances and technology.

Mind you, these books are quite old; most were published in the 1970’s. I read them in the 1990’s, 20 years later, and I still thought they were fantastic. Sometimes the old is the best, and McCaffery is certainly one of the major players in this genre, despite the age of her books. If this appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to read something possibly so dated, I suggest The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as some options for teens.

Recommended ages: 9-12+

Call for Suggestions

Hello faithful readers! This have been quiet around here recently (a whole week without my wonderful witticisms! The horror! The alliteration!), and there’s a reason for that. It’s called school. My last semester, in fact! Less then four more months and I will be free to start living that wonderful life as a “grown up”. Or something like that. Quite exciting, what?

Realizing, as I did in the midst of my haze of panic, that I was due for another post, I hurried to my overstuffed closet to see if I could find any books suitable for reviewing. And I did, but. I also realized that it, like most of the books I have reviewed here, falls into the fantasy genre, which is where I do most of my reading. Fair enough, if you’ve ever glanced at the 9-12 section of your local bookstore, you’ll notice it’s 99% fantasy in some fashion. But there are other books out there; books that I’ve never ever thought to read. Something outside of the fantasy umbrella.

So, if I may, I would love to pick your brains.

What books did you enjoy growing up? What books do/did your children enjoy? I don’t care if they’re picture books, learning to read, novels, YA books. I just want to hear about them. As few or as many as you want to suggest.

(And we just won’t mention how crazy I am to be gathering new books to read at the beginning of a semester. It’s our secret!)

~Whitney

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