Saturday, June 18, 2011

Boy's Book and Girl's Book

Devin Brown, - an Asbury professor, though I don't think either of my sons or my daughter-in-law had him - writes in his Inside Prince Caspian.
Lewis's Essay "On Three Ways of Writing For Children" ... describes the Boy's Book or Girl's Book with its immensely successful schoolboy or schoolgirl who is able to perform incredible tasks with little or no preparation beforehand. Harry Potter and his magical abilities fit into this implausible category, and for the most part, so do his Quidditch skills. As has been noted, beginning with Price Caspian but also to some extent in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lewis avoids creating this type of protagonist.

What's wrong with the Boy's Book or the Girl's Book? (Think of the Hardy Boys or the Nancy Drew series, where the protagonists are barely old enough to drive a car but somehow are able to fly planes and sail submarines, and the adolescent heroes spend their time catching international spies* rather than scooping ice cream, babysitting, or mowing lawns.) In discussing this type of book, Lewis points out "We run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world undivinely discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego." The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration."

When we get back to our own lifes in the real world, they seem less satisfying than ever. While we may dream of scorring the winning goal in the final moment of the championship game, this kind of dream may cause us to despise our real lives and the world we actually live in.

Two quibbles. The Harry Potter-type books also rely on feeding the idea you are secretly very special, even though ignorant others don't notice it. Someday. Someday... I would also like to point out that as naturally gifted as some of these protagonists are, they are nonetheless portrayed as having also worked to become as skilled as they are. And Chip Hilton did scoop ice cream. Yet even so, very few are remotely capable of being such a multisport star, however hard they work.

*The international spies in these books have never been taught that special pugilistic trick of disabling your opponent by hitting them in the solar plexus. This turns out to be an important omission in their training every time, because the Hardy Boys, who presumably learned it from self-defense books you can order from the last pages of a comic book, defeat them with it repeatedly.


Texan99 said...

I'm fond of Robert Heinlein's coming-of-age stories. The teenagers usually have exceptional ability, but the story puts equal stress on how hard they work to be responsible and capable, which is presented as a simple assumption about any hero we'd be interested in. First their circumstances overwhelm them, but eventually a combination of luck and grit see them through. They also get separated somehow from adequate parenting at a crucial phase, a classic device in kidlit, from Bambi to Harry Potter.

A classic wish-fulfillment device, as you say, is the hidden crown prince: the Ugly Duckling, the lost heir, the sleeper who awakens, and really the whole Myth of the Lost Pearl trope.

Gringo said...

Mary Prudence Wells Smith was the author of many books, including The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield and The Boy Captive in Canada. These books tell of the experience of a boy in Deerfield who was taken prisoner during an Indian raid in 1704.

My 8th grade teacher read the books to us for 15-20 minutes before we began class. While she and I did not get along at the time, I now see that someone who would read to us had her good points as a teacher.

I don’t know how these books fit into your description, but I liked them being read to me and my classmates. Also good for their New England setting.

Overcoming obstacles is probably the theme of these books.

I guess that in part I see AVI as my nostalgia blog.

Barb the Evil Genius said...

I see Lewis' point, but I also was very disappointed by real life in that I never stepped through a wardrobe door into a magical world. Or found a coin that would grant me wishes, even half ones. I really wanted to live in Narnia when I was young.

Donna B. said...

As an adult, Harry Potter books remind me of the worst and best of boarding schools and parochial schools.

Ymar said...

I prefer the shounen or epic youth stories of Japan, modern or historical.

Hard work, dutiful obedience to perseverance, and the ethic of never giving up, seem always to be more like the point of a virtue in Naruto or Bleach, and all the other plot stuff happens as a result of it, rather than it being the cause of it.

I suppose I never liked Harry Potter precisely because it was not a fantasy that I wished to see.

I never had Harry Potter read to me in elementary school so I often view Narnia and Harry Potter with an eye askance at personal bias. For I was read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and I loved it back then. An objective assessment would require me to read both of them now, and I wonder what the results would be.

Texan99 said...

I like the Harry Potter stories well enough to enjoy the movies. (Unfortunately, I can't read the books at all; within a couple of paragraphs something about the writing grates on my nerves.) From the movies, I don't get a strong sense that everything comes easily to the heroes. They have inborn magical abilities, of course, but in their own society everyone does. Using them to gain an advantage over nonmagical people is understood to be dishonorable. Harry has something extraordinary, but it comes to him erratically, leaving him the rest of the time to struggle with his schoolwork and his duties just like everyone else. I like the fact that the schoolkids have some schoolmasters whose integrity they can trust, and others they can't rely on. They have to figure out which ones to give their allegiance to and sometimes have to work out very serious difficulties without much help, relying on their own decency and the ties between themselves. But they always come back to testing their code of honor against the standards of the teachers they trust.

jaed said...

The prince-in-exile or you're-secretly-special trope is often derided as being simple escapism, or dangerously feeding egotism. (Can't quite tell whether you're doing that here, AVI.) But I think of it as an important recognition of a profound psychological truth. (Possibly even a spiritual truth.) It's true that we are special, and also true that others often don't recognize this. Even a very literal fantasy about being a price from a far-off planet can be a way of expressing this recognition.

Ymar said...

The whole "perseverance" issue is analyzed in depth here. Well worth a look.

Retriever said...

The whole idea that one is special tho small/poor/despised/homely/young is a stock theme of fairy tales as well as of older hero stories in which the hero becomes what he is supposed to by setting out, meeting challenges, etc. Certainly not instantaneously. It's gratifying wish fulfilment but it's hardly a walk in the park.

The thing that my spouse and I always disliked about the Harry Potter books and movies was the whole notion (also found in much of children's TV) of children lying to and deceiving adults, withholding information, sneaking around, doing dangerous things, meeting with people, etc. On the one hand, one doesn't want kids to be too trusting of adults (lest they become victims), but on the other hand, one wants children to respect the value system and rules of the adults in their life until they are adults themself and old enough to make their own decisions. In fact, in real life, kids who snuck around and disobeyed every rule of the adults in their environment would not last long (not to be a priss, or anything...:) )

The best thing about Harry Potter was the special effects in the movies. Cool visually.

I liked Lewis because he had some decent female characters (tho not perfect). I liked Aravis. Lucy was an insipid twit. Susan a bore. His witches were pretty interesting.

Otherwise, I mostly read Boy books because the characters were heroic and were saving their country or serving God or loved animals or were wicked good soldiers or somesuch. I'm hard pressed to think (off hand) of a Girl Book I liked.