Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Kids' books shouldn't be so time consuming.

The kids are on diverging paths. Last week I found my 8-year-old step son reading a book from my bookshelf. He's 8, he orders Captain Underpants books from school, and he's going through my George Orwell section. He picks up Animal Farm and sits down to read. It was a bit of a struggle. I found him in the middle of chapter two, however, and he was really working to read and understand it! He had some trouble with a lot of the words, and so when I showed up he had a lot of questions, but I thought that was great - it's not a bad idea to hit up some classics at an early age. And although the language was tough for an 8-year-old, he really understood the larger concepts in the book. At the same time his 13-year-old brother was reading kids' books. He has been really into this Eragon trilogy, and he has been bugging me to read the books as well. This seems to be quite the phenomenon. We have given him the first two books, Eragon and Eldest, for Christmases and birthdays and so forth, and there is currently a 42-person waiting list to read the third book at the library. The first book was made into a very lousy movie starring Jeremy Irons that we saw a few months ago, but the books are fairly good.

So while the younger one was reading George Orwell, I delved into a children's book beside him. And Eragon is not bad. The story is interesting, the writing is decent. (The grammar, however, is not fantastic. If that's the style, I have no problem with it, but there is some awkward sentence structure where sentences end in prepositions that the author has thought of.) The basic premise of the novels is pretty much identical to Lord of the Rings. Even the characters are incredibly familiar. There are elves who use magic and dwarves who fight with axes and magicians and dragons and so forth. The star of the books, Eragon, is a 15-year-old kid who finds a dragon egg, and discovers that he is a Dragon Rider, and he and his dragon Saphira are called upon to defeat the evil empire, an empire that is led by a Darth-Vader type that through two books I still have not encountered, named Galbatorix. There are several plot points that are deliberately withheld for a long time, so the Luke-I-Am-Your-Father moments have more resonance, and we want to keep reading because we really do want to know what happens next. As far as kids' books go, this one is pretty good, especially considering the fact that the guy who wrote them started the first one when he was 15.

There is some stuff that will irritate adults reading it. Scenes from movies that are quoted, fairly bizarrely, in the middle of the novels. ("Barges? Barges? We don't need no stinkin' barges!") And the books are way too long, and that fantasy stuff seems to me to be the kind of stuff where once you've read one, you've read them all. But come on! The guy's fifteen! I remember reading Gordon Korman books voraciously as a child, and the idea that he had written many of them at the same age I was at the time was inspirational to me. It didn't really inspire me to write, per se, but it did inspire me to read a whole lot more. But I don't think kids' books need to be this long. I have read the first two books over the last week and a half, and they are both 600 pages plus, big heavy tomes that are daunting for me to even begin. But, the fact that they have kids reading them energetically is a good thing.

Just a thought - these fantasy type books that involve dwarves. "Dwarf" is a term used to describe human beings. Dwarfism is an actual condition, and we see and know dwarves. Like Peter Dinklage, the magnificent actor who starred in The Station Agent. So why, in this easily-offended culture, are people not protesting this? If, instead of "elves", the stories starred "midgets", wouldn't that make people angry? Midgets, specifically? Somehow, dwarf seems to be a word that gets a pass.

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