Sunday, February 5, 2012
Beauty Queens vs. A Tale Dark and Grimm
O.K. It’s only round two and I’m already a little tired of the teeth-gnashing and existential angst these tough decisions are provoking. This isn’t what I signed up for. Next year, how about a little pre-screening, so that we match up an obviously crappy book with one of the front runners? Manipulative? Of course. But I’m ok with that. After all, we’re being manipulated through most of our waking hours anyway, aren’t we? That very question, in fact, lies at the heart of both Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (somewhat subtly) and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens (like a repeated punch in the face) and it is a question that I think we want our young charges grappling with at this critical stage in their lives, but each of these books presents that question (and a multitude of others) in very different ways, leading to the aforementioned teeth-gnashing.
True confession time: I didn’t love either of these books (Dia! Step away from the keyboard and let me finish). I was not stealing snatches of text in those rare moments when I was not attending to weighty EPSB matters, and I was not casting forlorn glances at the covers (Ok maybe Beauty Queens a bit, but that’s a whole other issue) during romantic dinners with my wife. I did, however, emerge from each book with two over-riding impressions: 1) Both of these authors have something of value to say and understand that how you say that thing is just as important as the thing itself and 2) I want every kid I teach, and my own kids, to be smart enough to read and appreciate both the larger concepts and the subtle nuances of both of these books. I don’t think either book will work for every kid, but I do think that as every kid moves from adolescence to adulthood (currently trading at about year 42.5) they need to have the discussions prompted by both books. Since we are now into round two, I’m presuming we don’t need an extensive plot summary of either book, but I’ll offer a quick overview and a few of my thoughts about each.
The premise of Beauty Queens is torn straight from the discarded pilot heap at Fox (which is kind of the point): nubile beauty queen contestants stranded on a desert island. That basic plot device is really just a jumping off point for an elaborate satire that begins, naturally, by skewering all facets of our beauty obsessed culture, but before we’re done we’ll visit virtually every conceivable pop culture trope, offer a thinly veiled critique of American imperialism/foreign policy and even show some love for our embittered environment. Serious business, indeed, but we cannot ever accuse Ms. Bray of taking herself seriously. Imagine The Simpsons or Southpark expanded to feature film length – oh right, that actually happened didn’t it? – and you get a bit of a sense of the scattershot targets, moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, matched by others that fall conspicuously flat. Could the book have been a hundred pages shorter and still retained its, er . . artistic integrity? Certainly. Could I have lived without some of the excessively over-the -top moments? Yep. I’m no curmudgeon – well, maybe a bit – but I just found it all tiresome after awhile. All that being said, this is a brave and even beautiful book at times and Bray does a lot of engaging and even inspiring things with narrative as her characters emerge from their caricatured shells in the early pages of the novel. What I was most impressed with was Bray’s ability to write about her characters as sexual beings, rather than as sexual objects. Some readers will be taken aback by the raw sexuality of some passages, but considering that we live in a bizarro world (I’m looking at you Canada and the U.S.A.!) where we seem to be comfortable offering up hyper-sexualized portrayals of our teenagers and yet are uncomfortable actually having honest conversations about sex with our young people, Bray does an exceptional job of embracing a multi-dimensional and honest (In spite of – or perhaps because of- the campy elements. Don’t get me started on the pirates.) exploration of the role that sex plays in our emerging adults. As I mentioned, I didn’t love this book, but I think it is a book that offers a thoughtful (albeit, playful) discussion of a number of very important issues in our complex world. If I were teaching it, I think it would generate no end of powerful learning opportunities.
OK. Dia, are you still with me? That wasn’t so bad, was it? I played nice at the end. And speaking of nice at the end, we now find ourselves at A Tale Dark and Grimm, where the words “The End” are offered about every five pages through the first section of the book until our playful, yet nurturing, narrator, stops saying it all together. In this reimagining of the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, Adam Gidwitz offers an often blood-soaked, but ultimately redeeming exploration of . . . ok, this is going to sound English teachery . . . the power of storytelling. Mentally redact if you need to. Actually, maybe more importantly, this is a novel about the power of children, characterizing their resiliency and their creativity and well, all that cool stuff that is easy to forget about when they are acting like self-centered little jerks. The novel is a lot of fun to read. The constantly intruding narrator is going to charm some and irritate others, but there is no denying Gidwitz’s writing chops. He gives us the gravitas we expect from all good fairy tales, but also the post-modern wink and nod that sophisticated readers can appreciate. I think this is a book that, again, while not for everyone, I could really picture my ten year old niece having some fun with. Her seventeen year old cousin would be equally charmed, although in different ways. The latter would probably still enjoy Beauty Queens a lot more and here we are at the crux of the dilemma. As I whined about, ad nauseum, last round: two good books, but only one spot.
In his afterward, Gidwitz sheds his narrative persona and offers an anecdote to explain what brought him to write such a book. He writes about learning the valuable lesson “to trust that children can handle it. No matter what ‘it’ is.” These words would form a fitting epitaph for each writer (and a fitting epigraph for each book), but ultimately I’m going to have to go with A Tale Dark and Grimm to move to the second round, by the slimmest of margins. Two dragon’s toes to be precise. And that margin only exists because I think that when push comes to shove if I had equal numbers of copies of both books, I’d probably end up giving more copies of Grimm out to a wider age and maturity range of kids.
Over to you, Andrew. As you read above ( if you didn’t nod off part way through) it won’t take much to convince me that I’m completely wrong.