Newsletter - Recent Writing for Kids and Young Adults by Jack

Monday Jun 02 2014
by Jack

When I was a kid, many thousands of years ago, I carefully saved my pennies. When I had twenty-five of them, I would take myself to the local Woolworth’s store and buy another Hardy Boys book in its dun-coloured hard cover. The Hardy Boys books were one of the many series produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging operation that existed from 1904 to 1984 to produce much of what young people in North America read when they were not reading comic books. The only comic books I read were Classics Comics, and those only because they provided a way of passing English exams without having to trudge through the dreary Victorian novels that adults thought we needed to experience in order to become properly educated. The Syndicate produced over fifteen hundred books for kids. Its modus operandi was to farm out the writing of books about the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew (and many others) to ghost writers who would produce 200-page manuscripts with “snappy” dialogue and chapters that invariably ended with cliffhangers. These manuscripts, with their linear plots and kid protagonists would then be sold to publishers like Grosset & Dunlop. The resultant books were devoured by generations of young readers, who for some reason preferred reading about the adventures of people their own age to slogging through works like The Mill on the Floss or The Return of the Native which featured adult protagonists operating in a foreign country and in what was almost a foreign language.

The Stratemeyer volumes – I am told there were not many British equivalents of such cookie-cutter productions, although one thinks of Enid Blyton – were the ancestors of the modern Children’s and Young Adult (or Y/A) books of the 21st century. Not much has changed in the overall format. This stuff still deals with young protagonists (with adults usually kept well in the background), linear plots, colloquial dialogue, and cliffhanging chapter endings. It now often addresses many more contemporary issues facing the young, such as sex and rape, booze, gender identity, divorce, bullying, even parents getting suddenly rich in computer stuff, but still does so usually without excessively vulgar language, bloody corpses, or explicit and detailed graphic description of the sexual act. And by and large, the endings are upbeat. Some things are different today, however. Instead of being written by anonymous hacks, many of the recent books are written by authors with substantial reputations among adult readers. Science fiction, paranormal, and fantasy approaches (not even conceived of a century ago) are not only possible but common. So too are young protagonists from foreign countries and different cultures, although crime and detection in their various guises are still prominent in the plots. One of the curious characteristics of the YA publications particularly is that they are usually considerably cheaper than comparable adult productions

What follows is a brief excursion through our shelves focusing on recent publications. Examples of books for younger readers by best-selling adult authors include Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses (Knopf, $19.99 hardbound), Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage (Little, Brown, $11.00 trade paper) and John Grisham’s Theodore Boone, Young Lawyer (Penguin, $8.99). Philip Kerr is best-known as the author of the “Berlin Trilogy,” the series of three novels set in Nazi Germany featuring private eye Bernie Gunther (subsequently extended to nine by following Bernie after the war), although he has also written a kid’s series (Children of the Lamp) and a number of excellent standalones (such as Dark Matter, starring Isaac Newton). The Winter Horses has as its ostensible heroine a Ukrainian Soviet teenager named Kalinka, although the real stars of the book are two horses and a wolfhound dog. The novel is set on the steppes of central Russia in a nature reserve named Askaniya-Nova in 1941. Kalinka has fled from the devastation of her village and the death of all her family at the hands of the invading Germans; her coat sports a Star of David. Reaching Askaniya-Nova, she befriends two Przewalski’s horses, an ancient Mongolian breed, virtually extinct, which have been preserved and bred at the reserve, and later a wolfhound named Taras The story follows her effort, with the aid of her animal friends and a number of decent human beings, to escape the invaders and reach the Russian lines. The Winter Horses is cast as a fable, with a redemptive ending. Much of it is very violent and sad, however, as befits its subject matter, with its author pulling a few punches but not sugarcoating his story unduly.

Etiquette and Espionage is quite a different matter, sharing with The Winter Horses little except a teenage heroine (the fourteen year-old Sophronia). A hard to handle handful to her mother, Sophronia is shipped off to boarding school at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But the school is not quite what it seems. True, it does offer instruction in the female graces, but it also specializes in teaching the fine arts of assassination and espionage to its young pupils. Gail Carriger is better known as the author of a very popular series of fantasy novels set in a world called the Parasol Protectorate. This book is set in the same steam-punk universe, and is written with a tongue-in-cheek style which most readers seem to enjoy enormously. Carriger has followed up her success in Etiquette and Espionage with a second book in the series entitled Curtsies & Conspiracies. This one opens with a great hook chapter in which Sophronia and a fellow student are given their end-of-the-year examination; it is on a par with Alan Bradley’s first chapter in his bestselling and award-winning Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which his eleven-year old heroine Flavia de Luce escapes from a trap set for her by her sisters. The Flavia series – there are now six books – is not promoted by its publishers as YA, although it certainly could be read with enjoyment by teenage readers.

Another heroine in the same vein as Sophronia and Flavia is Daphna, who stars in Dan Elish’s The School for the Insanely Gifted (Hardbound, Harper, $19.99). Popular culture, of course, thrives on imitation, and precocious pre-pubescent females with first names ending in “a” who solve mysteries are this year’s flavour of the month. Daphna is around the same age as both Sophronia and Flavia, being almost twelve and a student at the Blatt School. She has already written her first opera and orchestrated her first piano concerto, but presently she faces a more pressing problem: the disappearance of her mother. The solution of this mystery takes her on a thrill-filled and somewhat fantastic journey halfway around the world.

One of the truisms of spy fiction has been that the ending of the Cold War also meant the termination of the Golden Age of the spy. I never understood this thinking, because one could still set a book in a historical Cold War. As does Elizabeth Kiem in Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy (Soho Teen, $9.99). Marina is a bit older than other protagonists in these books. This could be, like Alan Bradley’s books, an adult read, although it is being explicitly marketed as Y/A. Marina is seventeen, and gifted rather than precocious. Training to be a Bolshoi dancer in 1982, she and her father flee Russia when her mother unexpectedly disappears. They go to Brooklyn, New York City, the haven for many a Russian defector. Of course there was nothing ordinary about mother’s disappearance, but to say anything more would be telling.

Derek Landy’s Stephanie Edgeley is in age halfway between Daphna and Flavia. Resident of an Irish town, she inherits from her recently deceased literary uncle his mansion and the revenue from the sale of his books. Landy is a well-known Irish playwright, but not much familiar to the Canadian audience. At the reading of the uncle’s will Stephanie meets a mysterious character disguised in a hat, wig and sunglasses, which fall off to reveal an undead sorcerer named Skulduggery Pleasant, who gives his name to the series: Skulduggery Pleasant (HarperCollins, $10.99). He is made up of only a skeleton held together by magic. He takes Stephanie as his partner and races to save the world from the Sceptre of the Ancients, a mysterious staff located only in folklore. The world is of course saved, and Skulduggery and Stephanie (now known as Valkyrie Cain) proceed to further adventures in subsequent books.

A similar sort of plot premise is involved in Richard Newsome’s The Billionaire Curse (Hardbound, HarperCollins, $19.99), an entry from Australia. Gerald Wilkins is a thirteen year-old who inherits 20 billion pounds and a lot of other stuff from a great-aunt he never met. As well as the fortune, he gets a letter from great-aunt Caroline. Turns out she was murdered, and leaves it up to Gerald to solve the crime. Gerald doesn’t take up this quest on his own, but with two friends. They bop all around Britain and Europe tracking down Geraldine’s secret, all one step ahead of disaster, naturally. There is no magic in this book, unless you count the straining of belief at the premise. Frankly, I much prefer putting this stuff in fantasy terms to pretending it all happens in real time.

Nothing magical or fantastic occurs in the Theodore Boone series written by John Grisham either. Grisham, by his own admission, turned to YA because Harry Potter replaced his own works on the Bestseller lists. These books are quite down to earth and will remind most readers much more of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys than many of the books discussed earlier in this essay. Theodore (Theo) Boone is thirteen, and his parents are successful lawyers in a small town in America. This is actually a pretty dull plod, with little of Grisham’s inventiveness in evidence. Buyers would be much greater advised to get their kids hooked on Agatha Christie (whose plots are more imaginative) than on Grisham for the young.

Finally, we have the Bobbsey Twins (or maybe the Famous Five) revisited, in Maureen Sherru’s Walls Within Walls (Hardcover, HarperCollins, $18.99). CJ, Pat, and Brid are three (rather than two) kids, 12, 6, and 9 respectively, whose father has made millions by inventing a video-game. He moves them from their familiar Brooklyn neighbourhood to a fancy apartment building in Manhattan, where they are abandoned by their busy parents to a nanny. Bored and lonely, the kids discover that there is a mystery about their apartment: the walls don’t measure up correctly and there are hidden panels. Off they go, looking for the lost fortune of the original apartment owner/builder. In fairness, this book is not touted by its publisher as Y/A, but rather as suitable for the 8-12 contingent.

As we can see, echoes of the Stratemeyer era can still be detected everywhere.

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