Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pleasing Some of the People Some of the Time

The other day I asked what single children's or young adult book one would suggest for a reader who reads only adult fiction. GraceAnne LadyHawk proposed David Almond's SKELLIG ("a perfect example, to me, of the richness of writing for children") and I agree that is a superb suggestion. Citing his selection as "NAUSEA for middle schoolers," Sam threw up the idea of Daniel Pinkwater's LIZARD MUSIC. I have to admit I've never read this title. Strangely, the next day I was leaving my office on a Diet Coke run when I passed a bookshelf and my head jerked to the right -- as if someone had grabbed me by the ears and twisted me around -- and my eyes landed square on a bright yellow spine: LIZARD MUSIC. Needless to say, I picked up the book and now plan to read it. Of course I would have read it on Sam's recommendation alone, but when unseen forces join the campaign, one really doesn't have much choice.

I have read several of Mr. Pinkwater's books over the years and have usually liked them a lot (FAT CAMP COMMANDOES comes immediately to mind.) However, I have to admit I've always been a little, well, angry with this author ever since I read a piece describing the creation of his surreal 1982 book YOUNG ADULT NOVEL.

Here's what he said:

I had a contract with a publisher...I owed them a book. They sent me their catalogue, which was one-hundred percent 'problem novels.' I asked the editor to send me two or three of what she regarded as the best on her list. I wanted to read them and perhaps write one. I read two, as did my wife, Jill, and we burned them in the stove. I thought that they were 'sneaky' books because the author had a character experience tension, sturm und drang, and suffering, then just explained it away with a simplistic religious message. I thought it was both a cop out and an abuse of the reader.

He didn't name the book, but based on the few clues I am going to assume that Jacob He Didn't Love. That's fine. Not every book is for every reader. But, really, was there any need to burn this book? I guess I could understand if it happened during a snowstorm in January. When the temperature was below zero. And the furnace was out. And they'd already burned every stick of furniture. But otherwise...guys, couldn't you have just donated the volume to a rummage sale or something?

The longer I'm around, the more I realize that every book I love is hated by someone else. Conversely, every book I can't stand is adored by somebody out there. A recent Horn Book blog cited A GATHERING OF DAYS by Joan Blos as a Newbery winner without much child appeal; the very next day someone wrote in to say that they found GATHERING a "riveting" read when they were a kid. The same blog mentioned that Joseph Krumgold's ONION JOHN lacked child-appeal -- yet I read that book over and over as a kid. Hey, if you really want to see the broad range of opinions offered on any title, check out the reader ratings on Amazon.com. Even a crowd pleaser like HOLES by Louis Sachar -- with over 2000 five-star ratings -- has nearly fifty negative one-star ratings as well.

I don't know if LIZARD MUSIC will remind me of NAUSEA (in a good way) or simply make me nauseous (in a not-so-good way) but whatever the case, I'm sure there will be readers out there on each side of the issue. What I do know is that when I don't like a book, I don't set the stove to Fahrenheit 451. Instead, I just pass the book on -- to a library sale, a community book drive, a used bookshop -- secure in the knowledge that somebody out there is going to love it.


Carm said...

Interesting post. I am a bit shocked by book burning bit. It just seems harsh that one author might have such disdain for another person's work. I find that some of what I loved as a child I am unimpressed with as an adult. I guess it stands to reason. I've been thinking about your beloved children's book query and I just couldn't choose ONE.

I think Pippi Longstocking may be one of the best. I really did like Holes and the Invention of Hugo Cabret -- still, as you pointed out, everyone is different. I thought Walk Two Moons was great and Maniac Magee is one of my favorites! Do you see what I mean?

I hope you enjoy Lizard Music--that's one I have not read.

Anonymous said...

I sort of wish that you, and the commenter who also took the quote seriously, would refrain from reading Lizard Music. As to perpetuating bad books, I currently receive about 2,000 new review copies of children's books each year in connection with a part-time job I have. All of them wind up donated to local schools and libraries. At the moment of handing over half these books, I have to make a forcible effort to believe that there will be children in such marginal condition that contact with the books will somehow benefit them...the old stupid excuse I hear made for certain popular series, "as long as they're reading." Would they say, "as long as they're getting nutrition," if they were eating their baby siblings?

Sam said...

I don't really think Pinkwater burned the books, although it's really hard to tell.

I've had a few e-conversatiosn with him -- some of which are posted on my blog -- and at times it is very difficult to tell if he's just joking around or if he hates me with the intensity of a thousand suns. I prefer to believe the former.

Perhaps it'll be easier for you to make up your mind after you've read Lizard Music. I'm very happy to have convinced you to read it!