I try not to do this. Honestly, as a fellow writer, I don’t want to. But there’s simply no way around it. The book I am reviewing today just isn’t very good, not for me, at least.
For many people, this is a classic. I know this because the cover states, “50th Anniversary Edition” and “Newbury Medal Award Winner.” See, I am very picky with what I read. At Barnes & Nobles, I gravitate to the classics, not because I’m a stuffy college grad, but because those books have proven themselves over time. Who’d remember Shakespeare if he were just an OK playwright? This is what, initially, drove me from the shelf to the check-out counter. Fifty years! It must be good. Also, it’s a kid’s book, and many of my favorite books were originally intended for younger readers, like The Never Ending Story, Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. There is a simple kind of joy and wonder that comes from a story told without the pretension and jaded outlook rampant in so many of today’s adult works. I consider Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” a literary genius, and The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams brings me to tears every time I read it. So for me, finding the book in the kid section at Barnes & Nobles was a plus. Which book is it? Ah . . . that you’re going to have to figure out for yourself. The author has been dead since 2007 so nothing I say or do can possibly tarnish her reputation, but I still feel uncomfortable trashing another writer’s work. Usually, when I am this level of disappointed, I won’t even bother to review it. But with this book, I was looking for inspiration. It seems these days reading is falling out of fashion, but I often find the culprit to be bad writing and poor story telling. I am the father of a nine year old who loves Zelda, Minecraft, and how-to YouTube videos. Getting her to read can be a hassle. But put the right book in her hands—like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web—and electronic entertainment can collect dust for a few days. So you can’t always blame Steve Jobs for making it tougher on writers like myself; sometimes you have to blame the writers. After a number of disappointing reads, I was desperate for something to rekindle my faith in the written word. Then an odd thing happened; the glittery cover caught my wife’s eye and she stole the book from me. For days, I waited for her to finish, but about halfway through she started to ride the donkey carriage. I teased her a bit, until she gave it back to me, flatly stating, “this book sucks.” Really? A Newbury Award winner? 50th Anniversary? How can that be? Snatching the book off her dresser, I tore into it, certain of its literary merit, and the first line went like this,
It was a dark and stormy night . . .
Wait a minute . . . I know that line! When it comes to opening lines, that’s as famous as, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities) or “Call me Ishmael . . .” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), both great authors and great novels! Surely, my wife had to be ignorant to the makings of a classic. Uninteresting, maybe, but it couldn’t suck.
The protagonist, a pre-teen girl, is as bland as a carton of milk that just says “Milk” in Times New Roman. Her two brothers and a neighborhood friend (also a boy) complete the foursome (or did she just have one brother? I am honestly having a hard time remembering . . .) Think Harry, Ron and Hermione, but without personalities. The trio (quatro?) meet a group of witches and there is vague discussion regarding the girl’s missing father, a scientist who had been working on something before disappearing. Too soon after, the neighborhood boy agrees to embark on a dangerous quest to find him. Who is this boy? And who are these witches? They simply show up, as incidentally as Cinderalla’s Fairy God Mother, who could at least sing Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo and demonstrate some fancy animation. What’s even more disconcerting, these three (four) children are sent out alone, to a dangerous planet, where everyone is a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Why these kids and not someone more mature and experienced? No explanation. Why can’t the witches, who possess enormous powers, offer any assistance? No explanation. I’d like to say that the book is at least well written, with some nice passages to smooth out the rough plotting, but I can’t. Even the dialogue is forced and riddled with exposition. Given the subject matter, I’d hoped for some imaginative ideas, and there is a bit of that, like a planet of winged centaurs and a race of furry, multi-armed aliens without eyes; but again, none of it is consequential. The author just drops them in there for no reason, like she rolled a random encounter in a Dungeons and Dragons game and the dice came up centaur. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the author is very clearly a Christian, and while I have no objections to writers using fantasy and Sci-Fi to express their beliefs, there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. Brilliant examples of Christian allegory can be found in E.A. Abbott’s Flatland, where God is imagined as a 3-dimensional being in a 2-dimensional world; and in the superbly written Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Even C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, while bludgeoning you over the head with symbolism, handles the subject better. In this book, aliens from across the galaxy “praise the Lord” and make references to Jesus, which makes you wonder how “Our Lord” remains a mystery to people west of the Pacific.
OK, maybe I am being overly critical here. After all, I am not the target audience, and perhaps my daughter would love it. Also, the book was written decades before Harry Potter, before publishers knew books could sell equally well to both children and adults. Then again, Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, also a Newbury Award winner . . . so if you take anything away from my review, it’s this: go read Charlotte’s Web!
UPDATE: As it turns out, the opening line It was a dark and stormy night was not the author’s invention. It was originally penned in 1830 by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. So, unlike Dickens’ and Melville’s famous openings, this looks like a case of outright plagiarism. What’s worse, according to Wikipedia, it is widely regarded as “the literary poster-child for bad story starters.”