Beautiful, sweet, inspirational, melancholy, meaningful, and adventure are major elements of a good children’s story. Here are a few I read this month.
The Feral Child by Che Golden, Quercus. Hardcover. ISBN 9781623651206, 272 pgs.
I like faes. There’s just something about them and the world they inhabit. Maddy — and everyone who knows fae-lore — knows that long ago, faes, wee folk, dryads, faeries, etc., roamed the world freely, but after Christianity came, they were forced to leave the lands they knew and live in their own realm. And the fae world and the human world overlap. That’s the lore anyway. Most everyone discuss it but only a few people actually know that this is the truth and not just bedtime stories. Folks like Maddy’s grandfather, for instance, and also humans who are really faes in disguise.
The trouble is, faes sometimes visit villages and steal away young children, replacing them with fae changelings. And this is what happens to young Stephen. And, if we are to be totally honest about it, Maddy is the one who caused young Stephen’s kidnapping by going to the castle after dark when her grandfather specifically warned her not to.
Maddy is living with her grandparents after the death of her mother and father, and she is not liking it one bit. It also doesn’t help matters that her cousins, Danny and Roisin, and their priggish mother, are giving her a hard time. And now a fae-kidnapping happens. Maddy is not going to put up with that so she rushes off to find the portal between both worlds. Her whiny cousins end up being pulled into the portal with her.
There they meet a stag guide who tells them that they already know the rules of the fae world… intuitively. Human imagination, human expectation, and belief will guide their way. The stories they have read are alive within them and will lead them. Thus, because they “knew” that a guide would always meet them at the portal they caused a stag to appear. So what we are dealing with is a story that’s a little about trusting/visualizing your inner guides, a lot like C S Lewis’ Narnia, and an homage to pre-Christian elf and fae lore.
So there are wars. Not the great war between humans and faes or about the ancient belief and Christianity, but other wars. Between faes, fairies, dryads, etc. And there are rules, quests, flights, skirmishes, wolves. And fae promises with twisty loopholes that the evil White Queen will use (as is to be expected from the folk of faerieland) and the young humans will have to puzzle through. So it’s all very meta.
Now as we all know… meta themes and parodies can work very well. Or not. And their success often depends on the reader’s knowledge, and willingness to play along. This book is written to be read by tweens, middle-schoolers, or elementary kids. So the meta-winking will work for those readers who know the myth and who know Narnia. A lot of kids will smile in recognition of certain tropes or characters. For adults, there is always the question of whether a meta-filled story is having creative fun or is using the more famous story — in this case Narnia — as a template. It’s a cute story, nevertheless and although it doesn’t quite reclaim fae lands from Narnia it manages to keep to the realm of pagan folklore. And really, there is nothing wrong with telling kids that they have their imagination and books to guide them.
Pieces of Me, by Amber Kizer, Delacorte Press, ISBN 9780385741163, 291 pages.
When I first read the description of Amber Kizer’s novel, I thought we would be given a story about organ memory. Or at least a fantasy story. But I got neither. True, this is about organ donation and the lives of teens affected by it. But it is not primarily a fantasy; it’s more like an illustrative story with some philosophical and theological existential discussions thrown in. And the dead girl, Jessica, doesn’t really do anything except hover around those who were the recipients of her body… seeing she’s dead and all.
I really never know what to do with books that use fantasy but which are not really about fantasy. Still, it’s a worthy novel so here goes. Jessica, a teenaged loner with a narcissistic mother, would rather be left to herself. But through a series of events she dies. Luckily, other characters — also teens — have been waiting for organs and pieces of Jessica are sent to them. Just in the nick of time in one case. Jessica then spends the rest of the book near them, attempting to converse with them, trying to comfort them with sage advice.
The reader realizes that this is not about Jessica when the book leaps time to six months after her death and Jessica’s reaction to her death is not explored at all. See, that is where the book would become a fantasy for me. But Jessica’s journey and change of heart from cynical wallflower to all-knowing super-helpful dead person is not important here.
The book is written primarily to show the importance of organ donation and it does that. Jessica is the main narrator who speaks over, through, and beside five other POV characters as she strives to help their lives… vicariously. And let’s be clear here. The living characters are all in emotional or physical ruts. They include Samuel, a religious boy who tries to see small miracles in life; Vivian, a girl who has cystic fibrosis and who is loved by Leif; Leif, the gorgeous school athlete who begins examining himself when he get an injury; and Misty who feels very guilty because someone died in order that she might get a liver.
The lives of all the characters are caught in snapshot-like moments. It gives the story a cinematic after-school special episodic feel. I found myself wishing the story had been only about one or two characters because connecting to the characters who are symbols can be trying. Yet, I have to say the book serves its purpose. It shows that not all teenagers are healthy, and that if one dies, one can contribute to the world even after death… via organ donation. So yeah, no fantasy. Real world stuff in fact. Recommended for children who are going through a hard time because of health issues.
The Diamond Thief, by Sharon Gosling, Switch Press, ISBN 9781630790028, 336 pages.
The ways of the heart are strange; I found myself reading this little book with so much goodwill that its many storytelling flaws didn’t bother me at all.
The Diamond Thief tells the adventurous tale of Remy Brunel, circus trapeze artist and pickpocket extraordinaire. She is in every possible way the ordinary heroine. Her author created her to be. So yes, she is kind to the poor, poor herself, oppressed by an evil fat employer, beautiful (with chestnut hair) and highly skilled. The story is predictable to adults at almost every turn. But dang! I liked this book and I liked our Victorian heroine as well.
The story begins when Gustave, the circus owner — for reasons known only to himself— orders Remy to steal a precious diamond. Unfortunately, our heroine attempts to steal it before the assigned date. Nevertheless the diamond is stolen and Remy and a handsome cop named Thaddeus are soon suspected. Well, everyone suspects Thaddeus, and Thaddeus suspects Remy. Luckily Thaddeus has a professor friend who dabbles in inventions. That’s where the steampunk elements come in. Together they and an “artful dodger” named J go after the evil Abernathy whom they believe have the diamond.
The novel is more adventure than fantasy and the rare steampunk elements only begin to pop up at the end of the first third of the book. But it’s the kind of adventure a little girl would like with a heroine who is clever and gutsy. I suspect any writers reading it would cringe at the plot conveniences, supposed plot twists, and stereotypical characters that could be found in a Saturday Morning matinee. But it’s a fun and easy read. Highly recommended.
A Werewolf Boy is one seriously beautiful movie. I mean… seriously so! The last film I considered beautiful was Tamar Van Den Dop’s Blind. Bittersweet, with a nostalgic grief and picture book languidity, it just captured me. (Blind is not spec-fic so I won’t discuss it here, but check it out if you can.) Of course, maybe I just like wounded beautiful boys and muted cinematic colors. Plus I’m a sucker for anything that feels like a fairy tale.
One more word about beauty: it is hard to achieve. Because the world can be so cynical. And there is often something intrinsically corny and innocent about beauty. Anyway, that little bit of philosophical meditation aside, let’s go onward:
As a kid I was really fascinated with stories of supposedly lost children: Kaspar Hauser, The Green Children of Woolpit, and the like. I’ve never much liked werewolves or shapeshifters, however. But A Werewolf Boy is not like any other werewolf movie. It manages to capture the protectiveness we feel for lost children as well as the fear we have of fairie changeling or feral children, and — as played by Song Joong-ki, who completely inhabits the role — the otherworldy innocence of a child caught up in human rules and regulations is the stuff we lovers of fantasy and eternal loves just totally eat up.
The story begins in 1965 when teenaged, sickly, Kim Sun-Yi finds a strange-looking boy on the farm they are living in with the help from Ji-Tae. Sun-Yi is poor and her family is somewhat isolated from the rest of the village. Despite all that, she and her family take in the mute scrungy unwashed boy whom they name Chul-Soo believing he was abandoned by his family during the Korean War.
Chul-Soo is feral but harmless. Unfortunately, since he doesn’t understand human language or gestures, he doesn’t fit into society. Anyone with a maternal bone in his/her body will want to take such a child in. And Sun-Yi is not only maternal but understanding. She knows what isolation can come about from poverty and illness. She also understands that at our most isolated, we revert to an animalistic state. Thus she begins to train him, as one would train a dog. And like a faithful dog, he does everything she says and is loyal to her and falls in love with her. Koreans have a fascination with a pure love that endures everything for love… and this film depicts this love perfectly, as if eternally loving someone is the most natural thing in the world— when money, power, and human rules are out of the picture. I suppose there is some remnant of this kind of pure love in American YA books and teen films as well. I’m not talking about the overwrought sexuality of books like Twilight but those stories where the perfect beloved dies because the world is ever at war with innocence and goodness.
But yeah, there is that whole money, power, government, normalcy, health, belonging, thing. In this case they come in the form of evil villain named Ji-Tae who is sweet on Sun-Yi and who is (of course) jealous of Chul-Soo’s relationship with her.
I’m trying to think of the last American movie that I could describe as sweet or beautiful. Offhand, I can’t think of any. Sweetness is not something we do well. And I’m not sure this is the kind of movie everyone can watch. Some folks may groan and snigger at the sweetness but I’ll recommend it nevertheless. The story resonates with all the power of a fairytale come to life. The hero and heroine are good; the villain is bad. The story is not so much simplistic as elemental. And its major elements are grief, loss, and the powerlessness that leads to estrangement from the world and identifying with the oppressed.
A Werewolf Boy became one of the largest grossing films in Korean Box office history. Its sense of loss and loyalty is haunting and nostalgic. It is downright sweet and beautiful and even a jaded teenager will find her heart awakened by it. And yes, you will cry and weep buckets when you see it. It is available for streaming on Netflix.
Nine: Nine times time travel, 2013, TV Drama. Romance, Time Travel, Mystery. Written by Song Jae-Jung and Kim Yoon-Joo. Directed by Kim Byung-Soo. Produced by Kim Young-Gyu, Lee Sang-Hee, and Jung Se-Ryung. Twenty hour-long episodes. Korean. Eng-Subbed.
Okay, this is not a YA book or movie but it is about youth and the attempt to change one’s life. So I’ll include it here.
The entertainment world is a small place and production companies across the world are always adapting each other’s dramas and films, tweaking here and there to make these stories fit into their new cultural settings and lose the cultural baggages of the nations that created them. In the past, other Korean dramas have been slated to be adapted for US television. The exports of 2014 will include dramas You From Another Star (about a long-lived alien who has been on earth for 400 years and who falls in love with a narcissistic but kind-hearted movie star), Good Doctor (about a doctor on the Autism spectrum), Grandpas over Flowers (about famous elderly actors traveling the world to parts unknown), and of course, Nine: Nine times time travel. (Trust me, the seemingly redundant title is an excellent pun in Hangul.)
The protag in Nine: Nine times time travel, a 20-episode Korean time-travel drama, has much to fear about his choices. But the story is not horror. It’s supernatural. Only the effects of choice is horrific. Nine is a horror story disguised as a time travel story. A good horror story makes you fear the world; an excellent one makes you fear your choices.
Our hero Park Sun Woo (played by the great Lee Jin Wook), goes back twenty years to prevent his father’s death. Or is it his father’s murder? He returns via some incense sticks he found in the Himalayas. In the hands of his dead brother, no less. So, yes. . .why not go back in time and prevent Dad’s and Big Brother’s death?
Well, as anyone who has ever seen the Butterfly Effect should know, little things mean a lot and the plans of even the most careful planner often go awry. Our hero loses his long-time almost-girlfriend and changes the life of quite a few people. Not to mention resurrecting folks who should be dead. Life gets more and more complicated and did I tell you that his time traveling is limited? He has only nine incense sticks, each of which lasts about twenty minutes each unless they are extinguished. There is also the possibility of incense sticks being lost, stolen, or becoming otherwise unusable.
Park Sun Woo not only loses his girlfriend, but — among other things — gains a nemesis. One of the most over-the-top villains in Korean drama, I may add. Or, as our hero describes him: “him and his ugly will.” And let’s not lose focus of that main point: time traveling is definitely a story about human willfulness. Kdramas, being born of a culture that has Christian and Buddhist elements, often involve questions of fate, human will, mercy, and the dreaded redemption arc. In all this, are there matters we should have left alone? Are there secrets we should allow to remain buried?
One of the ways in which this time travel story differs from most others (in addition to the whole time-limit thing) is the way the modern culture “catches up” with events 20 years before. So if some change is made at 8pm in the past, the effect will be seen 20 years later at the same time. Because the time-travel past works in tandem with the present, this causes all sorts of quandaries while it solves others. And when the villain gets clued into how the incense sticks work, the plot and the time-racing get even more complicated.
Now, back to those remakes and adaptations: Most dramas in the world have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. American programs are more character-oriented and often go on forever. So, my biggest fears about Nine is not that it will lose its Koreanness, but that a well-constructed self-contained story will be turned into a story that drags on and on and on.
A few nits: Some of the editing can be a bit overwrought if you aren’t used to Korean dramas. Some folks will like the romance; some won’t. Some will like the heroine’s mushroom bowl-cut; some won’t. And then there is that problematical ending which I still can’t figure out.
Nine: Nine times time travel is available to stream online at dramafever.com, viki.com, and for subscribers of Hulu Plus.
Carole McDonnell is the author of Wind Follower and The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.