Sunday, May 20, 2007

This week I read two very different books, and both are well worth a mention. But for different reason. One is worth a mention because I think it's pretty special and wonderful, and the other one....

just isn't.

The wonderful book? Olivia Kidney (and the sequel to Olivia Kidney is equally great, btw) by the quippy, funny, imaginative Ellen Potter.

Olivia is a very real little girl living in New York City, dealing with the death of her brother and the loss of her mom. But in Potter's quirky style, these issues get tackled with humor, simplicity, and the kind of curious child-thought process that most grownups lose the ability to follow or recall the validity of. The result is that rare thing-- a book that handles serious issues without preaching or hitting you over the head. You just experience them.

The story has magic, ghosts and conjuring... introduced in super-creative ways. but the storyline is extremely urban, very common-sense-ical. The book NEVER has to tell you how smart the author is, or how smart Olivia is. It comes through in the mildest, smallest ways... driven by clear description and humor... that both Potter and Kidney are special.

By contrast, the other book I read this week (and NO, I'm not going to to tell you what it is) does just the opposite. It SHOUTS at you that the author (by right of being a literary name-dropper) and the children at the center of the story (by right of being precocious little prigs) are all brilliant. Everyone is "clever" and everyone is "interesting" and everyone is well read, and there aren't tacky things like telephones or TV sets or fast food to get in the way of the culturally elite lives being lived.

And the magic is secondary, as well as being harvested from other books. And the end result is that I felt, as a reader, slightly insulted and also bored.

And I mention this now by way of confession... because I saw in the pages of this book a million mistakes I myself (being a little priggish at times, and something of a name-dropper) might make.

So I thought I'd mention now as a writer... that when we seek to relive the past in our books, when we seek to pay homage to the great literary children's writers of bygone eras, we MUST remember that what made those books great was the humor, the quality of "Real" (and I do mean in a Velveteen way), the humanity of the characters.

NOT the fact that the little girls wore dresses and played with dolls, or that the little boys climbed trees and didn't talk on cell phones. A magical TV can be just as literary as a magical tea set. What makes a book literary is what the child says when she turns on the TV, or as she sets down the tea set. How she enters the magic, and how we enter it with her...

Olivia Kidney pulled me into her magic. This other book... pushed me away.

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