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Posts tagged ‘Middle-Grade Fiction’

REVIEW: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham


Title: Down the Mysterly River
Author: Bill Willingham
Pub Date: September 13th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…

I’ve been a fan of Bill Willingham’s writing for years. His work on Vertigo’s Fables? Hands-down the best comic book writing out there. I’ve particularly appreciated the structure he brings to his sequential storytelling: sweeping, complex plots that more closely resemble epic fantasy than standard super-hero fare (most of which I can no longer stomach). Several months ago at BEA, I managed to snag a review copy of his new middle-grade fantasy novel Down the Mysterly River, which Tor Teen/Starscape just released a couple of weeks ago.

Down the Mysterly River follows the adventures of a young boy named Max who wakes up in the woods one day with no recollection of how he got there. Thankfully, Max is a Boy Scout and so is better prepared for such situations than I ever could be. As he tries to figure out where he is and how he got there, he makes friends with a talking badger, a tyrannical tom cat, and a friendly bear. All four of them are in the same situation, and together they must figure out what brought them to this place. But they must do so while fleeing from the Blue Cutters, a band of sword-swinging fanatics who want to re-create our heroes according to their own ideas of what makes people good. Obviously, Max and his friends are not particularly interested in being forcibly molded.

The book is generally structured as an adventure story, and blended with mystery. Our plucky band of heroes must sneak and fight their way free of the Blue Cutters while piecing together the mystery surrounding their appearance in this unfamiliar world. The book is written in omniscient third, but with a relatively narrow focus on Max. With his self-professed experience at detection, Max eagerly goes about solving the mystery and we are drawn into it in his wake. While Max may proceed with little fear, Willingham expertly uses ominous suggestions to raise tension for the reader. Within minutes of meeting Branderbrock the Badger, for example, we learn that he remembers his own death, suggesting that both he and Max are already dead.

I found the contrasts between positive and negative to be the book’s strongest aspects, and such contrasts show up repeatedly in Willingham’s character development. While our four heroes are drawn sympathetically, three out of the four have darker (or at least more negative) sides: McTavish the Monster (the tom cat) self-identifies as evil and selfish, but evidences unswerving loyalty when put to the test. In many ways, he reminds me of Doli from The Book of Three: on the surface, brash and self-centered, but heroic nonetheless. Walden the Bear is portrayed as dull-witted and lazy, but is giving and capable of great violence when roused. Max, with his capacity for introspection, teeters on the edge of making certain choices that may align him with the Blue Cutters’ morality. His struggles with his own conscience and justification lend the book its moral depth. Of the four heroes, Branderbrock is the only one who does not have a dual nature or conflicting desires. Together, our adventurers are offset by the Blue Cutters, who are depicted with haughty brutality. They are vicious and cruel, and their implacability in particular makes them frightening villains.

Willingham concretizes these contrasts in his battle scenes, where he does not shy away from violence. While I don’t think this weakens the book at all, I think it is particularly notable for its genre and intended audience. Most MG fiction – and even most YA – tends to steer clear of blood-in-the-mud battle scenes. And middle-grade heroes almost never kill human villains. Even in The Hunger Games, which is targeted towards a YA audience and is considered by many to be a particularly violent novel, Katniss Everdeen only directly kills one of the other twenty three tributes. But in Down the Mysterly River, intended for a younger audience, we not only watch our heroes become grievously wounded on several occasions, but we see the Blue Cutters torturing innocent animals, and watch Max actually kill one of the Blue Cutters.

This violence is depicted in a matter-of-fact fashion, and though I was surprised to see a MG novel with this degree of it, I found that it did not draw away from the story. In some ways, the violence lends a visual dynamism to the book: reading along, I imagined sequential panels visualizing the action as if I were reading a comic. This kind of stylized violence brings excitement to a graphic medium, but in prose I found that its implausibility diminished its realism. Yes, the book is violent. But it is no more violent Adams’ Watership Down, the story of Robin Hood, or Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.

Thematically, the violence was also treated seriously. Throughout, our heroes engage in violence defensively. They do not take the attack to the Blue Cutters: they are just trying to get away from people who are intent on torturing and killing them. And Willingham justifies our heroes’ violent response by showing us exactly how vile the Blue Cutters really are, and by making it clear that our heroes are significantly outnumbered. And, perhaps most significantly, he does not let our heroes off the hook: their actions have consequences, and Max is shown to struggle with his choices. That his actions to defend himself and his loved ones are justified in no way diminishes the poignancy of his guilty conscience. And, interestingly, the book seems to suggest that offensive action against the Blue Cutters is an adult right: one that twelve year-old Max is not ready to either understand or undertake.

The world-building is well-executed. Willingham’s cosmology – which lies at the heart of the mystery – is particularly interesting and appealing, though to explain why would unravel the mystery Willingham painstakingly sets up. Readers of Fables will no doubt recognize certain archetypes that show up in his world-building, but they are put to a very different use in Down the Mysterly River. The characterization and how it ties into the world-building is also particularly well done, with non-human heroes who we can understand and believe in despite their fantastic natures.

The writing itself is competent, but I found a number of areas where it could have been tightened. The first quarter of the book tends towards stilted descriptive sentences. At BEA, I asked Willingham about the difference between writing a prose novel and a comic script, and he pointed towards exposition. The book’s beginning clearly shows where Willingham struggled with this: his early descriptions tended to flow more like visual notation for an artist rather than descriptions of ongoing action. However, the text remains functional and his skilled characterization is able to overcome the exposition’s choppiness. And as the book’s plot accelerates, the flow improves and Willingham loses the stilted declarative style that predominated early on. By the book’s mid-point, sentences and paragraphs are flowing smoothly.

The other weakness that stood out to me in the writing was an occasional tendency to over-write. Honestly, I see this as less of a failure on the part of Willingham’s writing as on the part of his editor’s line-editing: good MG/YA editors should know to look out for this and trim it out of the book before it ever goes into production. Yes, this is a book for children. But kids are more perceptive than we stodgy grown-ups like to give them credit for. Even ten year-olds don’t need to have a rhetorical question defined and explained for them: if they don’t know the word, then they’ll pick it up in context. I found this tendency most jarring when it occurred at the end of certain chapters, throwing off the rhythm and dramatic resonance of the chapter’s conclusion. Next time, I would hope such extraneous and unnecessary sentences were just cut: part of what makes great MG fiction great is that it challenges the reader. And kids are especially sensitive to condescension in their reading.

Despite these weaknesses, I found Down the Mysterly River to be a fun adventure. The answers to Max’s mystery were robust, and the characterization and story arcs that Willingham takes us down are immensely satisfying.

For parents who may be concerned about the violence: it’s handled well, and if you have concerns about it, read the book yourself first, and then decide if your kid is ready for it. There’s no universal rule. I found that the violence was tasteful and well-executed. At nine or ten I know that I would’ve enjoyed the book. Whether the same holds true for your kid, well, that’s your call. Grown-up fans of Willingham’s comic book writing will probably enjoy it, provided that they remember that it is not a Fables book. Comic book retailers – who I’ve heard had trouble selling Willingham’s earlier prose novel in the Fables universe – may find that Down the Mysterly River is a great transition book for kids who read books like Owly and might now be ready for more grown-up fare.

I really enjoyed Willingham’s first foray into his own prose fiction, and I hope to see more books like this from him.

Oblique Wisdom: The Secret of Evergreen Middle-Grade?


Probably right around the age of nine, I discovered Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. These books opened up a world of adventure, mystery, and wisdom for me – and are probably the reason why I love fantasy so much. Fast forward twenty years, and this past weekend I cracked open The Book of Three, the first book in the series. Reading it over the course of an afternoon (it’s a much faster read today than I remember it being), I think I stumbled on an aspect of middle-grade fiction that I think might be universal in evergreen titles (the classics that never go out of print, never stop being popular): oblique wisdom transparent for the reader but opaque for the hero.

Some Thoughts on the Heart of Middle-Grade Fiction

There is a world of difference between middle-grade (MG) and even young adult (YA) fiction. While both are lumped together as “children’s fiction,” everyone knows that an eight year old looks at the world very differently from a sixteen year old. Differences in awareness, concerns, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and emotions drive many of the fundamental differences between MG and YA books. An eight year old can love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but the themes and concerns of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games would likely go over that same child’s head.

Classic MG titles like The Phantom Tollbooth and Dealing with Dragons show us fundamental truths about the world. Most of these truths are foundational, and so basic that MG readers will already understand them before they ever pick up a book. Research has shown that by the age of five, kids understand and apply complex rules of “fairness” in their behavior. They might not be able to articulate those rules, or explain why something is right or wrong, but they have already formed a sense of it.

The best YA fiction helps us to negotiate the muddier waters of an adult reality. Books like Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Pullman’s The Golden Compass transition a child’s black-and-white value system to the shades of grey that (unfortuntely) operate in the adult world. But middle-grade, at its heart, is there to provide the initial vocabulary. It teaches us how to articulate values every child knows, but might not be able to otherwise express.

Fairy Tales, Learning Better, and the Role of the Teacher

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of popular children’s literature. In particular, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christen Andersen, and Gregory MacDonald all contributed to popularizing stories with magical characters that grew to be beloved by children in their respective countries. These early fairy tales were often based on oral storytelling traditions, and employed a remarkably consistent morphology (I recommend Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Luthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature for a detailed discussion).

In the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein argued that all stories (irrespective of audience) could be reduced to three categories: Boy Meets Girl, the Brave Little Tailor, or the Person Who Learns Better. The vast majority of early fairy tales – and the majority of middle-grade fiction – fall into either the Brave Little Tailor or Learns Better structures. Within the confines of these archetypes, the mentor (or dispatcher, in Propp’s terminology) is a standard element. Consider Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Dallben (and Coll, and Gwydion) in The Book of Three, Morwen and Kazul in Dealing with Dragons, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. What in A Wrinkle in Time, or Mrs. Frankweiler in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

Each of these mentors is an adult, placed by the story’s plot in a parental/guardian position relative to the story’s hero. That the hero may be a hidden monarch or a prophesied savior is immaterial for the mentor’s role. From a plotting standpoint, the mentor is there to initiate and end the adventure.

Pushing the Hero Towards Adventure

Parents typically protect the hero. They want to keep the hero guarded against all of the vicissitudes of the outside world. The mentor, however, does not. The mentor recognizes – in their infinite wisdom – that the hero needs to face danger to grow. Merlyn puts Wart in potentially life-threatening situations because he hopes the lessons will make Wart a better king. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which fetch Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin and put them directly in harm’s way. Kazul and Morwen – ostensibly – have few qualms about placing Cimorene in what the novel’s society considers danger. In this sense, the mentor often adopts the role of dispatcher in Propp’s morphology. In some cases, as in Morwen and Kazul, the mentor can play the role of helper just as easily.

Starting Points: Explaining the Lesson at the Start of the Book

Mentors are by definition wise. And invariably they share that wisdom with the middle-grade hero before the adventure starts. Consider Dallben’s exchange with Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper:

“Tut,” said Dallben, “there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious…”

“What of Prince Gwydion?” cried Taran. “Yes! I wish I might be like him!”

“I fear,” Dallben said, “that is entirely out of the question.”

“Buy why?” Taran sprang to his feet. “I know if I had the chance…”

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

This exchange – which we find in chapter one – outlines the arc at the heart of The Book of Three. Taran obviously fails to grasp the wisdom of Dallben’s warnings – otherwise, he would never run off after Hen Wen and begin his exciting adventures. But reading this exchange, an adult reader instantly sees the timeless wisdom of Dallben’s teaching. And I would argue that a nine year old reader gets it just as well.

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The reason for that is because of Dallben’s obvious wisdom. A nine year old might not be able to articulate this wisdom, to communicate it anew, yet nonetheless it strikes a chord. We know Dallben’s interdiction will be broken, that Taran will go out on an adventure. And we know that the adventure will change him, make him recognize at least a part of Dallben’s teachings. The same model can be found in Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones, L. Frank Baum: all of the classic middle-grade fantasists understood the power of foreshadowing the lesson at the start of their books.

Contrary to what many grown-ups believe, children well understand the difference between reality and fiction. They know that Taran’s adventures are dangerous. If they did not grasp the inherent wisdom of Dallben’s warnings, why would they be scared or excited when Taran faces Achren or the Horned King? While Dallben’s warnings might go right over Taran’s head, even a young reader will still understand and recognize their wisdom. They may not be able to explain what they have understood, but that does not mean they have failed to grasp its underlying significance. The reader knows what lesson is coming before they’re even finished with chapter one: which is why the book’s conclusion – when Taran has had his adventures, and has learned at least a little more wisdom – is so satisfying.

The Obliquity of Wisdom: Mediating the Mentor and the Hero

This structure is satisfying because the reader not only understands the mentor’s wisdom, but the hero’s desires. What nine year old doesn’t want an exciting adventure slaying monsters? We want Taran to have his adventure, we want him to face down monsters and evil, and to come out stronger, smarter, and happier at the end. We know that Taran will get into trouble by breaking Dallben’s interdiction, but there remains that niggling little voice inside that says adventure is worth it.

The relationship brings to a mind the best line of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where Isabelle warns Hugo that they can get into trouble and Hugo responds “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” That exchange encapsulates the reader’s mediation between grasping the hero’s immature desires, and internalizing the mentor’s wisdom. If the hero were not in danger, if the hero did not break the mentor’s rules, then there would be no adventure.

Developing One’s Own Vocabulary: The Learning Hero in Middle Grade

As MG novels progress, the hero has to gradually develop their own vocabulary for the mentor’s teachings. The hero cannot just parrot the mentor’s lessons: that would not show any development on the part of the character, and would thus be fundamentally unsatisfying. Instead, the hero rationalizes an initial rejection of the mentor’s lesson and then builds an acceptance of the lesson by getting (proverbially – or literally) kicked in the teeth by life.

Note that there are examples where authors have tried to deviate from this pattern. Joseph Delaney – in his 2004 novel The Last Apprentice – tries to invert the classic structure. Delaney’s hero understands the wisdom of the Spook’s interdictions. However, he finds that certain rules are overly stringent. He does not break them due to a failure of understanding: instead, he breaks them because he actively disagrees with their universality. These books are a little too recent to be deemed evergreen, but I am curious as to how they will age over time. They have not resonated with me the way the more classic structure has, but that may have more to do with my own tastes (my fiancée accuses me of being an old-fashioned curmudgeon) than with any actual weakness in an inverted structure. Eventually, time will tell whether the mirror image of the classic structure can function as well as the original.

Regardless of whether the author plays it straight or flips the structure, at the end of the story the hero has learned a lesson and articulates it in words different from those of the mentor. What matters is that the lesson cannot be presented didactically: kids can smell that kind of condescension a mile away, and overt morals ruin good stories. Nobody likes to be patronized, least of all a nine year old. If the action and emotion of a story cannot imply a lesson through subtext, then it is a weak lesson that simply won’t resonate.

By finding a different subtext-driven way of articulating (or potentially refuting) the mentor’s earlier wisdom, a classic MG novel can show the reader how that wisdom can be applied in a fictional context. Just as the hero’s understanding of reality is broadened, so too is the reader’s conceptual vocabulary. Like Dallben says:

“…If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

And that, ultimately is what childhood and fiction are both about.

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