If you’ve read any Greek mythology, you know how it stays with you. The stories are everywhere in pop culture, the trappings apparent in everything–words, common metaphors, even fashion. I devoured Greek mythology–along with Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese mythologies–as a child, then later, as a teen. Sometime in my early twenties, it fell by the wayside; I started reading less mythology and more analysis thereof. But the stories themselves remained with me, because mythology has a habit of doing that. It sneaks up on you at the most unexpected moment and whispers things like “Yes, that is a totally Oedipal subplot in the novel you’re reading, but I’ll bet no one actually ends up blind,” or “Hey girl, see how you’re jealous of your two best friends because they’re talking to that guy? That’s so Ill(iad) of you!”
And sometimes, when you’re stuck in a no sleep rut, lying in the dark save for your kid’s Twilight Turtle, with a too-amped-up to sleep kid, Mythology will come to the rescue. Sure, you could pick up an illustrated D’Aulaire’s and read it before bed. But there’s something about telling myths, about sharing oral stories, that’s well-suited to the dark. And once you get past explaining the concept of gods and goddesses, the stories themselves are easy to tell–and rather enthralling, even for the least attentive of kids.
Mythology and Your Toddler: How to Get Started
Not all myths are kid appropriate. Aside from the obvious themes–chasing down unwilling women/nymphs, for example–some stories, like Echo & Narcissus, are too slow moving for small attention spans. But stories about things kids are used to, like the moon, the stars, and the sun, are always a hit. So are action stories, like the labors of Heracles and Thesus & the Minotaur (just gloss over the whole punishment, lying with a bull part). Most myths are easily shortened, or broken into sections, too, so you’re not recounting hours’ worth of lineage to a bored toddler in the dark.
Much like fairy tales, many stories contain something frightening–the Nemean Lion or Lernaean Hydra in the labors of Heracles, for instance. And that’s okay–with a little reassurance, these monsters or frightening aspects are a safe way to explore the dark, with Mummy or Daddy or both, nearby.
Explaining the concept of gods and goddesses, on the other hand, can be difficult. Given that most kids are comfortable with magic, though, it’s actually fairly easy to give them a reasonable explanation of the pantheon. Here’s my go to:
A long, long time ago, the Greek people believed in gods and goddesses. Gods and goddesses were like magic men and women, or magic boys and girls, who could make the rain and thunder and lightning come, or make magic hammers. Some of them helped animals, and others helped people. And because they were so strong and powerful, the Greeks would ask them for help–help growing their food, or fighting off something bad, or help getting better when they were sick.
That’s the short version. Depending on the story, we explore which god or goddess is involved a little more; in the labors of Heracles, Athena, Artemis, and Apollo show up in a couple of the feats, so Mir knows a bit more about them. And he knows that Hera was mean, and made Heracles crazy so that he did something very bad. And therein lies the trick–using easier words, and simplifying the stories. As a writer, I often want to explore backstory and think about why, when, and how. But Mir, and other small children, don’t always need that. Their attention spans are short, and they can only handle one, possibly two, big ideas in a story at a time. Which means there’s no reason to discuss Hera’s jealousy, or Zeus and Alcmenae, or anything other than the straight out labors when I’m telling him about Heracles.
How To Choose A Myth
- Start small. Tell a story that can easily be broken into parts, or one that takes less than ten minutes. (See the list of myths that work well below for ideas.)
- Skip unnecessary family histories. Heracles is the son of Zeus. Zeus’ wife Hera doesn’t like him because she’s mean. That’s enough to start with.
- Start with action stories, where the hero or heroine has to go on a quest (which can be shortened if necessary), or fight something.
- Look for myths that tie into the natural world, or something your toddler is particularly interested in (in our case, the stars).
Taking Your Stories A Little Farther
One of the things I love about stories, and mythology in particular, is that they open up a discourse. It’s easy to explore an idea–just one, mind–behind a story during the telling. Last night, since I told Mir about Heracles and the Garden of Hesperides again (can you tell he loves Heracles? Come dark, it’s “Heracles, mummy! Heracles!”), we talked for a moment about how stories can change over time, or how can there can be more than one version of something. Why? Because I’ve read two versions of that story.
Similarly, when telling Mir a story about the natural world, we take a moment to talk about what stars are, and how they’re always there, even when we can’t see them (this is incredibly reassuring to the kidlet). Or how sometimes, people try to make history fit the story they know, even when it doesn’t always work. If you were talking about Theseus and the Minotaur, you could spend a moment or two on how Ariadne thinks about the problem of the maze; in Daedalus and Icarus, you could talk about the sun and the wax, or how Daedalus’ design is supposed to work.
Myths That Work Well
- All the labors of Heracles
- Theseus and the Minotaur
- Perseus and Andromeda
- The Pleaides
- Orion and the scorpion
- Parts of the Odyssey
- Parts of Jason and the Argonauts
- Kronos and Titans; how Zeus came to rule over the gods
- The story of Atalanta
Things To Remember
Jules talks books
Have you ever noticed how people living in TV Land rarely read? (Note that for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about reading books, as opposed to blogs, papers, and other short span media, and that I’m referring to fictive shows only.)
Take Cougartown1 for example: In this week’s episode, Jules (Courtney Cox) openly stated that she’s not really a reader.
And then there’s Glee2, and New Girl and House, Doctor Who and How I Met Your Mother. Again, no one reads.
Does anyone on TV read? Sometimes, fathers read newspapers and mothers read magazines. Very occasionally, someone on Gossip Girl reads a book (though mostly they just talk about writing them, in very unrealistic terms). Castle shows people reading, but generally only Castle’s book. In fact, the only show I can think of that has a few readers, and shows at least one person reading every other episode or so, is Star Trek: The Next Generation3. And it depicts a balance of e-reading and print reading.
If we consider television as a reasonable depiction of society (and I’ll admit, I’m not sure we can), it’s saddening to think that so few people read.
Some People Have Never Read A Book
According to a 2008 article in the BBC Online, some people claim to have never read a book. And,
40% of people admit to lying about having read certain books, according to a study published last year by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. And half read the classics just because we think it makes us look more intelligent.
Would a run of TV episodes showing characters reading encourage more people to read? Could we treat reading as a product, and use books as product placement? Generally speaking, publishers can’t afford to drop enough cashola for a single title to appear on any given show; I don’t expect them to pay out to get folks reading, either. But statistics on high school reading are rather alarming. According to a 2009 report from the National High School Center (PDF):
- The percentage of high school seniors performing at or above the basic level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) decreased from 80% in 1992 to 73% in 2005 (NCES, 2007).
- Over the same period, the percentage of high school seniors performing at or above the proficient level decreased from 40% to 35% (NCES, 2007).
- About 70% of high school students need some form of remediation; the most common problem is that students cannot comprehend the words they read—not that they cannot read them (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004).
Reading product placement certainly isn’t a quick fix–it won’t remedy the dearth of teachers, the overpacked classrooms, or bridge the economic divide. But a study in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility suggests there is a strong correlation “between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. It’s even more important than whether the parents went to college or hold white-collar jobs.”
Can Product Placement Effect Positive Change?
There’s evidence that product placement can effect change. A study in the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found,
…that depictions of smoking in movies are more psychologically powerful than cigarette advertisements and have a greater impact on children’s attitudes and behaviours regarding smoking. The research looked at 51 studies and found that media exposure to tobacco use increases the odds of youth taking up smoking almost threefold.
On television and in film, reading is so often relegated to the nerd and geek classes. It’s the province of the kids who don’t have, or can’t get, friends. If smoking–which is widely known to cause cancer, among other deleterious effects–gets a positive spin in the youth market from product placement (as do soft drinks and other junk foods), why shouldn’t reading?
SAG Members Already Support Reading
Is this whole idea founded on my own naievete and wishful thinking? Perhaps. Would it be difficult to get the television and film industry to start putting books in actors’ hands? Probably. But some actors are already actively promoting literacy–Storyline Online, an initiative of the Screen Actors’ Guild Foundation, children can watch SAG members read some of their favorite books aloud. As of this writing, the front page selections include: The Rainbow Fish, with Ernest Borgnine; Harry The Dirty Dog, with Betty White; To Be A Drum, with James Earl Jones; and Romeo & Drooliet, with Haylie Duff.
StoryLine Online, an initiative of the Screen Actors Guild, provides bedtime stories on demand to children around the world, 24/7
BookPALS (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools), another SAG initiative, encourages reading by getting actors into schools. According to their website, BookPALS is,
one of the fastest growing literacy programs in the country. Our volunteer actors read aloud to children at public elementary schools, museums, hospitals, fairs, online and on the phone helping to introduce them to the wonderful world of reading and literacy.
If we pause to reflect a moment, it’s not surprising actors are interested in reading and books. After all, the film industry is inextricably linked to reading. Consider–of the top 10 films of 2010-2011, five were based on books; six if you count Iron Man 2.
- Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
- Alice in Wonderland
- The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
- Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1
In short: TV land people, please–pick up a book and get reading.
Can you think of any other shows with dedicated readers? How do you feel about reading as product placement?
1I know, it’s not rocket science. But the characters are mostly sweet, and they almost always have happy endings.
2Although I know it’s probably overkill, I try to watch teen shows and dramas because they’re an excellent way to keep up with the zeitgeist and channel age appropriate dialogue. That said, I do find myself paying more and more attention to my knitting of late…
3Yes, I am a nerd. I know a lot about Star Trek–probably far more than any one person not associated with the show should. But much of it is in the interests of research for my current project. That, and I like the first two series. (I’m iffy on the latter ones.)
This post was first published in March 2010, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. As I wind up the first draft of a new project–I’m in that mad, almost love-drunk rush that comes with knowing the end is nigh–I keep drifting back to these three questions:
1. Can I wrap this up without leaving a tangled mess of loose ends?
2. Have I revealed enough for the end to work, or is it just a poorly fashioned deus ex machina?
3. Am I forcing my leads into roles they don’t want?
And these three, in turn keep bringing me back to the ultimate two: Will my book be satisfying? And is it engaging?
ETA: the original Catching Fire image was having issues, so I’ve replaced it with these German covers instead. I like this much better, anyway.
* * *
See my follow-up, “What Makes a Book Satisfying?” here.
Reading is quite the investment. Not just in terms of monetary cost, but in terms of time spent reading the story, digesting the story, and, if it’s a very good book (or if you’re a deep reader), thinking about the story afterward. Some books are clearly worth the investment (Pride & Prejudice anyone? Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time?), while others are a win-some-lose-some deal. And then there are the books we give our hearts to freely, only to have the world’s most unsatisfying ending snatch them away.
So what makes a book satisfying? It’s hard to pin down, partially because it’s easier to work out what’s unsatisfying.
This month, I’ve read four books, two of which (Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey) had supremely unsatisfying endings. The latter hurt my heart/brain/squeeglesquawk so much that it kept me up the better part of last night.
Picking over the bones of these stories, and a few others I’ve found unsatisfying over the past year or two, I’ve found that the majority of unsatisfying books are those that don’t wrap up properly. At the end of the book, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about, why we loved/hated it because we don’t really know it. For me, these books are like a song I only kinda-sorta know–the chorus gets stuck in my head, but I can’t recall the singer/band, or resolve the melody without depending on an annoying Hey Jude like fade.
Although it may seem unfair to count Catching Fire as a book I found unsatisfying because it’s part of a series, I think a series book with a frustrating wrap-up is actually worse than a stand-alone book with a frustrating end. Series are all about trust. Trust that–
- the story is going somewhere
- the story is not just a dream, and will not end “and then I woke up”
- the author will reveal key facts as we need to know them, instead of hoarding the answers for a Columbo-esque reveal at the end
- the characters won’t be forced into a happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
- the storyline will resolve
Even with series books, there should be a resolution, because while a series has one long arc, the books have smaller arcs that feed into one another. In the first book of The Hunger Games, the main goal is for Katniss and Peeta to survive. Whether or not they achieve their goal doesn’t matter (well, it does, but we’re talking technical stuff here), as long as the issue is decided one way or another, and we have a clear answer–and a resolution of the smaller arc. And the cliffhanger ending? In the best series books, the cliffhanger opens a new arc, but doesn’t journey along too far, for three reasons:
the reader should be able to pick up the second book without re-reading the first one
a new reader should be able to pick up the second book and make sense of the story
if the new arc continues too far, the lack of resolution becomes frustrating rather than a reason to read the next book
Reasons a book may be unsatisfying after that very last page turn:
- Storyline doesn’t resolve
- Romantic entanglements don’t resolve
- Subplot(s) are forgotten about/don’t resolve (notice the trend, yet?)
- The characters are pulled out of the paper bag rather than finding their own way out (deus ex machina)
- In fantasy/science fiction, the world is never fully realized
- There’s a forced happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
Happily–or Crappily–Ever After
While I’m not against happily ever afters, books where the story wraps up too neatly and everyone gets kisses and cake are unsatisfying because they’re oh-so-sweet and unrealistic. One way to tell if a story’s happily ever after is too neat? Try imagining the characters’ lives after that last page turn. Can you see them continuing on, getting involved in new stories? Or are you stuck at the riding off into the sunset point?
But where neat, happy wrap ups are somewhat unsatisfying, forced unhappy wrap ups cross into pitch-the-book-across-the-room territory. This isn’t to say all stories need happy endings–they don’t. Some stories, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, or, in YA, Wendy Mass’ A Mango-Shaped Space are better for their sad, tear-jerker endings. (To be fair, Mass’ book did make me cry in a couple of spots, but it does have a generally happy end.) Sometimes, though–particularly in fantasy and science fiction–an author’s need to make a point or echo their world’s bleakness results in a forced, overwrought crappily ever after. In these stories, the author piles on difficulties and throws obstacle into the characters’ paths in the last few chapters without giving them the chance to overcome. Sometimes, a technicality–one mentioned only in passing–prevents the happy ending; other times, a subplot comes to back to bite the reader, wrenching the happily-ever-after away for no real gain.
So what makes a book satisfying? I’m still working that out–but I’ll have a post about it on Tuesday.
What have you read lately? Was any of it unsatisfying? Why?
Sometimes, when I’m between books–i.e., I have too many projects and don’t trust myself to not be sucked into a new story to the exclusion of all else–I re-read snippets of my favorite series.
One of the things I love about long series is how they grow with the reader. It’s not just that Percy or Harry, or Alanna, or any of the others grow up. It’s that their voices, and their authors’ tone grows up, too.
Consider the Percy Jackson books. At the beginning of the series, Percy is twelve. He’s dyslexic, has ADHD, and has been kicked out of six schools in six years. His voice is delinquent, defensive, even slightly sad–and immediately gripping.
The Lightning Thief, chapter one
Look, I didn’t want to be a half blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever like your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.
But if you recognize yourself in these pages–if you feel something stirring inside–stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Come the fifth book, The Last Olympian, Percy is sixteen. His dyslexia and ADHD, while still occasionally mentioned, are no longer key parts of his character. And while he still has a Percy-voice, he’s grown up: not only does Percy worry about his relationship with Annabeth, his sense of mortality is (realistically) greater than in the previous novels (with the possible exception of book four, The Battle of the Labyrinth).
The Last Olympian, chapter one
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
Up until then, I was having a great afternoon. Technically I wasn’t supposed to be driving because I wouldn’t turn sixteen for another week, but my mom and my stepdad, Paul, took my friend Rachel and me to this private stretch of bead on the South Shore, and Paul let us borrow his Prius for a short spin.
Now, I know you’re thinking, Wow, that was really irresponsible of him, blah, blah, blah, but Paul knows me pretty well. He’s seen me slice up demons and leap out of exploding school buildings, so he probably figured taking a car a few hundred yards wasn’t exactly the most dangerous thing I’d ever done.
Hear the difference? They’re clearly still the same character, but there’s a distance between the two, a distance that’s less about age-related details (driving a car) than word choice and focal points. Would twelve year old Percy be as cool about Paul? Would he use “technically” in a sentence? Most importantly, though, is the sense of comfort in sixteen year old Percy’s voice: sure, he’s talking about the end of the world, but he’s not defensive, not hiding behind a tough persona. This Percy, for the most part, is strong, confident, and in charge.
Behind Percy’s voice is Riordan’s–also strong and immediately recognizable–with a tone that’s more YA than middle grade. It’s less “wow, this is cool, and I get to save the world while looking totally awesome,” less peppy and pun-filled. There are still moments of lightness (a satyr wearing a “Got Hooves” shirt in book four, a hellhound gnawing on a giant pink plastic yak and a hundred-eyed monster getting bloodshot in book five), but they’re fewer, and used to good effect to not just illustrate character traits (as in the earlier books) but to break up tension (and thereby highlight key scenes and interactions).
While these may seem like the natural outgrowth of writing a series–and to some extent, they are–they’re actually not that common. Not all series grow with their readers (Harry Potter is probably the most famous to do so): the Michael Buckley Sisters Grimm series attempts to, but fails; the Nancy Drew books remain the same, story after story; even Dianna Wynne Jones’ Castle in the Air, a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, doesn’t quite capture necessary changes in tone and voice.
Oftentimes, that’s okay. Some authors want to stay within a certain genre or age-range, because that’s what speaks to them. But it’s still impressive–incredibly so–when a character demonstrates such clear growth over the course of a series. (The Protector of the Small (Kel) books by Tamora Pierce are another great example, as are J.K. Rowling’s HP books.)
Have you read any age-spanning series lately? Did you like them? Hate them? Why?Read More
Good morning, book people! It’s daylight savings in Massachusetts now – and this is the second day we’ve slept in! Of course, it can’t all be blamed on daylight savings–there were several hours’ worth of screaming toddler, too. And now for something completely different…
Author Maureen Johnson ran a hugely successful campaign–over $14,000 worth of successful–to raise money for disaster relief in Japan this weekend. Although her campaign is now closed, you can still donate to Shelterbox. Never heard of Shelterbox? Here’s why they’re awesome:
We respond instantly to natural and manmade disasters by delivering boxes of aid to those who are most in need. Each box supplies an extended family of up to 10 people with a tent and essential equipment to use while they are displaced or homeless.
In January The Hunger Games movie was given a release date–and now it may have its lead actress. Variety is reporting that Lionsgate is close to reaching a deal with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned actress Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve written about why The Hunger Games needs an actress who’s closer to Katniss in terms of physical description in the past–and I stand by that now. Lawrence may be a skilled actress, but casting someone who’s clearly not “olive-skinned” to play Katniss is a Big Deal. Why? From my original piece (at PopMatters):
Although physical description is, generally speaking, a less-significant detail, Katniss’ status as a non-white heroine is important because she’s that rare commodity: a big time, mainstream non-white heroine.
Over at the Blue Rose Girls, a bit of fun - pictures from a children’s book bar! The murals are by Ludwig Bemelmans, the original illustrator for the Madeline books. I love Madeline – and the pics are definitely worth a look.
At The Guardian, David Barnett fills us in on the latest genre wars – as in last year’s Franzenfreude, the fracas is all about marginalization. Author Stephen Hunt is accusing the BBC of bias against his genre, science fiction. He’s taken his crusade one step further, though, and has launched a petition for one genre “to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” Do you think SF (and its counterpart, F) are marginalized?
Graham Moore at The NYT has a review of Death Cloud, Andrew Lane’s attempt “to update and adapt Sherlock Holmes for a new generation, much the way Guy Ritchie has done with a swashbuckling Sherlock on screen.” The book follows 14 year old Sherlock, and sounds like a fun read. (I’ve read the entire Holmes series several times over, and will definitely be picking this up.)
And finally, at The WSJ, Helen Schulman writes about the process of constructing a novel: Write. Rewrite. Obsess. Repeat. Go read it now, especially if you’ve ever tottered at the edge of the Great and Terrible Abyss of Writerly Indecision.
And that’s all for now! I’ll be back later with the next installment of Cover Notes.Read More