The Reading Rainbow

IMG_5485Our house is a book house, where everybody is reading something all the time. And the nice thing about that, aside from the obvious, is that we get book recommendations from each other. Many of the books I’ve read in the past few years have come from these recommendations, and sometimes even a book I’ve read before is brought back to me in a new way when one of the family reads it. This was true of Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo, which a few years ago became the Beautiful Dreamer’s favorite. I had read it long before, and remembered liking it, but Because of Winn Dixie stuck in my memory so much I think I passed over Tiger Rising until, out of curiosity about why my daughter loved it so much, I read it again. I discovered that it’s a small gem, painful and beautiful at once. So I learned something both about the Beautiful Dreamer and about rereading books.

Her older sister, let’s call her the Conductor, introduced me to the lyrical contemporary/historical fiction The World to Come, by Dara Horn,  and the Rocket Scientist brought home several fantasy series I had never heard of before, in addition to pointing me toward a fascinating discussion about philosophy and fantasy that I’m still chewing over. My youngest, the Castle Builder, showed me the hilarious The Name of This Book is Secret series, which changed the entire feel of footnotes for me, probably forever. Then there’s the fun detective novels that Superman reads in alphabetical order.

And today, the Book Princess quoted from a book of poems that reminded me how well words can capture the exact feel of being alive in a specific moment. Here’s the poem she mentioned, from a book called Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall:

“And the pomegranates,/
like memories, are bittersweet/
as we huddle together,/
remembering just how good/
life used to be” (p.129).

All I can say to that is wow. I think I have some reading to do.

Girl Power

Madame Yucca, The Female Hercules, The Stronge...

Madame Yucca, The Female Hercules, The Strongest Woman on Earth (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

Shannon Hale recently had a fascinating blog post, on the continued perception that strong female characters are some kind of aberration, or that writing them is a political statement. She points out that she tries to make her characters realistic, that is, having both strengths and weaknesses, and that strength is not the default male position. I agree with her that we left that behind several years ago. Certainly I grew up reading about strong females, and I know my kids did. But I think the question reflects not so much the doubt that women and girls can be strong as much as the suspicion that society somehow isn’t ready to acknowledge that in public. Heroines from Antigone onward have been strong and even assertive, but the reaction to that assertiveness and strength in the context of the story’s society is very different than it would be to a man’s. Antigone’s on my mind because the Castle Builder is reading it in school. And Antigone is a fascinating character because she asserts herself and dies for it. Historically, that is actually the more typical prototype of strong female characters. She’s morally right, she’s the heroine, but she dies because society can’t accommodate her assertive strength. Shakespeare’s Juliet is another one. She defies her father’s wishes and ends up dead. Now, we all know – and even Elizabethan audiences surely agreed – that her father was wrong and Juliet was right. But who’s left standing at the end of the play? The Book Princess once pointed out that Shakespeare’s females are often only able to be powerful when wearing boys’ clothing. She offered Portia in Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night as examples. (More on that, I hope, in an upcoming guest post from my resident Shakespeare expert.)

So we’ve always had “strong female characters.” But what happens to them? Are they considered, in the context of their world, anomalies? Sinners? Martyrs? Or are they, again in the context of their own worlds, unremarkable? I think in Shannon Hale’s books, they’re unremarkable, and that is likely what prompted that question in the first place.

National Book Festival

A couple of weeks ago, my two youngest daughters – hereafter known as Beautiful Dreamer and Castle Builder – joined me on a trip to the National Book Festival, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. What a fantastic gathering! Of course, not much can be wrong with a bright autumn day and people in love with books milling around. One of my favorite talks was in celebration of A Wrinkle in Time on the 50th anniversary of its publication. I still remember how much I loved that book when I first read it. Hope Larson, one of the panelists giving the talk, said she thought the book was so timeless because of Meg, the main character, who is ordinary and flawed, and yet able to save the world. I’d never heard it put just that way, but I thought she was exactly right. Meg is what sticks in my mind after all these years – and how her ordinary, rotten, soggy-feeling day at school turns into an adventure that spans the universe. Continue reading