Thursday, December 25, 2008

Light the lamp, not the rat!

I heart almost all Christmas movies, but far and away the best is The Muppet Christmas Carol. A few weeks ago, when my sister came over for a day of cookie-baking and movies, she asked me, "Why do you like the muppets so much?" My flip response was "I don't understand why you even have to ask that."

But then I kept thinking about it. What is it that so appeals to me?

Well, just like with any truly great children's book, the Muppets work on multiple levels. There's the humor of these funny-looking puppets. The humor of juxtaposing fuzzy, funny puppets saying very dry or serious things. The humor of them saying the obviously funny joke. They're both silly and smart. They don't take themselves seriously but they also don't dumb themselves down.

They teach things without being "Educational." Think about how much information you learn about Dickens by what Gonzo and Rizzo talk about. Yet it never feels like a lesson. There are rewards for people who already know about Dickens, too--like in the opening song when one of the mice says, "Please, sir, I want some cheese."

And there's the lovely Christmas message, of course, to the Muppet Christmas Carol--that life is about the people you share with. Our friends and family are what give everything we do meaning. And on that note, I'm off to join my family in eating as many cookies as possible before sugar shock sets in.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Making choices

Every once and a while, I notice a theme in my reading, and usually it’s completely accidental. This fall it’s been books (and a few manuscripts) about choice. Which, okay, is an underlying theme in a lot of teen books, since it’s a big teen concern--choosing who to be, how to live life, how to be independent. But my fall reading has very much been about characters whose main conflict is the choice between being true to themselves, following their dream or passion or being in love. I’m so glad that there are these books for teen out there. They are important, because they show that it’s not all about the boy (or girl, if the protagonist is a boy). Part of me wonders if the novels about these concerns lately have been reactions to Twilight, in which Bella does pretty completely lose herself for Edward.

The novels that have struck me most are The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Graceling. I really liked them all for their strong female characters and their approaches to how these young women see their choices. In Disreputable History, Frankie has to deal with getting the guy she’s had a crush on, but him not seeing all of her, seeing her only as adorable, rather than the brilliant, challenging person she is. She has the thought in one situation, reflecting on how she's proud of herself for confronting someone, "At least I wasn’t someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl--someone whose opinions don’t matter." And later, "She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her she should be." In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Mary lives in a world overrun by zombies, where humans are only safe in a fenced off village. But Mary’s heard of the ocean, and believes in it, wants to find it. She, too, ends up struggling with her love for a boy and her wish to see the ocean, to believe that more exists outside their fences. "Ever since that day on the hill, ever since he promised he would come for me, this was always supposed to be our dream, together. It was never supposed to be about having to choose one or the other," she says at one point. It’s fantastic that teens have strong characters like Frankie and Mary who are confronting these sorts of conflicts, so that readers can see how these young women decide, deal with it. So that they see that being conflicted like that is okay. That they shouldn't lose themselves for someone else. The only quibble I have is: why does it have to be a choice? Why can’t they be true to themselves and their dreams and have love? Of course, maybe the key there is that neither Mary nor Frankie have met the right guys, the ones that get them, and really see them. Which is part of what I adore about Graceling. Katsa has the same trouble-- "She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anybody’s but her own."--but she finds a way to have both. She’s able to remain thoroughly herself, but also to love and be loved, however unconventionally.

Katsa reminds me a little of Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (which have been my favorite books since I was ten) in how she reconciles having her freedom and her love. The Alanna books were among the first of the “kickass girl” books, in which the hero is a girl, not a boy, along with Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. So, twenty-ish years later, and there are many, many more books showing girls as heroes, as strong, independent people. But still facing the same choices and problems. I’d like to think that these days, though, these aren’t feminist issues, but people issues. And I do think there are boy books about the same themes.