Tuesday, January 17, 2006

why we love the books we love

I just finished Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones, and I'm trying to figure out why I found it so, well, charming. It's been around a while, so I'm apparently getting on the bandwagon late. But I think Jones has been rediscovered by kids (and adults) who have gone through the Potter books, and maybe the Narnia ones as well, and want something else. Jones has in common with Rowling the combination of fantasy and humor, which is key, I think, to the success of both. The thing is, I think Jones may really be more original: her book is, like Rowling's, about the education of a wizard who doesn't know he is one, but it came out in 1977. Now, there's no boarding school setting or parallel world (well, there is, but it's different) or unique wizard sports and sweets (as far as I know yet), so I'm not saying Rowling just lifted her story wholesale. Indeed, her genius is to have lifted from a variety of sources and genres and blended them into something greater than the whole. [edited to say, um, that's "greater than the parts," of course. Sigh.]

Charmed Life is short, though it's the first of a long series (6 books, as far as I can tell). It gets the parents out of the way quickly, as such books often do, and focuses on a pair of siblings right from the start. In fact there are two pairs of siblings and part of the pleasure of the book is figuring out why some get along and some don't, what the differences in their relationships are. (I like sibling stories...) The beginning of it reminded me of the Lemony Snicket books (which, of course, came much later) in the casual way in which serious topics are broached and then discarded. Also like Roald Dahl in that--the parents are killed off right at the start, there's a brief recognition that this is sad, and then that's pretty much over with. Though I think the parents will continue to be important in this series, actually.

So what I'm trying to figure out now is: why do I like this book so much? And, why did the Rowling books become such a phenomenon, when this book and others like it (and just as "good" in some purely literary sense, if there is such a thing) did not?

I'll come back to this.

7 comments:

Mrs. Coulter said...

Diana Wynne Jones is great! I loved Dogsbody when I was a kid, and read Howl's Moving Castle more recently. I haven't read Charmed Life, though. I'll have to track it down.

I like Harry Potter, but I don't think it's great literature. However, if it gets people to read fiction with more literary value, well, then, it can't be a terrible thing.

Have you read Garth Nix?

Libby said...

No, I haven't read Garth Nix. Guess I should, huh?

And, I should make it clear, I don't object to Harry Potter at all. Far from it. I'm just curious as to why those books were a phenomenon and the other ones we're mentioning weren't. The last fantasy books that were a phenomenon, I think, were the Tolkein ones, and they hit it big many years after their initial publication.

I don't think it's all marketing and hype, either, though that may have something to do with it. When I first found the first HP book, I hadn't heard any hype, and I was charmed. And hooked. It was a few books into the series that I started to get really critical.

Claudia said...

Libby, I don't know this author but I'm intrigued. I'll look for this series. What's the target age group for this book - any idea?

Libby said...

Hey, Claudia! I bought it for Nick, who's eight, and I know it's well within his abilities. I think it would be a good read-aloud for kids down to age five or so. And between 7 and 10 (or older!) a manageable read-alone.

I'm sure there's some publisher's recommendation on the book itself, but that's my gut instinct.

Lurker Laura said...

Delurking to say 2 things:

1. Though Charmed Life IS the beginning of a series of sorts, the characters change with each book. It's the Chrestomanci "universe" that stays the same. So be warned... I get attached to characters and find it hard to let them go.
2. I liked the Chrestomanci books, but I LOVED her book "Fire and Hemlock," a retelling of the Tam Lin ballad (a fascinating subgenre of its own, btw.)

Libby said...

Laura, thanks! I'll keep that in mind, as I loved Cat in Charmed Life and was hoping to spend more time with him.

I also really liked Howl's Moving Castle.

claudia said...

Thanks! I might check one out and read it first before testing it out on Madeline who's five but doesn't like "scary stuff." I think she'd like fantasy but not if it's dark. Another role for parents: Official Literary Screener.