Halloween, Scarey Books, and Something from the Blog Archive

It’s Halloween. No snow is in the forecast, and that’s a win for where I live.
Here’s something from the blog archive to get you in the mood for the day. And here are three young adult series with enough ghosts and monsters to satisfy any pallet. Enjoy! By the way, my favourite would have to be Jonathan Stroud.

1. Lockwood and Co., by Jonathan Stroud
2. Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull
And
3. The Last Apprentice, by Joseph Delaney.

An Anniversary for Narnia

October 16 saw the sixty-eighth anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis published the Narnia books once a year, until The Last Battle appeared in September of 1956. Lewis was also writing his spiritual biography at the time, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life—not to mention whatever else he was writing, as well as performing all the duties and responsibilities of an Oxford tutor.
But why a children’s story? Lewis was a scholar. He wrote about books, he wrote Christian apologetics, and he wrote fiction, but all this was for adults. Lewis had nothing to do with children. So again, why a children’s story?
There are enough books about Lewis around to keep you busily reading for years. Writers of every kind have opinions about Lewis and his life—about Lewis as a child, about his time in the war, about his more than thirty-year relationship with Mrs. Moore, which, interestingly, some writers are unwilling to explore.
Lewis is something of a puzzle. He was gregarious and fond of argument, a man who valued openness and friendship; he also flatly refused to talk about his relationship with Janie Moore with anyone, including his brother, Warnie Lewis.
Why Lewis wrote the Narnia books is perhaps less of a puzzle. He valued myth and story, and he wrote about both. Lewis claimed that he was writing a fairy tale because that was the best expression for what he had to say about Narnia and about Aslan. I’m sure it’s true—for the most part.
Lewis carried with him the memories of living at Little Lee, the house his father had built on the outskirts of Belfast. Lewis’ mother, Flora Hamilton, died in that house when he was nine-years-old. Two weeks after her death, a young Jack was shipped off to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, England.
Such events as the death of a parent have a profound effect on the mind of a child. Lewis had the company of his brother for the first year at boarding school, which he calls Belsen in Surprised by Joy. But his school-life was shadowed by the death of his mother, and the relationship with his father deteriorated until Albert Lewis’ death in 1929.
Something was speaking across the years to Lewis as he created Narnia. It’s no surprise Lewis was writing about his own boyhood as he wrote the Narnia books. There is more of the child-like in Narnia than there is childishness. And in Lewis’ own words: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty” (Lewis, “On Stories”).

A New Beginning, The Perilous Realm Online

In 2013, Thomas Wharton published The Tree of Story, the third book in his Perilous Realm series. This book brought the adventures of Will and Rowen to a close—or just about. In an interesting return to his series, Tom has decided to republish a new version of the trilogy on his website, ThomasWharton.ca.
The Perilous Realm Online begins with the retitled first book, The Endless Road, and Will, still the main character, finding himself alone in a mysterious wood.
Tom has dispensed with the prologue, which I always loved, and some of the back story of Will’s family. The book now launches right into a motorcycle crash and a boy fleeing into a forest. The tone is darker and the pace faster.
Tom will be publishing the series a chapter at a time, so be sure to follow along. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with this new Perilous Realm.

A Hobbit Odyssey

Our first day in Auckland has us clearing out of the place we spent the night, then going in search of coffee. Luckily for us, a bakery café is just across the street. It has WiFi, which our room didn’t have. The coffee and breakfast sandwiches make us feel like humans again—I rediscover my favourite coffee, a long black. We decide to spend the morning exploring before beginning our trip down New Zealand’s North Island.
This trip is the chance to spend time with my eldest daughter, but it’s also the chance to find things hobbit related on the North Island. My kids are used to this. In 2016, I made a pilgrimage to Oxford with my youngest daughter to see where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien lived and worked. I’m lucky to have such indulgent daughters.
We begin our drive south. Our first stop is Hamilton. On the way, we stop and walk at Hunua Falls. The area is beautiful—lush and green—and we take a trail down to the falls. But it’s winter here, so we can’t linger. We need to get to Hamilton before it gets dark.
Hamilton is our jumping off point to Hobbiton. The film set of Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton is the first real stop along this hobbit odyssey.
The day is fine—bright sun and cool air. We arrive in Matamata before 11:00, wander into town and get coffee. We’ve been to Hobbiton before, and this time, we will drive rather than take the tour bus—for one thing, this will give me more time in the gift shop. The tour is lovely, and it’s good to revisit the set. I can feel like one of Tolkien’s creatures as we walk down paths passed hobbit doors of every colour, stopping to knock and see whose home. And the tour ends at The Green Dragon, where we sit with our mugs of ginger beer and plan our visit to the gift shop and how we will spend the rest of the day.

In the next few days, we drive south. WE stop at the Ruakuri Caves to take a tour. A hundred metres down, our guide shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis practiced for his role as Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, the first of Jackson’s Hobbit films.
We drive passed Mr Ngauruhoe, part of the Tongariro Crossing, and the setting for Mt Doom, but the rain hides the volcano. Finally, we arrive in Wellington, where we visit the Weta Workshop, where artists created thousands of props and costumes for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. I check out a display of chain male, from dwarven male to mithril; I heft the mace used by the actor who played Azog.
We have two more places to visit around Wellington before departing New Zealand. There are many more LotR sites to visit, but we only have so much time. The cool, winter weather has been holding all the way down the North Island, but here in Wellington, it’s raining.
We drive to the banks of the Hutt River, where the fellowship launched their boats after leaving Lothlorien. We walk along a gravel road that borders the river, but Nothing of the set is left, so we have to imagine the company climbing into their boats as the rain pelts down.

Our final stop is Rivendell in Kaitoke Regional Park. Again, nothing remains of the film set, but something of Middle-Earth lingers here beneath these trees. You can find signposts marking where Aragorn and Arwin stood on the bridge, and where Gandalf walked with Bilbo. You can cross the stream on a swinging bridge and walk through the Rivendell arch.
As we follow the paths beneath the dripping trees, With the sound of the stream filling the spaces beneath the branches, I’m struck by the mystery of this place, and I’m glad our Hobbit Odyssey has brought us to this final stop.

Dialogue in Children’s and Young Adult Books

Many readers look for dialogue in the books they read. This is no different for children. Dialogue adds tension, information, and moves a story along in helpful ways. But when is dialogue too much?
I teach J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit every year. Invariably, a student will tell me the book wasn’t for them. This is a polite way of telling me they didn’t like it. When I ask why, the student will often say, “There’s just too much description.”
On one hand, I can appreciate that someone might find Tolkien’s pacing slow. The book has long passages of description, and Bilbo’s journey takes time. On the other hand, the same student who doesn’t like The Hobbit will like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet. Hatchet is a survival story, which means Brian, the main character, is stuck on a lake in Northern Ontario for fifty-four days—by himself. As you can imagine, the book has hardly any dialogue. So what’s the difference?
In this case, I think it’s a matter of taste rather than criticism. However, when is dialogue a bad thing in a children’s book? I’m reading Brandon Mull’s Beyonders series, based on the fantasy kingdom of Lyrian. I was part way through the second book, Seeds of Rebellion, when my mind started wandering. I realized that Mull’s large cast of characters was talking too much. In the second book, many of these characters come together on a journey—then they start talking. The dialogue goes on and on. The characters are busy organizing a rebellion against Maldor, the evil emperor, but the endless talk of who’s who and how they plan to defeat the emperor gets tedious. It’s like reading a script—the dialogue provides information, but the tension evaporates. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Brandon Mull. His Fablehaven series is excellent, and it remains my favourite.
Thinking about dialogue in kid’s books raises some important questions for me. For one, when I think about the inner life of a child, I remember a rich world of feeling that I had to work hard to articulate. I’m sure this isn’t true for many kids, but kids still have to learn how to close the gap between feeling and verbalizing. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same rate for every child. If an author fails to recognize that language acquisition imposes certain limitations on character, then they aren’t doing justice to a child’s experience. If the point of the dialogue is just to get across information, then you might as well skip the dialogue and—or some of it—and offer a concise explanation.
This is an exercise in balance. Return to Tolkien for a moment. Here’s a passage from The Hobbit that both uses description and dialogue to its best affect:

One morning they forded a river at a wide shallow place full of the noise of stones and foam. The far bank was steep and slippery. When they got to the top of it, leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. Already they seemed only a day’s easy journey from the feet of the nearest. Dark and drear it looked, though there were patches of sunlight on its brown sides, and behind its shoulders the tips of snowpeaks gleamed.
”Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before.
”Of course not!” said Balin. ”That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
”O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Tolkien creates a balance between the interior state of the character and dialogue. Both provide information, and the tension comes out of Bilbo’s tiredness in relation to Balin’s comment that the world is much bigger than the hobbit imagines.
An Internet search will tell you it’s important to use dialogue in kid’s books. Good advice. But dialogue is effective for any kind of writing. And most kids know when they are being condescended to. That includes the over use of dialogue. Kids can be discerning readers, just like adults, which to my mind is always the best place to begin—remembering that kids are readers, who know what they like, and who aren’t afraid to close a book once they’ve had enough.

Signs of Spring

Spring in Edmonton comes quickly. Winter drags on and on, then suddenly, it’s spring. Here are three passages to get you thinking about spring—where ever you are.

Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.
(L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 20)

But of course this didn’t prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree—gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or having their little quarrels.
“Faster! Faster!” said the Witch.
There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.
“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”
(C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, , Chapter 6)

“I heard the frogs today,” said the old sheep one evening.
“Listen! You can hear them now.”
Wilbur stood still and cocked his ears. From the pond, in shrill chorus, came the voices of hundreds of little frogs.
“Springtime,” said the old sheep, thoughtfully. “Another spring.” As she walked away, Wilbur saw a new lamb following her. It was only a few hours old.
The snows melted and ran away. The streams and ditches bubbled and chattered with rushing water. A sparrow with a streaky breast arrived and sang. The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.
One fine sunny morning, after breakfast, Wilbur stood watching his precious sac. He wasn’t thinking of anything much. As he stood there, he noticed something move. He stepped closer and stared. A tiny
spider crawled from the sac. It was no bigger than a grain of sand, no bigger than the head of a pin.
(E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Chapter 22)