Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CSFF Blog Tour - September 2011, Day Three

Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour (September 2011) - Day Three.

The Monster in the Hollows, by Andrew Peterson.
Day One Post
Day Two Post

In my first post I mentioned that because The Monster in the Hollows was well-written for the middle schooler, it would also be enjoyed by those beyond middle school age, i.e., by young adults and adults. Of course, I’m talking about stories written for children roughly between 8 and 12 years of age, and which are quality children’s stories like The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wouldbegoods, and The Monster in the Hollows. There were comments to the post that agreed with my observation. But is it a valid point? Is it credible to say that a level of writing that appeals to children would, by virtue of that intrinsic appeal, also be favored by older youth and adults? Because the adult is more mature both intellectually and psychologically, would it ordinarily be an embarrassment for the adult to be caught delighting in a children’s story?

I can only answer that in terms of my own response to such literature. My makeup – mental and psychological – is unique to me, but I don’t think absolutely so. In other words, the reasons for which good children’s literature appeals to me as an adult are the same reasons that other adults enjoy such literature. To be sure, the character of my response has subtle and not-so-subtle differences when compared to the response of others. But I think that when a literary work for children is enjoyed by older youth and adults, it is fundamentally for the same reasons.

C. S. Lewis would agree. In his essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children, he states:

Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that will read the story or re-read it, at any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good one’s last.

Lewis implies that the form of the children’s story and the message of the author have a lot to do whether or not the children’s story itself is the appropriate vehicle to send the message. It does not really matter what the nature of the message is. It may be a serious one such as we are hopeless, helpless sinners under God’s wrath, and only through God’s mercy and grace in Christ may we find hope and help. The message could be historically educational such as what it would have been like as a youngster during the American Revolution (Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes). Related to history is biography, and the one that jumps to mind is Carry on Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham. My son, now 21 and hard at work in theological studies, thinks it is one of the best novel’s he’s ever read. The message may be about a child’s love for a dog and the emotional drive of revenge as in Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard. Probably my own over-all favorite is the Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald.

When I was stationed at Fort Bragg in the mid 1980’s, I was at one of my favorite places of the mall - Golden Bookstore. That is where I first came across The Great Brain. This is significant. I was looking in the children’s section not because I was looking for a children’s book for a child. I was just looking because there was the attraction, a penchant for a good juvenile book that came very early in my life as a result of the consumption of at least half a dozen novels based on the characters of Oz created by Lyman Frank Baum. I bought the book, read it, and sent it to my then seven-year-old daughter (who read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when she was four). She loved it, of course.

Why does the children’s story appeal to me and other adults as well. I guess the pat answer is the one that says there is a child in all of us. I think, if properly understood, that is true. It means that certain things you delighted in as a child are still a delight today. For me it means the youthful experiences of playing in the woods, eating apple dumplings, leaping two feet into the air in joy over a World Series winning home run (a la Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 series against the New York Yankees), and sleeping in a snug, warm bed are experiences I still enjoy. To be sure, I merely walk in the woods these days, and though I still get excited about sports, I doubt I could defy gravity by more than two inches any more. And I don’t fall asleep as sweetly as I used to - too many things on my mind and too many aches in my body. Nothing has changed about the apple dumplings.

Now to get to my point in all of this. I ran across a review by a twelve-year-old on Kjelgaard’s Big Red. There is something he said that is pertinent.
I liked this book because it was real descriptive and I could picture what was happening. It just has a great plot overall but the illustrations were not as good as the words.
To this twelve-year-old, the craft of the writing made the book come alive. It painted a picture better than what literal pictures could do. Granted, the illustrations may have been poor drawings but that is unlikely. In some sense, I find most illustrations to be poor, not because the quality of the drawing is poor, but because they don’t comport with what has been conjured up by my own imagination based on the words of the author.

The Monster in the Hollows is a fabulous example of the children’s story whose quality is certain to please not only the child in the child, but also the child in the adult. And it’s because of the words. The writing is high standard. It is simple yet powerful. Description, dialogue, and action are related to us through uncomplicated language that is crafted so well it takes us into an imaginatively visible world.

Here’s an example that I came to after randomly flipping through a few pages.

  “Hello? Biggin?” Groundwich knocked on the door as she opened it. “Biggin O’Sally?”
  “Biggin’s gone. Just us.” A boy swaggered into the doorway and leaned against it as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He wore a white shirt without sleeves, and his pants were held up with suspenders. He tilted his head a little so the lock of his long black hair that wasn’t slicked back didn’t cover his eyes. A strip of dried meat hung out of his mouth, and he chewed it as he observed the visitors without even a nod of greeting.
  “Who is it?” came another boy’s voice.
  “Head Guildmadam Groundwich and some others. One’s a funny kid.”
  The way he said it didn’t bother Janner for some reason. The boy was stating a fact, not hurling an insult. Kalmar didn’t seem to be bothered by it either.
  “I wanna see.” Another boy, a little taller but dressed the same, with the same slick hair and unimpressed expression, appeared at the door and looked Kalmar over. “Oy, he’s furry,” he said, then he went back to whatever he had been doing.
  “These are the O’Sally boys,” said Olumphia. “There are two others. Where are they?” She craned her neck to look inside.
  “With Pa. Training. Out back.” The first boy sniffed and swallowed a chunk of meat.
  “You can tell him, then,” said the guildmadam. “He has a new student. I won’t hear any complaint about it. Her name is Leeli Wingfeather, and I wager she’ll know dogspeak better than either of you by the end of the week.”
  “No she won’t,” said the boy with a hint of a shrug. “Nobody can train better than me and my brothers. Not even Pa, though he won’t admit it. Don’t mean any disrespect, ma’am.”
  “I took none, Thorn. But you’re wrong.”
  “That’s possible, ma’am.” Thorn took another bite of meat and looked past them at Leeli for the first time. She sat on a bale of hay, scratching a gray horse of a dog behind the ears and singing to it. Behind the gray dog, a dozen more stood patiently in line, as though waiting their turn. “Very possible,” said Thorn with nod of surprise.
For me, the musty smell of straw and animal come without the mention of any kind of smell. It comes with the picture in my mind. Another thing is what this scene does for the story itself. Against the opposition of just about everyone else in Ban Rona, and especially against the cruel tauntings of Grigory Bunge and other classmates that will come, there is no animosity from the O’Sally boys; just curiosity. This benign attitude stands out again and again and in fact plays a small but critical part in the climax of the story.

I spoke just this last Sunday with an elderly woman in our church. She loves to read because most of the time it’s better than a movie. That is what is so good about The Monster in the Hollows. The excellent writing is a form through which the story plays out before our mind’s eye. What is better is that we see it not as watching a play from a seat in the theater, but as a ghost figure on the stage itself. It strikes all the chords of our own childhood experiences, and an essay could be written on that alone.
Participant Links

Get The Monster in the Hollows on amazon.
Rabbit Room Book Link
Series Web Site

Thanks to Rabbit Room Press who kindly provided a copy of the book for review on the CSFF blog tour. The Monster in the Hollows, by Andrew Peterson, is book three of the Wingfeather Saga.


  1. Hey, Thomas, an excellent post. I especially appreciate your perspective about children's literature and adults' appreciation of it. I know of some other writers who have a question about that;

    The passage you quoted (and quoted again and again ;-) is an excellent example of Andrew Peterson's writing. The thing is, you could have quoted from just about any page and come up with a sample that was as equally evocative and important to the story.

    So glad you liked this book.


  2. Absolutely: "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last."

    You also described good writing as "uncomplicated," but setting up a clear, vivid picture in our minds. At times, I think that's where "adult" writing can sometimes fall down--getting too fancy for our own good. Children's writing often manages to capture the beauty in simplicity, both in the stories and images themselves and in the words used to convey them.

    My two cents :).

  3. Becky,

    Sorry about the redundant quoting. My blogspot editor was not having a good day.

    Your point that almost any page could have been cited as an example of why the writing is so good is so true. I knew that when I started flipping through the book, looking for something, knowing it wouldn't take long to find something.

    Stephen King says in his book On Writing that you can turn to any page in a book and tell within a few sentences of reading whether the writing is any good.

    That is so true of this book. And again in accord with what you said, it's not only the writing but the scenes themselves that are so excellent.

    It's been a really long, long time since I have read a Christian fantasy in which I had a constant smile from start to finish. This was absolutely delightful.

  4. Rachel, good point about writing as an adult for children in which we get "too fancy." I think this is especially important for the 8 and 9 year old readers. The Chronicles of Narnia are written like that. If Lewis had had an older readership in mind from the start, he would have written it differently - though I'm not saying like the adult novels as in his Space Trilogy, but somewhere between.