Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the Classic Kid Lit Shelf

I have not yet read HP and the Half Blood Prince. I plan to listen to it on my i-Pod beginning friday. "Gadzooks!" cry rabid Potter fans, "You didn't go out midnight the 16th and grab a copy from the teeming hordes?" Nope. I belong to a small subsect of kid lit lover culture that could take or leave the Potter books. Oh they are fun, but I am content to be 8 millionth on the library waiting list. Meghan Cox Gurden loves the series it seems and raises the question: will be a classic? She chickens out:
Having raised the question, it is cowardly of me to duck it, but duck it I must. For who can say? Look over the classic juvenile fiction shelf and tucked in beside enduring works of genius such as Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" and C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" are snooze-making stinkers such as Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and Johann Wyss' "The Swiss Family Robinson."

To be fair, Verne's tale of the misanthropic Captain Nemo roving beneath the seas in his submarine at least has a bit of character development lurking amid prose otherwise all barnacled with lists of flora and fish. But "The Swiss Family Robinson" is surely one of the dullest and most ill-constructed books ever to achieve lasting fame

I will not duck it-the answer is yes, Harry Potter will be a classic. Kids reading it with their parents today will read it to their kids, to recapture that sense of wonder and togetherness they experience now. JK Rowling has hit the right mix of ethical questions and adventurous pot-boiler that will translate well to other generations. It may not be the best kid lit in this generation but it will last. So who else is writing classics of youth fiction these days? Two names not as well known spring to mind. The fan base is as fanatical as Rowlings but the worlds, ah here is where the cream rises to the top.

Robin McKinley is the best contemporary writer of fantasy for youths today. I first read her retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast in Beauty and then quickly leapt to find, buy and delight in the rest of her work. Her tales pull no punches, fairy tales often deal with chilling subject matter. Her heroines are as much frustrated by magic as find a use for it. Magic in McKinley's books is capricious, much closer to the wild magic of Shakespeare's Ariel than the rote incantations and potions of Rowling. Damar is McKinley's fantasy world, a world where TE Lawrence would be most comfortable and many McKinley fans I know, half hope to find Damar travel brochures tucked in beside Damascus. Sunshine is McKinley's foray into adult fantasy and has a much different flavor to it. Her heroine still uses her wits as much as her magical talent, but unlike McKinley's fiction for youths, Sunshine has no clear cut heros.

Garth Nix hails from Austrailia, and unlike either Ms. Rowling and Ms. McKinley manages to pop out a book in a manner timely enough to satisfy his fans. Currently he is writing the Keys of the Kingdom series, wherein a severely asthmatic boy named Arthur finds himself heir to a fantasic kingdom but has to battle the days of the week to claim it. His masterpeice thus far is the Old Kingdom series. Youth fantasy only insofar as the protagonists are youths, the execution is much darker than the Potter series, good and evil are precisely drawn.

Classics, as Ms. Gurden notes, can be difficult to predict. Ms. Rowling's books certainly will be, Ms. McKinley and Mr. Nix's ought to be.

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