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On the Shelf: Child Protagonists and Compelling Interviews

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The first panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival featured three outstanding authors who recently featured children protagonists in their adult novels. The title of the talk was “Kids on the Skids” and was moderated by Richard Locke, author of the nonfiction book Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels.

Locke’s book explores 130 years of child representation in adult literature. He examines such characters as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip in Great Expectations; Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw; Peter Pan, Holden Caulfield, Lolita, and Alexander Portnoy of Portney’s Complaint.

The panelists included Justin Torres who recently published We The Animals, a semi-autobiographical novel of three brothers growing up in a poor, dysfunctional household—although he would dispute that last term; Tayari Jones whose recent novel, Silver Sparrow, is about a young girl with a bigamist father who learns she and her mother are the secret family out of the two he’s chosen to have; and Kevin Holohan whose book The Brothers’ Lot is a satirical look at Catholic priest abuses through the lense of students at a boys school in Dublin.

It was a question I’d never thought to ask: how do authors use childhood and child narrators in novels meant for adults? It’s easily overlooked as you settle into a book—absorbed in the story, taken in by the dialogue, and intrigued by the characters. But how do books differ when told by someone without life experience, a person inherently naive, and by someone who might not have the language to explain the world around them. The answers the authors gave were thoughtful and eye-opening.

In his book, Kevin used children as a way to critique an institution. To him the child characters act as a counterpoint to the nastiness of adults. His explanation echoed Richard’s findings that children in literature offer an ethical alertness and a fresh perspective untainted by the cynicism of adulthood.

Tayari’s characters came about through her personal feeling that “children matter,” that young people belong to the world just as much as grownups, and that they often suffer from their marginal status in society.

Justin’s novel is informed by looking back on his childhood as an adult making sense of an experience. He wanted a view absent of the language “pop-psychology” has injected into our lexicon—words such as “dysfunctional” and “abusive”. This intentional exclusion echos the childhood experience, the one where our lives appear normal.

It was a great discussion by four insightful authors, one that undoubtedly add layers to how I view stories from a child’s perspective.

What was the last adult novel you read that had a child protagonist? Were you aware of the point of view?

On the shelf . . .

Tin House: The Ecstatic vol. 13 Summer 1
Tin House is a quarterly literary magazine now in its twelfth year. Their issues, featuring fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and beyond-book-report-style reviews, are always worth reading from cover to cover. The latest, entitled The Ecstatic, has eye-catching cover art from Matt Hansel, fiction from Small Beer Press founder and author Kelly Link, an essay on drugs from Peter Berbergal whose book is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press, some thoughts on Joey McIntyre formerly of New Kids on the Block by the lovely Emma Straub, poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, and an interview with poet and novelist Ben Okri. Tin House is the perfect place to get all your edgy, literary kicks in one place. You can keep track of them through their website, on Facebook, and at Twitter: @Tin_House.

The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E. Lockhart
H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has had a lasting effect on science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. This collection includes mythos-inspired stories from Charles Stross, Cherie Priest, Elizabeth Bear, and many others.

Before I get to the next three books on my list, it’s worth noting that a great author interview make me take notice of a book. There were three interviews this week that grabbed my attention. The first two, Catherynne Valente and Genevieve Valentine, were archived shows from the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, a great sci-fi oriented podcast hosted on the popular website The last one was a public radio interview with Toure about his latest book.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne is an author as well as the Fiction and Poetry Editor at Apex Magazine, a monthly mag for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In her interview with the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy she talks about the books she read as a kid, her love of myth, and how she came up with the term “mythpunk.” She also talks about roasting lamb on a spit while reading the Illiad and how young writers can start publishing their work. You can check out her website here where she has a great FAQ page and a lot of stuff available for free.

Here’s a description of Palimpsest, the story of a “sexually transmitted city” from IndieBound:

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
Genevieve writes both fiction and nonfiction—including movie reviews where she loves to skewer really bad films. You can keep track of her movie-going here. You can find all of her writing and links to other projects through her website.

In her interview with the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy she discusses how she came to write—and appreciate the many layers of—steampunk, her inspiration for writing a book about the circus, and—of course—some very bad films that are still worth watching, or not.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Mechanique on my Tumblr page.

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now by Toure
Toure discussed the premise of his book on The Leonard Lopate Show—that the notion of blackness has changed over the years. Using pop culture and politics, Toure shows that a younger generation is navigating the new landscape based on their experiences rather than their parents’ and grandparents’.

From IndieBound:

Toure begins by examining the concept of “Post-Blackness,” a term that defines artists who are proud to be Black but don’t want to be limited by identity politics and boxed in by race. He soon discovers that the desire to be rooted in but not constrained by Blackness is everywhere. In Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? he argues that Blackness is infinite, that any identity imaginable is Black, and that all expressions of Blackness are legitimate.

The New York Times, in a timely review, called it “one of the most acutely observed accounts of what it is like to be young, black and middle-class in contemporary America.” And went on to say that “Touré inventively draws on a range of evidence — auto­biography, music, art, interviews, comedy and popular social analysis — for a performance carried through with unsparing honesty, in a distinctive voice that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging.”

What’s on your shelf this week?

Written by Gabrielle

September 29, 2011 at 6:00 am

One Response

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  1. adult books…

    Good stuff, enjoy like your insights….


    November 8, 2011 at 7:03 pm

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