Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

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The Most Loved Book I Got For Christmas: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – Graphic Novel Edition

My sister and I were always given one book apiece on Christmas Eve, ever since we were very small indeed.  After the midnight candle-lit carol service, before racing up to bed, we’d sit by the tree and open up our “first gifts of Christmas.”  I’ve received many a wonderful book in this manner, but the one I loved the most was this graphic novel version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. (HaperCollins, 1995)

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

I must have been in third or fourth grade when I got this one; old enough to have already read the Chronicles of Narnia books, but still so young I was more than a little frightened by the nasty creatures Jadis has in her audience at the sacrificial stone table.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995

It’s the first graphic novel I ever read, and is the only one I’ve re-read multiple times.  They aren’t usually my preferred style, but this one captures the pace and spirit of those Narnia books nearly perfectly.  My copy’s pages are torn on the edges and soft like old dollar bills from all the times I turned them, curled up by the fireplace or hidden under the covers at night.  Most of the words come straight from C. S. Lewis’s original novel, just adapted and distilled by Robin Lawrie, who also drew the cinematic illustrations.  She made sure to include a great deal of the dialogue between the siblings, animals, and Aslan without letting the conversations get too cluttered with text.  It got to the point where I had memorized chunks of the real book, just because I could picture what was said and done in this illustrated version as though I had lived it myself.

Lewis’s wonderful descriptions aren’t lost here, either.  Paragraphs from the book that capture his magical balance of winter mystery and hopeful warmth are not left out, including one of my favorites about the first time the Pevensies hear Aslan’s name.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995. Text by C.S. Lewis

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside.  Edmund felt a mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave. Susan felt as if some delicious smell had floated by.  And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays.”

That’s the feeling that used to define Christmas Eve for me: anticipation and history.  The strange combination of coziness and goosebumps.  I remember reading this book the night it was given to me and feeling like I’d gone straight through the wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.  How horrible it would be to live in a world where it was “always winter, never Christmas.”  And how grand an adventure to go about bringing Christmas back.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

I loved the illuminated style of the illustrations: the creative borders with animals, trees, and heraldic symbols characterizing each chapter’s mood.  The pictures are expressive, particularly the characters’ faces and all the movement in exciting scenes of battle or escape.  C.S. Lewis has described Narnia so well in his books that fans of the series can picture certain settings in their mind’s eye like photographs of real places.  The illustrations here can go along hand-in-hand with your own inner Narnia: no artistic liberties veered too far away from my own imaginary constructs, at any rate.  The Beavers’ house, Cair Paravel, even the Professor’s mansion are brought to life in a simple but solid manner. The embellishments of style and extra details get to stand out in the framework and the layout: columns with carved satyrs on either side of the pages in which Mr. Tumnus describes Narnia in the spring, or the twisted roots around the picture where Lucy finally brings her siblings through the wardrobe and into the woods.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is such a good story.  It has a tint of medieval romance – Lewis was a medievalist as well as a fiction writer and theologian – as well as an enveloping glow of childish goodness that can fight back even the most biting winter miseries.  Robin Lawrie’s adaption is colorful, exciting, serious, and blessedly faithful to the original book.  I loved it as a little kid, back when Christmas Eve was a night of heart-in-your-throat nervous excitement.  I love it now that winter has taken on a more medieval coldness in my older-ish age, because it warms me up: the memory of reading it three, four, five times in one month acting like embers that have not quite died out.

The Chronicles Of Narnia is a delightful series of books, but I think that this graphic novel is even better loved in my memory because it can transport me instantly back to Christmastime in the late 1990s.  I don’t think it’s still in print, which is a terrible shame, because this would be a great way to get more reluctant readers hooked on the vivid fantasy world and larger than life characters of C.S. Lewis’s imagination.  There’s also an adaption of The Magician’s Nephew, which is almost as good.  (A tragically under-appreciated book in the series, I say.)  If you can find a copy of either at the library or a used bookshop, do give it to someone this holiday.  It can turn Christmas Eve into something extra magical, where any danger lurking in the cold darkness outside can be dispelled by bravery and the assistance of a majestic lion.  (Lion not included.)

Summer Camp Rec: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (moving up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Last post, I recommended Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern to anyone who loved The Fault In Our Stars and wanted a similar book to read this summer. But how about something for younger readers who are into faster, sillier books? There’s frequently a disconnect between the kids themselves and the Parents On A Deadline (gotta get books in the bags and the bags on the kids and get the kids in the car and the car to camp). That futile volley of

“Read something new.”
“But I like these books!”
“They won’t last you a day, pick something with more words,”

is a back-and-forth dispute which I can basically follow like a script by now. And the summer’s not even half over! One tenacious fellow finally asked me, “D’you have anything like Diary of a Wimpy Kid but harder?”.

I understand how Jeff Kinney’s series is fun reading. It’s not hard to relate to a humorously downtrodden narrator stumbling through the weirdness of social life. Haplessness loves fictional company. Plus, the illustrations break things up nicely for more reluctant readers who might get daunted by so many pages of just words. Yeah, it’s good to challenge your kid with books, but you want them to actually read the damn thing, too. Especially at camp, where everyone’s exhausting themselves with projects and socializing all day. Pick a book to get excited about when settling down for an hour.

So what could I give to kids who want funny narrators, self-deprecating humor, and illustrations in their books? Something for kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid, but still told in the conversational manner Kinney does so well?

We have a winner: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

book cover

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold’s first year at high school, and the misadventures therein. Here’s what’s up with Arnold Spirit Jr. (a.k.a. “Junior”): He wants to be a cartoonist. He’s small for his age, with a few birth defects which make him an easy target for bullies. After a disastrous first few weeks at the Spokane reservation high school, he leaves to go to the big all-white school twenty-two miles away. Arnold is a resourceful and determined young lad, and when he sets his mind to leaving he’s not going to let any guilt-tripping or bullying stand in his way. He’s also sarcastic and unapologetically astute with his opinions about himself and the people he knows, at least in his private diary. But at the high school, he’s pretty much the only Indian kid around, and kind of awkward to boot. Not everyone’s interested in making new friends. Most everyone there has more money than his family. Some people back home think that Junior is turning his back on his people by leaving the reservation for school, while the differences between his upbringing and his classmates’ marks him as an outsider in his new surroundings, too. Thus, “A Part-Time Indian”. Even some impressive basketball skills might not be enough to get him accepted, but he’s determined to find a place to belong against all the odds.

Since The Absolutley True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is about a high-school student, the subject matter in Alexie’s book is obviously a little more mature than those illustrated confessionals set in middle-schools. The book has actually been challenged and banned in a number of schools around the country for its portrayal of racism, alcoholism, sexual content, and offensive language.

[Sarcasm warning!] ‘Cause we can’t acknowledge that teenagers being wrung through a cycle of hormonal upheaval would ever swear or think dirty thoughts. Heavens forbid. And let’s do our best to ignore how tons of American conventions and icons make use of offensive Indian stereotypes. Junior dryly calls the white community out on common, ignorant displays of utter disregard for diverse cultural awareness. What?!? A kid mentioning the micro-aggressions he encounters every single day in his journal? How unexpected! And Junior’s life on the reservation is bleak? Oh dear! It’s almost as though the country has marginalized entire groups of people and then turned a blind eye to the ensuing difficulties. Can’t have that in our kids’ books, can we?!? [End sarcasm.] I’ll stop whining about ignorance and censorship now, before I get into full book-dragon mode. Suffice to say: Junior faces real issues in the book, and readers get exposed to important cultural perspectives on American attitudes which we should have re-evaluated centuries ago.

And did I mention that the book is funny? Because it might sound all biting and serious right now, but Junior is one hilarious narrator. He can laugh at himself and look back on mistakes as stories. Maybe that’s the part of him that wants to write cartoons. And he’s a thoughtful, sincere kid, too. People can be real jerks, purposefully or not, but he’s willing to see things from the other side and will admit when he’s been wrong to judge somebody. The diary-style format is great for these moments, because we get to watch his personality grow in real time.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer and he’s not going to go all moralizing. No hitting kids over the head with tragic facts. Instead, he gives us a really likable hero on the sort of personal journey so many readers have had to face themselves. Things go wrong in Junior’s life, but he faces everything with strength and wit and good perspective. And when things do go right for him, its hard not to throw a victorious air-punch and shout “woo!” wherever you’re reading.

I think that The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian would be a good choice for kids who are going start high-school soon. Part of the appeal in reading these journal-style books is the camaraderie you feel with the main character. Moving to a more grown-up school can be really daunting, but with a friend like Junior paving the way they’ll know how to face any situation with a sense of humor and an eye to how every mishap can inspire a great story. This will probably be one of those books that gets passed from friend to friend at summer camp, until everyone feels like they’ve shared in Junior’s year of ups and downs. Between the easy language and the unflinching point of view, Sherman Alexie doesn’t talk down to kids or hide anything from them. He’s right at the perfect level, writing with warm respect and all the sharply poetic irony which shines in his writing for adults. (If you haven’t read any of his short stories yet, you’re missing out. Go read them now!)

So when somebody doesn’t want to branch out from the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries, but has outgrown that particular series, give Arnold Spirit Jr. a try. It could be like cramming a friend into a backpack and hearing his crazy life story whenever things get dull. That’s a weird image, but I think you get the point.

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Proof that Sherman Alexie is funny and kind of perfect. Look at the homepage of his website! (I might have a little brain-crush on the man. He loves local bookshops after all.)

Archived Review: Abarat by Clive Barker

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 20, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: **** (3 stars)
Writing:**** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 11 and up.
Abarat holds a very special place in my heart, it is one of my fifteen favorite books.  This is because there are few books for youngsters quite so magical, so alien, so funny, and so downright freaky-as-all-hell in all the world of fiction. I picked up the first book when I was in middle school and I was quite certain that I was the protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, in my own attempt to escape Chickentown and come across a magical jetty.  It changed my life.  Now, the third book in the series is rumored to be looking at a release date later this year, and I can’t wait to be thrown headfirst into the Sea of Isabella again.

One thing which makes the Abarat books unique is that Barker himself paints the illustrations, which are beautiful in some cases and spine-chillingly horrifying in others, and they capture the spirit of The Islands of the Abarat perfectly. You know you’re imagining the characters and the places exactly the way they were written because you see them in oils on the page, multiple heads and skull shaped islands in all their colorful, nightmarish glory.  Barker is an excellent painter; he can show the mood of an island in just a few colors or he can paint a crowd of monstrous people in every spectrum you could imagine, and the illustrations are so captivating it’s a surprise that the story and the characters and the prose can live up to the high standard they create.   When you all rush out to your local bookstore to buy seven copies of each book, make sure you get the full-color illustrated copies.  Spend the extra money, seduce a rich person if you must, but get the damned illustrations!

Somehow, Clive Barker succeeds in describing a world and its people even more vividly than images can express.  The plot is intricate and the world is complex, (think Cirque Du Soleil meets Inkheart meets HP Lovecraft meets something else twisted and ancient and a little familiar, like you’ve known about The Abarat all along and were waiting with your sextant to see the ocean spread out over the prairie.)  In fact, that strange feeling of familiarity is how the first book starts.

Candy Quackenbush is bored of Chickentown.  This is a fantastic way to begin the book because most teenagers reading the book will sympathise with her; she is neither rich nor particularly unfortunate, her mother calls her “morbid” but isn’t mean, and Chickentown is a grim exaggeration of any American town which thrives on a smelly industry and the crushing of dreams.  Told to do a school project about the history of the town, Candy finds the only interesting person she can think of, her mother’s friend who works at the hotel, and learns a legend about the town’s history involving a mysterious man who sat in a hotel room waiting for the sea to arrive in this landlocked town until he died, leaving behind only a sextant and an unpleasant stain on the wall.  It’s a haunting story, especially for those of us who feel the constant, sinister draw of the sea, and it infects Candy’s mind the way it infects the reader’s.  The next day at school she finds herself drawing a series of close wavy lines all over her workbook, and when asked by her typically-unkind teacher what in the fresh hell she is doing she realizes that she is drawing the sea.  I dare any reader who is still in school to sit in class after reading the first book and not cover every surface with the lines of the sea that Candy draws.  Anyway, the spirit of the ocean and the spirit of adventure enter our intrepid protagonist and she storms out of school after being humiliated by her teacher, and that’s when the adventure really begins.

This same mysterious force which inspired Candy to draw the sea brings her to a vast set of fields outside chicken town, and in a series of events to rival even the best adult fantasy novel, she comes across John Mischief (a red little man with multiple heads, all which have different personalities) and discovers a jetty and lighthouse in the prairie all within a few minutes.  In comes, too, the formidable and terrifying Mendelson Shape who is tall and has crosses sticking out of his back, and the chase which ensues is both wacky and a little traumatizing.  Candy, in an effort to save John Mischief, summons the sea from the lighthouse and the waters of The Sea of Isabella rush over the prairie and Candy is whisked away to the Abarat, where there is an island for every hour of the day, plus one which has no time at all.  In the Abarat there are humanoid people and there are circus-type creatures, there are mechanical insects which spy for the bad guys, there are fish-people who sing songs about hamster trees as they race through the water, there are goddesses and there are very bad men.  Christopher Carrion, the lord of Midnight, wears nightmares in a container around his face while his mother stitches henchmen out of dead bodies.  The descriptions of Carrion’s cruelty and the paintings of the horrors he inflicts will haunt the younger readers, but in a totally worthwhile way which is character building and, in my opinion at least, ensures that they will be fascinating and morbid young adults.  That’s the goal of successful villain-creating anyway, isn’t it?

The plot can get a little complicated, which is one reason I’d suggest that kids wait until they’re in middle school to start the series, and there are villains and heroes on a grander scale than Candy and Christopher Carrion which require a fair bit of thought.  Occasionally the plot falters, especially in the second book when Candy’s importance in the Abarat has to be justified as something more than That-Chick-Who-Got-Caught-Up-In-A-Magical-Mess, but hopefully in the coming sequels this will be cleared up.  The story incorporates modern technology on some islands and good old-fashioned children’s adventure book magic on others, and in Candy’s adventures through the islands people who seem genuine can be evil bastards while truly ugly creatures save the day.  This is not a sweet little story, and the sequel, Days of Magic, Nights of War is even darker.  However, despite all the corruption, the danger, horror, and images which could only be inspired in us lesser folk by a tumbler or two of absinthe, The Abarat will always be better than Chickentown.  I, for one, would do anything to suffer through Candy’s adventures.

What I’m trying to say here is the world Barker created is entirely new and yet familiar, and no matter how hard you try you’ll spend the rest of your life being a little disappointed that you can’t call up the Sea of Isabella in your own, chicken-scented and boring town.