Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Burden of Power

Kristin Cashore
If Graceling was about owning one’s own power, and Fire was about deciding when the use of power is appropriate and when it is not, then Bitterblue is about exploring what it’s like to have power over the fates of others. In this election year, Kristin Cashore (author of all three books in the Graceling series) raises searching questions about leadership—how much autonomy to grant others and when to determine certain decisions on their behalf.

In the case of 18-year-old Queen Bitterblue, her father, King Leck, twisted the truth. He wiped out the memories and experiences of his citizenry after inflicting unspeakable crimes against them as individuals and as a citizenry. Bitterblue feels compelled to confront those truths herself but then must decide how much of that information to release and to whom. Would it be healing or do greater damage to make public some of these facts? And how can she remedy the hurt her father caused to so many of his subjects? It’s a daunting task, and she has few people she can trust, surrounded as she is by her father’s men, who must come to terms with their own guilt, sorrow and grief.

Her only reliable means of gathering the truth is to disguise herself as a male and take to the streets. But that comes with its own perils. As the daughter of a king that wronged a nation, she has few friends and many enemies, but she feels it’s worth the risk to get to the truth. One of the great injustices she discovers is that her father made it a crime to teach others to read. As someone who thrives on education and loves to learn, Bitterblue finds this one of the greatest travesties of her father’s reign.  As she strives to bring about justice, Bitterblue also finds laughter and love, enjoys the friendships of Katsa and Po (from Graceling), and discovers friendly neighbors and possible allies.

Kristin Cashore once again explores the questions at the center of the human experience: the pursuit of truth and justice, and the need for a society that allows people to thrive as individuals.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Cover-Up

When you’re a kid, there comes that time when you’ve covered up something that you thought could have dire consequences, only to discover that it would have saved so much time and energy if you’d just told the truth. Nearly 12-year-old Stella makes this discovery the hard way (is there any other way?) in Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker.

By the end of chapter two, Stella’s great-aunt Louise has died. Stella comes home from school to find Louise dead in front of the television set. Stella and Angel, the other girl Louise has taken in, decide they’d better hide the fact or risk becoming wards of the state. Their plan to dig a hole in the backyard for Louise’s body, and to say that the woman broke her ankle works even better and for longer than they want it to. Much of the book’s humor stems from their nearly 12-year-old thinking and how they pull off assuming Louise’s duties managing the summer rental cottages next door. Self-reliance and resourcefulness are their greatest assets and also their Achilles’ heel.

Both girls have had to grow up more quickly than most their age—Stella because of her mother’s frequent disappearances, and Angel because her parents both passed away. So their matter-of-fact handling of Louise’s death comes across credibly, and the comic moments increase as they get more deeply invested in their cover-up. They also come to appreciate each other’s strengths: Angel’s a better liar (which helps them carry off their masquerade), and Stella is a better cleaner (which helps convince owner George Nickerson that Louise is still following through on her duties).

All the while, Sara Pennypacker envelops us in the warmth of the Cape Cod sun, the smell of the sea, and the rhythms of the renters coming and going. The humor and authentic dialogue contribute to a great read-aloud experience, but Pennypacker also gently raises questions of when is it okay to tackle things on your own, and when is it time to ask for help? Is it ever okay to lie? What is a true friend? Pennypacker never makes the children seem at risk—what the children fear could happen is far worse than what does happen. At the same time, the author creates living, breathing girls whom we care about and whose fates matter to us. Each lives with sadness, but the girls don’t dwell on that. They forge ahead, often with humor and a determination to solve whatever challenge lies ahead.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Transcendent Storytelling

William Joyce
When I first heard the term “transmedia storytelling” at Digital Book World last year, I thought, “what?” It scared me. Writers were talking about stories that began as games and grew into films and books. I worried that books would be sidelined. Since then, I’ve come to believe that there are many ways to experience story, and a great story transcends its medium. William Joyce’s Morris Lessmore is the ideal character to travel through these porous boundaries.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce won an Academy Award, but it began as a book. It makes perfect sense that a book about a lifelong love affair with books would begin as a book. And Morris Lessmore is based on a real man, William Morris, a lover of books if ever there was one. (Bill Morris hired me right out of college, so I got to witness this firsthand.)

But Bill Joyce told me in an interview that after he’d written the book, and before he’d completed the artwork, his retina detached, and he couldn’t see well enough to finish painting the book. At around that same time, he founded Moonbot studios, and they decided to make a short film based on Morris’s story.

Miniatures from the Movie
So Morris Lessmore’s story is a book and a film and an app. Each medium has its strengths and offers a different experience of the story. In the film, one of my favorite scenes occurs after Humpty Dumpty plays the piano, and Morris does a Gene Kelly–style dance with the many-hued books. In the app, a deep-voiced narrator reads the book beneath the animated pages, and you get to play the piano with Humpty by pressing keys that correspond to the notes. (There’s also a separate $.99 Imag-n-o-tron! app that “augments” the book. A video shows you how to lay your iPad or phone over the book to animate the pages; books fly, Morris dives into a book. It takes a bit of practice, but if you hold the device very still, the pages spring to life. My favorite is the feeling of “entering” the library. The walls seem to extend to the sky.)

But in the book, there’s a beautiful scene in which the books that Morris has cared for surround him, when he's "stooped and crinkly," and read themselves to him. It’s a scene that only appears in the book, and of all the means of experiencing his story, it’s the scene that most moves me.

Thanks to Bill Joyce, I am awakened to the possibilities of transmedia storytelling. Perhaps it should be called “transcendent storytelling.” A story that transcends its medium allows us as readers to transcend the here and now and to experience the story from a number of entry points. However we meet Morris and in whatever way we accompany him on his journey to his calling and his passion for books, each experience of his story deepens our connection to Morris Lessmore and his Fantastic Flying Books.