Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you’ll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I’m not talking about that. No, what I’m talking about is Gaiman’s willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you’ll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it’s totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, “He looks so natural there.” Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that’s actually a woman. Because, obviously, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you’ll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word “like” in descriptions. And, for most of us, that “like” is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I’m trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren’t obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the “likes” that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone’s seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what’s easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won’t leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn’t 😉 The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they’re not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind – they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too – the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn’t real darkness. It’s like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.