Tag Archives: young adult literature

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.


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I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

What a shame it is I never read anything by Robert Cormier when I was a young adult.  I am, instead, forced to read his books as an adult, and lament the fact that I didn’t have the pleasure of reading his stories a long time ago.  I Am the Cheese is an excellent story for tweens and teens that has lost none of its edge since its first publication over thirty years ago.

The first book of Cormier’s I read, The Chocolate War, was good, even if it is what I would consider a boys’ book, with a plot that is exotic in its strangeness to this woman’s brain.  I Am the Cheese has, I think, a more universal appeal.  Adam, the protagonist, faces challenges that are more compelling for a wider audience, which makes it better, in my opinion.

Cormier goes back and forth between two separate parts of Adam’s life.  One is told in straightforward prose, recounting the events of his bicycle ride through three states to visit his father and deliver a package to him.  The other is told through interview transcripts, in which an official of unknown training and origin asks and guides Adam’s exploration of his family’s past.

The lovely thing about Cormier’s telling of Adam’s story is that you feel as though you are learning about Adam slowly.  You know he has things that he is keeping hidden, and you can guess at some of them.  The really delightful thing is that I was wrong a couple of times, so I was still surprised despite my attempts to be ahead of the author’s pacing.

Adam’s story ends up being very interesting, indeed.  I don’t think it’s inappropriate to compare I Am the Cheese to something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of Catch-22 for both complexity and the fact that the story involves, in a very integral way, the question of the protagonist’s sanity.  Adam’s life story leads him to question who his parents are and, consequently, who he is.  Worse yet, he finds himself in a situation where he is constantly being asked questions about his family and who they truly are.  This questioning is done in an institution that does not make itself clear to Adam; he’s not sure if he’s in a mental hospital, he’s not sure whether his interrogator is a psychiatrist, and he really doesn’t know how long he’s been where he is.

If there is any drawback to I Am the Cheese, it probably is the loose ends Cormier leaves in the story.  We never find out what happens to Amy, Adam’s best friend.  The story about his bike journey falls apart at the end, as well.  While this might be a case of deliberate stylistic choice on Cormier’s part, I found it a little odd and, at the end, sad.  I wasn’t quite sure what he was attempting to convey through how Adam’s trek concluded, but I didn’t find it all that satisfying.

Overall, I found Adam’s story to be one that kept my interest and kept me guessing.  I’d imagine I Am the Cheese still pleases a young adult audience quite well, despite the lack of vampires or shallow cliques — or, worse yet, the lack of shallow vampire cliques.  For the reader who likes realistic and intelligent fiction aimed at a slightly younger audience, one could do a lot worse, and not a lot better.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier comments, in the foreword of the edition of The Chocolate War I read, that it took a while to find a publisher for this book.  Editors considered it too violent, too depressing for young adults to be reading.  One publishing house did offer to take it — if he changed the ending.  He passed.  I think that was a wise choice; without the realism those qualities give the book, it would be difficult to create interest in the characters and their actions.  As it is, The Chocolate War provides insight into the lives of teenage boys that is rarely provided.

The book follows many boys who attend a Catholic prep school in 1970s New England.  The hero is Jerry Renault, a freshman who has recently lost his mother, but we get the chance to be in many students’ heads, which is a big plus.  The reader can see what runs through the minds of a lot of different teenage boys, providing for a greater understanding of the events that occur, and why they had to happen that way.

In fact, I would say that Cormier has a gift for giving us wonderfully nuanced views of the boys.  Jerry, after seeing a girl who interests him, calls her house and talks to her (in a very cringe-worthy way) — and gets stunned and disappointed to hear her say the word “crap.”  It puts some of his following behavior into a very interesting light.  He is aware and mature enough to be able to understand some of what other people do and say, but remains naive about many facets of life.  He doesn’t even know his own heart sometimes.  Such is what leads him to inexplicably continue to refuse to sell chocolate for the school, despite his inaction raising his instructor’s ire and leads to increasing problems between him and the other students — especially the boys who secretly control a lot of the actions younger and weaker students take.

One place where the book could have been improved, however, is in the treatment of the adults in Jerry’s life.  Several are marginal characters, but at least three hold important places in the plot.  Perhaps because it is a book that has young adults in mind as its primary audience, the adults are mainly a mystery — we’re only allowed to guess at motivations and what the men actually know.  It would be intriguing to be able to sit in their shoes for a while and learn why they behaved in the ways they did.  I will say, though, that I think Jerry’s father was purposely crafted this way; he is a man unengaged in his son’s life.  He’s not supposed to be knowable, since he doesn’t know.

Cormier’s book also employs some language that dates it.  That might be a turn-off for more feckless teenage readers, which is sad for two reasons.  The first one is that they will miss a truly engaging and honest story.  The second is perhaps even more important than enjoying this particular book:  learning to read a variety of writing styles from all sorts of time periods is one part of learning to be well-rounded, in reading, thinking, and living.

The ending, I think, is one of the best I’ve seen in a young adult novel.  It doesn’t come to an entirely happy ending — in fact, it’s depressingly realistic.  Misbehavior goes unpunished.  Jerry isn’t able to reach an agreement with the other boys at school.  Almost the entirety of the student population is shown to be like bloodthirsty sheep, easily put in line and most likely grateful that it isn’t them who are the targets of the bullies’ anger.

There are a couple of moments of heroic behavior.  I would argue that Jerry’s ability to stand up for himself, no matter what the other students put him through, makes him admirable.  His friend, the Goober, has a strong sense of loyalty and eventually is able to do some amount of rescuing of Jerry when he cannot stand up for himself in the end.  There is a teacher without integrity or a sense of caring for his students, but there is also another who comes to Jerry’s aid during a critical point.

The Chocolate Wars is a superb piece of young adult fiction.  I would recommend it for teenagers, especially boys.  I suspect that many will be able to identify with at least some of what goes on — after all, bullying is an eternal issue.  Cormier crafted an insightful, quick read, suitable for those of us who are walking the same halls as these boys, and also those of us who remember being these boys.

Rating: 4/5

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