Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Is Eragon So Popular?

When I first read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, way back in the '90's, I was totally captivated.  It was a book intended for young adults, yet it was written in a sophisticated manner, with an erudite vocabulary.  It had a spunky heroine.  It was wildly inventive: daemons, panserbjorne, alethiometers, Dust.  It was also mysterious: Just what was going on with the Dust and portals to other worlds?

My sixth grade students all read the book this year and they generally liked it.  Many liked the action sequences at Bolvangar and on Svalbard, but they found the first third of the book slow.  Many also found the book confusing.  Few saw it as the masterpiece I perceived it to be.

What book did the students, particularly boys, really get excited about?  That would be Eragon.  I've read Eragon.  It's a tedious read, overlong, and completely derivative of The Lord of the Rings.  What makes this particular book and its sequels so popular, certainly more popular than The Golden Compass has ever been (at least in this country)?

Adam Gopnik offers his answer to this question in the December 5 issue of The New Yorker.  Gopnik's theory is that young readers relate to the Eragon books not because the story in and of itself is compelling, but because they enjoy reading about an entire alternate world, one in this case filled with dragons, magic, elves, etc.  In reading the Eragon books, readers master an intricate lore and history.  Gopnik writes, "Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation."  Middle school readers identify with Eragon.  He's a pretty typical youth who is confronted with a series of challenges which must be overcome before progressing to the next series of challenges.  Gopnik equates the fantasy hero's progression to that of the student progressing through school.  Since defeating a band of orcs is a bit more glamorous than conquering a page of algebra, students will gravitate to the Eragon book.  To read Eragon is to master the lore and mythology of an entire world, a world with parallels to the reader's world, and that is an accomplishment.

Gopnik doesn't actually mention in his article how he arrives at these conclusions.  My guess is that he talked to his kids and their friends.  Kids do rave about Eragon.  Kids tend to "admire" The Golden Compass rather than rave about it.  Gopnik also presents in his essay the Twilight series as a corollary for girls to the Eragon series for boys.  Neither series is particular well written, at least from an adult's perspective.  Still, Girls identify with Bella Swan to an extent perhaps even greater than boys do to Eragon.  Her romantic conundrum is their romantic conundrum.  The addition of vampire lore makes it all just that much more enticing.  So Gopnik's analysis seems to fit these two publishing phenomena.  But what about the other recent young adult publishing phenomenon, namely The Hunger Games?

The Hunger Games is well written and its plot is certainly exciting.  Its hero, Katniss Everdeen, must use her wits to survive a series of treacherous ordeals.  So is The Hunger Games "escapist" literature in a way that Eragon and Twilight are not?  In other words, do young people read The Hunger Games, and thrill to the action and suspense, but not necessarily identify their situation in life with that of Katniss's?  Adam Gopnik references Harry Potter, the Icelandic sagas, The X-Men, and The Beatles (he references The Beatles in all of his essays) in his article, but he doesn't reference The Hunger Games.

So it's up to me to answer this one.  Evidently, young people like fantasy for the reasons referenced above, but they're also partial to a good page turner.  Kids are going to read a lot of different books for a lot of different reasons.  The Young Adult book business is booming (at least compared to the rest of the publishing world).  Still, there's no simple formula to predicting a blockbuster.  Sometimes books just catch on and it's hard to say exactly why.  While most kids really do seem to love fantasy, and some will read their favorite series over and over again, there are some who prefer other genres, such as realistic fiction.  There are probably even some kids who enjoy reading The New Yorker (though most probably won't even find the cartoons funny).

Adam Gopnik's writing style, by the way, really is an acquired taste.  With his many references to culture both high brow and popular, it really does seem like he's just showing off sometimes.  Frankly, many of the topics about which he tends to write are not of interest to me.  Still, I'd recommend you read the essay cited above.  My favorite Gopnik story, though, is actually one he wrote while he was living in France.  It's about a story he made up to tell his son as a bedtime story.  It's about baseball.  It's fantastic.  It's called "The Rookie."  It's not on-line for free, but if you're a New Yorker subscriber, you can read it here.  It's also available in Gopnik's book "Paris to the Moon."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quest and Villain Description

Quest: Describe the Quest of you hero in your fantasy story.  One paragraph in length.
Include the following information in your paragraph:
  • Who is going on the quest?
  • What is the goal of the quest?
  • What are the starting and ending points of the quest?
  • What is the duration of the quest?
  • Why must the hero go on the quest?  What will happen if he/she fails?
Villain: Describe the Villain of your fantasy story.  One paragraph in length.  Include the following information in your paragraph:
  • Appearance of Villain and important characteristics (age, profession, etc.)
  • How did the Villain become evil?
  • What is the ultimate goal of the villain?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Setting Descriptions

3 paragraphs total:

1.  Familiar: The places familiar to the hero: neighborhoods, buildings, communities, parks, etc.  Because the hero has not yet seen the wider world, the familiar is located within a relatively small area.  The familiar can be located in our world, or it can be located in a fantasy world.

2.   Threshhold: The boundary which is crossed which takes the hero from the familiar to the unfamiliar.  If the familiar is located in our world, the threshhold will be a portal through which the hero travels from our world to a fantasy world.  If the familiar is located in a fantasy world, the threshhold will be a boundary the hero will cross to enter the fantasy world.

3.  Unfamiliar: The wider world, heretofore unknown to the hero.  The fantasy world must resemble our world.  It must contain physical features and bodies of water.  The laws of physics apply.  Describe the topography of the world: mountains, canyons, hills, valleys, etc.  Include important cities and towns, as well as castles, fortresses, and other man-made structures.  The fantasy world is a large world.  Describe it very generally; you do not need to include every detail about the fantasy world.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Quiz Bowl #2

4 questions total.  Each question must be from a different category.  Categories include, but are not limited to: Geography, Science, History, Politics, Literature, Movies & TV, Current Events, Music, Nova, Sports, etc.

Include answers.  Answers may not be multiple choice or true/false.  Each question must have only one correct answer.

Due Wednesday, December 7, in Language Arts.  Use correct punctuation and grammar.

Quiz Bowl #2 will take place on Friday, December 9, in The Trow.  We'll start at about 8:45 and conclude at 10:10.  Interested parents are welcome to watch.