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."
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