The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

Did you say dragons? In turn-of-the-last-century Vienna?? Enchanted and entrapped as everyday working Joes??? What ought to be a most marvelous storytelling feat turns into a lengthy, dozy tellingstory book.

Weyr, Garret. The Language of Spells. Illus. Katie Harnett. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Summary: Grisha the dragon and his first best friend, Maggie — a young, human girl — set out to find and free the seventy or so dragons Sleeping-Beauty’ed and buried underground by a power-hungry sorcerer.

Critique: You know those old, possibly apocryphal, world maps which pointed to their own outer edges — those fringes marking the extent of human exploration — with dire Here Be Dragons! warnings? I feel obliged to put similar warnings around this book…

Here Be Exposition!

For anyone unfamiliar with the literary component called exposition, I shall unbriefly elaborate. Exposition explains. It’s the information sections included in a book to summarize past events, ongoing actions, or a character’s thoughts and feelings and motivations.

When you’re not reading exposition, you’re most likely reading scenes, which are the moments when characters interact, talk, conflict, pick locks, unload groceries, kiss, dig tunnels, spy, gossip, or eat turnips.

Imagine you’re reading about Tillie, a supermarket cashier who’s beeping items over the scanner while the shopper unloading the cart prattles on about pineapples and their secret homeopathic applications. The point at which the text begins to explain how back in 1992, Tillie developed an extreme aversion to pineapples in the midst of a disastrous, tropical honeymoon getaway is the point at which you are reading exposition.

One minute, you were observing an interaction, gathering clues about the characters, making judgments and assumptions, forming opinions, and anticipating what’s to come. The next minute, you pause your work so that the author can inform you. Fill you in. Get you up to speed. Tell you a thing or two, rather than show you.

In good writing, exposition and scene go hand-in-hand. One is not better than other. Each involves the reader in a different way. Scenes make you work and spark your curiosity while exposition affirms your budding theories. In the best writing (which is also the best kind of storytelling), you never notice the narrative switching between the two tactics.

But in this book, you cannot help but notice that you are perpetually in exposition. Chapter after chapter, the author tells you this and tells you that. You are told that the dragons with golden eyes are put to work as tour guides in old museums and castles around Vienna. But what you want is to see this dynamic play out. You want to witness some of those interactions. You want to experience this strange, unfamiliar world where these chosen dragons must work or be eliminated; where these fire-breathing work-a-day Joes gather once a week at 2 a.m. at a hotel bar to share old war stories.

Heck, you want to hear those war stories, but instead, you are told about young Maggie sleeping under the nearby bar table where her poet father and his eccentric artist friends gab until dawn (amongst themselves and not with the dragons, by the way). You are told her entire backstory, about her mother’s tragic and untimely death, about her troubled interactions with other children, about her homeschooling, and her wanderings through the city on its new cable cars.

And bear in mind, much of what I have described here doesn’t arrive until you’re halfway through the book. The preceding chapters have been telling you about Grisha’s time enchanted and entrapped as a teapot.

Yes, you heard me right. You’ll spend nearly half a book watching a dragon teapot watch the world the change.

And so, dear readers, believe me when I tell you: He Be Exposition! Here be a book that opts for tellingstory instead of storytelling.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother…

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Summary: A doddering witch rescues the sacrificial babies abandoned in the woods. Normally, she feeds them starlight before adopting them out to new families. But on one occasion, she feeds a child moonlight, thereby creating a new witch and consequently kicking off an avalanche of other troubles.

Critique: Even though this is a middle grade text (and the 2017 Newbery winner to boot), the narrative primarily shares the parental perspective. That is to say, rather than tell yet another story of a young child coming of age with magic powers, this story examines what it is to be a step-mother…er eh, a step-witch to an adopted and accidentally enmagicked child. Also, what it is to be the godparent…uh er, god-swamp monster to that child. And what it is to be the mother who went mad when her child was taken for sacrifice. And finally, what it is to be the boy who sees the mother go mad and then grow up to have his own sacrificial child.

I guess imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother with Harry getting his own say somewhere in the last quarter of the story.

Ultimately, any budding Terry Pratchett fans will appreciate Barnhill’s wink-and-nod magic rules and fantasy world building. Nascent Patrick Rothfuss or Lev Grossman fans will find the convenient inconsistencies and glaring contradictions frustrating.

Most consistent throughout is that inspiring and unyielding sense of familial love.

Wild Boy by Mary Losure

Losure-wildboyLosure, Mary. Wild Boy: The Real LIfe of the Savage of Aveyron. Illus. Timothy Basil Ering. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade nonfiction

Summary: In the late 1700s, French villagers discover a wild boy in the woods. Maybe only nine years old, the child is naked as a jaybird and grubbing for food. He has scars from old burns smattering his skin and one long scar slicing across his throat. Miraculously, he is alive and self-sufficient. The boy is captured, studied, and the entire trajectory of his life changes forever. So too are some of the lives that come in contact with him.

Critique: Losure’s style is concise. Rather than feeling like skin and bones prose, hers feels more deft. She does a lot with very little — like the best bikini designers. She leaves many questions unanswered, and not just because sources are sparse or do not provide answers. Rather, Losure gives readers a lot of subtext to chew on. Without directly stating it, she presents the possibility that trying to civilize the wild boy may have done more harm than good. The story quietly confronts the supposed supremacy of civilization. The text confronts the efficacy of certain teaching methods that run like a one-way street. It ponders whether dialogues between teachers and students might work better. The pencil/charcoal sketches are full of free, thin lines contained by lots of hard scribbling, jagged outlines. The result is an emotional mirror of the content: a small, free spirit trapped by a rigid society. My favorite (the most memorable) drawing is on page 123. The Wild Boy, named Victor, peers curiously into the benevolent face of his life-long teacher and guardian, Dr. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard. Losure’s writing fuses with Basil Ering’s illustrations forming a wonderful bridge text for readers working their way out of chap books and into the realm of nonfiction (which, with Common Core, is just about every kid in school right now).