Monthly Archives: June 2013

Dragons for Young People, Part Two: Seraphina

Seraphina book cover

Book cover art borrowed from Wikipedia.com.

Last summer, I read review after review that sang the praises of Rachel Hartman’s debut novel, Seraphina. I finally got my hands on it last month, and it was a great read. Just like my last post, here are the ups and downs:

 

Top 3 Stereotypes

1.       The commoner who falls in with royalty
Recognize this stereotype from Dragon Slippers? It’s back! To be fair, Seraphina is slightly more than a commoner. Her father has worked his way up to become the top expert on the dragon-human treaty, a position that helped him get his daughter into a comfortable job with a famous musician. Still, Seraphina does a lot more than teach the young princess her music lessons. She serves as a friend to the girl, and even befriends (and falls in love with—big surprise there…) the princess’s cousin and intended fiancé, Prince Lucian Kiggs. They trust her enough to let her be a part of the plans that save the day, even after they find out her terrible secret.

2.       The secret that would prove deadly if discovered
Yes, Seraphina has a secret. In a book about a girl with an unbelievable gift in a world where dragons take human form, it’s not too hard to guess what that secret is. In her novel, Hartman uses a common plot device that adds tension to many stories: both humans and dragons would kill Seraphina if the truth came out. She is conveniently stuck in the middle, where young readers will feel for her and desperately want her to be accepted as she is.

3.       The treaty on the verge of collapse
Treaties never work out well in fantasy stories. After all, where would the story be if they did? Seraphina contains the age-old tale of a human-dragon treaty about to go wrong (this is another similarity to Dragon Slippers). As is the case in many dragon tales, humans and dragons don’t get along so well, and there are those on both sides who want war. Naturally, it’s up to a young heroine to jump in and save the day—but that’s another stereotype in and of itself, so I won’t go there.

 

Top 3 Unique Points

1.       Music as a theme
Rachel Hartman worked more complex themes into Seraphina than many writers do when writing fantasy stories for youth.  One of the most beautiful things that she did with Seraphina was to weave the theme of music into the story. From Seraphina’s special talent to the songs of the characters in her mental garden, the book is full of different music styles that enrich both the culture and the storyline in the novel.

2.       A mental garden
When Seraphina first started having strange visions, a distinct set of characters would appear and take turns pulling her into their worlds. She doesn’t figure out who they are until well into the book, yet she manages to organize the mental chaos by arranging her mind’s visitors into an imaginary garden.  Due to the nature of those characters, I found her ability to organize them unique and fascinating. Keeping with the book’s music theme, it almost seems as though she has composed a piece of music where each character must play their part.

3.       Science instead of magic
This is becoming a little more common in books today, but I still appreciated reading a fantasy story that doesn’t assume magic. The morphing of dragons into human forms, the communication devices that dragons use, and the musical machines and masterpieces created by the humans are all scientific in design. If sentient dragons existed in our world, it would not be jarring to find the culture of Seraphina fitting in nicely.

Overall, Seraphina was a great book. It did have its share of stereotypes, but if I had read this book when I was going through my first dragon phase, it would have become a fast favorite. As it is, I’m looking forward to the eventual sequel. I’m hoping the unique story and lovely writing style are just as good in the next installment!

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Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dragons for Young People, Part One: Dragon Slippers

Dragon Slippers cover image

Image borrowed from Goodreads.com.

This latest blog series all started when a reader recommended Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers as one of their favorites. I’d like to say I promptly ran off the library and picked it up, but in reality, it took a couple of months (and the book sat waiting on my dresser until it was all but overdue) before I read it. When I finally got to it, though, it proved a quick, pleasant read. Its sequel now sits waiting much like the first did.  I’ll let its top stereotypes and unique points speak for the rest of it:


Top 3 Stereotypes

1.       The country orphan trying to make her way in the big city

The main character, Creel, grew up with country relatives after her parents died, but now is where so many young fantasy heroes and heroines find themselves: all alone in the big city with not a penny nor a friend to her name. Creel is there intentionally, to chase her dream of eventually opening a shop that features the gorgeous embroidery she learned from her mother. In the meantime, she’s stuck with a harsh mistress and some girls who range from rivals to friends.

2.       The commoner who falls in with royalty

If the first point didn’t already make this obvious, Creel is a nobody, as far as any social system is concerned. She is an orphan, an apprentice that is hardly more than a servant… and yet remarkably quickly, she becomes a friend to the young prince (and an enemy to a young princess). This seems a favorite theme of children’s books—young main characters almost always fall in with people who are more important than the sort that they seem likely to meet.

3.       The coincidental stumbling upon the main plot device

In so many books, there’s no feasible reason for why the main character chances upon the right thing at the right place and time to allow the story to happen. To be fair, some of the best stories in real life do happen when the unlikely happens, but in books, it’s treated like an everyday occurrence. In Dragon Slippers, the dragon slippers themselves are the coincidental plot device. In a huge room full of shoes, Cree finds, chooses, and has the right size feet for the slippers that are an important clue in the human-dragon relations of the story and are so crucial to the plot.

 

Top 3 Unique Points

1. The varied dragon hoards

These dragons don’t just collect valuable things—each has its own perceived treasure. One collects shoes, another dogs, and another stained-glass windows. I loved this aspect of the book. It gave the dragons an opportunity to stand out as quirky individuals instead of stereotypical gold-hoarders.

2.       The idea of being sacrificed to a dragon as a financial aid

Creel’s aunt and uncle, who raised her, are not rich, and so the aunt comes up with a crazy scheme: if they send Creel up into the hills to be caught by a nearby dragon, she can be rescued and married by a rich nobleman and share her new fortunes with her family. The idea is probably unique for good reason (no character in their right mind ought to suggest such a thing!) but the entertainingly awkward situation it creates is a great start to the story.

3.       An intelligent bratty princess

How often is the evil antagonist the same character as the annoyingly spiteful little princess? Not only does the future queen-to-be have a whiny, irrational side, she also has a side that is smart enough to concoct a great deal of trouble. The extend of her scheming was quite surprising, but that’s all I’ll say for now.

Was Dragon Slippers full of stereotypes? Certainly. Did that make it not worth reading? Absolutely not. Some of those stereotypes are used as types that young readers can identify with, and the unique twists that Jessica Day George brought to the story left me smiling and interested in reading the two sequels.

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Dragon Lit for Young People

My first year of teaching is officially over, and I can turn my focus back to my writing (and blogging!) for the summer. In honor of the kids that I won’t see until fall, I’m going to be taking a look at a handful of dragon-related books that were written for children and young adults.

As I have started to read these books over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing some things that I never noticed when I used to read this genre as a twelve-year-old–namely, the stereotypical characters and plot devices that show up in children’s fantasy.  Is it bad for authors to use them? Probably not–there’s a reason they’re popular enough to reuse. Do they get old fast when I read these fantasy books as a twenty-something? Absolutely. As I present five of these dragon books to you, I will make a list of the top three stereotypes that show up in each book along with the top three unique points. There are a lot of dragon books out there as well as a lot of stereotypes, so you’ll probably see this theme pop up again later this summer with new titles.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the stereotypes that show up in the children’s fantasy genre:

  • the orphaned nobody who winds up marrying royalty after saving the kingdom
  • the young person with a special gift or a unique bond to dragons
  • the main character who has a bond to the villain that they knew nothing about
  • the mentor who dies
  • the journey to self-discovery or self-acceptance
  • the superior wisdom of a twelve-year-old above dozens of mature adults
  • the youth’s single mistake that makes everything appear lost and hopeless until they learn their lesson–and then, somehow, the situation comes back under control
  • the dragon who needs the help of a young human despite being far older, stronger, and wiser than the youth

The list goes on and on, and my longer list keeps growing. I’d love to hear what stereotypes you would add to this list. Which ones bother you the most? Which ones have you seen repeated in the  most books?

Check back again on Wednesday for my thoughts on the book that got me going on this topic: Dragon Slippers.

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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