Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Books I Love: Shannon Hale

I don't have anything special to ramble about from my own life today, so I figured I'd pop in with another installment of Books I Love.

Shannon Hale is by FAR one of my favorite authors. Definitely in the top five. She has an easy style that is so eloquent without seeming like it's trying to be, and I'm surprised at how well she gets into people's heads considering she usually writes in third person. And like me, she draws inspiration from folk tales and natural magic that's braided into the core of her people; the way she expresses it is wholly different from the way I've chosen to do it, but I can't help but feel a sense of kinship when I read her work. This, I always think, is someone who gets it.

I don't know her personally (and what I wouldn't give to change that!), but I love everything she puts out in social media, and I feel like she's done enough blogging and tweeting for me to get a sense of her personality. I like her attitude toward fan mail and requests in her "Open letter to everyone I've ever ignored." I love her wonderful messages about female characters (see "Male character function: be a character; Girl character function: love interest") and her commentary on consent/rape culture. And one time I saw her tweeting a poop joke and giggling over who might get grossed out and unfollow her.

She just seems like a lot of fun--a very real and awesome lady, who's a mom and a silly person and just happens to also be a fantastic storyteller. Her website features really cool "on writing" bits and peeks at her writing process and sometimes even "deleted scenes." It's rare to see an author who's so accessible and real, and I love it. I'm not a hero-worship kind of person, but if I could ever be on an author panel with her at a conference or something, it would be like a dream come true.

Shannon is responsible for The Books of Bayern series, the Princess Academy books, and Book of a Thousand Days (among others; her adult work is on my to-read list). She usually chooses female main characters and does a wonderful job showing them as multifaceted and exquisitely layered. And one of her extraordinary talents is to portray a full-scale, high-stakes plot and make it entirely, believably, tenderly personal, without skimping on the self-doubt, the fierceness, the fear, the love, or the character growth that makes a reader get attached to a book and become a fan for life.

A little about each of these books/series and why I like them:

The Books of Bayern begins with The Goose Girl; it's loosely based on the original folk tale, and involves Isi, who has to live in hiding as a goose girl to avoid a fate her original kingdom had in store for her. The most interesting aspect of these books is that a small but significant portion of the population has elemental abilities of various sorts, but these are mysterious and those who possess them sometimes either don't know it or don't know how to control them. Isi is a wind-speaker, and she's able to use her ability to protect herself. Isi's tale of hiding her identity as she learns about her inner strengths and forges bonds with the other commoners at her station is very engaging.

The second book, Enna Burning, switches the protagonist to Enna, a friend of Isi's, who finds herself to have an ability to fire-speak. Not wanting to meet the same fate as her brother, she struggles to control her burning ability before it consumes her, but her relationship with Princess Isi is going to be the most important thing in saving her. River Secrets, the book about Razo, was endearing and interesting--Razo doesn't have any of the cool abilities the previous books discussed, but he still has his important part to play in the Bayern army . . . because even though his talents are less than magical, the ability to pay attention and notice details can be very useful. And the fourth book, Forest Born, delves into the mental anguish and soul-searching of Forest girl Rinna, younger sister of Razo and holder of confusing and powerful abilities. I love the characters and the reality of their world, and Hale's ability to portray people realistically while telling a personal story in an epic plot is nothing short of astounding.

Princess Academy was a Newbery Honor book. It seems like a simple idea--the prince has to choose a bride from amongst a group of appropriately aged but rough mountain girls, and they must become educated to be proper princesses--but I was impressed at how this book ended up being a lot more than just the answer to "which girl will be chosen?" Miri and her classmates' culture on Mount Eskel is well-thought-out and realistic; the "quarry-speech" is a neat idea that is uncovered for the reader's discovery through the main character's realistic lack of experience with it; the predictable nature of a few of the events is easily overshadowed by the enjoyability of watching it all play out. It was great to see a girl who thinks she's weak and useless transform herself through education and courage into a strong and helpful person without making it seem like it'd all be a waste if she didn't get chosen as the princess. Miri's relationships with her classmates, her teacher, and her family were all very realistic and interesting . . . especially the in-fighting between the girls, the alliances and feuds carried between them, and the transformations that occurred on all fronts. I loved that Miri often became conflicted about what she wanted; it's so rare in children's literature that authors respect their audience and their characters enough to give them layers and personality facets as if they are real people. This book has a sequel featuring Miri growing even more as a character, with even more delightful history uncovered and even more roots revealed for these fascinating daughters of the stone.

And in Book of a Thousand Days, a teenage noble girl, Saren, is shut in a tower because she refuses to wed the bad guy, and her maid, Dashti, goes with her into the prison. Dashti tells the story of their imprisonment--and the time after--by way of a cheery diary in which she chronicles the events and draws little pictures (the illustrations are included). Dashti refers to herself as a "mucker"--part of a group of low-status people who carry various folk traditions given life through song--and she is just pleased as punch to be locked in a tower with Saren because hey, she's fed and clothed and has a roof over her head. Of course, the plot thickens when Dashti is drawn into the noble girl's predicament. She's been locked away because she refuses to marry a rather mean nobleman, and she supposedly loves a khan who wishes to save her. (The two are only acquainted through letter-writing.) Dashti ends up fronting for Saren in a Cyrano-like situation, but doesn't acknowledge her own feelings for the khan.

Difficulties arise when their kingdom is attacked and no one remembers the poor girls in the tower. Dashti manages to drag Saren along to their escape, and soon they have to make a living in the next city over. One by one the different kingdoms are falling to the cruel Khasar, who presumably is coming for Saren, and Dashti tries as best she can to continue to be a good lady's maid even though she's being pushed into the spotlight. Overall, because it is based on a fairy tale and those are often predictable, it does have that one down side that the reader sees what's going to happen long before Dashti does, but I think the fact that she's so naïve is part of what helps her seem so real. She rolls with the punches and finds a way out; she gives of herself until it hurts (and threatens her life); she sacrifices and sweats and sings people to health without even knowing how special she is, and yet she's not an annoying heroine because we know her innermost thoughts through the diary. She does occasionally admit to having selfish thoughts and despising people she's supposed to serve. You'll like this book for its unforgettable main character, but other treats await you too; Hale is a master at realistic-but-magic-touched fantasy settings with many layers, and since this is a diary you get to experience her first person narration for once. What a treat! Recommended for fairy tale fans especially.

I would love to have my own fairy tale retelling books on shelves to entertain the same group of people who love Shannon Hale's work, and I think part of the reason her books appeal to me so much is that we strive for the same things in our writing: Character-driven fiction that never loses touch with who it's about, in worlds that are intimately connected to the people who populate them. I'd say you should read Shannon Hale's books if you like YA, if you like retellings, if you like realistic female characters, and if you like character-driven fiction. . . .

But honestly, I think I'll just put the period after "You should read Shannon Hale."

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