Recently, I tried to read Meloy and Ellis’s Wildwood. Sadly, I could not finish it. Despite stellar reviews, charming drawings, and a fantastic – in every sense of the word – concept, it just did not keep my interest. The standard test is 50 pages; if you’re not enjoying a book in fifty pages, stop. Too many other books to enjoy! I gave Wildwood one hundred pages and stopped reading it entirely when I realized I’d rather watch a losing game of baseball on TV.
By all rights, I should have enjoyed this book. Fantasy? Check. Middle grade? Check. Great language? Check. How can you not enjoy a book that begins with the protagonist’s baby brother being snatched away by a murder of crows? I don’t know, but I didn’t. It is entirely possible that I was just not in the mood, despite starting it on a five hour bus journey. (Travel makes me desperate to read anything.) I suspect, however, that the real problem lay in my expectation that this was to be a children’s book, as opposed to a grownup book about children.
One of the best examples of this I can give is The Magicians (Lev Grossman) as opposed to the last books of the Harry Potter series. On the surface, The Magicians appears to be a YA fantasy, but the reality is that it merely has a teenage protagonist. Rowling’s last books of her series feature protagonists of the same age, but they are clearly meant for children, not adults. But I can’t quite put my finger on why. One possibility is that a book truly meant for children (including teens) as opposed to adults is that the book is written in the immediate present, rather than in a retrospective present.
I’m guilty of this myself. One of my projects is a historical novel set in Old Salem, North Carolina. Thinking it was a good fit for YA, I recently had it critiqued – and was surprised to find that both an editor and an agent agreed that it was distinctly not YA. It was a grownup book. (I hate saying “adult book” – just a bad connotation.) The feedback I received was very helpful; apparently, despite my characters’ ages and my theme, the feel of the book was wrong. The concerns of the characters, their problems, were those of adults, not teens. Independence, first love, coping with rejection and gossip – these all sound right up the YA alley, no? But they can also be adult concerns – and the tone, the feel, the ineluctable atmosphere of my manuscript said “grownup” to my critiquers.
Tamra Tuller was the editor, and I am grateful for her insights and the time she took to discuss my work with me. She explained in detail what I would need to do to recast my work as YA, should I wish to do so. (She also explained that I might just go on with it and market it as a historical romance for adults.) That conversation was quite specific to my situation, though – leaving me adrift when it comes to the general question about whether a book is a children’s book. We can all agree on criteria – see The Children’s Book Manifesto, meant for picture books, but useful for all children’s books in the main – but questions remain.
To return to the sadly disappointing Wildwood (and I hope to someday), the main question I asked myself was “Would a child really enjoy this?” My answer was “No.” For me, the language, while beautiful, read as if the author used a thesaurus every third word. Situations and emotions read twee, rather than charming. And there was a distinct aroma – odor? – of hipster about the whole. That last may be my prejudice; after all, Mr. Meloy is the force behind The Decemberists, and while I enjoy their music, I’m definitely not their target audience. (Too Upper west Side, not enough Brooklyn.) Would I have enjoyed the book more had I not known who was the author? I can’t say for sure, but I think not.
Like much about books, whether a book is for children as opposed to being about children is subjective. But my personal criterion remains who I see reading the book – and the only people I’ve seen reading Wildwood are grownups.