Books

This Time You Pray For Real

Nikki Tranter

Books for kids on life, death, sexual awakening, sexual abuse, death, the Holocaust, and the Taliban. Farrar, Straus and Giroux offers kids startling alternatives to Harry Potter this Christmas.

PopMatters Books Editor

"There is no use trying," said Alice, "one can't believe impossible things." believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Does anyone really believe that guff about Harry Potter "getting kids reading"? Such a statement makes it sound as if, pre-Potter, the kids had all gone Fahrenheit 451 and resisted reading for fear of severe punishment until awoken by the Little Magician That Could. The story goes something like this: One day, eight years ago, kids around the world who'd never so much as cracked a book were so enchanted by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that suddenly they became addicts, reading and rereading the author's multi-sequels -- all three million pages of them -- with excitement and haste. Well, conspicuous about that theory is the lack of follow-up phenomenons. Where has the Potter trail led this new generation of lustful bibliophiles? Some of them, it's fair to say, ran to Lemony Snicket, and others to Artemis Fowl, but no other book has drawn the kids like Potter. Unless they're all reading The Da Vinci Code, which they may well be. Still, isn't it more apt to say that Harry Potter has gotten kids to read ... Harry Potter?

Actually, a little research into what kids are currently reading (or, what their parents are buying for them) indicates that the reason no single book has engulfed a generation like Harry Potter is because book-buying dough is being spread among a range of titles, all within the fantasy genre. I'm a little distressed at this. I can get behind big, fat Hobbit-ish fantasy books filling the under-eight bestseller lists, but the young adult lists? The 13 and ups want dragons and magic? What about high school and rumbles and sex? All the stuff kids are faced with in their real lives every day?

When I was in the young adult bracket, Robert Cormier was passed around the sixth grade classroom and discussed in secret. It wasn't witchcraft our parents were concerned about us reading -- it was brutal violence and masturbation. And, to be honest, they weren't particularly concerned at all. Especially in my case -- Cormier, after all, led me to Larry Watson, who led me to Steinbeck, who, in turn, led me to Wallace Stegner, John Updike, and eventually, to Tom Robbins. My mum was, like the Potter-mums, just glad I was reading. It wasn't until I found Vonnegut that she freaked out in delight and started to engage me in conversations about chaos theory and time travel. She also handed me a beat-up copy of Donleavy's The Ginger Man as if handing over the Ark of the Covenant.

The major difference I can see between kids reading then and kids reading now is that we regularly genre-switched. Many of us read The Hobbit, but we also read The Outsiders and The Pigman and, even though he wasn't exactly considered young adult, Stephen King. The current abundance of fantasy floating around the bestseller list suggests that young adult readers have forgotten S.E. Hinton, and would much rather reading about wizards and gossiping girls. Glance at the kids' bestseller lists and you'll find the usual suspects: Potter, Snicket, and Fowl. Alongside are the new movie tie-in Narnia books, Christopher Paolini's Eragon, Emily Rodda's Deltora, Diana Wynn Jones, and the list goes on. It's a plague of dragons.

Not that there's anything really wrong with dragons, they're just everywhere, and they've swallowed the grit and the drama of literary teenage reality. Harry Potter has become the symbol of kid-reading, and while his supporters will find all manner of reasons that he most certainly should be that symbol, I'm hard pressed to believe his battles with Voldemort are more enlightening to the ways of the 20th century teen's social order than Hinton's books, or Cormier's.

You wouldn't think it was the big a deal -- kids read what they like and, at the moment, like Robosapien and Bratz, this is what they like at this moment. Quality and educational reasoning be damned. But check this out: Amazon.com's ages 9-12 recommendations list is crammed with fantasy -- and the only non-fantasy books there are by Carl Hiassen and Bill O'Reilly, of all people. The teens lists don't fair a whole lot better -- of the top ten selling books for teens, only one is non-fantasy. One! And that's Ann Brashares's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which, arguably, has its own fantastical elements.

Analogies and allegories aren't enough to genuinely assist kids in their growth, are they? Where are the books about real life, real love, real struggle? There are a couple scattered about with "it-girl", "boy-snatching" themes, but they don't count. Believe it or not, the first teenage non-it-girl, non-fantasy, futuristic, supernatural, or sci-fi book on the Amazon's bestseller list as of November 25 is Stephen Chbosky's perennial teen bible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower at number 48. It's one of alarmingly few such books: Anne Frank is at 50, Jane Austen is at 72 and 80, Camus is at 79, Carson McCullers is at 91, Watership Down is at 98. (Fahrenheit 451 comes in at number 37, but it, like Austen, Camus, McCullers, and Richard Adams, is more than likely a school assigned text.)

No Cormier anywhere to be found -- not even a dog-eared copy of Cujo. Only Judy Blume from my own formative years remains, with Are You There God, It's me Margaret? at 94. If it had been Forever, I may have had some faith restored that kids wanted to read about their flawed and fabulous counterparts rather than glittery, wizardly, dragon-like versions. (The Chocolate War by the way, 2005's most challenged book, sits comfortably at around number 24,000.) And it's not just kid lit. USA Today recently reported that Harry's minions have moved on to George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan, creating significant sales leaps for adult fantasy. In the article, titled "Potter cast a spell over entire genre", Tor founder Tom Doherty is quoted as saying that when readers engage fantasy, they say: "In this world, I'll suspend disbelief, and good will triumph, and the good guys will win."

That may be true, but what's the lesson? How does that keep kids grounded, show them that the good guys don't always win, but that they do sometimes, and even though life can be severe, it doesn't mean we can't learn from these severities? Perhaps I'm just bitter that Harry Potter, no matter how hard he tries, simply doesn't thrill me, and yet, everyone else seems to be having so much fun with him.

Which brings me to my point. If you're not a fantasy-phile, and want some realism in your reading diet (or your kids' reading diets), the good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux have taken it upon themselves to send into school libraries some informative and well-written books on the secret lives of post-9/11 young people. The latter half of the year, especially, has seen some truly exquisite books released. Kids can read about real life issues -- they can be educated and entertained. This isn't a love letter to the publisher -- they're not the only ones taking that important step forward in bringing kid-lit into the new millennium (hell, into the previous millennium) -- so much as a pat on the back for keeping kid-lit real.

In no particular order, here are some of FSG's best books for kids -- keep them in mind for stocking stuffers, too.



Dark Angel
by David Klass

Klass, author of the exceptional You Don't Know Me has created an affecting story of a young boy -- Jeff -- forced to come to terms with a series of shifts in his home life when his older brother, sent to prison for murder, is released on a technicality. The disruption caused by Troy's initial conviction repeats itself as he attempts -- badly -- to slot back into regular family life. Jeff struggles with Troy's return -- so much so that, when a friend goes missing, he becomes convinced of his brother's involvement. Klass is uninhibited and courageous in the roads he leads Jeff down. His story is a tough read, even for an adult, because of its truthful explorations of teenage self-involvement, self-esteem, and paranoia. There's some great stuff in here, too, on the relationships between kids, parents, and teachers.



Elsewhere
by Gabrielle Zevin

This one would win a place on this list due to its cover alone: a stunning image of a snow globe containing a luxury ocean liner -- the perfect metaphor for the major issues the small book contains. Yet another story from the point of view of a dead person, Elsewhere lifts one of its main plot contrivances from The Confessions of Max Tivoli, in which main character Lizzie Hall (in heaven) ages backwards in preparation for a return to Earth. There are also shades of The Lovely Bones here, but if you can overlook those the book is perfect for every teenage girl who's ever felt adrift on Teen Sea. Lizzie, dead at 15 following a hit and run accident, must engage in shaping life experiences while getting younger -- she falls in love, develops tight bonds with her friends and her grandmother, and, most importantly, she learns to forgive. But she can't access this knowledge as she matures. Instead, she's forced to wait, to forget, and to begin again at her rebirth. The message here is clear -- even at 15, with the potential for so much life ahead, do your best, live your life, and understand that 15 won't last forever.



Full Service
by Will Weaver

This book is a shift in direction for Will Weaver, author of the acclaimed Billy Baggs series of baseball books, and the futuristic Memory Boy. This one is so grounded in reality -- 1960s reality -- that the gasoline smell in 16-year-old Paul's nose reeks from the pages. Paul's a kid from a strictly religious family, discovering life and love with his first job at a roadside gas station. Instead of the cows on his family's farm, inexperienced Paul finds himself dealing with a semi-cool boss, chump-y co-worker, sex-crazed customers, and a family of hippies destined to teach him about spiritedness and freedom. Although it does get slightly preachy towards the end when Paul visits a religious camp, the book's point is still made -- at Paul's heart, he's one of the family, but he shouldn't close himself off to the outside world (or "the public", as his mum calls it). The great thing about this book is Paul's sharp development. Weaver has a superb ear for dialogue (an exchange between Paul and a grumpy barber is particularly fine) and he resists making stock characters out of Paul's new acquaintances. In a way, this story resembles those fantasy parables -- boy is thrown into strange new world and must adjust without losing his core identity.



What Erika Wants
by Bruce Clements

This one is particularly interesting because of its narrative structure. Teenage Erika, trapped in the middle of a custody dispute, is the book's focus, but only half the story is delivered from her point of view. The other half comes via her successful and smart lawyer, Jean. The effect here is to demonstrate just how separate the child and adult worlds are, and how much perception and misconception within these worlds can impact a child's development. For instance, it's compelling and disturbing to view Erika's parents through Erika's eyes, and then, so differently, through Jean's. Bruce Clements has been writing for teens since the 1970s, and while Erika's voice sometimes feels dated, the author succeeds in creating a mostly believable modern teenage girl with social anxiety and a near debilitating need for acceptance. This is a good one for the relationship between Erika and Jean, with a clear message that parental love needn't hinge on blood alone.



Under the Persimmon Tree
by Suzanne Fisher Staples

This is a beautiful, wrenching story of two women enduring the war in Iraq. Alternating chapters tell two stories -- that of Nasrat, an American woman and Islamic convert teaching children in Pakistan, and Najmah, struggling to find a safe place following the Taliban conscription of her father and brother, and the air raid deaths of her mother and younger brother. A book for young readers, this one refuses to pull punches: "[We] pass the bodies of people who were shot down as they ran to take cover," Staples writes as Najmah. "I peer closely at the them to see whether I recognize them, but I do not. I don't feel anything about them at all -- only a curiosity about who they are and where they come from." Poetically written and well-structured, Under the Persimmon Tree chronicles these women as they strive to understand the events of the war, and, eventually, come to trust each other.



Strong at the Heart
by Carolyn Lehman

Strong at the Heart is one of the highlights of the FSG catalogue. Edited by Carolyn Lehman, the book features nine in-their-own-words stories from survivors of sexual abuse across a range of communities -- rich, poor, black, white, Native American, and Latino. The most compelling thing about the book is its honesty -- nothing is watered down or censored. In many instances, the survivors discuss their assaults in detail. The reader's anguish, however, at hearing of Jonathan's abuse by his priest, or Kelly's rape at the hands of a kidnapper, is necessary in understanding the book's function -- that from these depths, strong, confident, committed people can emerge. Many of the storytellers here are now involved in creating foundations and safe havens for victims and survivors. The final 15 pages of the book provide details on help centers, activist organizations, fiction, and non-fiction books on sexual abuse, and a range of other helpful names and addresses for people requiring further information.



First French Kiss and Other Traumas
by Adam Bagdasarian

Bagdasarian's book is a shift in direction from the others documented here. This one, though at times quite emotional, is gently hilarious. It's the story of the author's school years, a period leading to his famed songwriter father's death Ross (The Alvin Show creator, Ross Bagdasarian), and his eventual move from the family home. Bagdasarian ties in notions of family and home and what they mean to an adolescent, as well as school, girls, best friends, little league, and camp. The chapters alternate between first, third, and second person narration, which draws the reader close to Adam's character (named Will, here) during the funny times, and allows us to step back, as Will does, during the sadder times. Here's "Will" on the brink of major fourth grade popularity: "Somewhere inside me I know that 10-year-old boys were not supposed to spend their recess circling oak trees in search of four leaf clovers". And fearing his father, in another room, has passed: "You go to your bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror and discover that you have that same funny look on your face that your mother had on hers. You get down on your knees and ask God please not to let your father be dead. This time you are praying for real." It's a little bit Christmas Story in some place -- that "Popularity" chapter, in particular -- which, of course, only adds to its appeal. I adored this book, and bawled in recognition most of the way through it.



Hidden Child
by Isaac Millman

Saving the best for last. Millman's book is a treasure, and every single kid in the whole world should own it. A large-sized, illustrated book, Hidden Child, is Isaac Millman's autobiographical story of his experiences during World War II. Beginning with his happy childhood in Paris in 1938, Millman recounts his father's capture by the Germans, his eventual arrest with his mother, and her heart-wrenching decision to send him off with strangers committed to hiding Jewish children in hospitals in order to keep them safe. Surviving brutality and finding empowerment from some of those loving strangers, Millman finds himself, at the book's close, happy, healthy, and bound for the United States, albeit alone. The book features a number of Millman's collage drawings as he illustrates his European journey. The colors are bright, the pictures subtly realistic and beautiful to look at. The book is sad, funny, exciting -- it's a history book, an art book, and an affecting autobiography that unnerves and calms at the same time. Another story of survival and will and spirit, this one is really an accomplishment.

Other titles that showcase FSG's wide-ranging subjects include Kazumi Yumoto's The Friends, drawing solid comparisons between adolescence in Japan and the US; Kate Banks's Amici del Cuore is about an enduring friendship in Italy; and Valerie Hobbs's Defiance, the story of a young boy undergoing cancer treatment. Not to be outdone, though, in case it's dragons and wizards and fantasy tales your kids yearn for, FSG will release Dreamhunter: Book One of the Dreamhunter Duet next March. If this list is anything to go by, it should be a cracker.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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