Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1991
By Orson Scott Card
Catwings, Ursula K. LeGuin, ill. S.D. Schindler (Scholastic, paper, 40 pp,
children's book, $2.50); Catwings Return (Scholastic, paper, 48 pp, children's
Most of the time when authors noted for adult books -- even adult books
that are often enjoyed by children -- set their hands to a book that is avowedly
for children, they embarrass themselves by making a perfect botch of it. I think
at once of Ray Bradbury's awful The Halloween Tree, which talked down to its
audience mercilessly, and in which nothing much happened except charming
sweet "children things" -- this from the author of Dandelion Wine and Something
Wicked This Way Comes.
So I feared the worst when I picked up these two children's books by the
author of the Earthsea books, which have long been loved by children as well as
adults. I mean, let's get real, shall we? What in the world can we possibly
except from "winged cat" stories? Cat stories are, as a genre, the most repulsive
sort of fiction anyway -- they are almost invariably the projection of cat-lover's
fantasies on the selfish and half-wild animals they have allowed to dominate
their lives. Those of us who sneeze when cats are mentioned are usually about as
charmed as when the owners of tiny yipping dogs tell us that "Boopsie has been
feeling depressed lately, but she'll perk up as soon as her new sweater is finished,
because Boopsie just loves to wear the color blue."
Then put wings on the cat and the story is doomed.
Except . . . Catwings and Catwings Return are winged-kitten stories by
Ursula K. LeGuin, who is apparently incapable of telling stores that aren't tough
When I tell you the stories, you'll think the worst has happened. After
all, the plot of the first book is that several winged cats decide to leave their
ever-more-dangerous city neighborhood and find a safer place out in the country;
they end up living in a barn where meals are provided by two children who
decide to keep the catwings' existence a secret. The second story is about the
return of two of the flying kittens to find their mother; along the way, they find
yet another winged cat, this one very young and almost nonverbal; they save the
little one and then find Mommy. Cliche, right?
Right and wrong. Because even though -- or perhaps especially because --
LeGuin is writing for children, her stores are laced with bittersweet truths about
"nature red in tooth and claw." These kittens grow up knowing their father only
by rumor (the gentle jest that he was a "fly-by-night"), which is perfectly natural
for cats . . . but has also become increasingly a fact of life for many human
children, especially in the city.
And when the catwings reach the woods outside the city, they find that
life isn't all that much safer -- an encounter with an owl fills them with as much
terror as they ever felt in town. The one who is injured never really gets better
and remains somewhat crippled. The kittens themselves aren't "nice" -- they
catch and kill mice and fish to survive. And when they find their mother, she's
doing just fine by herself; it's nice to see the kits again, of course, but now they
can just run along because she's living her own rather comfortable life now.
Yet even though LeGuin's stories are not sentimentalized, neither do they
shock or brutalize in their truthfulness. Rather, as she makes danger and loss andinjury and fear and all the passages of life seem natural and unavoidable, LeGuin
also lets us see that life can still be well-lived, and individuals can still act rightly
and lovingly and bravely, and can bear with dignity whatever losses come. Not a
bad set of truths for children to learn in a couple of gentle, well-told tales.
Wizard's Hall, Jane Yolen, ill. Trina Schart Hyman (HBJ, Cloth, 133 pp,
Eleven-year-old Henry is a kid who isn't particularly good at anything, and
has no particular ambitions in life. Like most kids, he has passing fancies about
what he'd like to be -- but to his surprise, when he mentions the idea of maybe
becoming a wizard, his normally complacent mother seizes on the idea and packs
him off to study at Wizard's Hall.
There Henry finds himself immediately out of his depth. He's the newest
student, of course, and because his arrival completes the total of 113 students
that the magisters were looking for, he will always be the newest. They take
away his name and call him Thornmallow because he's "prickly on the outside
and squishy on the inside," and then proceed to make it plain that he lacks even
the most rudimentary talents that wizards must have in order to do well. He also
has a habit of blurting things out and making spectacular mistakes.
But he does have a few friends, and when it comes to his schooling, he
tries, which may -- or may not -- be enough.
Yolen writes with great charm and wit, so that while the book is never
riotously funny, it is amusing from the start. She also has a knack for finding the
telling detail, so that the story is believable even at its most strange, and the bad
guy who shows up at the end (along with a marvelously inventive and scary
"quilt beast") is a powerful and compelling figure indeed.
The only trouble with Yolen's style is that its tone of cleverness and
brashness -- which make it so pleasant to read -- can also cause us to keep our
distance from Henry. Instead of finding ourselves inside his head and heart, we
are at one remove; we watch him when, for the story to have its greatest power,
it might have been better if we could have felt ourselves to be him.
But perhaps it's enough to like Henry Thornmallow, and to enjoy his story.
Certainly at the end, where he finds himself almost alone in facing the enemy,
after watching terrible things happen to the people he most likes and admires,
the book fulfills every promise and becomes quite a strong mythic tale.
Don't Care High, Gordon Korman (Scholastic/Point, paper, 243 pp, young adult
Technically I suppose that Don't Care High isn't really fantasy -- that is,
there is no magic, or at least none that is called magic. Rather it's a fantasy the
way Ferris Beuller's Day Off was fantasy -- you know that reality doesn't actually
work this way -- but you wish it did!
Paul Abrams has just moved to New York City from Saskatoon, and finds
himself in a high school named for Don Carey, the man who devised New York's
sewer system. The students at Don Carey are spectacularly uninterested in
education, so much so that the school has earned the nickname "Don't Care
How little do they care? There hasn't been a student body president in
decades, because nobody runs. The football field is in the middle of a freeway
interchange but it hardly matters because nobody ever goes out for the team.
The students show up for class when they feel like it, but no one can really say
they're late because no one has bothered to synchronize the clocks in the school.
No one, not even the teachers, can remember the principal's name.
In other words, this is high school the way it feels to most students along
about January, when summer is still an infinite distance away and there are no
more significant holidays to look forward to.
Then Paul finds himself caught up in the schemes of a new friend named
Sheldon, who takes it into his head to nominate for student body president a kid
named Mike Otis, who is spectacular in his indifference to high school. Mike
barely notices when he wins the election, but Sheldon is having so much fun he
As a result, Paul and Sheldon, putting Mike Otis's name on everything
they do, end up spurring the whole school into action -- making a massive
science project, fielding an inspired girl's basketball team, breaking the spirit of
the student who, in finest mafia style has taken over control of the school's
lockers, and finally waging a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the vice-principal's decision to remove Mike Otis as student body president.
Not one thing that happens in the story is believable. And yet Korman
juxtaposes his fantasy high school events with "real-world" events like a garbage
strike and learning to drive in New York City -- a deft reminder, whenever we
need one, that this fantasy isn't all that strange compared to what really goes on
in the Big Apple. And Mike Otis himself remains an enigma, a figure even more
mythical and strange than the image Sheldon and Paul create for him.
There are no serious school commentaries here -- racial tension and
poverty, for instance, never even come up. And yet Korman does manage to
deal quite well with the idea of political power. Where it comes from, how it's
used, and how easily people are manipulated despite their best efforts at
remaining completely uninvolved! Best of all, the book is funny and
imaginative, and anybody who doesn't enjoy it is a stick-in-the-mud.
"GenreCon," the Preconference on Genres of the Young Adult Services
Division of the American Library Association (27-28 June, Atlanta)
I know, this is a book review column, not at all the place to do conference
reports. But I do talk about science fiction and fantasy for children and young
adults from time to time, and I thought you'd be interested in what the young
adult librarians are doing. After all, most of us discovered science fiction and
fantasy during our teens (or even earlier), and if you're like me, you discovered it
as much through what was on the shelves of the school library or the public
library as through anything you found in the bookstore.
First, you might want to know that the YASD of the ALA (see the
heading for a translation) has come up with some valuable lists of books
especially recommended for young adults in each of several genres. While the
lists of Sports, Humor, Romance, and Mystery are also interesting, I thought
you'd be most interested in knowing what is being recommended in Science
Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Some of the titles are exactly what you'd expect --
or even hope for! Others, though, will steer you to books and authors you may
not have read before. And as you read these lists, keep in mind that many
librarians -- especially those who don't read much in our genres -- will make
purchasing decisions based on these lists!
Science Fiction: Mildred Ames, Anna to the Infinite Power; Ayn Rand,
Anthem, Robert A. Heinlein, Citizens of the Galaxy; Anne McCaffrey,
Dragonsong; a book of mine; Piers Anthony, Ghost; Douglas Adams, The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; William Sleator, Interstellar Pig; Ursula K.
LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness; David Brin, Postman; Janet Kagan, Uhura's
Song; Louis McMaster Bujold, The Warrier's Apprentice.
A few more books, not officially on the list, are also recommended:
Andre Norton, Catseye; Pamela Sargent, Earthseed; David Palmer, Emergence;
William Sleator, House of Stairs; Joan D. Vinge, Psion; H. M. Hoover, Rains of
Eridan; Paula Danzinger, This Place Has No Atmosphere; Robert C. O'Brien, Z for
Some surprises -- A Star Trek novel? Well, I told you long ago that Janet
Kagan had made hers something special! An Ayn Rand novel -- especially one
so little known as Anthem? Well, these lists were made by librarians who weren't
afraid of the idea of challenging students, and they tried to read all of each
other's nominations. Apparently Anthem turned out to be persuasive indeed.
There are old favorites that I grew up on -- the Heinlein and the Norton were
among my earliest and most seminal science fiction reading when I was a kid --
and wonderful newcomers and books that nobody ever thought of as YA titles
until the kids themselves found them.
Horror: Barbara Michaels, Ammie Come Home; Clive Barker, Books of
Blood; Stephen King, Carrie; Margaret Mahy, The Changeover; Dean Koontz,
Darkfall; Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire; Dean Koontz, The Mask, Robert
McCammon, Mystery Walk; Stephen King, The Shining; Ray Bradbury, Something
Wicked This Way Comes; Lois Duncan, Summer of Fear; David Morrell, The
Also recommended: Best of H. P. Lovecraft; Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror
and the Macabre Robert Bloch, Cold Chills; Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar
Allen Poe; Bram Stoker, Dracula; Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House;
Whitley Strieber, The Hunger; Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby; and John Saul, The
Notice that this list contains scarcely any titles that were written for kids.
Still, of the ones I've read, the librarians have done a good job of choosing the
best -- or at least the most highly spoken of. And the also-recommended list
seems to cover the old classics fairly well.
Fantasy: Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure; Lloyd Alexander,
The Book of Three; Suzy McKee Charnas, The Bronze King; Barbara Hambly,
Dragonsbane; J..R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring; Robin McKinley, The
Hero and the Crown; Piers Anthony, On a Pale Horse; T.H. White, The Once and
Future King; Patricia A. McKillip, The Riddle-Master of Hed; a book of mine;
Monica Furlong, Wise Child; and Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea.
Also recommended: Grace Chetwin, Gom on Windy Mountain; Marion
Zimmer Bradley, Hawkmistress; Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle;
Raymond E. Feist, Magician Apprentice; David Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy; Clare
Bell, Ratha's Creature; Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon; and Terry Brooks,
Sword of Shannara.
Here the also-recommended list seems to have been used for popular series
that some of the librarians weren't terribly thrilled with, and for at least one
"fantasy" that is, technically, science fiction. But that very question -- how
Bradley's Darkover books can be fantasy while McCaffrey's Dragon books are sf
-- came up at what was called a "breakout session" on fantasy, moderated by Di
Herald, who also was on the committee of seven that made this list.
One of the most interesting aspects of that session was a discussion of
books that had been nominated for the fantasy list but didn't end up getting on.
While the list they ended up with is a fine one, with old favorites and wonderful
new books well represented, looking at the list of almost-made-its can give you
some idea of how hard these librarians struggled to make their final decisions.
For instance. C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was nominated
but didn't make it on; likewise, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Steven Brust's
Jhereg, Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foull's Bane, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is
Rising; Margaret Weis's and Tracy Hickman's Dragon Wing; and Terry Pratchett's
The Color of Magic. Why didn't they make it? The simple answer is that they
didn't get the votes; but the honest answer for some of them was that, while
each had its champions, some also met with resistance from librarians who truly
loathed the books in question ...
Still, I was delighted that Terry Bisson's brilliant Talking Man was noticed
and nominated, as was Meredith Pierce's unforgettable The Woman Who Loved
Reindeer. Elizabeth Scarborough's Nebula-winning The Healer's War met some
resistance because it wasn't fantasy enough. (Go figure!) And as for R. A.
McAvoy, she certainly had enough votes to get on the list a couple of times over
-- but her votes were split among many titles -- Book of Kells, Damiano, The Grey
Horse, Tea with the Black Dragon -- and no one book ended up with enough votes
to make the cut!
So there were frustrations with what got left off as well as what got put on
these lists. Yet there is no doubt that the librarians who composed the lists cared
very much about the genres they were representing, and have strong and
fascinating ideas about what makes a book "good." Just as important to me, as I
listened to the conversation of these librarians who had paid an extra $165,
often out of their own pockets, to attend this preconference on genres, I realized
that they are keenly aware of what speculative literature is for. Fantasy, they
pointed out, is perhaps the only genre where there seems to be no barrier
between adult and young adult fiction. While kids will often break into the
adult section, it seems to be only in fantasy that adults are just as ready to reach
into the children's and YA sections to find books to read and love. They also
affirmed, from their direct observation, what we have long suspected -- that
fantasy and science fiction attract the best and the brightest of the youthful
I left the breakout session with a great deal of trust in the librarians who
are, for many young readers, the first guides to point the way into the world of
speculative literature. And I couldn't wait to pass along their lists to you -- if
only to start you arguing about other titles that should have been there!