This week, the Teen Book Group (which is grades 7 to 9) discussed Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, the first in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. This was a book nominated by a group member, and voted on by all members of the group, which definitely boosted the conversation about the book (as opposed to the book I chose for them at the beginnning of the year, Mortal Engines). Interestingly, though, we spent a good amount of meeting time not discussing this book in specific, but rather addressing one of my pet concerns about contemporary children’s and young adult literature.
I will admit that I was less than inspired for this meeting of the book group, having just gotten over last Thursday’s stomach bug – just in time to get this week’s sore throat and cold. But I think that my less-than-healthy physical state actually helped to inspire a slightly different type of conversation than we usually have. At first, I kind of sat back in a stupor and let the kids have at it. They kept looking at me from the corners of their eyes, utterly astonished that I wasn’t complaining about the fact that they were comparing Wolf Brother to Harry Potter (usually, I vociferously enforce my anti-Harry Potter ban in all book group discussions). But as I sat listening to them take the discussion in this direction, I decided to ask them to talk more about why so very many children’s and young adult books are part of a series, and why so very, very few are stand-alone works. Why do kids and teens prefer to read books that are a part of a series? What is the appeal?
The group members replied that a series is better because you learn more about the characters – the plots are better able to be described and fleshed out – and the reader isn’t left with a cliff hanger; all plot issues are worked out in full over the course of a series. One member commented that he read a stand-alone novel once that ended with a cliffhanger, and he would have much preferred it if there was a sequel, since the book ended in an unresolved manner. To my mind (something I didn’t say to the group), I prefer a book that leaves something to the imagination at the end. I love finishing a book, then going to bed and dreaming about what might happen next to the characters. I love getting so involved in a story that I can continue it for myself, in a myriad of possible directions. But I didn’t say that to the group, though in hindsight I wish that I had.
Instead, I asked them the following: do the reasons that they stated for the value of series books mean that most children’s and young adult literature is about plot, not quality of writing? And they immediately agreed, and said yes, most books they read are about plot. One clever young lady raised her hand very high, looked me in the eye, and said, “Abby, I’d like to ask you: what is your definition of quality literature??” Ouch. Tough question to be asked as you’re sinking down in your chair, under the influence of a mega-sore throat. But I replied that I love Jane Austen’s works (groans from the peanut gallery), and that I also love some books by contemporary authors, like Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere. I also said that the definition of “quality literature” is obviously subjective, and that we each might have a different opinion. But I thought that we could all agree that the Twilight saga is plot-driven but terribly (terribly!) written. Thank goodness, they agreed, and then we tried to rank the book of the day’s discussion, Wolf Brother.
We all agreed that the strengths of Wolf Brother lie in the relationship between Torak and Wolf, and most especially in the meticulously researched details about life as a hunter in Europe 6,000 years ago. We all finished reading the book with the feeling that we had a sense of what life was like all those thousands of years ago, which is a big plus for the book. But the writing is neither great nor terrible: it furthers the plot, but doesn’t excite the reader with its use of language. I’d say that 90% of the group agreed that the book was a good diversion, but not our favorite, and that we wouldn’t bother to read the rest in the series (there are currently six sequels). It should be noted that the book has one very big fan in our book group, who has read all seven of the books multiple times – and who was the group member to nominate it for discussion. So of eight readers in attendance, Wolf Brother has one very devoted follower, and seven readers who see its worth but don’t adore it. That, actually, is not all that bad for a book. And it did lead us to an excellent discussion, which I appreciate. This teen book group is a smart, well-read, incredibly cool bunch of kids, and it was great fun having such a deep conversation with them.