pushing narrative boundaries at the BankStreet Fest, with Tim Wynne-Jones and Daniel Jose Older

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A few months ago I received an invitation from one of my very favorite people in all of young people's literature, Jennifer Brown. If our friendship has evolved over time, my respect for Jenny was immediate. As a Shelf Awareness reviewer, prize adjudicator, discussion leader, Bank Street visionary, and all-around children's books advocate, Jenny's opinions have mattered. She has welded intelligence with kindness and become a force. Today she serves as vice president and publisher of Knopf Books for Young Readers at Random House Children's Books—a position that is such a perfect fit for her myriad talents (and soul) that one imagines it was waiting for her all along.

Before Jenny took on that new role, she designed the 2015 BookFest@Bank Street and extended the invitation I noted above. Featuring Rita Williams-Garcia in a keynote, the day will include insights from scholars and writers Leonard S. Marcus, Adam Gidwitz, Elizabeth Bluemle, Cynthia Weill, Christopher Myers, Shadra Strickland, Raul Colon, Sara Varon, Joe Rogers, Jr., Laura Amy Schlitz, Jeanne Birdsall, Kat Yeh, Liz Kessler, and Monica Edinger. BookFest will also feature a panel titled "Pushing Narrative Boundaries in Teen Literature," moderated by the reliably smart and provocative Vicky Smith, the reviews editor of Kirkus.

I'm thrilled to be joining Tim Wynne-Jones and Daniel Jose Older on that boundaries-pushing panel. I was thrilled even before I'd read their new novels, The Emperor of Any Place and Shadowshaper, respectively. But now, having spent the last few days immersed in both, I'm even more eager. This will be a conversation. The kind of conversation that I crave like I crave a perfect peach or a ripe Bartlett pear.

The Emperor of Any Place is a work of supreme art. A nested story within a story (and, one might suggest, within another story) that carries the reader in and out of history. There's the present-day reality of a teen named Evan who has lost his father and must now endure (within the knot of his grief) the arrival of his once-estranged grandfather. There is, as well, the story inside the book Evan's father was reading when he died—the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a small Pacific island during World War II. The soldier is not the sole inhabitant of that island, nor is he the only one who ultimately writes inside those diary pages. As Evan reads the book, many mysteries emerge. Why was his father obsessed with this story? Why is his grandfather obsessed, too? And what is the truth inside these diary pages that were annotated, later on, by another visitor to that island?

Emperor is grounded in the fear of war and the haze of solitude and the ingenuity of survivors, both contemporary and historic. It is wholly conceived and executed, yet it trembles with mystery and a touch of magic. It is brilliantly structured but its power does not rest on its conceit. Tim may have pushed the narrative boundaries but he has not taken a single short cut, not expected the readers to follow just because he's feverently hoped they will. Every element adds to every element here. There are rewards for those who ponder, and, indeed, you could ponder all day and never find a fault line in this complex novel's execution.

Shadowshaper casts its own marvelous spell, builds its own mystique, is the sort of original work you would expect from an author who is also a musician who is also an EMT who is also a commentator on social order and disorder. Daniel has built a book about a young girl who discovers within herself a legacy power—and who must learn to harness it for a greater good. Sierra Santiago is a painter who can see, within the art of others, shadow lives and shapes, art that fades, murals that shed real tears. She is a daughter and a granddaughter in pursuit of hidden grace. She chases, and she is being chased. She rises to the challenge.

Sierra does all this within language steeped in salsa rhythms and Brooklyn gaits. She does this while pondering the color of her skin, the explosive nature of her hair, the discrete borders inside the border lands of race. Daniel is not just weaving a magical story here. He is telling his readers something about how it feels to live today within the fractures of society. About how it is to hope, despite the noise of now.

Authors of books that break the rules must know, to begin with, what the prevailing rules have been. They have a special obligation to steer their projects toward a higher grace, so that the strange ultimately does collide with a deep emotional truth, so that the fiction feels real, so that the experience of reading the story goes beyond admiration and straight into embrace. Fiction comes from a human place. The best fiction elevates the idea of the humane.

We'll talk about this and much more, I'm sure, at Book Fest. I'll learn; I'm sure of that, too.

Registration information for Book Fest is here.


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