So, I spent most of the weekend reading.
No surprise there, really. What was surprising, though, was the effect the books I chose to read this weekend had on me. You might expect euphoria; you might expect joy. You might also expect something like total absorption and utter devotion, because – of course – this is normally how I describe my reading life. There’s very little I like doing more. Reading, for me, comes a close second to breathing.
But, this weekend, I was irritated. I was annoyed. I was left disappointed and somewhat disillusioned at the end of my long and weary struggle to finish reading the books I’d chosen. I don’t like giving up on a book, so I kept going till the bitter end, but I’m being honest when I say that both these reads were a challenge (and not in a good way.) I’m not going to name the books, because I don’t believe in doing that – plenty of other readers have, clearly, loved these books, so who am I to criticise their taste? – but let me just say that the books I read were ones written for children, and they had received great reviews. They were both written by authors with long and successful careers (though not as children’s authors – one writes for adults, usually, and the other is more involved in the film industry.) They’d been given excellent cover ‘blurbs’ from established authors I admire, and both of them promised wonderful things, if their back covers were anything to go by. They were enticing enough for me to pick them up and buy them, at least.
Reading them, however, made me feel like this:
Both these books were long – in the region of 500 pages. Both were epic, sweeping stories, the first (apparently) in their respective future series. One was slightly better than the other in terms of being in touch with how real children speak and think and act, and featured a group of siblings fighting for survival in a fantasy world that seems to change and twist at random (even though it’s plainly obvious what’s happening to any reader with a speck of intelligence); the other was written in language which no child since Shakespearean times has used, and it was filled with long monologues of exposition, in which characters explain things to one another. This doesn’t just happen once or twice, in which case it’s excusable – it happens all the time.
The following paragraph isn’t, of course, taken from the book. It’s taken from the pit of my imagination. But it may give you some sense of what the book was like:
‘Humphrey, as you’re aware, when the moon and Venus, planet of beauty and love, reach a particular alignment in the heavens, the Gods of the West Wind will be so enraged by their intimacy that they will unleash a storm of fearsome and unprecedented force upon us poor weaklings here below.’
‘Why, yes, Gerald! Every child, from their earliest sparks of understanding, is taught the story of the Jealous West Wind at their mother’s knee. But surely you don’t mean…’
‘Yes, Humphrey! Yes. We must face it. Look upon the sky and tell me what you see.’
‘Why, a raging red mist, spreading from edge to edge along the horizon. What can it portend?’
‘The storm, Humphrey. The storm! It is coming!’
*cue alarms, distress, swords clanking, etc.*
Very little irritates me more than the Huge Monologue, where characters get up on their soapboxes – much like I’m doing here, funnily enough – and rant on about something or tell one another things which could have been uncovered through adventure and storytelling instead. Another thing which annoys me in children’s books is the use of coincidence – oh, look, we’re being chased by the bad guys with swords, so let’s race for our lives down to the docks and hop on the first boat we come across which of course happens to be the one which contains the magical cargo we need to get to our destination (sorry, I’m running out of breath); or – wow, how cool is this – the one person we come across in the course of our adventuring is the only person in the world who knows exactly what we’re looking for, how to find it, and is willing to bring us for a reasonable fee.
Don’t worry about that sound you’re hearing – it’s just me, grinding my teeth.
This book – the one I’m not going to name, with the ridiculously complicated and old-fashioned and tension-free monologues in it – was also packed full of coincidences. The protagonist (I hesitate to call him a hero, because he doesn’t actually do very much. For example – by the time he comes back from his quest, the reason for which had nothing to do with the conclusion of the book, the people of his home city had – in his absence – arranged to overthrow their despotic leader. Yet, somehow, when it comes time to give credit for their victory in battle, our protagonist is responsible for all of it) was continually running into people who were falling over themselves to help him, or finding things to give him a hand along the way.
I needed to take a few deep breaths by the time I was finished reading this book. It was either that, or fling it against a wall.
The book read like it was written by someone who doesn’t read children’s books. In fact, both of them did. They were both too long – the book about the siblings felt, to me, like someone had taken every single thing they thought would be cool to include, and flung them all, regardless of sense or interest or plausibility, into the plot just for laughs, and don’t get me started on the other one – and could have been edited to make them far more crisp and exciting. I found my attention wandering, my eyes sliding off the page, and my brain being strangled by the sheer tedium of sentence after sentence after sentence.
I am a person who reads. I am used to it. I am a person who loves and adores and lives and breathes children’s books. I didn’t find the books hard to read because they were written for kids. Reading them, however, has made me want to read something totally different for my next book, in order to try to re-set my brain, and I think that’s sad.
But the thing that upset me the most about this weekend’s reading?
Both these books are published, have been successful, and – to my mind – break every ‘rule’ that children’s books are supposed to have.
It’s almost enough to smash one’s tiny, tiny heart.
Happy Monday! Onwards and upwards from here, chums.