Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children in the Aftermath

The Pack
by Tom Pow

New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press, 2006, ©2004

Tom Pow's The Pack is like a children's primer for Cormac McCarthy. It is a story of desperation and identity, set in a bleak, post apocalyptic setting which is just recognizable enough to be truly disturbing even to veteran fans of the genre. This book occupies a nebulous place between childrens' and young adult literature; though it is ostensibly about children, its themes are somewhat more mature than typical juvenile fiction. Pow's writing style does not coddle his readers, whatever their age, and the subject matter is starker still.

The story in The Pack centers around three feral, orphan children living with wild dogs on the edge of what's left of civilization. The children are named after the storefronts they were found in front of, Bradley, Victor and Floris (the 't' was broken), while the dogs are meaningfully named Hunger, Fearless and Shelter. The pack survives under the tutelage of an old woman, whose stories teach them to retain the last shreds of their humanity. When Floris is kidnapped by a local warlord, the rest are forced into a quest to save her, for their own sakes as well as hers.

There are two reasons that this book is best for advanced readers: one, the story is written in a tone of unflinching brutality, devoid of comfort or ease; two, the literary eloquence of the book, while beautiful, can also be abstract in the extreme, and requires a well-developed sense of reading comprehension. The brutality comes in several forms; one of the crucial turns in the plot centers around a pair of dog fights, described in graphic detail, and several times during the story, characters defend some atrocious behavior by claiming it was necessary to survive.

As for literary abstraction, the main character, Bradley, explicitly follows the form of the Hero's Journey. Though the term itself is never directly invoked, the constant references to stories and dreams (not to mention the narrative style) make it clear that this is the form the pack's movements take. Also, the question of identity is brought into play, as is the barrier between human and animal, boy and girl, civilization and collapse. Finally, there is a level of social commentary which I won't describe in detail, because it is integral to the "big reveal" at the end of the book. Suffice it to say, the Invisible City and its surrounding Zones bear a shocking resemblance to the world as it already is, placed in a smaller sandbox and given a different context.

To what extent the childrens' world is actually "post apocalyptic", in the traditional sense, is never made perfectly clear beyond vague allusions to the "Dead Times". By the end of The Pack, the nature of the world these children live in is less defined than it was at the beginning, and that mystery is part of its charm. In the words of the old woman, repeated as a refrain throughout the book, the world is made of dust and ashes, but stories cannot crumble, burn or be broken.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Spaghetti, Squash, and One Hungry Spook

The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam
By Angela Shelf Medearis
New York: Scholastic Press, 1997

In this book, as can be the case in scary stories, the spookiest part is the anticipation. We get worried about the suspense and get overwhelmed with fear of what happens next. Or as our character Chef Dan from The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam might say, we get caught up in a plot that thickens like standing fatback in a fry pan.

In this story, a brave chef takes up the challenge to spend the night in a haunted house. It is told that in this house lives a horrible ghost and anyone who can spend the night in the house without fleeing will rid the house of the ghost forever. To sweeten the deal, the realtor in charge of the house offers a hefty reward for anyone who can cleanse the property of its supernatural resident. Dan enters the haunted house hopeful and excited, with an armful of groceries to keep him cooking throughout the night.

The storyline builds rhythmically and quickly in this picture book. In the style of short stories like What Do You Come For? and Me Tie Dough-ty Walker! (both short folktales retold by Alvin Schwartz in Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark), the ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam appears piece by piece. With each turn of the page, we see a new incarnation of the spook and a more intense feeling of fear registers with our beloved chef. As we get closer and closer to seeing the entire ghost, the suspense builds and readers wonder what will be Chef Dan’s fate upon meeting the ghost in full form. While the first face-to-face meeting shows a cowering chef and a very intimidating ghost, readers will be surprised by Dan's craftiness as he appeases the spirit and the two forge a friendship in a light-hearted and silly climax.

The watercolor illustrations in this text do a wonderful job of representing the soul of both Chef Dan and Sifty Sifty Sam. Dan is wrapped in warm layers of whites, yellows, browns, and pinks. Sifty Sifty Sam is portrayed with cool blends of blues, whites, grays, and black. Throughout the book you will notice this contrast between the ghost and Chef Dan. This artistic element plays upon the underlying theme of the differences in the realm of the living and the realm of dead. Overall I think this was a fun and quick picture book that would be appropriate to share with children of varying ages.