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Post-Apocalyptic Juvie Lit

Posted by Joshua Glenn  February 5, 2008 02:42 PM

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Rumors of Ed Champion's retirement from litblogging were premature. After a short break, Champion's entertaining and informative blog -- now titled Ed Champion's Filthy Habits -- is once again active. And yes, you should be pleased to hear that Champion is still holding the New York Times Book Review up to an exacting standard of excellence.

In an entry posted yesterday, titled Dave Itzkoff: The Genre Dunce Who Won't Stop Dancing, Champion took issue with the opening sentence of the NYTBR's science fiction column, Across the Universe, the latest installment of which appeared on Sunday.

Clearing his throat before getting on with the work of reviewing "Un Lun Dun," a new work of juvenile literature by British "weird fiction" author China Miéville (it sounds pretty good; I'm putting it on my Amazon wish list), columnist Dave Itzkoff mused that riding the subway with Harry Potter-reading New Yorkers (these rides, according to Itzkoff, "tend to resemble scenes from an 'Evil Dead' movie, in which I am Bruce Campbell dodging zombies who have had all traces of their humanity sucked out of them by a sinister book") sometimes makes him "wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers."

Very neat, right? Itzkoff signals that he's down with the long-overdue J.K. Rowling backlash, gets off a hip horror/slapstick movie reference, and sets up a conflict (dignified, satisfying speculative fiction vs. undignified, unsatisfying juvenile fiction) that a close reading of Miéville will synthetically resolve. (The purpose of "Un Lun Dun," according to Itzkoff, is not to dispel the fear of leaving home for its youthful readers, "but rather to provide them with irresistible incentive to take those tentative first steps into unpredictable worlds beyond.")

Champion isn't having any of it.

For one thing, he says, Itzkoff's Bruce Campbell reference is "cutesy," and it doesn't work:

... In fact the "Evil Dead" films concerned themselves with the backwoods, not an urban setting, and it was the supernatural (as opposed to zombies) that Bruce Campbell dodged in the "Evil Dead" films. [Itzkoff] might have had a decent comparison on his hands had he evoked something along the lines of Lamberto Bava's "Demons." But a tired and clumsy reference to Bruce Campbell? Clearly, this was one of those "hip" comparisons that Itzkoff sneaked into his column not with the intent of relating to his audience, but to desperately pine for a geek chic he clearly does not and can never possess.

Over-the-top? Champion does have his facts straight. In the first "Evil Dead" movie, anyway, demons possess mortal bodies. No zombies. I never saw any of the sequels.

Also, Champion isn't pleased with the premise of Itzkoff's essay: "But this ignoramus," he fumes, "also has the temerity to suggest that speculative fiction authors can only write speculative fiction and that there is nothing of value in [Young Adult] books."

Now, I agree with Itzkoff that writing speculative fiction has to be more satisfying than writing Harry Potter books -- I, for one, have never been impressed with J.K. Rowling's work. And I must say that Champion is going too far in calling Itzkoff a dunce and an ignoramus. (Although it occurs to me that the character "Ed Champion" is probably supposed to be the "Ed Anger" of literary criticism -- in which case, anything goes.) However! Champion is absolutely right to scoff at the premise that speculative fiction and juvenile lit can only be written by the same author at the risk of cognitive dissonance and loss of dignity. Anyone who says so has been reading the wrong juvenile lit.

So, being for the benefit of Mr. Itzkoff, I herewith present a short, hastily annotated list of some of my own favorite examples of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Each of the following titles could and/or should be categorized as juvenile lit. NB: Although many of my favorites happen to fall near the top of the list, it's in chronological order.

* The excellent 1967-68 "Tripod" series -- "White Mountains," "City of Gold and Lead," "Pool of Fire" -- by British author John Christopher.

* The top-notch 1968-70 "Changes" trilogy -- "The Weathermonger," "Heartsease," "The Devil's Children" -- by British author Peter Dickinson.

* "The Guardians" (1970), by John Christopher.

* The terrific 1971-72 "Sword of the Spirits" or "Winchester" series -- "Prince in Waiting," "Beyond the Burning Lands," "Sword of the Spirits" -- by John Christopher.


* "Andra" (1971), by Louise Lawrence.

* "Out There" (1971), by Adrien Stoutenberg.

* "Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth" (DC), the 1972-78 comic book series by Jack Kirby -- I recently bought volume 1 of the hardbound series, and read it to my sons.


* "Children of Morrow" (1973), by HM Hoover.

* The great 1974-7? comic book series "Omac: One Man Army," by Jack Kirby.

* "Planet of the Apes" -- the kid-friendly 1974 TV series. Plus action figures!

* "Wild Jack" (1974), by John Christopher.

* "Outside" (1974), by Andre Norton.

* "The Girl Who Owned a City" (1975), by OT Nelson -- I purchased this through the Scholastic Book Club when I was a kid. It's very pro-capitalist, now that I re-read it.


* "The City Under Ground" (1975), by Suzanne Martel.

* "Z for Zachariah" (1975), terrific book by Robert O'Brien -- author of a classic work of juvenile fiction, "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH."

* "Children of the Dust" (1975), by Louise Lawrence.

* "Noah's Castle" (1975), by John Rowe Townsend -- also from Scholastic Book Club.

* "City of Darkness" (1976), by Ben Bova.

* "Empty World" (1977), also by John Christopher.

* "Riddley Walker" (1980), by Russell Hoban. OK, this is really for adults, but the protagonist is a young adult. And Hoban is most famous for his "Frances the Badger" children's books.

* "Blakely's Ark" (1981), by Ian Macmillan.

* "Jimbo" (1982), the comic by Gary Panter -- again, not really for kids. But it's a comic!

* "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985): A kiddie version of the "Mad Max" movies.


* "Fiskadoro" (1985), by Denis Johnson -- not exactly for teens, but I read it in high school.

* "Galapagos" (1985), by Kurt Vonnegut -- ditto.

I'm sure there are other books that should be included on this list. But I graduated from high school in 1986, and lost track of post-apocalyptic juvenile lit. Readers, help me out! What am I overlooking? PS: Please don't tell me "City of Ember." Not impressed!

UPDATE: Thanks, io9, for the link!


More SF- and comics-related stories: "We are Iron Man!" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Kiddie Movies" (Brainiac) | "The Slacktivism of Richard Linklater" (Slate) | "Black Iron Prison" (n+1) | "Back to Utopia" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "In a Perfect World" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Philip K. Dick: Hermenaut of the Month" (Hermenaut) | "Journeys to the Center " (New York Times Book Review/IHT) | "Climate of Fear" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Pulp Affection" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Eco-Spaceship Redux" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Juvie Lit" (Brainiac) | "The New Skrullicism" (Brainiac) | "Prez" (Brainiac) | "Life Imitates Comic Book" (Brainiac) "Vintage Ads of Fictional Futures" (Brainiac) | "The Partisans" (Brainiac) | "The New Gods" (Brainiac) | "Rarebit Fiend!" (Brainiac audio slideshow) | "Dr. Strange vs. Dr. Craven" (Brainiac)

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13 comments so far...
  1. Scott Westerfeld's work: Pretties, Uglies, and Specials.

    Posted by VR February 5, 08 06:10 PM
  1. I want to ask you, why do think the Planet of the Apes TV show is better than Harry Potter? The TV Show of PotA is awful.
    Tell me, what exactly do you have against Harry Potter, and juvenile fiction in general?
    Harry Potter is a well-written story, and from what I can tell, you seem to not like it because of it's success.
    It is also clear to me that you have been reading the wrong juvenile fiction. There is some very good stuff out there.
    Gregor the Overlander, Circle of Magic, Song of the Lioness, and the Uglies/Pretties/Specials trilogy are just a few of a ton of very good books. You should update that list of yours. Most of the books and movies are about 20-30 years old. Some of them are very good, but you should tune in to the more recent stuff before you go critiquing juvenile fiction now.

    Posted by Gwynneth February 5, 08 07:39 PM
  1. Thanks, VR and Gwynneth. I haven't read Scott Westerfeld's trilogy, and -- as I was careful to note -- I'm not very familiar with juvenile lit after 1985. Though I have read a couple of Harry Potter books and the "City of Ember" trilogy, neither of which impressed me. Are they better than the "Planet of the Apes" TV show? Probably -- I just threw that one in for fun. But they can't hold a candle to John Christopher, Peter Dickinson, Robert O'Brien, and other juvie lit authors I listed. However, the point of this essay was not to argue about which juvie lit authors are best, but to *defend* juvie lit against those who consider it inherently inferior to speculative fiction. I'm on your side, Gwynneth! I just don't enjoy Harry Potter. Or Ender's Game. So sue me!

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 5, 08 07:50 PM
  1. Dude!! Nice list, props on 'The Girl Who Owned a City'. From your 1986 graduation date, I'd wager I'm about 10 years younger than you and that book was still going strong on the Scholastic order form when I was in primary. Classic! I wonder if they still have those paper forms; most likely its all net based now which kinda sucks.
    However, I gotta take issue with your stance on Ender's Game. Ender's Game, Speaker for The Dead and Xenocide are all excellent books. The latter two get into some pretty heavy ecological/philosophical areas and should probably be considered straight up Scifi, and the "Ender's Shadow" series etc. aren't too great. Ender's Game most definitely is juvenile fiction, and is unimaginably good.

    Posted by Jesse Sutherland February 6, 08 01:11 AM
  1. Susan Cooper - The Dark Is Rising (please ignore the recent movie - the books are excellent. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and anything else by Alan Garner. Absolutely anything by Diana Wynne Jones. More recently, there's the Mortal Engines series which is pretty cracking YA steampunk stuff. There is a heck of a lot of very good YA speculative lit out there - and it's pretty important to remember that that's the breeding ground for readers of 'grown-up' SF and fantasy.

    Posted by Huw Bowen February 6, 08 05:13 AM
  1. Jesse, Scholastic still uses the paper forms -- my kids bring them home every month. Alas, there's a lot of junk in those catalogs -- endless Sponge Bob products, for example.

    I read "Ender's Game" a few years ago and didn't like it, what can I tell you? But you readers are making me want to read it again.

    Huw, I am a huge fan of Susan Cooper's books, and I've read boxes full of fantasy novels, both adult and juvie. I didn't mention them because this post was about SF.

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 6, 08 10:33 AM
  1. Great List! I couldn't get enough SF when I was growing up. I started at A and made my way through the library shelf to Z!

    A few additions:

    The Isis Series by Monica Huges (The Keeper of the Isis Light, The Guardian of Isis, The Isis Pedlar) - alienation, prejudice, idealism - a beautiful story

    The Earth Song Trilogy by Sharon Webb (Earth Child, Earth Song, Ram Song) - children must choose between creativity and immortality - heavy stuff

    Posted by Nadine February 6, 08 11:03 AM
  1. _Unwind_ by Neal Shusterman. It's got flaws, but anyone who suggests that it's shallow or cheap, or not thought provoking is just not worth reading as a reviewer.

    Itzkoff slagging on Harry Potter is a mirror of critics slagging on Stephen King.

    Posted by Josh Jasper February 6, 08 12:12 PM
  1. What about Lois Lowry's The Giver?

    Posted by KT February 6, 08 02:35 PM
  1. Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold would fit under the "not exactly for teens, but I read it in high school" exemption.

    Posted by Phil K. February 8, 08 05:18 PM
  1. Trivia fact: The fortress-like high school in The Girl Who Owned a City is the same high school where the movie Lucas is set. (I grew up one suburb over.)

    The pro-capitalist slant of The Girl must not have registered with me, but I do remember how pro-suburban and anti-urban it was. The suburban kids' worst fear is that the bad kids from the city are on their way out to sack their suburban stronghold, barbarians/Romans style, or, better, like 1965 white L.A. suburbanites arming themselves as the Watts Riots raged.

    Posted by Seth Tisue February 10, 08 07:22 PM
  1. Thanks, Nadine, Josh, and Phil. I'm not familiar with all the titles you mention. Are they post-apocalyptic? I was restricting myself to that sub-genre. KT, I do like "The Giver," which I read recently; it's dystopian -- or at least an ambiguous utopia, to use Ursula K. LeGuin's phrase -- but again, is it post-apocalyptic? Seth, great point!

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 12, 08 11:27 AM
  1. 'The Girl Who Owned A City' is appalling libertarian claptrap of the worst kind.

    Posted by AJ November 2, 08 06:04 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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