Monday, June 30, 2008


by Hope Larson
Aladdin 2008

Garrett Martin: So what should be more embarrassing for a 30-year-old man to read on the train, a 500 page collection of Green Lantern comics written for kids in the early '60's, or a thoughtful, well-done work by an acclaimed creator that would probably be most meaningful to a 13-year-old girl? There's absolutely nothing embarrassing about the content or craft of Chiggers, but I still hesitated slightly before pulling it out on the train this morning. It doesn't help that my wife calls stuff like Chiggers and the Minx line "them little girl books". It's silly that it's more culturally acceptable for a grown man to be into juvenile crap made for boys than more mature work that just happens to be concerned about the other gender. At least I know my granddad would've thought I was a dumb-ass for reading either.

But so, Chiggers. Summer camp as a fictional setting has basically been one massive cliché since before I was even born. We know these kids will be learning some valuable life lessons, develop confidence around others, learn how to talk to the opposite gender without passing out, etc. It's a fairly played out environment. I never even went to summer camp (at least not the sweaty kind), but I feel like I did, what with all the Meatballs rip-offs I watched, and that TV movie with Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon, and the rest. So it's refreshing to read a book like Chiggers that has a fairly unique (to me) perspective on such a trite setting. I'm sure the young adult rack is full of summer camp stories from a girl's perspective, but, um, I've never read any, and every story I've ever experienced on the subject has been told pretty solidly from the viewpoint of a dude. Larson takes what could be an immediate stumbling block and diffuses any potential problems by looking at it from an angle I'd never seen before. And although this sounds less like a testament to her ability than to my own gender-biased media choices, it's still the mark of a successful artist to recast boring, dated concepts in interesting new lights, right?

Hillary Brown: It totally is, and she does an excellent job with it. I'm pretty sure that I have read some young adult novels set at girls' summer camps, being a girl and a voracious devourer of YA novels when I was one myself, but Larson's work, while simple, is so much better than most of the stuff in that genre that supposedly everyone identifies with. I didn't go to this kind of summer camp, with swimming and tents and cabins, but I was forced to go on yearly camping trips by my elementary school (it's character building to poop in the woods!) and I attended Talent Identification Program (TIP) camp, aka nerd camp, at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, at age 14 and 15. We stayed in dorms instead of cabins, and there were no bunks or chiggers, but I'm sure it was somewhat similar. Anyway, personal narrative aside, most books addressed to YA girls, while often entertaining, don't really ring true throughout, while this does. Larson manages to evoke the fear and danger associated with forming and maintaining friendships in a way that transcends the ostensible subject matter. And also, of course, it's beautiful. Watching her paint a s'more on the cover of the book with a brush and ink at Heroescon was amazing, and the same kind of painstaking care without loss of fluidity is used on every page, down to the dialogue balloons.

GM: Yeah, the awkwardness of meeting new people, making new friends, and growing up and apart from others is depicted in a pretty truthful manner. I don't necessarily know how real girls deal with that stuff, but those are issues that every kid faces, and in Chiggers they're presented and resolved in a very believable and human fashion. There's no sensationalism here, just a modest, gentle, but affecting story about growing up, bolstered by Larson's elegant and expressive line-work.

I never really read YA fiction. All I read in middle school were comics and books on history and mythology. Above I guessed that Chiggers was aimed primarily at 13-year-olds; I don't know if that's accurate, though. Are books for 13-year-old girls more advanced than first kiss territory? Does the sweetness and innocence of Chiggers make it more for older elementary school kids? I really have no idea.

HB: I think part of the problem I always had with Judy Blume and the like was their excess of maturity. Books about 13-year-olds tend to be read by kids aged 9 to 12 (numbers I am pulling out of my ass entirely, but they sound accurate and they're based on experience, just as no actual 17-year-old actually reads Seventeen magazine), and I just tended to be a little weirded out by the obsessions with bras and menses and masturbation and so on. Maybe, again, this has to do more with my own weird upbringing, but I thought that Larson's focus on a) more universal themes, and b) more innocent themes was really nice. It made me want to buy this book for my 15-year-old half-sister, not least because she goes to camp in North Carolina. Except, of course, that she's now far too mature for it.

Another thing that I found strangely soothing about the book is Abby's relationship to nature, which she seems really comfortable with, but not in a hippy-dippy way. It's not something that's made explicit, but she's not nervous about camping in a tent or leaving the cabin to walk to the bathrooms in the middle of the night or swimming in a lake or any of that. It's completely alien to my experience. When I was on those forced camping trips, I was constantly scared of this or that rustling in the bushes or of getting eaten by a bear. I still kind of am. You'd think that would make the book less pleasant to read, but it doesn't. I think, if anything, it just adds to her capableness without resorting to cliched "girls rule, boys drool" nonsense.

GM: I hadn't even thought about her comfort with nature, outside of its relation to her elven fantasies. Now that I do I don't know if we're supposed to be impressed by Abby's relative lack of fear or it that's more to highlight the fear evinced by Shasta. None of the other girls seem scared, either. So maybe that's less Abby's strength than it is Shasta's weakness? It is one of the clearer cut exhibitions of the complementary nature of their friendship.

I never read any Blume past Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I still can't forgive Fudge for killing that turtle. If I wasn't mature enough for that, then I'm pretty sure there's no way in hell I could've handled books with training bras and shit.

HB: Not to mention theological stuff!

Also, this book totally makes D&D seem palatable, which is nice. Jared and I were talking about role-playing games and not getting the concept fairly recently. I still don't really think I get it (you can make stuff up, but also there are dice?), but this gave me the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling about them that that one episode of Freaks and Geeks dealing with the same subject produced.

GM: Oh man, so Jared never played any AD&D? He's gotta be the only dude I know who's never played it at least once. I only played it a handful of times myself, but I used to pore over my brother's copy of the Monster Manual. The dice decide the outcome of certain events, but for the most part the players are free to do whatever they want, within whatever parameters are set by the Dungeon Master. You could buy pre-made scenarios at stores (I think they called 'em modules), but any DM worth his salt would make up their own dungeons and scenarios for the players to investigate.

Anyway. Let's mention theological stuff! Because maybe the train ride was harshing my concentration, but I didn't really pick up on that too much. In fact I'm somewhat at a loss for what the will o' the wisp symbolizes, at least in that climactic scene at the power cut.

HB: No, I think he, like me, picked up a book a couple of times wondering how it worked but was comparably mystified. I guess, like, why use the dice at all, right?

I actually was talking about Are You There God, It's Me Margaret with regard to YA girl philosophical musings, but now I guess I'm going to have to think more about that will o' the wisp. I did ponder it a little during the reading, and my stab at what it stands for is the thing that Shasta and Abby share, which is that they haven't yet completely grounded themselves in reality. I have no idea what's "real" and what's not of what they experience together, but it's not super important. It's more about the rush of play, which definitely is something I remember from hanging out with my best friend growing up. We spent a lot of time pretending to be faeries (yes, ha ha, I know! And we did spell it that way, too), running around in her back yard under the big clumps of wisteria, and there's something exhilarating about creating a narrative on the fly like that. "What does this mean?" "This means that." "Or maybe this!" "Yeah!" That sense of open-ended possibilities is something you lose when you become more interested in nose piercings, I think.

GM: Right, but the nose piercings bring new fantasies, ones that are easier to realize, like playing in shitty punk bands. To me Beth's dreams of being in Spite Storm are even more embarrassing and immature than Abby's fantasies, if only because Beth looks at something that can be done in a mature, common-sensical way (playing in bands and making music) and views it in this superficial and immature way. Abby's fantasy life might be more innocent and childish, but at least it's a fantasy that can't be replicated in real life in any practical fashion.

HB: And some people would come down on one side as being better, and others would come down on the other side. I certainly don't know exactly where I would. I'm very glad I'm not 13 and can pretend much better that I have all this stuff figured out. Except for D&D.

GM: I wonder if kids still think about faeries and dragons and stuff like that, or if it's all just about video games and celebrities.

HB: Dude, I could totally name you some kids who do, and not just ones who are younger than 5. If I knew them better, I would buy this book for them. As is, I'm at least going to tell other people to buy it for them.

1 comment:

Jared said...

I enjoyed it too.