It's a book, and a very valuable book

I recently amazed myself by reading a couple of books within a week's time. They were Young Adult books, though, so perhaps I shouldn't be so amazed. But they were both good books. One is titled Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield, and is the first in a series.

This steampunked alternate history begins in 1914 at the onset of World War I. The Germans and the Austro-Hungarian empire are known as Clankers because they've built up an army of metal war machines, while the English and their allies are Darwinists because they've taken evolutionary principles several steps in their own direction and created a living war technology from hybrids and specialized animals. An example is the flechette bats, creatures who are fed sharp metal bits embedded in their fruit and then sent flying over enemy craft, where they literally have the crap scared out of them on cue. The undigested metal bits fall onto the Clanker aircraft and shred them - and sometimes the pilots - to pieces.

The story is told from two different points of view: that of Alek, who is the orphaned son of Archduke Ferdinand and who must escape from Austria in a Clanker machine because the powers that be don't want him making any kind of claim on the throne, and Deryn, an English girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can join the Royal Air Navy and ends up serving on the Leviathan, a kind of flying whale/airship. There's lots of action and intrigue, and the story builds to a satisfying conclusion leading in to the next installment.

Not only is Leviathan a fun story to read, but the book is a work of art. The design on the cover is all steampunk, there's a fantastic map on the endpapers that deserves careful scrutiny, and there are wonderful illustrations inside evocative of how books were illustrated a hundred years ago.

There's also a website for the book and a pretty cool trailer (see below).

The other book I read is called When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

I chose to read it because I read in a review that it had recently been awarded the Newbery medal and that it was touching and thoughtful and had similar themes to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, to which the characters in When You Reach Me refer a number of times.

Well, I love A Wrinkle in Time. It's one of my all-time favorite books, so I thought I'd give Stead's book a go. It was pretty good, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had been younger. It's written rather simplistically (with reason, because the narrator is a 12-year-old girl), and it's one of those "time to grow up" stories, though not a horrid one like some coming of age books are, and I knew almost from the beginning what the big reveal would be at the end. I even guessed the reason for one of the recurring, seemingly random incidents in the book. So for this reason I say that I would have enjoyed it much more if I'd been younger, because it all seemed pretty transparent to me as an adult.

The curious thing is, I never read A Wrinkle in Time until I was in my twenties. I don't know how I missed it in my childhood. I feel to ask myself (like Dinah Shore), "Where was I?" I must have been busy with Classics Illustrated comics and Nancy Drew. Sometimes I really wish I could have experienced A Wrinkle in Time as a child, but even so it had a great impact on me in my twenties. I can still remember the sensation of mixed delight and eeriness I felt when I read Mrs Whatsit's statement that "there is such a thing as a tesseract." Children's books don't often do that for me. Well, and why should they? I'm an adult, after all.

Nevertheless, besides A Wrinkle in Time, there are a few other Children's books I missed out on in my adolescence, and didn't read until I was in my twenties or thirties, that turned out to have affected me deeply regardless of my age when I read them; consequently, I count them among my favorite books ever:

The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D Edmonds

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper

The Wheel on the School, by Meindert De Jong

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

The thing is, I don't think I would have appreciated The Matchlock Gun and The Wind in the Willows the same way I did as an adult if I'd read them first as a child. On the other hand, I feel like I really missed out on something not having read the others when I was young.

So, how about you? Are there any Children's or Young Adult books, originally published when you were a child, that you didn't read until after you were 18 years old and that had a profound effect on you anyhow?

By the way, if you happen to have a first printing of When You Reach Me, don't let any kids near it. Keep it safe instead and put the dust jacket in a protective cover. Apparently the first printing was very limited, so first printings are kind of scarce. And if you can get your copy signed by the author, so much the better: I've seen signed first printings of that title going for over $300 and up! There's more than one reason to love a book.

Leviathan trailer:


That's Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble-dryer

I was cleaning and repairing books at the Bottom Shelf last week, when I came upon a 10-volume set called The Best of the World's Classics, Restricted to Prose. It was published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1909. Four of the volumes were given to "the best" of Great Britain and Ireland. Naturally I looked through them to see who was considered "the best". You can - if you know me - imagine my shock when I found not a passage, not a line, not a single mention of Jane Austen. They included de Quincey and Macauley and Grote ("Who?" you may be asking), but they couldn't see fit to include Jane Austen. And it's not like she wasn't popular. Although A C Bradley didn't write his essay establishing JA's writing as a topic for serious academic attention till 1911, she'd been a bestselling author since the 1880s.

All this is prologue to something far more serious that I want to discuss: the Authors Card Game.

The set of cards in the game I was familiar with in my childhood featured 11 authors: James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Washington Irving, Henry W Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.

The Authors Card Game is probably not very well known today, but I played it as a child and it taught me a lot about life and literature. First, it helped me recognize popular authors and know the names of their principal works. You may not realize how impressed people used to be by an 11-year-old saying, upon some casual mention of Tennyson, "Oh yes, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He wrote 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and 'The Brook' and 'Crossing the Bar' and 'Idylls of the King'. And probably some other stuff." They would be so impressed, they wouldn't even notice that 'idylls' was pronounced 'iddles'.

Second, it gave me an early inkling that women were not always fairly represented in the scheme of things, since Louisa May Alcott was the only female author in the deck.

Finally, it gave me a girlhood crush on Robert Louis Stevenson. (I think it's partly because most of the other authors were old, bearded, or slightly creepy looking.)

When my own children were little, I picked up a semi-vintage deck for them to use. They pretty much played it to death. Some of the authors looked like they had met the fate of the prophet Isaiah, having been sundered in two. When I bought a replacement deck, though, I was more than a little annoyed to see that not only had two more authors been added, but also little clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds as well, so that you could use the author cards to play any other old card game. I think it's just wrong for people to use Tennyson and Scott and Hawthorne, et al, as aids to gambling. (And why is Mark Twain the ace and not RLS?)

But what really annoyed me was that the thirteenth card was given to William Makepeace Thackeray. William Makepeace Thackeray!! Here the publishers of the game had a perfect opportunity to right a decades-old wrong and not only give credit were credit is due to women authors in general, but to honor one of the greatest of all women authors in specific. Of course you realize I mean Jane Austen. Why does she always get left out?

As far as I can tell, the current Authors Game is still the set I knew as a youngster, with the additions of Mr Thackeray and Edgar Allan Poe (I think). However, I've seen some vintage sets that once upon a time included more than one woman. For instance, there's an old set with both Louisa May Alcott and Cornelia Meigs. "Who?" you may be asking. You know, Cornelia Meigs, author of such classics as Phonics We Use. Okay, I'm kidding. Not about that book; she really did write it. But that's probably not why she was included. She also wrote many books for young readers, among them several books about Louisa May Alcott (and why do I sense an Authors Card Game conspiracy here?), including Invincible Louisa, which won the Newbery Award in 1934. And with that additional information, I'll bet most of you still have never heard of her.

I've done a little research about those author card sets. The game of Authors originated in Salem, MA, sometime in the mid-1800s, and, from what I can tell, over the years sets have fluctuated in size, being made up at different times of from 10 to 14 authors. It appears that the choice of authors included in the sets depended partly on who was popular at the time and partly on who was publishing the sets (E E Fairchild, Russell Manufacturing, Parker Brothers, Whitman Company, etc). I've seen sets with Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, James Russell Lowell, James Greenleaf Whittier, Victor Hugo, Robert Burns, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Interestingly enough, it doesn't seem to matter who is doing the publishing: all the authors' appearances over the years have been variations of the same basic portraits.

The periodic replacement or updating of authors makes sense, I guess. Who but an English major knows much about Lowell or Whittier nowadays? (Yes, it makes sense, except for bringing back Puddingface Thackeray instead of introducing Jane Austen, who, as far as I can determine, still doesn't appear in a card game.) Also nowadays, there are multiple game decks available, like Children's Authors, American Women Authors (including Phillis Wheatley, Marianne Moore, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, etc), American Authors (mostly early to mid-20th century writers with a couple of post-1860s names, and still mostly male, with only one woman - Willa Cather - as if Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, Zora Neale Hurston, Edna St Vincent Millay, etc, never existed). So, what with all this updating and multiplicity of games, I wonder why there is no set of World War I Poets. Or 20th Century Mystery Writers. Or Women Authors of Speculative Fiction. Or 21st Century Mormon Authors of 200,000-Word-Plus Fantasy Novels.

Or a deck dedicated solely to the works of Jane Austen, where you collect four characters from each of her books (finished or unfinished), like Elinor and Marianne and Edward and Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility. And Lizzie, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley from Pride and Prejudice. And so on. And Mr Collins could be the Joker.