Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vampires Are Not Good Formators, Maybe Mice Can Be

Chronicles of Vladimir Tod
A pastime of mine is to roam bookshelves.  They can be in a local library, the seminary library, a friend's room, and book stores.  Where there is a bookshelf, I can't help but browse.  The book fair came to the grammar school of the parish back in November.  I couldn't help myself.  I browsed the shelves of children's books.  What were they reading?  There were some similar books to when I was the target audience of these fairs.  I did find one alarming variance, the prevalence of stories about vampires, werewolves, and the like.  There was, of course, the immensely popular Twilight series, but there were also other series, such as The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod.  I was a bit concerned by the plethora of paranormal fiction.  This is what teens are reading.  It does not seem very uplifting or morally helpful (I understand that this is a blanket judgement about books of which I have not read.  Read it with said deficiency, but don't discount it altogether). 

Excuse the quality, it was taken with my phone
A few weeks later, I was perusing the bookshelves of the local Barnes and Noble store, when I ran across a new category/genre that was equally as strange and relevant.  I took a picture (see left).  The Twilight phenomenon had introduced a whole new sellable genre, Teen Paranormal Romance.  A quick search on Barnes and Noble's website will find the same sub-section within the Teen section of the site.  Its popularity and marketability has garnered enough force to have a section within the mega-book store and the small grammar school book fair alike.  This is what teens are reading.  They are intaking romance with bloodsucking vampires.  Vampires, traditionally, seem to represent the sin of lust.  They can never be satiated and have to use the life force of someone else to remain alive.  

For many parents and other concerned individuals, there is the question of an alternative to such prevalent fiction.  We cannot deny the importance of reading.  This blog is meant to promote it.  Are there better things out there for our teenagers to read?  I might not be able to answer this question categorically, but I can speak from my own experience of when I was a teenager.  

Back in middle school, I bought a book at the school book fair called Redwall.  It was big and thick, much different from the thin Animorphs and Goosebumps that I had read before but were never really worth the time of reading.  I couldn't really connect with the characters.  The story didn't move me.  I read them because everybody else was.  I still didn't like reading.  I would rather watch television or play my original Nintendo.  As I began Redwall, I entered another world filled with rodents my mom would never want in the house, but instead of being detestable, they were the characters that I could relate to and even emulate.  They were valiant, shy, fearful, noble, caring, willing to fight for what was right, and brave.  I consumed them like a small Oriental man eats hot dogs in the midst of a contest.  Due to the front  pages of the book, I realized there were many of these books.  It was a series!  I got the next one, and the next one, and the next one.  I found myself enjoying reading.  I would forsake watching "Friends" or "Seinfeld" with the family to sit in my room and be immersed in the life of Redwall.  I became a reader, no, an avid reader, like my mom.  I understood now why should would read books while in front of the TV.  Books allowed for a whole new world.  In film and TV, I was on the outside looking in.  In a book, I was inside as the action took place.  

This last experience any decent book can provide.  I have no doubt that Twilight and the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod or Harry Potter, for that matter, have provided this insight to many young readers.  They want to read more.  Experience new worlds, new characters, new stories, that they will not otherwise experience.  These books will foster reading, which I believe is one reason why they were on the shelves of the book fair.  

I would posit though that there is a fundamental difference between Twilight, et al, and Redwall.  The world in which the reader is immersed.  The former is dark and confusing.  Evil, however valiant and considerate, is fighting evil.  The lustful are fighting with the bestial.  Good and evil are mixed in such a way as to obfuscate the reality of the two.  That is also one of the fundamental difficulties with witchcraft in Harry Potter.  Now this happens in art and literature and has happened for a while.  The average adult has the prudence and the life skills to recognize this.  An impressionable reader who is beginning to understand him/herself is much less likely to realize this and is much more likely to be influenced by the morally relative understanding of our present culture.  

Redwall is a monastery.  It has a Medieval feel to it.  There are monks and wise men.  There is a stark delineation of good and evil (with a few variants towards the end of the 21 book series).  Individuals seen as weak rise at times of difficulty.  Dignity (I can't say human because the characters are animals, but there is a definite analogue) is respected.  The evil characters tend to disrespect dignity.  There is still fighting, but like the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings, it is good protecting itself against evil, or good trying to rid evil in another place.  There is a mature that the reader can see in the characters.  There is a sense of virtue and respect.  

I did not understand that at the time.  I just enjoyed reading them, but I can't help but see the Lord using such fiction to form my conscience and my understanding of right and wrong and my sense of following the former as opposed to the later.  Many friends in late middle school and early high school were reading Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles.  This, in some ways, confused them.  Looking at them now, they made poor decisions in early adult.  I also understand that connecting such things to reading certain fiction is a bit of a stretch, but I stand behind John Paul II's maxim of we are what we do.  Also, reading is a source of formation, and vampires are not good formators.  With all my credentials as one blogger in midst of the vast world of the internet, I suggest the Redwall series as good teen fiction.  It is both enjoyable and formative.  
Brian Jacques

As an endnote, the Redwall series author Brian Jacques died.  I had planned on writing this blog for a while now, but his death provided the impetus.  He wrote 21 novels in the series over the last 25 years.  He kept adding to his world and mythology, the world and mythology that captured my heart.  When I saw Redwall trending on Twitter, I realized how many other people he effected.  His writing inspired many to read.  I'll let them speak for themselves.  
@thebookmaven "RIP Brian Jacques. His delightful REDWALL series has, does, and will bring joy to so many young readers." 
@fridgebuzznow "Brian Jacques died? The Redwall books rocked my elementary school world!" 
@bsharbaugh "Very sad. Formative books for me." 
@busmute "Redwall fostered compassion in me before I ever knew the name of Jesus. Brian Jacques will be sorely missed, by me, at least." 
@micahmoreau "Sad day - Brian Jacques died. Matthias of Redwall was my hero for a little while. In related news, my hero happened to be a mouse."
"Redwall is where safety and warmth surround you. Food, friends, music and song. Redwall will always welcome you back."  

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