Monday, November 29, 2010

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

I just thought I'd take a minute and do a quick posting about the book that first introduced me to M. T. Anderson: Me, All Alone, at the End of the World.  The first sentence of the book says just that:  “I lived by myself at the End of the World.”  At first, you might think that's a sad thing!  However, as the young male protagonist narrator goes on to list the activities that fill up his days, including listening to the wind blow through the pines, reading, eating simple foods, and whistling dance tunes to the mule, you realize this was exactly where he wanted to be.  When I first read the book, I could feel my body sinking into my chair as I relaxed.  I was proud of this boy for being so independent and happy with simple things.   He says “I was happy there all by myself, alone at the End of the World.”

But we all know that that was not going to last!  An understanding of fiction dictates that conflict is created when a character holds something dear and then something comes along to threaten that something.  One day, Mr. Constantine Shimmer, a Professional Visionary, shows up and questions the boy’s idea of having fun.  Wouldn’t you know it, that plants a seed of doubt for our young man. 

Mr. Shimmer develops the land, building a huge inn and installing all sorts of ‘real’ fun activities for everyone, and draws huge, happy, noisy crowds of people.  Our young protagonist participates … for a while.

It’s a lovely book, both visually (illustrated by Keven Hawkes) and in spirit.  The story is a reminder of the joy to be had in simple activities while also asking the question “What is fun?” and making the reader wonder if there might not be more than just one correct way to answer that question.  In its own way, it is a book about diversity and acceptance, and it makes me feel peaceful.  I hope you end up liking it as much as I do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

M.T. Anderson and The Game of Sunken Places

M. T. Anderson
I’ve now read three of M.T. Anderson’s young adult novels, and one thing I can tell you for certain: I will forevermore pick up ANYTHING he writes.  He just keeps me on my mental toes, while weaving riveting stories.  There always seems to be something unusual in his stories, and The Game of Sunken Places is no exception.  Before or after you read what I have to say about this book, you should click on the book title above to check out what he says about the writing of it – very interesting, and very encouraging for teen writers.  You should also watch this little video, in which Anderson discusses the mountains of Vermont, the setting for the story.  He is one fascinating person, and I can't wait to meet him in March.  I think I've said that before, come to think of it.

In a nutshell, two teenaged boys from Boston (Gregory and Brian) end up in Vermont at the invitation of Uncle Max, who is related to Gregory, sort of.  They have two weeks in the Green Mountains in a huge old house, with nothing really to do (at first), since Uncle Max “…lives in kind of a different world from the rest of us” (page 3 – and what foreshadowing that statement is!)  Here’s how Gregory describes Uncle Max’s world:  “The kind of world where electricity is a lot of invisible spiders.  The kind of world where there’s organ music that gets louder when he eats refined sugar”  (also from page 3, spilling over onto page 4). This gives the reader a bit of insight into the character of Uncle Max while also giving some insight into M.T. Anderson’s writing. 

A truly unusual and creepy stranger approaches the boys on the train to Vermont, and later, when they are picked up at the station by horse and buggy, you know something’s amiss.  When they arrive at Uncle Max’s and are required to wear knickerbockers and ties (Uncle Max describes the boys as ‘tatterdemalion’ because of their contemporary clothing – who uses that kind of language?!) and are served dinner by the maid, Daffodil, by the light of gas lamps, well … you know this is going to be one strange vacation.  And then there's what the butler does with their baggage ...

The actual ‘game’ has its genesis in an old, water-damaged game board that the boys find in the nursery – yes, it’s that kind of big old house, and as there is no television, they are sent to the nursery after dinner to entertain themselves.  The title on the game board is “The Game of Sunken Places,” and it includes a detailed illustration of Grendle Manor, the house in which they are staying.  They can find no directions, and most of the game board is smeared from the water damage, but later, they do find an hourglass timer that goes with the game board.  When Gregory turns it over …

“And out in the woods, a trumpet sounded.  It was a high, strange note that  smeared downward, losing breath.” (Page 38)

They look back at the game board, and suddenly, some of the water damage is lifted from the board and they can see spaces that they could not see before, spaces that are labels for places in the woods:  “the Stony Path, The Dark Wood, The Ring," and my personal favorite, “The Club of Snarth.”

Then the reader is taken away from the boys' perspective for a moment:

“Out in the gazebo, Daffodil was standing in a drab gray shawl.  She heard the dying trumpet note on the autumn air.  Facing the forest, she raised her hand.  She waved it once.

When she was certain she had been seen, she turned to go inside.”  (Page 39)

And the game is on, whether they know it or not.  They will encounter all sorts of strange beasts, places, and circumstances on this most unusual of vacations, and you, dear reader, will be sucked into it right along with them through Anderson’s amazing skill as a writer.

I have to make sure you know, too, that even though the game is quite serious, Anderson sprinkles enough humor throughout the story to keep the reader amused as well as intrigued. Much of this is accomplished through the boys’ characters and their relationship with each other.  Here is an example of an exchange between the two of them, when they discover a small secret room in the top floor of the old house:

Gregory paused, then thoughtfully strolled over to the window in the closet, a reflective expression on his face.  He pressed his fingers to the glass.

“Idea?” said Brian.

“Yeah.  How’d you like to explore the roof?”

“Explore the roof?”

“No, no.  I said, ‘Strap goats to our shoulders.’”

“You want to?”

“Strap goats to our shoulders?”

“Explore the roof.”
(from pages 34-35)

Another example is their first (amicable) encounter with the troll who had not been quite as welcoming toward Brian when they had previously met.  The boys have brought a weathervane to the troll, for purposes that you’ll understand why if you read the book – you didn’t think I was going to explain EVERYTHING in this blog, did you?

Brian walked forward and handed the weathervane to the troll, who scrambled to his feet.  "You’re in the lead," said the creature.  He handed the weathervane back to Brian.

Brian asked, "What am I supposed to do with it?"

The troll shrugged.  "I don’t need a weathervane," he said.  "You could give it to your friend, for one thing, if he wants to cross the bridge."

Gregory came forward.  Brian handed him the weathervane.

"There we are," said the troll.  "All nice and legal.  You want to come in for some mulled cider and funnel cake?"

"No," said Gregory, incredulous.  "You swung an ax at my friend."

"It’s my job," said the troll.

"We’ll – we’ll take the cider," said Brian.  "If we can ask a few questions."

"You don’t like funnel cake?" 
(from pages 85-86)

I don’t know why this troll makes me picture Billy Crystal, but he does.  (Maybe it’s residual from Billy Crystal’s role in The Princess Bride, a movie I highly recommend.)  And speaking of movies, a film based on The Game of Sunken Places is ‘in development’ by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies; IMDB gives it a ‘date’ of 2011, but I don’t know if that’s a release date or not.  We’ll have to ask him in March.  If it is, I’ll be one of those crazy people who goes to the theater at four in the morning to wait in line, whether or not I need to.  I can’t wait to see if the pictures that the movie folk try to put out are anything at all close to the fabulous pictures M.T. Anderson has put in my head from this incredible book.   I also can’t wait to read the sequel, Suburb Beyond the Stars, and the next sequel, The Empire of Gut and Bone, which is slated to come out in 2011 as well.  Hopefully we’ll have copies hot off the press at the conference!