So last night, I saw one of my favorite authors, M. T. Anderson, speak at Eastern Connecticut State University here in Willimantic. Anderson is a children's/YA writer, but he's absolutely one of my favorites, maybe in my top five ever. (Who else is in that top five? Good question.) I saw him speak at UConn back in 2008, but I couldn't pass up another opportunity, and I convinced Hayley to go along with me. (Hayley actually really likes him too, so I just needed to tip the scales against going to her Tuesday evening class.)
Whales on Stilts, the first book in the Pals in Peril series, a satire on formula series fiction, aimed at 10-12 year olds. But he's also written Feed, a gorgeous if slightly problematic dystopia aimed at teenagers, and the Octavian Nothing duology, set during the Revolutionary War and really capturing the prose style of the era (maybe too well) in what almost seems like a dark fantasy, but turns out to be something very different. And he has other stuff I've yet to read, but even within the Pals in Peril books he shows a diversity of style. But he's not just diverse-- he's very very good. Feed is moving at the same time it satirizes contemporary consumer culture; it contains an extraordinary passage that recreates the drama, the facileness, and the beauty of teenage love. (I actually taught Feed to my Freshman English class this summer, and some of them even liked it, but I completely forgot to pass on the announcement to them. Whoops.)
One of the things he said that impressed me most, even though I've heard it elsewhere before, is that one of the best things an author can do is read widely. I did like how he said it though, which was different: (paraphrasing from memory here) "Go into the bookstore and look. Every book there is someone's favorite. Read it and find out why. If you don't like science fiction, read a science fiction book. Read a romance novel. If there's How to Play the Tuba, that's someone's favorite book. Why is that? What speaks to them?"
Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, is not just a send-up of children's books about people on adventures in dinosaur-infested "exotic" lands in Africa/South America, but it also exposes (subtly but very effectively) the way that European travel fiction can render the "other" and make a "foreign" landscape into something to be dominated by a colonial observer. And then it makes fun of people who know about all these problems and try to seek an "authentic" experience in foreign countries! He's not only read his Richard Burton, Frank Reade Jr., and Edward Said, he's read his Stuff White People Like, and he's engaged with all of the above in interesting ways. Even if you don't recognize the references, I think you still absorb something. And even if you don't, there's still a fight scene where pacifist monks defeat an army of gangsters with haikus.
I try to read widely myself, as best I can. I can't say I read How to Play the Tuba or Harlequin romances, but this month I read:
- a cultural criticism Doctor Who episode guide
- two YA Spider-Man novels
- two Victorian writers, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins
- a Doctor Who tie-in based in part on Beowulf (someone else has read widely)
- a 1988 sf anthology
- a critical analysis of the philosophy of a Victorian scientist
- a Rudyard Kipling collection
- a graphic novel adaptation of The Canterbury Tales
One of my friends got to chat with M. T. Anderson for ten minutes about Cotton Mather and was invited to e-mail him, of which I suspect I will be eternally jealous. But I forgot my copies of Burger Wuss and Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, so I will be seeking him down again for sure. And you know, he might read Edward Said, but he's also the man who the Governor of Delaware called "buster" in formal correspondence.