Sunday, 1 May 2011
Fairies, Gods and Gadgets
Anyone watching commercial TV in the UK recently may have noticed something that seems a new phenomenon to me- books being advertised almost like films. I've noticed the new Jodi Picoult and James Patterson ones, and another one with a girl running through the forest, then being found tied up in a shed- but I can't remember the author. Interestingly, I think this is an area that may have crossed over from pre-teen and young adult books, which as I noted in my post about the London Bookfair, are being promoted in social media: Walker Books have even set up a blog for their trailers.
Eoin Colfer, the author of Artemis Fowl, uses social media in an excellent way. http://www.artemisfowl.co.uk/ was originally designed as though it was the blog of the teenage master criminal. His website and that of Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books, have games, computer wall paper, quizzes, trailers, author interviews- a whole world of gadgets and consumables to collect.
Colfer and Riordan are both regularly included in lists of authors that will engage boys in reading, and despite my misgivings about firstly, problematising boys' literacy (surely telling boys that boys don't like reading will only make them believe reading is girly?) and secondly, genderising books into "boys" and "girls" books, they are certainly authors that I would be recommending to any boys asking me which books they should read.
Artemis Fowl (2001) has been described by author Eoin Colfer as "Die Hard with fairies". Artemis is a 12 year old boy, son of Artemis Fowl Snr, an Irish criminal. He is a criminal genius, who has after significant research has established that fairy people exist, and decides to kidnap one in order to extort fairy gold from them. The fairy he kidnaps is Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaisance (LEPRecon). He holds her at Fowl Manor, and the LEPRecon unit lead by Commander Julius Root and supported by a technical wizard centaur called Foaly and a flatulent kleptomaniac dwarf, Mulch Diggum, must break in and rescue her.
In Colfer's world, fairies (used for all magical peoples) are technically far in advance of humans. They travel underground by shuttles, can alter vision so humans can't see them (Artemis and his sidekick Butler know this, so they wear nightvision goggles), have high speed wings and a mini camera that can fit into a contact lens (an iris cam) and between the second and third book of the series, Artemis uses fairy technology from an LEP helmet that he has stolen to create the C Cube, which can piggyback on any computer platform, access any other device, play and record MP3 and video clips and double as a phone and computer.
During the series of novels the fairies and Artemis learn to work together rather than as adversaries, and Artemis becomes a more positive character- the early books were criticised amongst Christian parent and book blogs communities in the USA for "promoting" negative values. It appears to me that this is missing the point- Artemis is not a hero in these books despite being a protagonist. Holly is in fact the hero, and is by far the most positive character. (The books continued to be criticised by global warming/ environmental change deniers as the series continued, and of course Christians who believe that children should read no books about magic have never been in favour of them). The shared technology that Artemis developed enables the fairies to communicate with him, and for the teams to cooperate to save the fairy world, and Artemis' family, from oil developers, Russian mafia and the evil pixie genius Opal Koboi.
Rick Riordan wrote the Percy Jackson series of books (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, 2005) about a boy who is constantly getting into trouble at school- strange things happen around him. He is dyslexic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and discovers after a calamitous incident on a school trip, he discovers that what is problematic in modern day New York is actually advantageous in his "real life"- he is a half blood, the son of Poseidon and his mortal mother. His struggles to read English are due to his brain being more receptive to Ancient Greek. His hyper-awareness is beneficial in battle. (Jackson's son is dyslexic and has ADHD, and was fascinated by Greek myths at the time he started to write the Percy Jackson books). Percy is taken to Camp Half Blood, where he finds that his friend Grover is in fact a satyr, and makes friends with Annabeth, the daughter of Athena. Together they must go on a quest to recover Zeus' lightning bolt, and return it to Mount Olympus, now located at the top of the Empire State Building.
While the Percy Jackson books don't have gadgets, they do have magical objects and weapons (Percy's sword which can transform into a pen, Annabeth's Yankees cap of invisibility, Grover's winged trainers). Percy also has special powers: he can attract water, communicate telepathically with water-dwelling creatures and foretells the future in dreams. Annabeth is highly intelligent, a great strategist and also has dreams that foretell the future. She has a strong sympathetic relationship with the Oracle. Grover the satyr can play pipes that summon nature (he plays dreadfully in the first book, but improves throughout the series), and the Panic call which invokes the god Pan.
All in all, I enjoyed both series, but I preferred Artemis. Riordan has noted his debt to J.K. Rowling, who in her turn was influenced by earlier authors such as Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, but in places I found the series pedestrian. The Artemis books seemed more original and inventive, and I found the Percy books' US-centrism to be grating and at times silly: witness that Mount Olympus has moved to New York City because it is the centre of Western civilisation- not a perception universally accepted.
Both series have been optioned for film adaptations, following in the wake of Potter-mania, although only Percy Jackson has made it to the screen so far. I haven't seen it, but the reviews were not promising (here is Juliette's from her great Pop Classics blog), and of course Mark Kermode was spectacularly scathing, suggesting a film title Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins as the next Potter- By-Numbers film. You can see a trailer for a spoof movie here.