Friday, October 28, 2011

Children in grown-up books - Brandon and Bran

Think of this as a teaser post for a book I'll be discussing more in depth in a few days (and a few additional thoughts on the book I read almost immediately after). The books are as different from one another as books can be, but the core of this post is the similarity between these vastly different tomes... and one of the finest aspects to both.

The books in question are The Barbarian Nurseries and A Song of Ice and Fire (technically it should be A Dance with Dragons but I don't feel like nitpicking); the main topic is children in adult literature. As a child growing up, one of the things I learned to hate about so-called "grown-up books" was the complete and total inability of adult authors to write believable children. Many of the kids books I'd read still maintained believability, but once children were set alongside adult characters and were created with an adult audience in mind, they suddenly stopped behaving like children.

Kid characters typically fall into one of two categories: exaggerated in their childishness or precocious. Typically the latter. Kids are all brilliant and clever and speak like adults and read Shakespeare and talk about adult things. Even those who don't fall into the precocious category tend to have some adult-like behaviorisms to them. It can get incredibly frustrating. There are cases, though, that somehow avoid the typical pitfalls. Not many, but in recent months I have encountered two: Brandon (Bran) Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Torres-Thompson from The Barbarian Nurseries.

In addition to having the same name, these two Brandons have a few common traits: both are clever kids without broaching the unrealistically talented realm, both have an undeniable romantic streak to them, both are on the cusp of their relative maturity (one of Bran's most common sentiments is that he's "almost a man grown" despite being only eight years old...), and both are given "feature" status on the surface but never the screentime they deserve.

That these two highlight my favorite characters in their respective books actually comes as a surprise to me. Bran Stark is a young boy forced to grow up all too quickly, but he retains an air of childhood around him, an air of innocence. His view of the world is simple to begin with, but gradually grows as he sees and learns more. Something to his wistful dreaming and his passion made him a character worth appreciating, a character worth loving. Meanwhile, when Brandon first appeared in The Barbarian Nurseries, I was certain he was going to be another cliched young character, another clever little reader who somehow sheds light on the adult world while the adults squabble like children. But Brandon's observations are astute and in-tune with his age.
Brandon arrived at the conclusion that Araceli was just lonely. And when he thought about her loneliness, he concluded that she should read more, because anyone who read was never alone.
Or another example: the scene in which Brandon - seeing the poor and the homeless for the first time in his sheltered life - immediately thinks of a fantasy series he'd recently read. Much as I viewed the world at the age of eleven, Brandon applies what he read in the books to this strange and frightening new world he suddenly encounters:
...as he sat in the train with his nose pressed to the glass, the violent and disturbing denouement of that epic narrative seemed the only plausible explanation for the existence of this village of suffering passing below him.
[...] Brandon had begun to warm to the idea that the [...] saga was, in fact, a thinly veiled, detailed account of a real but primitive corner of the actual world. Entire cities emptied of good people, civilians tortured, their homes and their books set to the torch. How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it?
The funny thing is, both Brandons are characters in books that acknowledge their importance to the story, but seem unwilling to allow them to fulfill their potential. Like most children, they're ignored in a sense - given moments here and there but never the full flow of things. Brandon is a character with much to say in the first half of The Barbarian Nurseries, but we learn of him in too few scenes and he gets very little attention in the second half of the book. Bran, meanwhile, is the neglected character in his world, often derided as boring... but there's something about him that nonetheless has me hooked, something about the way his character is drawn - childishly innocent on the one hand, cautious and wise on the other - that raises him high in my eyes.

This is how authors should be writing kids. These kids should be believable, should inspire passion, should view the world with the innocence-yet-wisdom that only children have. They don't need to be brilliant and they don't have to be bookish (for example, while Brandon is bookish, it's as much a part of his personality as is his love of video games) and they don't have to play chess. They can be clever and stupid at once (children have an often skewed way of viewing reality - this plays a key role in The Barbarian Nurseries), they can make mistakes, and they can act like kids. If only there were fewer cliches out there and just a few more Brandons.

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