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when the wolf comes home

Prehistoric fiction

If I'm going to start posting more, then I should definitely post on February 29! Our tiny local paper ran a story about a guy who was 72 years old and just having his 18th birthday. (Our tiny local paper is pretty good, considering its size, but it can be hard for them to get more than about 8 pages of news, not counting sports. And that's using the term news loosely.)

It is possible that my awareness the date is a side effect of having a seven-year-old. Further side effects to follow, because Spartacus is really interested in animals in general, and dinosaurs and evolution in particular, so we have been reading a lot of books about these topics. Since he is hardly the only child to be interested in this kind of thing, here are some notes on what we've been reading.

Peter S. Dickinson, The Kin. This is somewhere between fantasy and historical fiction, I think, since it's about a group of early homo sapiens, and so D. has had to invent their culture more or less from whole cloth. He clearly draws on his knowledge of Africa in doing so, which sometimes works well and sometimes makes me wonder whether he overestimates the willingness of hunter-gatherer groups which aren't being pressured by agriculturalists to inhabit marginal land. The novel is made up of four shorter novels, each told from the point of view of one of the children in the core group -- they have survived the destruction of their tribal network by an invading group, and the novel follows their adventures as they try to survive and to create a new social group. There are actually five children in the core group, three girls and two boys, but one of them, Tinu, doesn't get her own novella, although she is central to the plot of each of the others. I am torn between wanting and not wanting her own narrative, because she is probably the most interesting character in the book -- she is the one who comes up with the solution to the problems which the other characters identify, the tactician in the group, I guess, but she also avoids taking any position of leadership because she has a harelip or cleft palate and can't speak properly. But at the same time, given the kind of plans that Tinu comes up with, I am not sure I really want to see the inside of her mind.

As it is the novellas are balanced between two boys and two girls: the first two are Suth, who has to temporarily become a leader in the absence of any adults from their tribe, and Noli, who is the kind of shaman for their group -- in this universe the tribal spirits are real, and communicate with (some of) their people. Noli is one of these people, and as part of her story she meets others with the same ability -- in this case when the children meet a group of humans from a different species. These people don't have language, and one of the things I find really interesting is the way that D. plays with language in these books. The language used by the Kin is grammatically very simple (limited tenses, for example, and the lack of comparatives and superlatives); D. uses similarly simple language in the "Old Tales," the myths he inserts between each chapter of the narrative. Spartacus, incidentally, really liked these. I didn't like them as much, but did appreciate the way they responded to the plotline of each novella. Meanwhile, most of the other groups they meet don't have language, but communicate through touch and non-verbal noises; D. kind of implies that they have some sort of psychic bond with each other. One of the running themes of the books is the question of what "being human" actually means -- or as Mana puts it in the last novella, what "people stuff" is.

I really liked these; I suspect that they are aimed at children older than Spartacus, but we read them aloud to him over the course of about two or three months. The stories they're telling grow increasingly more complicated -- so for example, Ko's story, the third novella, is motivated by his desire to be a hero and have adventures, but is also about taking responsibility without taking anything away from other people. They're serious without being preachy, and the adventures are interesting in themselves; I think they should appeal to both boys and girls, although obviously my data pool is limited!

Spartacus also has been reading the Dinosaur Cove series by Rex Stone; these are aimed pretty squarely at his exact age bracket and interests, so he mostly reads them to himself now. They're about two boys who discover a portal through time in the back of a cave, and go on to have adventures in various different periods and encounter various kinds of extinct animals -- mostly dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles. They have a faithful pet, a wannanosaurus, who somehow turns up no matter when they go. Overall these are pretty fun for what they are. My attempt to suggest to Spartacus that he could dress up as one of the boys for World Book Day fell on deaf ears, however, so now I have to figure out how to make a pterosaur costume. (Because of Nosy, the pterosaur in Dinosaur Trouble, by Dick King-Smith, which Spartacus also enjoyed. At one point he suggested going as the lynx from White Fang, which I should have agreed to since I already have a lynx costume from dress-up-as-an-endangered-animal day, but it seemed like such a weird idea, especially because we didn't finish White Fang; I thought it was too gory and violent.)

Our patterns now is that we read him a chapter or two at bedtime, and then he reads for another half-hour or so before turning out the lights; the result is that I often have no idea what is going on overall. But I went back and reread the end of The Abominables, by Eva Ibbotsen, to find out how it all worked out (look, this book totally belongs to the theme if you assume that Yeti are not-actually-extinct giant apes.) It is just charming, about two children who have to rescue a family of Yeti by bringing them to England, to live on the estate of their previous guardian. One thing I found very odd, though, was that although it was published only after Ibbotsen's death, it was very clearly set in the 1970s. Maybe. Or maybe all children's books actually happen in the 1970s?

Also noted: the series of Willard Price sequels (we are currently re-reading Shark Adventure). Spartacus likes these a lot, as they have to do with rescuing endangered animals. They do run to comedy foreigners, so may not be to everyone's taste (although the comedy foreigners are not always comedy foreigner villains, if that makes sense.) These also feature a boy-girl pair of cousins. The original series, about the fathers of these two children, is being reissued and I am tempted to pick them up for Spartacus to look at.

And now: teaching.

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when the wolf comes home

June 2016

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